NORTHERN CALIFORNIA – This all looks so familiar, it's hard to believe it's been three years.
There's the highway sign for De La Cruz Boulevard. I remember that well. We're on the 101 now, heading northwest away from Norm Mineta, the Silicon Valley's international airport in San Jose, and, yup, here comes Great America Parkway. That's our last exit. Home is literally right around the corner.
This area does feel as like-home as a place 3,000 miles away from where we actually live can be. We spent two successful, week-long sojourns here in 2008, becoming so comfortable with our temporary environs that, even in the dark of night, all this time later, we can navigate with ease.
Corporate offices with recognizable names are our neighbors and landmarks – Yahoo, McAfee, Intel, Cisco, Oracle. Apple's Cupertino headquarters are just to the southwest. Eastbound, a popular walking/biking path is a couple of blocks away. Head north on that trail and, after about a half hour, the unassuming team offices and practice field of the San Francisco 49ers will take you by surprise. They're actually considering building a new stadium around there.
We know where the local supermarket is; the nearest In-N-Out Burger, too. Won't need to stock up on non-perishable food and beverages for this short stay, but a visit to that better-than-average fast-food chain is certainly on the agenda.
That'll have to wait for tomorrow, though.
Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," some National Geographic articles, a decent in-flight dinner (pot roast, served with live, televised playoff baseball), a refreshing hour-and-a-half nap, and "The Hangover II" helped kill the past six, sedentary hours en route. So, now the eyelids are heavy. It's late – almost midnight back on the East Coast – a bit cooler than expected, and there's a warm, comfortable bed expecting me.
Exactly as I remember it.
From our fifth-floor balcony, the mountains that rim the valley appear at eye level. There are, in fact, two chains seemingly engaged in a spiritual tug-of-war for the nearly two million souls inhabiting this tech Mecca. The southwestern edge is framed by the Santa Cruz Mountains – Spanish for holy cross; the Diablo Range bedevils those who turn their eyes northeast.
SILICON VALLEY SUNRISE -- Day breaks over the distant Santa Cruz Mountains.
Nothing sinister about the way this day's staring out, though. It's heavenly, actually. A friend, just landed in San Francisco, calls to report that it's only in the 60s up around the Bay Area, but by late morning in Silicon Valley, the thermometer is threatening 80. The most gentle of breezes provides occasional respite from the toasting sunshine. The soothing water of the hotel pool feels as warm as the air temperature and looks as blue as the smooth, satin sky above.
Five majestic palm trees tower overhead, like disinterested, 30-foot tall spectators. The soft breeze rustles their fronds periodically, lending the appearance that they are in fact clapping for me, each time I complete a length of the half-Olympic-size pool. Yet their applause is so perfunctory, it is barely discernable.
The friend arrives, eager to tuck in at In-N-Out, so we head over. This lazy, California Saturday is filling up nicely, but there is some work to be done. I must bear the bad news to Patriots Nation that three more players – all defenders – are going to be inactive for the game tomorrow. The Raiders are in equally tough shape, too, judging from their injury report. Several Oakland starters are either out or on the verge.
Sunday's kickoff is shaping up to be a war, all right.
Nightfall, and the evening beckons. But where to?
Our travel party is scattered like buckshot across the region. Fred is having a business dinner with a tech executive somewhere in the valley; No-Socks, Zo, and Bucky are San Francisco-bound; Aaron, who used to live in the area, is on his own, catching up with local friends. Our marketing department and their guests have been soaking up the coast all day and have no plans to return soon.
It's down to a four-man wolf pack (yes, I have a "Hangover" hangover). Channeling my inner Zach Galifianakis, I corral my road roommate (you know who), Mike from public relations, and John, the new guy from the ticket office.
We consider options.
San Fran? Always fun, but we've experienced that plenty. There's a fan club party in Oakland that has generously extended an invite. San Jose is closest, and there's an area we've heard about but didn't get to the last go-round: Santana Row. We settle on venturing into those uncharted waters.
It is as its name suggests – a row of high-end shops and eateries, buffered by parking garages. The promenade is lined with massive-trunked palm trees, festooned with lights. It is bustling, but at a leisurely pace. There is a road cutting through the center, though there's considerably more pedestrian activity than motorized.
