I have no business evaluating restaurants, in a blog post or Yelp! rant or any other published medium. The reason is simple: I have the palate of a child.

I start my mornings with sugary cereal. I inwardly cringe when foods touch on my plate. And under no circumstance does a vegetable pass my lips. Jill diplomatically describes me a “meat and potatoes” guy, but this categorization is too expansive. I’m really just a meat guy; potatoes, to me, are overkill.

So when Jill suggested I write a little something about our visit to Jocko’s steakhouse in Nipomo, Calif., I was hesitant. She might as well have asked me to submit an article to Architectural Digest based on my prepubescent reputation as a masterful Lego builder. My lack of sophistication in gastronomical matters is laughable, really. I can’t tell an artichoke from an asparagus, and I don’t even know what most brightly colored foods taste like.

But I’ll tell you what, despite these inadequacies, there’s one thing I’m comfortable stating with supreme confidence: Californians don’t know shit about barbecue.

I came to this conclusion after driving through the Central Valley and passing a slew of restaurants with neon “BBQ” signs hung in front of them. The first time I saw such a sign, my heart leapt. I assumed, reasonably, that a Southerner had moved to town, built a pit, found a supply of hardwood, and was now smoking pork and sausage and brisket to the delight of a new and appreciative audience.

But after passing another “BBQ” sign, then another and another, I realized there couldn’t be that many transplanted Southerners populating the same swath of the state. Something smelled — and it wasn’t hickory smoke and pork fat.

What I soon figured out is that Californians confuse barbecuing meat with grilling it. All those California restaurants with “BBQ” signs? They’re actually steak joints. Nary a one serves pulled pork with a tangy, vinegar-based barbecue sauce.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with steak — I love steak — but these days I can’t afford to eat one. Words matter to a hungry traveler on a budget, so shame on the Golden State for false advertising.

The facts: In this country, barbecuing means cooking meat with hardwood smoke over indirect heat. Grilling, on the other hand, refers to cooking meat directly over hot coals or flames. I’ve heard and read several theories about the origin of barbecuing, but the most credible concerns a culinary exchange between American Indians and Spanish colonists five centuries ago in what is now South Carolina. The Spanish introduced pigs to the New World, and the Indians showed them how to slow-cook one with smoke. A delicacy was born.

What Indians and colonists were doing in the 1500s “barbecuers” in Californian still aren’t doing today. But just because Californians don’t know what they’re cooking doesn’t mean what they’re cooking isn’t good. Take Jocko’s, a restaurant one of Jill’s old high-school friends practically demanded we visit when she learned we were holed up in a dive motel in nearby Pismo Beach. Jocko’s menu proclaims the restaurant has been serving barbecue since the 1950s, but in reality Jocko’s specializes in grilled meats — lamb chops, pork chops, chicken, spare ribs, linguisa and, above all, steaks.

Jocko’s is special-occasion dining for locals, most of whom work on vineyards or ranches or farms. These are the sort of folks who put product before presentation and value good food over frills. You don’t get a lot of the latter at Jocko’s. If not for the dimly lit bar you see when you open the front door, you might think you’d walked into a church basement for a potluck social. The walls are block, the light yellow. Laminated-wood tabletops are set with paper placemats, and water is served in textured plastic tumblers like the ones used in your neighborhood Pizza Hut back in 1978.

The service moseys a fine line between no-nonsense efficiency and homespun apathy. Our waitress, tall and brusque, possessed the jawline of Linda Hamilton and the tableside manner of Murphy Brown. When she forgot to bring the root beer I ordered, I was a little afraid to call it to her attention.

The steaks at Jocko’s start at 20 bucks. I ordered the “Large Spencer” and kissed three days’ worth of budgeted meal money goodbye. The steak — a massive, bone-in ribeye — turned out to be a worthwhile splurge, arriving charred on the edges and glistening as though dipped in lacquer. It was a little tough for a thick steak prepared medium rare, but its smoky flavor and aroma overshadowed the sinewy texture. It’s not the best steak I’ve ever eaten (that title is held by the bone-in ribeye I once had the pleasure of masticating at Talavera in Arizona), but it made for the tastiest dinner I’ve had on this trip.

At meal’s end, I fetched a toothpick and wandered out back where the magic happens at Jocko’s: at a pair of open-air, brick pits that adjoin the long, narrow kitchen. There I found grill man Aubrey Mayo presiding over a raging oak fire. Several steaks sizzled on a crisscrossed iron grate about a foot and a half above the flame, and Mayo controlled the grate’s height via a simple pulley system. The pit was hot. I leaned against the back wall and was rewarded a soot stain on my t-shirt.

