Tuesday, July 4, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 4: O Beautiful For Spacious Skies

O beautiful for spacious skies, for purple mountain majesty in the northeastern quadrant of Yosemite National Park.

O beautiful for waters clear, for tufts of snow in summer.

O beautiful for family dear.

O beautiful for roadside restaurants. The Mobil Restaurant overlooking Mono Lake must be northern California’s best kept secret. Yes, Mobil once had restaurants.

We dig into sandwiches from the Whoa Nellie Deli. Mom swears she’s had the best chicken sandwich ever. It’s all good. And while you dine in the lush green picnic area and watch the cooks grill just outside the kitchen door, you can feast your eyes on the lake and puzzle on why a trapeze set is next to the unleaded pumps.

The Mobil restaurant is indeed a dying piece of Americana, just like Stuckey’s, just like Nickerson Farms or Sambo’s or Howard Johnson’s.

I’m proudly wearing my tricorn hat this Independence Day, but a lot of people still don’t get the reference to American heritage.

“Arrrrrr,” says a gentleman wearing a pith helmet as I walk for the deli entrance.

I repeat the standard correction: “It’s not a pirate hat. It’s a patriot hat!”

This would be one of at least half a dozen corrections I would make throughout the day to people shouting “Where’s the booty?” and other piratical compliments. Only one woman -- one -- correctly surmised the colonial connection.

The road trip continues into the mountains of the Inyo National Forest.

We also pass through several small towns with cottage motels decorated in flags and red, white, and blue bunting. Crowds gather outside the town hall in Mono City. This is the America of Frank Capra, of George M. Cohen and Norman Rockwell. This is what we imagine it should be, and indeed, for just one day, it is.

The beach on the south end of Lake Tahoe is unsurprisingly packed. So are the casinos just up the way, across the state line in Nevada. I’m unable to win any decent money on slots or video poker. But when you play only pennies, you lose only pennies. Dad goes through $10 at the blackjack tables in a flash.

We all return to the sand and surf and scout out a location for the fireworks show. Every square inch of sand is occupied by blankets or people. An armada of boats fills the lake. As Captain Bartholomew Burgundy would say, “Lahst time ah soir that many boats, we was about to boye raided!” We wait until 9:45 for the big bangs.

The show, synchronized to music from a local radio station, includes several types of blasts I’ve never seen before, including smiley faces and sparklers that descend slowly on parachutes. It all lasts about fifteen minutes.

The walk back to the motel, the streets filling up with drunks. It may be a night punctuated by the screams of drunkenness and revelry. We can only hope we’re far from the madding crowd.

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