Sunday, July 16, 2017

One Big Disappointment and Three Pleasant Surprises: A National ParkOdyssey Days 18-19

Anaheim, CA to Kings Canyon National Park via Pinnacles National Park and Fresno, CA
Up close, you could easily see that the words "National Park" were new and that the sign used to say something else, presumably "National Monument."

We do Disney hard.  Like, early-mornings-and-late-nights-and-no-slowing-down-in-between hard.  And usually we handle it fine.  But on the heels of our Phantom Ranch journey, it was simply exhausting.  The nonstop pace of Disney paired with the sore muscles and weariness of our mule trip made for four tired Boyds.

To try to catch up on both rest and blogging, we decided to hang out at our hotel as long as we could before moving on to our next park.  The Courtyard had a water park, and Knox had been chomping at the bit to check it out since we’d checked in.  So after sleeping in, the kids enjoyed the slides, pools, and hot tub while I blogged and Josh caught up on some emails.
 
Free access to the water park was a bonus we didn't expect!
We knew we had a fairly long drive to get to our destination for the night, but we hadn’t factored in the excruciating torture of LA traffic.  We ended up taking an exit just to get a brief respite from the monotony of traveling at a crawl for what seemed like hours when it’s a bajillion degrees outside and your air conditioner is struggling to keep up.  We saw a small green sign indicating with absolutely no fanfare that Thai Town was to the right, so that’s the way we went.  It was nearly lunch time anyway, and Thai sounded pretty good. 

As we drove through the area, we passed more Thai places than we could count.  In the end, we chose Sanamluang Cafe based on exactly two things.  1) There was parking.  That may seem like a silly reason to choose a place to eat, but, as I mentioned, it was a bajillion degrees so we didn’t want to walk very far.  And we really didn’t want to get towed in LAAnd 2) we could see several seemingly-Asian people inside.  Surely they wouldn’t be eating crappy Thai. And besides, parking.

When the signs are written in Thai, chances are it's going to be tasty.

So Josh pulled off an impressive blind parallel parking job and in we went.  The first thing we noticed was the smell.  It smelled, well, right.  All totaled, Josh and I have spent 26 weeks in Thailand.  That’s more than 6 months of mostly mission work but also some vacation.  And when we’re there, we eat pretty much nothing but fabulously flavorful (and laughably cheap) authentic Thai goodness.  And, generally speaking, Thai food in the US isn’t the same.  But this place smelled promising.
If you find yourself in LA, head to Thai town and look for this place.  

After the Thai server seated us and left us to check out the menu, we noticed reviews from both the New York Times and the LA Times hanging on the wall.  We were reading them when another customer told us that everything on the menu is delicious. 

My gold standard for Thai food is cashew chicken, and the best cashew chicken on the planet in my opinion is served by a woman named Mai Porn in Phuket in Thailand.  She does this thing where the liquids she uses to make the dish mostly evaporate but they also caramelize onto the cashews.  It’s like culinary magic.  The result is a much drier dish than every other version of cashew chicken I’ve ever had, and it is beyond delicious.  For years, I haven’t ordered cashew chicken anywhere else because it just disappoints me.  Cashews and chicken swimming in sauce are what I always get in the US, and then I just get irritated with myself for ordering it in the first place.

I wish now that I had tried the cashew chicken at Sanamluang Café because everything else was exactly right.  It was easily the best Thai food I have ever had outside of Thailand.  Kinley and Josh drank two Thai iced teas each, the kids shared two orders of sticky rice, and our family shared chicken fried rice, pad Thai, and pad kra paow (tiny pieces of chicken with garlic and Thai basil).  I find myself still daydreaming about how good it was.  It might even be good enough to make me willing to fight LA traffic again.
Notice how finely minced the chicken is in the Pad Kra Paow.  That's EXACTLY how it is in Thailand, but I haven't ever seen it minced this way in the US before.

As we were leaving, one of the servers struck up a conversation with us.  When she learned we’d spent so much time in Thailand, she perked up quite a bit.  We talked about how Thai strangers used to pick up my little blond-haired-blue-eyed babies without permission in the grocery store in Thailand and how I got used to it very quickly, taking it as quite a compliment in the end.  We talked about the death of King Bhumibol (aka King Rama IX) and her pilgrimage back to Thailand to pay her respects to her beloved king.  We talked about how much my kids love sticky rice with grilled pork on a stick for breakfast when we’re in Thailand and how hard it is to find sticky rice that isn’t sweetened on Thai menus in the Midwest.  By the end, we felt like friends, and she hugged me as we left.  Food truly brings people together.