Mayo told me he cooks 400 to 500 steaks “on a good day,” and about 1,000 on Mothers Day and Fathers Day. He is one of only two men who mans the grill at Jocko’s. He rose to the job when his predecessor retired with a torn rotator cuff after turning steaks for 19 years. I detected a Southern tinge to Mayo’s accent and asked him where he was from. “Elizabeth City, North Carolina,” he said. “Been out here for about seven years.”

Mayo has a gift for cooking multiple orders of meat while carrying on easy conversation with a curious stranger. He is obviously used to the presence of onlookers. Like the grill at a backyard cookout, the pit at Jocko’s tends to attract manly loiterers who feel all the more manly for the loitering. As I chatted with Mayo, a fellow with a receding hairline and protruding paunch swaggered out from the dining room. Addressing me but speaking loudly enough for Mayo to hear him over the crackling fire and sizzling steaks, he volunteered that he had come to Jocko’s all the way from Pasadena. “They make the best steak I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve been all over the damn place,” he said. “You just can’t beat the beef that comes from this part of the country.”

Mayo turned a steak without looking up. When the paunchy fellow left, Mayo confided to me that Jocko’s doesn’t actually get its beef from California suppliers — it comes from a ranch in Colorado and has for the past 35 years. But visitors to Jocko’s bar room will still find local cattle brands burned into the pine-paneled walls. Another example of Californian false advertising, I guess.

After being entrusted with this mildly conspiratorial fact and having previously established that Mayo and I are fellow Southerners, I finally posed the question I had been dying to ask the grill man: Why did Jocko’s and other California steakhouses categorize the meat he was cooking as barbecue?

Mayo smiled behind a haze of gray smoke. “I don’t know,” he said. “They don’t call this barbecue where I’m from. But Californians sign my checks, so I’ll call it what they want.”

— Scott

After two months on the road — two months of sharing cramped spaces, squinting at maps, making meal choices, pitching and breaking down camp, packing and repacking bags, cursing bad Internet connections, and waking up in the middle of the night to let sick dogs out of second-floor Motel 6 rooms — Jill and I decided to pick our first fight of the trip on the most beautiful highway in America.

It started over the windows of car. I wanted them down. She wanted them up.

I, of course, was in the right. We were driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, for goodness sake. The sun was out. The ocean sparkled. Iridescent, cottony clouds gave dimension to the impossibly blue sky. I switched on the radio and — no lie — the first chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” rang through the speakers. I cranked the volume and fantasized about swerving down the PCH in a convertible Mustang — a 1968 California Special with cream-colored seats and an inlaid-wood steering wheel. Instead I was stuck in a top-heavy Honda CRV that smelled like wet dogs. The least I could do was roll down the windows.

Jill, however, is not crazy about rushing wind. It sets her on edge. It blows wisps of her hair that are too short to be piled atop her head. But, dang, the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny day? Exceptions must be made.

Or not.

“Can you roll up the windows a little?” Jill yelled over the wind and music. I cast a perturbed glance at her that I’m sure the mirrored lenses of my cheap sunglasses did not conceal. But I complied. The rush of the wind fell to a hoarse whisper. I turned down the Petty. My freedom had been impinged.

“You don’t have to roll them up that much — just a little,” Jill offered. “It’s OK,” I said. But, really, it wasn’t.

At the next overlook I pulled off the road and killed the engine. I leashed the dogs while Jill dug into her camera bag. She shut her door, and I closed the hatch, careful not to let it slam. I started to walk toward our continent’s western edge when Jill stopped me.

“Did you lock it?”


“The windows are still down. Can you roll them up?”

“We’re not going far.”

“My gear’s in there.”

“We can see the car from the overlook.”

“Don’t fight me.”

“I’m not fighting you. I’m trying to rationalize with you.”

My tone may have suggested otherwise. Exasperated, I tugged the dogs back to the car, unlocked it, and rolled up all four windows. I left the sunroof cracked. Maybe I did so out of logic, to let the car to breathe a little, expelling the odor of wet dogs and dirty laundry. Maybe spite played a small role. Either way, Jill wasn’t having it.

“Can you close the sun roof, too?”

“Seriously? Who’s going to get in? It’s barely open, and the roof rack hangs over it. A double-jointed Chinese gymnast couldn’t get through there.”

But, again, I acquiesced. Then we walked our separate ways, she north, me south. I stared into the deep blue forever of the Pacific and seethed. A hundred feet away Jill hid behind her camera and squeezed the shutter with disdain. When we reconvened at the car, we did so in silence. I started the ignition and cracked the windows. A sliver.

