Thursday, October 8, 2015

Photo Essay: Wild Wine Safari

It just seemed like one of those things that couldn't possibly still exist—or be around for much longer.

I mean, we've lost the lion farms and Jungleland and everything else that Southern California once offered for animal amusements. How is it possible that you can still go winetasting in Malibu with wild animals?

It's all thanks to entrepreneur Ron Semler, who bought the property now known as Saddlerock Ranch in a fire sale in the 1980s. It was literally burned to a crisp from a wildfire, but somehow he managed to reinvigorate the property to grow grapes for two different wine labels—Saddlerock and Semler Wines.

And throughout this sprawling hilltop property—across 1000 acres of it—are a variety of animals from A to Z.

If you go on one of their wine safaris (or rent the venue for your wedding), you get to feed alpacas like Manny Alpacquiao (left)...

...who have plenty of room to roam, and shades on their eyes to keep the flies away. They take the carrots one bite at a time, so hold on tight.

Pretty much from any standpoint, you can see the property lines marked by pointy rock formations.

Most of the animals are rescues—in Hollywood, even animals who get too big or too tall end up out of a job, and they've got to go somewhere. This actually seems like a lot more glamorous (and a lot less crowded) than a non-profit sanctuary, and they seem well cared-for.

All of the animals have been given punny names, like Barack Ollama.

The zebras were actually a gift to Ron Semler, and they're considered the "gift that keeps on giving"—their population seems to have proliferated quickly since arriving at Saddlerock.

The new baby zebra "Zin" is still pretty light-colored, not yet having "earned his stripes."

Zebras, like horses, will take the carrots whole so you've got to watch your fingers around those chompers.

A lot of animals can get pretty aggressive when you feed them, even fighting each other for a bite, but the water buffalo was a gentle giant. If only the other animals knew that being so affable would get them more carrots. (If only people knew that.)

Of course, it's easy to become distracted by the animals, but this is a vineyard, after all, where white and red varietals are grown and shipped up north for the winemaking process.

After feeding the animals, the guides drive you a bit farther into the ranch on one of their open-air trucks...

...and stop at an amazing vista point to taste a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat.

Ron Semler's wife Linda is an artist, so various pieces of public art are scattered about the ranch. They loved the view from this overlook so much, the Semlers considered photographing it so they could see it from their house—but then they were inspired to bring the picture frame outside instead.

This does not suck.

It was quite the lovely view.

We had just missed the fall harvest by a week or so. Fortunately there are still grapes to harvest, but they haven't been unaffected by the drought. Wine made from these water-starved grapes will probably have a higher than average alcohol by volume percentage.

But this ranch is full of survival stories—not only of the rescued animals and the charred landscape. When the fires burned a barn down before Semler acquired the property, they spared a lone doorway.

Now that doorway is preserved as a piece of public art.

The most famous rescue animal at Saddlerock Ranch is Stanley the giraffe, a movie star (and Toys R Us spokesanimal) who outgrew the screen and now greets fans here in his forever home. If you get married at Saddlerach, he'll even put on a tux.

It's hard to believe how hidden and tremendous this ranch is—or that they actually let people in. It feels very much like you're snooping around someone's family home, with different areas named after their many children.

And yet a rail line used to run through here in 1875?

Could this place get any more offbeat?

Sure—add some Airstream trailers...

...each with their own unique theme...

...which are unfortunately no longer available to rent for the night, though this part of the ranch is available for classy/trashy wedding celebrations (and selfies with a Big Boy).

I couldn't help but wonder what will happen to all those exotic animals—the camels, the yak—when Ron and Linda Semler are gone, or unable to take care of them. The Semlers have lots of children, so hopefully one or more will carry on the legacy; but you hear stories all the time about private collections of animals (like at Neverland Ranch) that have to be dispersed, despite the best laid plans.

In the meantime, I could not get enough of that place, and I suspect there's lots more that I didn't see. I'll have to go back to meet Stanley (which requires an extra charge). I'll have to take one of their wine hikes. I'll have to figure out how to spend the night. I'll have to find someone to get married to there...

Related Posts:
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Adventure Is Out There! Wine Country Edition
Photo Essay: Into the Wild Safari Park
Photo Essay: The Hidden Kingdom of Big Cats
Photo: Feeding the Wild Horses

Monday, October 5, 2015

This 40 Year-Old Princess Has Found Her Kingdom

I grew up watching football players declaring "I'm going to Disneyland!" after winning the Super Bowl. It didn't occur to me at the time that it was an advertisement. It just seemed like Disneyland must be that good.

