We were the kind of family who never made it very far on vacation from our home in San Francisco’s Richmond district for two reasons. My father, though a sweet and wonderful man, was directionally challenged; he couldn’t read a map if his life depended on it and getting lost was a regular event. A famous family story was that after driving around in circles for several hours, he finally found the right street for some relative’s birthday party, Tiptoe Lane, but it was in the wrong city.
The other reason we never took exotic vacations was that in the 1950’s, for my parents, German immigrants who had fled Hitler, money was tight and vacations needed to be inexpensive. Unlike my children who had already travelled extensively to numerous exotic locations by the time they were twenty, our world was small, but as long as a swimming pool figured into the vacation, we were happy kids.
San Francisco in the summer, as Mark Twain famously pointed out, can be a cold place. When the fog wafts in and lingers, especially where we lived, a mile from Ocean Beach, many days are gray and damp. My mother’s mission was to get her pale-faced brood out of the city in to warm sunshine where we could brown like chickens.
My parents had heard about Calistoga in the Napa Valley. It was becoming a mecca for other San Francisco Jewish immigrant families because of the good weather, mineral pools and the scenic location amidst the grapevines. In the 1950’s there were no upscale spas, but there were a number of no frills resorts. We ended up going to one of these resorts, Little Village, every summer throughout my childhood.
It fit the bill, a two-hour drive from San Francisco, without my father making a wrong turn. He would be able to bring us on Sunday and return on Friday night for the weekends. I can still see him sweating and swearing in German in the garage, cramming every inch of the Plymouth Savoy with everything we needed for our two-week vacation. We drove off in a shroud of fog but by the time we reached the Golden Gate Bridge the sun was poking through the gray layer of clouds.
There were three kids in those years before my younger brother, the “bonus” baby, was born. My older brother sat shotgun in the front seat, dominating the radio. My sister and I sat on either side of my mother in the backseat. She held a bag or two because one or both of us would get carsick. The roads were bumpy … and there was my father’s driving
When we finally arrived at Little Village, my sister and I dashed off to the big swings. We loved those swings where we could stretch out our sturdy legs and touch the tallest branches with our tiptoes. My father’s first job before unloading the car was to negotiate the cost for the week with the resort owner. In those days, we could stay in a simple cabin without air conditioning, that did come equipped with a flyswatter, for the princely sum of $60 a week, less than many a fine bottle of Napa Valley wine these days.
The first thing my mother did was attack the bathroom with Lysol. The cabin had a bathtub with permanent rust stains probably from the minerals, and if you ran the hot water faucet you could detect the sulphur which smelled like rotten eggs. My parents loved being able to take mineral baths and didn’t care that the tub wasn’t fancy.
Then my dad unloaded the car, and we grudgingly carried in the battered suitcases and overflowing boxes. We settled in the shade for the picnic lunch my mother brought, deviled egg and tuna fish sandwiches she took from the plaid cooler.
After lunch, we couldn’t wait to trek to Pachateau’s through the back field behind the resort which was a shortcut. We sweltered in the heat carrying our inner tubes, and the weeds and burrs stuck us through our sandals. We probably paid 25 cents to use the pool during the week and maybe 75 cents on weekends. My mother would slather us with a coating of Sea and Ski, and then we spent hours in the pool.
This huge public pool was heated by a natural geyser and was warm like a bath. It was divided by a big rubber rope separating the shallow and deep end. Pachateau’s attracted a lively international hubbub of families, many who came for the day from San Francisco to picnic on the lawns and swim. On Wednesdays, when the water was too hot because the pool had been cleaned and re-filled with geyser water, we would go to Alder’s, which we did not like as well. Alder’s is the site of the Calistoga Spa today. Eventually Little Village put in their own pool which we preferred because it was cold and perfect for the hot days.
Because we went to Little Village every year, we would meet up with the same families. We came from different backgrounds, some of us Jewish, other were boisterous Italian-Catholic families, but we got along well. The kids played endless shuffleboard and ping pong games. We devised elaborate hide and seek adventures, and the boys got into trouble with slingshots. A couple of summers I organized a talent show, and the parents sat in the audience while us kids did little singing and dancing acts we had worked out. The resort owner treated us to ice cream after the show.
The main form of evening entertainment was strolling to Main Street in our sundresses and buying a gooey marble fudge ice cream cone at the Village Green for five cents. If we came during the Fourth of July festivities, we would go to the parade in the day featuring home-grown floats and prancing horses with elaborate decoration. We’d head to the county fair at night when it was cool. There were carnival rides and cotton candy and 4H exhibits. I threw a nickel on a plate and won a duckling which we took back home to San Francisco in a box but promptly deposited in Spreckles Lake near our house. My sister and I have a long-standing argument over who won the duck. I know it was me.
There were movies at the Ritz, the tiny movie theater, where we saw West Side Story on a magical night. All the kids were in love with Natalie Wood or Richard Beemer and we pretended to be the Sharks and Jets.
Today Main Street hosts a variety of world-class, gourmet restaurants with extensive wine lists and chi chi boutiques which come and go. My husband and I spend at least one rejuvenating weekend in Calistoga every summer and walk the same streets, smell the same wonderful air laden with the heady scent of the nearby grapevines, swim in mineral pools and treat ourselves to massages. Though many people enjoy mud baths where you can soak in volcanic ash, that has never appealed to me. (Yuck!)
Pachateau’s as we knew it doesn’t exist. It has morphed into a new resort, Indian Springs, and has been remodeled extensively with elegant palm trees lining the front drive, rows of fancy lawn chairs and is no longer open to the public. If you want to swim there you either need to stay in the expensive resort or use the adjacent spa.
When I stroll through Main Street, I stop at the same corner where my sister and I would sit on chairs in front of Dr. Wilkenson’s Resort on Friday nights when we waited for my dad. I remember how impatient we were for him to get there, because he’d have a new toy or game for us. The Village Green now is an upscale diner and doesn’t serve marble fudge ice cream, but you can get a $4 gelato in town. Little Village has a different name and the swings are gone but the same cabins are there, charging at least $160 a night but air conditioned. Though many things have changed, the rich memories of my childhood summers in Calistoga still fill me with joy.
published 12 April 2014