Jill can ride out angry silences forever. I cannot. I have to explain, justify, convince. I have to win. Only then can I have closure. It is, perhaps, a flaw.

So I broke the silence, stating my position in what I perceived to be measured tones. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I do recall telling Jill that her stress over unlocked doors and cracked windows and was unhealthier than my one-dimensional diet of red meat, and that eventually those worries would take years off her life. I suggested salvation lie only in learning from my relentlessly laissez fare world view.

Jill picked up the gauntlet with both hands. She explained how her laptop and portable hard drives contained every photo from our trip, and that her piece of mind was more important than a few inches of ventilation. She said driving with the wind in your hair does not make you carefree, and, after days upon days of eating PBJs, showering in dank bath houses, and camping without water or electricity, I had no right to paint her as a party-pooping nag.

Like any good fight, ours escalated and mutated, oozing through cracks in the walls of reason and rushing past safety barriers of truth and logic. Our disagreement over the windows eventually morphed into referendums on our respective personalities. Ironclad arguments rammed impotently into stubborn wills, and impassioned pleas slid from deaf ears to the floorboards. Sighs got heavy. Words got careless. Then, finally, the crescendo, falling from Jill’s lips as I knew it eventually must:

“Why did I ever decide to do this?”

My heart broke like a bar of motel soap. I didn’t say another word. I just rolled down my window — all the way — and drove. We’d only come a few thousand miles of a 30,000-mile journey, but already I’d gone too far.

I’m not real comfortable writing about personal stuff, and I relate this story only because every person we meet on the road (especially people who are married) eventually asks us one question: “Do you guys fight?” I usually deflect this one by joking that if our trip ends in divorce, it will make a great book. But my joke unfailingly elicits only awkward chuckles, if any chuckles at all.

Some folks we meet, especially the kindly retired couples who are most often our campground neighbors, take a liking to us and then get to worrying about our wellbeing. Others just want us to confirm that life on the road is no more of an emotional picnic than life tethered to work and kids and TiVo.

One day I might tether myself to children, and maybe even to work (never to TiVo), and then I can weigh the joys and pains of that life against those of this one. For now, all I can offer is cliché: Some days on the road are better than others. Jill and I certainly suffer from occasional pangs of homesickness. We miss our friends in Phoenix. We miss eating at Tuck Shop. We miss sitting in our backyard, watching the sprinklers and dreaming up adventures and future life scenarios. One thing that sucks about living the dream is that it makes it difficult to sit around and concoct something better — and that kind of dreaming is life fuel for Jill and me. But, hell, it’s a good problem to have, and we aim to solve it one of these nights around the campfire.

As for our squabbles, at home or abroad, they are infrequent and insubstantial. Which is why the duration and harshness of first big road-trip fight took me aback. But the show had to roll on. Jill and were stuck together, for better or worse, separated by two feet of molded plastic and gray upholstery. Besides, it was lunchtime. Past it, actually.

Off a tip from the proprietor of a small outdoors shop south of Big Sur, I turned off the highway onto a narrow road that descended to Pfeiffer Beach. I parked the car, and we silently went through the now-familiar motions of packing a picnic lunch. We hauled our food to the beach, unleashed the dogs, and sat on a log weathered to a smooth patina by surf and sand and wind.

I don’t remember who spoke first, but thereafter the apologies fell easy, as though pulled by tidal forces. The blessings of our journey were remembered and counted. The dogs ran, the surf rolled, and Jill and I shared a cold can of Coke. I guess old logs aren’t the only things smoothed by surf and sand and wind.

So cheers to the healing power of the Pacific Coast Highway, which taught me that it’s folly to argue about windows when the view beyond them is so distractingly beautiful. Jill and I will no doubt fight again, on another road in another state, but don’t expect to read about it here. I’m done airing dirty laundry. That kind of stuff belongs in the back seat — with the windows rolled up and doors locked.

— Scott

I like Phoenix. I like its grit. Same reason I like great cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and San Francisco. I want some diversity, some authenticity, some signs of aging.

The only grit I found in Carmel-by-the-Sea was the puddle of coastal sand collecting in our car’s floorboard. This town is one of the cleanest, meticulously maintained cities I’ve ever been in. And the only thing that seems to be aging is its populace — the median age is 54.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is beautiful and charming, but it seems a little self conscious about just how beautiful and charming it is. I guess this vibe is to be expected from a city that feels the need to add a hyphenated prepositional phrase to its name. Carmel-by-the-Sea. Did former mayor Clint Eastwood approve of this?