So when I was looking down the barrel of my 40th birthday, wondering how I would outdo the skydiving adventure of my 30th, the one thing I couldn't get out of my head was The Happiest Place on Earth. I didn't really want to do anything other than go to Disneyland—finally.

I may have had opportunities to go in the last four and a half years since moving to LA, but it's pricey, and I haven't wanted to go alone. I thought flying solo there would be really sad...and maybe just a little bit creepy. But when Edith and Michelle were up for doing whatever during their visit for my birthday, it just seemed like the perfect time to go.

Besides, I've always enjoyed my birthday at the end of September as the official kick-off of the Halloween season. And we managed to get tickets to "Mickey's Halloween Party," when Disneyland is all decked out, and taken over by the villains of their movies.

I don't know what better way to celebrate getting old(er) than visiting The Happiest Place on Earth during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

I didn't have lofty goals for my visit. I just wanted to be there. It's a slice of history and American culture that I had not yet experienced, and it's probably the closest thing I'll ever get to the '64/'65 World's Fair without time travel.

First stop: Space Mountain. We both came into this world in 1975, although the first one is actually at Walt Disney World in Orlando. This one in California opened two years later. Others have popped up around the world since.

I actually had no idea what I was in for, but because we were at an event that required a special ticket, we didn't have to wait in line for very long in order to find out.

Oh my God. Everywhere I turned, oh my God.

It was like I walked into a video game of my youth. Or a sci-fi movie I couldn't quite remember.

And then it got very dark, and we embarked on our wild ride through the Ghost Galaxy.

With a crick in my neck and a lurching stomach, we decided to take it easy in the Fantasyland section of the resort park and visit the King Arthur Carousel, built by Dentzel Carousel Company in 1922. Walt Disney bought it and moved it from Toronto to California, removing giraffes, deer, and other animals and replacing them all with horses. It's one of the few original rides from Disneyland's 1955 opening, 60 years ago, and it's very much a centerpiece of the park.

The story goes that Walt was inspired to create Disneyland while watching his daughters ride the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. He wanted to give more people a chance to experience that kind of magic. Now, everyone from preschoolers to adults clamor to ride Jingles, the lead horse, though they'll settle for any of the other white horses. Too bad they don't gallop off like they do in Mary Poppins.

There are a few other Fantasyland rides that are original to the park, including "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," a reference to The Wind in the Willows...

...and "Snow White's Scary Ride," another "dark ride" that uses black light to illuminate various Disney characters and familiar backdrops.

Fantasyland reopened after a renovation in 1983, so most of the current iterations of the rides are from that.

The whole place is kind of spooky and weird at night. At my age, I remember Alice in Wonderland and Pinnochio and Sleeping Beauty, but the Disney movies of today are very different than what I grew up with. I was glad to see the park not totally taken over by Frozen, Tangled, or Brave...yet.

Instead, Disneyland will be closing some rides—some temporarily, some permanently—to make way for the new Star Wars Land. The Big Thunder Ranch area of Frontierland is pretty much being wiped out. Disney considers it the most underutilized and least-visited area in the park, but maybe because if you want an olde tyme Western experience, you'd just go to Knott's Berry Farm.

The only other park attraction I knew I had to hit (since Adventureland and its animatronic bird show at the Enchanted Tiki Room were closed) was The Haunted Mansion. At this point, the batteries on both my camera and phone had died, so instead of spending time trying to document everything, I just absorbed it.

This time of year, The Haunted Mansion features the extra layer of The Nightmare Before Christmas in its "holiday" iteration, which runs through Halloween and Christmas. There is so much going on in this dark ride, between the voices and the ghostly paintings and the dancing apparitions and the room that stretches and the "Doombuggies" that spin you around as you make your way through.

And just when I couldn't imagine any better way to celebrate my birthday, then came the fireworks, and the tiki drinks that followed at Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel.

I'm going to try and let this experience linger with me for a while—the feeling of wonder and disbelief and, above all, belief. I'm going to try and not think about my 41st birthday, or worse yet, my 50th birthday.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Love at First Bite

Is there anything better than that first bite of pizza, that first sip of champagne, or that first crunch into a Cheeto?

We spend the rest of our bites trying to recapture the glorious rush of flavor of that first one, the thing that made the difference between not tasting and tasting.

But each subsequent bite is just another taste of the same thing. It doesn't get better. Your tongue gets used to it. Your mouth doesn't salivate for it as much anymore. But you keep eating for more of the flavor, and the more you eat, the more the flavor fades.

You could eat the entire bag of chips in one sitting, and none of the bites will be as good as that first one was.

If you had any self-control, you could just eat one chip, close up the bag, and put it away. Let a few hours—or even days—pass. Brush your teeth. Cleanse your palate. Place on your tongue things that are sweet or creamy, just anything but salty and fatty.

