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March 12, 2007

Days 4-5: In the big muddy in Napa

A meth head in Reno

We made it to Napa despite the meth-user. He showed up five miles outside Reno, surging in our rear view driving in a blue 1960s Chevy pickup and showing no signs of slowing down. This was a bit of a problem, because the right lane was blocked by the late-model Buick we were in the midst of passing. But the pale-faced, neck-scratching, scraggly, meth-user seemed to be prepared to plow right into us.  So Graham gunned the engine and pulled the car in with a couple feet to spare. But that wasn't the end of the meth-user. He pulled in front of us and braked, trying to give us a taste of the injustice he felt we had forced upon him. We pulled back into the left lane, but he followed, like a NASCAR-style, blocking us from moving ahead. It went on like this for several minutes, then the meth-user settled down and returned to just driving erratically and scratching his neck. He took the second exit in Reno, a city that, judging by how it looks from the highway, is right where he belongs.

By 1 p.m., we  crossed over the border and into California, which is to say we were falling off the edge of the continent. In the course of half an hour, lost six thousand feet of elevation. The mountains were covered in snow, then bare, then green and in less than an hour a profusion of vegetal life was trying to pour over onto the highway. The air became thick and sweet smelling as we passed orchards coming into bloom. Breathing was like sipping something delicious. An hour later, Sacramento. Half an hour after that, we took a wrong turn towards Napa, which turned out to be a very right turn, because it took us on a wildly winding highway that was something else in a brand new Mercedes.

The Rutherford Grill in Napa

Out destination was Long Meadow Ranch. I had found this place some months ago on the Internet, and I decided to pay it a visit after eating that mediocre steak at Primehouse in Chicago. The two places, you see, represent two different ends of the steak spectrum: heartland vs. the coast. Primehouse serves Black Angus steak that's been fattened on grain. That's the most steak is raised in North America, because the cows gain weight quickly. But if you ask me, grain-fed steak just doesn't taste all that good.

Long Meadow ranch does things differently. Its cows eat organic grass and only organic grass, which in their case is lush California forage. Their cows aren't Black Angus, either. Long Meadow Ranch beef comes from an obscure breed of cows from the north of Scotland called Highland. They're small, have shaggy coats and long horns--all attributes that make them unsuitable for the feedlot.

The Calistoga region covers the bases
So, half way into California, I called Long Meadow Ranch and asked them if them if they had any beef. Yes. Then I asked what local restaurant served it. The answer: none, and the reason is that Long Meadow Ranch just doesn't produce enough beef to sell to restaurants. Best case scenario, I could maybe find a hotel with a hotplate and cook the steak directly on it.

Then I had an idea. What if I bought two steaks and took them to a local restaurant? I had heard of people doing this with freshly caught fish, but never steak. Still, it was worth a try. I phoned Long Meadow and asked them to recommend a local restaurant, which they did: The Rutherford Grill. Next, I called the Rutherford Grill and explained my I-have-some-great-steak-but-I-can't-cook-it dilemma. The manager paused, considered the proposition two or three seconds, then said, "Sure, we'll cook your steak for you."

Dr. Wilkinson's in Calistoga had the cure
Dr. Wilkinson's: Clean sheets, muddy baths 
The meal ended up bringing my wildest fantasies of Napa to life and plunking them right on my plate. We started with grilled artichokes, which were the best artichokes I have ever tasted, then moved on to the steak, which was served by itself and seasoned only with salt and pepper. The meat was tender, juicy and had a big, sweet flavor. The texture was fine, almost delicate, as though the muscle fibers were smaller and gentler than on regular beef, and the feel was very soft in the mouth. If the rib eyes at Primehouse were a 6 (which they were), these were a 9.

The upwelling of delicious food in Napa is thanks to the earth, which, I am told, is volcanic ash. And it's not just the vegetables that are improved by it. So are humans. People have been coming to the town of Calistoga to soak in bathtubs full of hot mud for years.  As it so happened, our motel had mud baths of its very own, which isn't much of a surprise given that it's called Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Mud Baths Motel. Doc Wilkinson opened the place in 1952, and it's hardly been changed since. The mud baths are situated in two tiled soaking tubs, and the walls are still painted wood. No travertine, no halogen lighting, no sounds of the sea burbling out of an in-ceiling speaker. After a spell in the hot mud, during which I could feel the ounces of toxins I had soaked up eating my way through the heartland leech out of my skin, they plunk customers in an old porcelain tub filled with lemony scented water and turn on the jets.

After four days on I-80, Northern California had the cure for Mark

Feeling better than I had in days and, possibly, years, it was time to leave. But not before I checked out the local real estate listings. Calistoga, I decided, is about the nicest place there is to live. It has mountains, rivers, wine, food and culture, and you don't need to speak Italian to talk to the locals. I'm not the only one who thinks so, however, because the property listings all seemed to start at $1 million and shoot directly skyward. Instead, I bought a bottle of Calistoga water and a bottle of Long Meadow Ranch's Cabernet Sauvignon and loaded our things in the car. The mud, apparently, isn't for sale.


Wow, that meth-user really gets around. I just had the same experience with him on the Maine turnpike just north of Portland!

And here we go again! Follow the two brave heros on Gooooogle Maps:

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