Being a Californian who grew up near dairy farms and cotton fields instead of the coast, maybe I’m just a little bitter. But what makes Carmel different from other upscale California beach towns is not its hyphens; it’s the city’s absolute devotion to dogs. And I mean all dogs — not just ones that fit inside Louis Vuitton bags.

Scott and I probably aren’t the kind of dog-loving guests the Carmel tourism board prefers. Unable to afford a hotel by the sea, we camped at a Veteran’s Memorial Park in neighboring Monterey. Unable to afford lunch by the sea, we picnicked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But one thing in Carmel is free, and we drove 5.3 miles from Monterey every day to enjoy it: Carmel City Beach.

At nearly any time of day, Carmel City Beach is full of off-leash dogs. They play in the sand, fetch sticks in the ocean and trot along the surf. This beach is all about dogs, and I’ve never seen so many dogs so happy.

Carmel City Beach is a great example of how responsible dog owners and a committed city can maintain a clean beach that is fun for dogs and dog owners alike. And this is not just any beach — it’s extraordinarily beautiful. The northward shoreline parallels Pebble Beach Golf Links and affords a view of the course’s much-photographed Lone Cypress Tree. If only managers of other California beaches, many of which don’t allow dogs at all, were as dedicated as Carmel’s city fathers.

This was Jack and Isabel’s first (legal) taste of off-leash beach life, and they loved it. But it would be a stretch to say they fit right in. Carmel City Beach is the ultimate dog pageant. Awards could be handed out for best coat, most fit and longest swim into the ocean for a stick. If, like me, you are fascinated by pure-breed dogs, then this is the place to see the best of them — Great Pyrenees, Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shorthairs, Basenjis and more. Introducing our mutts into such a blue-blood playground was a bit like taking shoeless bumpkins to a private school. I was worried Jack and Isabel might develop a complex, but they were recklessly oblivious. Isabel chased sticks into the sea while Jack chased toy poodles along the shore.

At one point, Jack climbed the steep inland bank and squatted above the green, grassy rough along a Pebble Beach fairway. Scott now can forever say he picked up dog poop on one of America’s greatest golf courses.

Tired dogs are well-behaved dogs, which made it possible for us to peacefully relax at one of Carmel’s many dog-friendly, outdoor patios after our first visit to the beach. We chose Cypress Inn.

Owned by Doris Day and located a few blocks from the beach, Cypress Inn is not only pet-friendly — its patio provides an area to rinse off your dogs after a day of playing in the sand. The Garden Courtyard is a great place to nosh on a cheese platter and have a cocktail while the dogs relax by the outdoor fire. We even caught a glimpse of a Cocker Spaniel joining its owner for dinner inside the restaurant.

Downtown Carmel is doggie heaven. Owners walk their dogs, sip coffee with their dogs, shop for their dogs. The Forge in the Forest is one of several restaurants with a special menu for dogs, offering kibble, hamburgers, chicken strips or a $13 New York steak.

There are nearly 50 eating and drinking establishments in Carmel that are dog-friendly — that is, if your dogs don’t act like jerks.  Dog boutiques cater to extreme dog lovers with specialty items such as gingham puppy harnesses ($34) and angora sweaters ($56). You can also find the latest Ed Hardy gear for your four-legged friend. But you won’t catch Jack or Isabel wearing a sweater, much less a hoodie with a panther and koi fish bedazzled on the back.

For all of Carmel’s fuss over gourmet dog menus, boutiques and day spas — including massage and color-therapy services — it’s the off-leash beach that makes the city such a dog lover’s dream. You could spend a small fortune making your dog look good, but nothing compares to watching your filthy mongrel, pink tongue flapping and chin bearded in slobber, sprint through surf and bound over driftwood in an effort to catch some poor woman’s white poodle.

That kind of joy can’t be bought, by the sea or anywhere else.

— Jill

Friends have told us we’re crazy for traveling with two large dogs for a year. Sometimes, we do feel a little crazy. But you know what’s really nuts? Living with eight dogs in one house for a week.

My mom has a dog problem — she can’t stop bringing them home. After our family dog died two years ago — after, by a miracle of God, surviving 16 years of eating popcorn and licking ice cream bowls — my mom began volunteering with the local SPCA. Her goal was to foster dogs. She failed. Every dog she fostered she kept. Gradually her quiet, dogless house began to fill with adopted Shitzus, poodle mixes and chihuahuas. She’s at six.

My mom is not alone in this. My stepdad, Dar, who is by nature a surly, tough-talking jokester, now openly sweet-talks the dogs as he prepares their meals of boiled chicken, rice, cottage cheese and wet dog food.