And then come back to the chips, and have just one more.

If you were able to do this, every bite would be the first bite. Every bite would be amazing.

But we sabotage ourselves. We convince ourselves that an entire big chip is just one bite, even if it takes a couple of bites to devour it. We accidentally choose a chip that's a runt—some mutant potato slice that's small and weird—and eat it anyway without thinking, telling ourselves it doesn't count, and taking another bite.

We're always trying to relive the first time, even when we do the same things over and over again. We want everything to be fresh and exciting. We want every dog to be a puppy, every cat to be a kitten. We are ever in pursuit of the new car smell that never goes away.

We always remember the first kiss, but not the dozens or hundreds or thousands of kisses that follow.

Maybe the key is to embrace change and variety. Make sure each bite is different than the next. Add more toppings to your pizza. Add more layers to your cocktail. Buy the variety pack. Get the whiskey flight. Try the beer sampler.

You have to know what one tastes like in order to appreciate the other.

We feel so relieved walking into an air conditioned room, but the longer we stay in there, the less cool it feels. When we go to leave, the hot air outside feels kind of good.

You have to know what both feel like.

But at some point, this all becomes exhausting. It's a lot of work. Sometimes, you want the wine that gets better with every sip—the first one a jolt to the senses, and each one that follows, a warming, calming, evolving melange of notes and tones, with a lingering aftertaste that surprises even the most trained palate.

There's a German cookie called lebkuchen that my mother, aunt, and grandmother used to make at Christmastime. I always marveled how it wasn't very good when it came out of the oven—unlike pretty much every other cookie. You had to let it cool. Then you had to frost it. And, after all of that, you had to wait a few days—even a week—before it was its most delicious.

Of course, who can wait a week to eat a Christmas cookie? So we would start snacking on them as soon as the frosting set, and we would finish them off before they passed their peak. With lebkuchen (which roughly translates as "love cake"), every bite always got better, making the best bite the last bite.

I've had a lot of exciting first bites of a lot of different things in my life. But I'm ready to start nibbling on something that's just going to get better with time. I'd like to feel like I'm moving toward my best bite.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Looking Down the Barrel of 40

I've been dreading this week for over a year.

I think I've been dreading this week for my entire life.

On Wednesday, I turn 40.

I know plenty of people turn 40 every day—or even 50, or 60—and they say they feel young, and life is just starting for them.

But I don't want to be 40.

I don't want to be 40 and single. I don't want to be 40 and poor. I don't want to be 40 living in a studio apartment with no pets, clutching a stuffed pig as I fall asleep every night.

I don't want to be 40 and damaged goods.

I mourn the life I could've had, if I'd gotten the help I needed earlier. If I'd been spared the trauma that haunts me. If I could have had just one less disability.

When I turned 30, everybody was excited for me. My older female friends told me my 30s were going to be great. Everything would settle out. I would find peace.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I jumped out of a plane for my 30th birthday, and I just kept falling, for the next ten years.

When my 40th birthday began approaching, I couldn't figure out how I could "outdo" skydiving. I've already driven a race car. I've already shot guns and paraglided and kayaked the Salton Sea.

But there was one thing I'd never done before, that kept nagging at me. It would feel like a celebration. It would be magical. It would be special.

When I turn 40, in the depths of my despair, I'm going to the happiest place on earth.

I'm going to Disneyland.

Fortunately I've got two partners in crime willing to go with me.

I hope to take some photos while I'm there, since it will be my first time (and it's fully dressed for Halloween), but if I don't, it's because my hands are full of popcorn or ice cream. Or Goofy.

I need something to look forward to. I'm dreading the next 40 years.

Riding the Red Line to Haunted Hollywood

As much as I love trains, I'd only ridden the LA Metro once before this weekend, and it made me cry. It reminded me too much of New York—not making me homesick, but reintroducing a past life that I think is better off left behind.

I don't live near a Metro stop (yet—if the Purple Line Extension ever gets to Beverly Hills), and generally it would take me nearly as long to drive to a train station and park-and-ride as it would to just drive to my destination and find parking.

But I'm somewhat of a subway tourist. I first fell in love with the underground at the London Transport Museum, and since then, I've taken advantage of special occasions to ride the subway in New York, just for the sake of riding the subway. It was more about the ride than the destination.

So, in keeping with that spirit, I decided to join a tour of the "Haunted" Red Line hosted by Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles (GHOULA).

We began our journey at Union Station...

...which is even more gorgeous at night...

...and far less crowded than during the weekday commute.