Multi-story businesses elbow one another for room along the expanse, exuding a posh, Mediterranean vibe. A French patisserie/boulangerie faces a fancy Italian pizza restaurant. We see Spanish and Mexican restaurants, a fresh seafood place, another French outfit, and designer clothing boutiques jostling for position.
Amid the river of life flowing through Santana Row, models made to resemble a fashionable wedding party are doing their best pose patiently for a photo shoot, with the Catalan-sounding Hotel Valencia serving as the backdrop on the other side of the street. We join other respectful onlookers, pausing to allow the photographer to snap a few shots before continuing on our way.
We're interested in some food and drink, and PR Mike is hunting for a hoodie. A local souvenir keepsake he can wear when we get home. We offer to help, once we've had a bite.
Finally, we find what we're looking for. We're in Northern California, so, we figure, when in wine country, do as the wine-lovers do. A California bistro/wine bar, called Village, is where we come to rest. It does not disappoint.
Apparently, it's commonplace to bring your dog to dinner on Santana Row. Village, like other establishments here, has tables set up unobtrusively out on the sidewalk as well as its long, narrow interior. As we explore the rest of Santana Row, canines rival outside dinners and strollers for walking and sitting space – Dobermans, cockapoos, Labradors, Springer Spaniels among them.
The first one we meet is aptly named Thunder. He's a pit bull pup, with a soft, shiny coat as grey as a storm cloud, and a gentle temperament befitting a newborn. Tethered to his owner's leash while she sits otherwise alone at a small table, Thunder does his best to avoid oblivious passers-by who nearly step on him. We spot him, though, and with curious, cautious eyes, he looks up at us. One of us kneels to put him at ease and he allows himself to be stroked on the head. He shuts his eyes, clearly delighting in the attention.
Dogs aren't the only things people are showing off here. Cars, too. A swarthy guy, mid-30s, perhaps, with a pencil-thin, pointed goatee crawls down the street in a classic convertible Cadillac. It's stretched, polished, its color as deep a burgundy as the Pinot Noir we just enjoyed at Village. The driver has a stunning blonde with glowing green eyes riding shotgun. They slow past, on the pretense of looking for a place to stop, but it's clear their aim is only to stop traffic by drawing attention to themselves. This is California, after all.
Later, an even more vintage vehicle chugs along, but this anachronism isn't pretending to be sexy. It's a 1920s-or-30s-era pickup truck (think "It's A Wonderful Life"), the color of tan parchment, and its driver is honking the strangled-goose-sounding horn while its passengers waves out the window to everyone and no one in particular.
Before we go, gotta search for PR Mike's hoodie. We find a map of the Row at a kiosk and look under men's apparel. The San Francisco T-Shirt Company sounds logical. So, we make our way there.
We've already been by here, we discover. Earlier, when the photo shoot was taking place, but we didn't pay attention to the name painted on the window. Turns out the incongruously named San Francisco Shirt Company sells dresses and other haute couture items.
PR Mike is S-O-L.
THE BLACK HOLE -- Forest green seats and fresh green grass color the home field of the Oakland Raiders two hours prior to kickoff.
My Weather Channel Mobile app is telling me that "early season Pacific storm systems" will arrive in Northern California tomorrow, bringing light, then heavy rain – one to three inches – throughout the coming week. Ironically, on our way to the stadium, our bus convoy drives directly past Solyndra, the solar power factory that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately.
But we're only concerned about today. The hourly forecast is calling for 70 degrees and cloudless, sunny skies all afternoon, right when the Patriots and Raiders get underway. A complete departure from the downpours that muddied up our last trip here in '08.
New England's offense poured on the points that day, drowning the Raiders 49-26. And the Patriots were without Tom Brady, remember. He's back in his backyard for just the second time in his pro career (he dropped a 27-20 decision in the Black Hole back in '02). And now that the baseball season is done here, the field at O.co (née Oakland-Alameda) Colisuem has been completely re-sodded for Brady and the seven other Patriots on today's roster who grew up around here.
The waiter who served our breakfast remembered us from three years ago, he said, even recalling our separate week-long stays. He wished us a speedy return. There is work left to complete here, but this home-away-from-homecoming has been a welcome one.