These dogs are a ratty crew of misfits — pesky and demanding. But they’ve suckered my parents into surrendering their home, their bed and their lives to them. All it takes is a snort from a shitzu or a prairie-dog-style beg from a chihuahua and my folks turn to putty in little paws. Each of the six dogs has its own behavioral issue, health problem or social anxiety. Some are old. Some were peripheral victims of the housing crisis. Some were abused and left for dead. All were abandoned and homeless — until they met the world’s biggest suckers.

As if rescuing this bunch weren’t enough, each week mom and Dar head to the pound to pick up a filthy dog in need of some grooming and a little TLC. For dogs so matted and dirty you can’t see their face, a bath and trim can be the difference between being adopted and not. Dar struggles with visiting the pound. For all his tough talk, seeing several rows of unwanted dogs is too much for him to bear. My mom, in her capris and heeled sandals, surveys every cage looking for a small dog — adoptable, dirty and scared. She keeps a standing appointment with a groomer — every Thursday. On this Thursday, she picks a scruffy terrier mix. He has a good disposition and big brown eyes. Mom likes him; Dar does, too — but not enough to entertain the thought of a seventh dog in the house.

Scott and I joke about our own mutts and their mysterious pedigrees — Jack being part pig, Isabel being equal parts jackal and demon. We’re proud to have rescues. We always will — even though we’ve been known to drool over the occasional well-behaved Rhodesian Ridgeback or Great Pyrenees at the dog park (usually while Jack is taking a dump in the worst place possible and Isabel is barking at some dog from the top of a picnic table).

(Left to right, clockwise) Travis, Mia, Lucky Spike, Miss Priss, Kiki, Scruffy

At mom’s house, dogs come and go as they please through the open sliding glass door separating the living room and back patio. A barricade prevents the sassy six from entering the dining room, hall and guest bedrooms. Little dogs with big personalities and behavioral issues can’t be completely trusted. Look at a small dog cross or ignore the little bugger, and he’ll invariably get even by lifting a leg on a dining room chair.

Jack loves small dogs with his whole 75-pound being. But unnerved by the six kamikaze balls of fluff traveling in a swarm like killer bees with high-pitched barks, Jack cowered and looked to me for help. Isabel, not fully convinced she’s a dog, found higher ground with the people, a healthy distance away. But soon enough, all the dogs settled. The pack went went from six plus two to an integrated eight within an afternoon.

Evenings at my mom’s house were peaceful, if not entertaining. At night we took to the couch for a movie. Jack and Isabel at the foot of the sofa. Miss Priss sleeping atop the couch cushion. Travis on Dar’s lap. Mia on mom’s. Scruffy pacing with indecision about whether to be on the couch or on the ground or on the couch. Lucky Strike standing guard at the slider. And Kiki doing what Kiki does best — seducing me with those ridiculous chihuahua eyes.

It might be crazy, but it works. Six dogs in one house. It’s loud at times, and there are the occasional “accidents,” but I’m sure my folks couldn’t imagine it any other way. These furry rescues have done more than just infiltrate my parents’ house — they’ve helped mom and Dar find a cause into which they can pour their time and love (and, quite possibly, my inheritance). Little dogs all over California’s Central Valley are better off because of it.


I spent only an hour photographing rock climbers at Joshua Tree National Park. But it’s still the most time I’ve ever devoted to watching a climber up close. It looks easy, the grace and pace with which they work their way up the rock.  I know it’s anything but. One thing’s for sure: It’s beautiful. Especially with blue sky and the Joshua trees as a backdrop.

It seems to me that rock climbers are an odd bunch. They are fearless and fit and incredibly focused. But there’s also something geeked-out and techie about them. Climbers might be the athletic equivalent of architects or engineers — equal parts intelligence and obsessive compulsion. They’re calculated thinkers, and they don’t seem at all bothered by the cumbersome collection of carabiners, rope, quick-draws and bolts that hang from their hips as they work their way up vertical rock. It’s weird that a sport as pure and raw as climbing requires so much technical gear. I, with my hip bag of lenses and compact flash cards, stood below marveling at the ease in which they move upward — a little jealous of their abilities, plenty jealous of their physique, but pretty content with my feet comfortably on the ground.

I now have a better idea why photographers like Corey Rich have devoted their careers to documenting the sport. But I have to remind myself that shooters like Rich are as bold and gifted as the climbers, maybe even more so. Imagine traversing a 5.10 (I don’t even know what that means, but I know it’s really hard) while carrying all that gear plus a 5-pound camera and multiple lenses.

Maybe next year, we’ll return to Joshua Tree, sans dogs, and give the climbing thing a go. Until then, I will daydream about my future awesome climber’s physique, as opposed to the whiskey-swilling, gumbo-eating one I’m working on right now.