From in front of Union Station, we looked out at the various haunted sites of Downtown Los Angeles, like City Hall—which was not only cursed by angry spiritualists, but was also built at the site of the city's gallows. Guards at the security monitors frequently catch a glimpse of someone wandering around in the locked rooms upstairs, and when they go to check, find nothing.

Pico House, the failed luxury hotel otherwise known as "Pico's Folly," is notoriously haunted. Ghost-hunters attribute this to the victims of the Chinese Massacre of 1871, and sure, some of them might've worked at the Chinese laundromat that delivered clean sheets to the hotel. But it's more likely that the ghost who lingers here is that of Pio Pico himself, the last governor of California when it was still Mexico, who fell from a position of great power and died a pauper.

Philippe the Original, the famous purveyors (and at least one of the originators) of the French Dip sandwich, now glows under an appropriately-colored red neon sign on the edge of Chinatown. This was once the Red Light District of LA, and the building that Philippe currently occupies used to be a high-class brothel. You might hear some "activity" if you take your meal upstairs to a dining room in one of the former bedrooms.

Of course, Union Station itself must be pretty haunted. Its construction displaced all of Old Chinatown. And if the victims of the Chinese Massacre are haunting any building, it's probably this one. The trees many of them were found hanging from were right next door. We could've spent all night talking ghosts in that one location.

But it was time to move onto the next Red Line station, two stops down at Pershing Square.

Each of the Red Line stations has kind of its own theme and own array of public art. Pershing Square has some nice neon.

It also has its share of ghosts.

There have been sightings of a naked woman walking through the front door of The Pershing Building, thought to be the ghost of a woman who'd been caught in the throes of passion with another woman. Unfortunately for her, she was on top when discovered, pulled off by an appalled policeman who'd responded to the "screams" coming from within, and thrown out the window. She fell to her death.

The Subway Terminal Building is also probably haunted, at least by a little red-headed girl who's been sighted on the tracks of the abandoned subway tunnels that go from there to the Millenium Biltmore Hotel and beyond. And The Alexandria Hotel (now Alexandria Apartments) can easily be considered the second most haunted hotel in LA (unless you count the Queen Mary, which is really more of a ship). Apparently every type of paranormal activity happens there all the time, and more than once, the bartenders downstairs have witnessed a collection of glassware rise up off the bar, levitate for a moment, and come crashing down—completely on their own.

Pershing Square is also the site of what could be LA's oldest ghost story—that of a Native American woman who insisted on bathing and washing her dishes in the LA River, where she contaminated the water that flowed through the Zanja Madre (LA's first aqueduct—the "Mother Ditch") to the farms, homes, and businesses in the area. She is also seen levitating, but that may be because the original zanja was a couple of feet higher than the sidewalk is now.

Bypassing MacArthur Park, Los Feliz, and East Hollywood, we got back off the train at Hollywood & Vine, where Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera himself) used to haunt his favorite bus bench, until it was replaced by a new one that could carry advertising.

The Art Deco Pantages Theatre might be haunted by the ghost of Howard Hughes, who once owned the building and occupied one of its offices. He would sometimes step away from his desk and pop into whichever movie was playing to sit in the back of the balcony and clear his mind. Sometimes he still does.

But Hughes might have a turf war with the theater's namesake, Alexander Pantages himself. He's been seen poking around the auditorium, especially during construction and renovations. Who knows what's happened in the bar? And since the old Hollywood Mortuary used to be right across the street (now a parking lot), the dead bodies—if not the ghosts—of scores of movie stars have graced this section of Hollywood Boulevard at least once (including Bela Lugosi's final stroll, in a hearse whose driver had no control over it for several blocks).

When you finally reach the Hollywood & Highland station on the Red Line... hit the mother lode of ghost stories.

The Hollywood & Highland shopping center was built on the site of The Hollywood Hotel, which was notoriously haunted by the ghost of Rudolph Valentino, who might place a "spirit kiss" on the lips of a woman who stayed in a particular room. But Valentino's ghost gets around: he's also been spotted at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and The Roosevelt Hotel, which is probably the most haunted hotel in LA.

Of course, the El Capitan Theatre must be haunted too, right? Legend has it that in the theater's glory days, patrons would purchase their tickets from the outer box office and then be held in the "outer lobby" under the marquee, outside the front doors, until a big crowd collected there. Nightclubs do this all the time now outside of the velvet rope—create a crowd to attract more people, because if that many people are waiting to get in, it must be good. The theater manager would sit perched in a second story window to monitor the crowd below, and when it reached a critical mass, he would signal to let them in.

Every now and then, someone walks up to the theater now (which is owned by Disney and runs all Disney movies) and asks the box office attendant, "Who's that guy in the window staring down at us?"

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