Back in the sweltering hot car, we prepared ourselves to rejoin LA traffic.  On a whim, we decided to make an impromptu college visit to Pepperdine in Malibu.  Kinley says she wants to go to Lipscomb, but since she’d heard about Pepperdine for years without ever having seen the campus, we thought a quick stop would be fun.  A fire burning in the nearby canyon meant that the campus was under emergency procedures, so we weren’t able to do much more than a drive through.  But it was long enough for Kinley to see how beautiful the campus is and to snap a few pictures of her with beautiful views of the Pacific in the background.
 
Kinley in front of the Pepperdine baseball field
Since we were so close to the beach, we decided to stop for just a few minutes to dip our toes in the cold water.  Later, we saw a fruit stand beside the road and picked up some strawberries, cherries, and cucumbers which we munched on as we traveled.
 
Knox wanted to avoid sandy feet, but the rest of us didn't care.
We drove on.  And on.  And on.  And we finally arrived in King City, CA, well after dark.  Our stay at the Days Inn there was by far the least comfortable of the trip, and the lady at the front desk was less than friendly.  We were happy to head on the next morning toward the nation’s newest and fifty-ninth national park, Pinnacles.
Pinnacles was formerly a national monument but was upgraded to a national park in 2013.  After visiting it, we’re not sure why.  I mean, it’s a nice park with trails and interesting scenery, but it had a definite state park feel to us.  We kept thinking about Indiana state parks that we’ve visited that are just as lovely, if not more so.  We eventually decided that this place got promoted because it supposedly has the highest concentration of California condors in the world, but we didn’t see a single one while we were there.
We ate our Thai leftovers as part of our picnic lunch.

We had a picnic lunch and then struck out on a trail that took us to a reservoir after passing through several talus caves.  These caves are different from most caves because they are formed when huge boulders fall against other rocks leaving a little space.  Most of the deep ones were closed to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome in bats, but a couple of the small ones were open for peeks inside.  The reservoir was cool and we saw a couple of snakes swimming in there, but it wasn’t even a natural feature!  It was built by the CCC years ago.
 
You can see here how the talus caves are formed by boulders falling against other boulders.
The reservoir was picturesque even though it was manmade.
One of the little snakes is visible under the rock in the middle of the picture.

You may be thinking, “Two paragraphs?  Really?  That’s all she has to say about this national park?”  And to you I’d say, “I wish I had more to say.  But I don’t.”  The kids earned their Junior Ranger badges, and we now have a new family joke.  Anytime we’re reviewing our experience so far or telling people we’ve met about what we’re doing, Knox loves to joke that Pinnacles is a must-see.  Or if we do a trail that is hugely popular but which we decide is overrated, we all now compare it to Pinnacles.  In short, Pinnacles doesn’t live up to its name.
 
Taking the Junior Ranger pledge once again
So on to Kings Canyon we went.  To get there, we drove through Fresno.  It was around dinner time, and we also needed some groceries since breakfast wasn’t included in our next three nights’ stay at the park lodge.  We had no idea where to eat in Fresno, so we tried Google and Yelp which, unfortunately, kept sending us to food trucks.  While I was game to try that, Josh refused to eat at a picnic table in a strip mall parking lot when it was over 100 degrees outside.  Consequently, we drove around Fresno for a while before stumbling upon a place called The Grocery Outlet.  Imagine if the food sections of Big Lots, Ollie’s, and Aldi had a baby.  That’s Grocery Outlet.  We bought Flips yogurts for $.69, cereal for $.99, and large Frappucinos for $1.99.  Frankly, The Grocery Outlet was more exciting than Pinnacles.

From there, we drove past a place called Las Brisas with signs that promised seafood and tacos.  It fulfilled Josh’s #1 requirement of not eating in a parking lot, so in we went.  And we were so glad we did.  We tried the shrimp ceviche and the chicken tacos which were both fresh and delicious.  They even made a shrimp quesadilla for Josh even though it wasn’t on the menu.  About the time our food arrived, we realized that it was karaoke night en espanol when several of the other patrons began belting out their favorite tunes.  The funny thing was that the singers didn’t even leave their seats most of the time.  The DJ would bring the microphone over to the singer’s table!  It was a charming cultural experience even though we didn’t know any of the songs and couldn’t understand the lyrics at all.  I loved this place so much that I signed up with Yelp! Just to be able to give them a positive review.  And while I was at it, I waxed eloquent about Sanamluang Café, too. 
I'm so glad we found this yummy little place to eat in Fresno!

We checked into our room at the John Muir Lodge late that evening.  We had to take in all food and even all scented things like soaps or bath gels because bears have been known to break into cars when they pick up on the scents in the lodge parking lot.  Even though Pinnacles had been a disappointment, our three pleasant surprises (Sanamluang Café, The Grocery Outlet, and Las Brisas) had made the journey to our tenth park a relatively positive experience.  And the next day would be sure to bring even more surprises.


Note:  It only now has occurred to me that all three pleasant surprises were completely food related.  Hmmm…..

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