"What's in California?" quizzed Don Worsham, the self-proclaimed Mayor for Eternity of Glen Ridge Drive. "Just a lot of congestion and pollution, from what I've heard. And phony actors and singers. Betcha there's not even an American Legion post there."

Well, dear friend and neighbor, you're right on the first two points, but a bit off base on the last. During our eight hotel tour de force, I saw dozens of Legion posts. And all of them, like most of the Golden State, were draped in fragrant red, yellow and white roses, all wild. But that's California for you. It defies label. Home to the highest point in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney) and to the lowest point, Death Valley. In between, you will uncover federally protected desert tortoises, wonderful wines and rocky Pacific cliffs — and nary a human around.

We started our swing in San Francisco, where cable cars and cabernet top the agenda. And Chinatown! It's the biggest Asian 'hood in the U.S. In a dark, dank alley there, we stumbled across a family-run fortune cookie baking company. For 50 cents, you can take a picture of the elderly woman delicately wrapping the hot cookie dough around the fortune. "I've tried to get my 83-year-old godfather, the owner, to build a website," sighed Victoria Chen, the college student who serves as an interpreter. "But this is so old school."

For as long as I can remember, Yosemite National Park has loomed large in my psyche, so that was our next stop. You could catch the shuttle to see the world's highest waterfall or hug a giant Sequoia. But there was one little catch: You first had to drive up a 4,000-foot mountain to get up there. The twists! The turns! The last will and testament you'd been meaning to fill coming back to haunt you. What an ear-popping, photo-snapping adventure. This is what we kept hearing from tourists from Australia, Iceland and every point in between: "We are on another planet, another dimension."


Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

On the way to Monterey, you drive through the lush San Joaquin Valley. It's literally hundreds of miles of undulating fields of plenty: pistachios, olives, avocados and cherries. And the plumpest peaches you will ever bite into. It would take that same peach three or four days to cross country and unload at the Jessup Produce Market. Bye-bye most of the natural juices.

California may have the highest number of micro climates in America and good soil for garlic and strawberries. But one aspect of the trip left me downright glad I was from the right side of the world. We spent our lunch hour in the cutesy, snooty village of Carmel. Clint Eastwood (and the late Sonny Bono) were former mayors, and the homes there are all north of a million bucks.

Over an avocado sandwich, I scanned the local paper, the Carmel Cone. I noticed a piece about how the mayor felt compelled to respond to a letter to the editor that came from a visitor. The writer complained about how everyone in Carmel makes it a point, when they're walking their dogs, never to make eye contact with you. "I'm from Texas," she wrote, " and we're just not used to that kind of treatment."

Moral of the travelogue: We may not boast year-round golf, wine tastings and elephant seals sunning themselves on the sand. (And what's with the sun rising over the ocean?) What we do have, though, is a solid, close, meat-and-potatoes community where it is perfectly all right to strut your stuff clad in shirts from Value Village.

Tony Glaros is a former Laurel Leader staff writer.