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A Bike Path to Autumn
By Janis Cooke Newman
Where I grew up on the East Coast, autumn was hard to miss. Like most things in New Jersey, it got right in your face. Sometime during the first week of October, the air started smelling of apples, and the trees exploded into vivid reds and oranges and yellows that made them look like perpetually burning biblical bushes. By the second week, you were walking ankle-deep in gold and scarlet leaves, which stuck to your socks on rainy days and crunched beneath your shoes on dry ones. And by the third week, the nights had become so chilly, you went looking for a Halloween costume big enough to fit over your winter coat.
Here in San Francisco, fall is more discreet. October arrives with a flurry of red construction-paper leaves taped to classroom windows, coppery suede skirts and boots stacked up in storefronts, and orange pumpkins lining the curb outside the natural foods market. And by the third week of October, it's generally so hot that my jack-o'-lantern has grown a green, hair-like mold inside its artistically carved head.
I love these San Francisco autumns that cause sunflowers and butternut squash to suddenly sprout in front of every corner store. But occasionally, I miss the New Jersey autumns I grew up with.
That's when I gather my husband and son, and head up to the town of Sonoma, less than an hour's drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge. In fall, Sonoma has trees that flame yellow and gold and acres of vineyards where the leaves turn the color of pinot noir and chardonnay. Sonoma also has something that appeals to all of us leg-weary San Franciscan cyclists -- a flat bike path.
This year, we make the drive on an early fall day. Our first stop is Cucina Viansa on First Street, where we load up on picnic supplies. My husband stuffs his backpack with proscuitto sandwiches, pasta salad, and tiramisu, packed in a little dome-shaped container for traveling.
The atmosphere in Cucina Viansa is self-consciously Tuscan. In addition to the Italian tilework and a chalkboard that lists the day's specials under the headings Pannini and Insalata, there are several antique suits of armor standing guard over the cappuccino machine.
"That knight looks like he has to pee," says my 6-year-old son, Alex. The knight in question is holding his knees together and does indeed appear anxious to leave his post watching the deli case.
We come out of Cucina Viansa and walk along Sonoma's town square, which at one time was home to a band of rogue chickens that roosted in the tops of trees and terrorized small children. After a bitter (at least, as bitter as things get in this exceedingly pleasant town) dispute that had the pro-chicken contingent sporting T-shirts that read, "Save Our Peckers," the original poultry gang was replaced by more kid-friendly chickens.
Alex would like to tempt the good nature of these mild-tempered chickens by spending some time in the playground, but we're here to ride, so we get back in the car and drive to the start of the bike trail at Junipero Serra Street.
The path meanders through yards where summer's last morning glories climb wooden fences, and persimmon trees display round red fruit shaped like Christmas tree ornaments.
At a small, unmarked cross street lined with a row of trees that always make me think of France, we turn left to visit Lachryma Montes (Mountain of Tears), the home General Vallejo built after California became an American state. Lachryma Montes is a yellow Gothic Victorian that seems like a touch of Noe Valley transplanted to the wine country. It's flanked by an adobe brick chalet that's as European as the yellow house is San Franciscan.
We consider stopping and taking the tour of these geographically misplaced houses, but the air has the winy tang of apples, and I don't want to be inside. Instead, we bike back and forth past the yellow Victorian, admiring its garden, which is scattered with colored leaves like the toys in a 2-year-old's bedroom, and then head back to the bike path.
A little farther along, we come to a couple of railroad boxcars and a red caboose sitting beside the path. Alex drops his bike and runs to the boxcars, easy prey to the mysterious attraction that exists between small children and trains.
Behind the caboose is Sonoma's Depot Park Museum, a stop Alex would find it unthinkable not to make. Inside, the museum is filled with artifacts from Sonoma's Miwok days through the 1800s: arrowheads and dolls with china faces, woven baskets and a working stereoscope, even a 100-year-old box of birds' eggs collected for a school project. But Alex is only interested in the bear boots.
"These boots were made from a real bear's feet," explains the docent, an elderly woman with a sweet voice. "Look, you can even see the claws."
"Cool," says Alex.
"Ulysses S. Grant wore these boots to a costume party at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco," the docent tells us. Then she explains how to find the plaque that marks the burial place of Toot-Toot the Railroad Cat.
"Toot-Toot did not die of natural causes," she whispers in my ear.
Alex and I find Toot-Toot's memorial behind the first railroad car, next to the museum building. We do not speculate on precisely how he met his unnatural end.
Back on our bikes, we pedal past little houses with flowers and pumpkins on their porches. In the hills along the path, autumn trees turned the color of saffron resemble Buddhist monks walking through woods. At one corner, someone has raked fallen leaves into a knee-high pile. I drop my bike and crunch through them.
At the next cross street, we come to the Patch, my favorite stop along the Sonoma bike path. The Patch is a tiny self-serve farm produce stand on the edge of a field. In summer, I've found white corn, deep purple plums, and lemon cucumbers. Now, the cardboard boxes are filled with acorn squash, broccoli, and Indian corn with patchwork kernels of burgundy, brown, and red. Dropping our money into a small locked box, we buy a big bunch of Indian corn to hang on the front door at home.
About a mile and a half from where we started on Junipero Serra, the bike path ends at East Fourth Street, near Sebastiani Winery. We head across the road to a row of picnic tables and climb off our bikes.
The late-afternoon sun slants through trees that have turned the color of ripe lemons, and the wind blows yellow leaves across our table. We eat everything we bought at Cucina Viansa, including the tiramisu, which is only a little squished from the ride. There are red and orange trees blazing on the hillside, and colored leaves stuck to my bicycle shorts. Fall is in my face, and it seems that nothing can disturb my contentment.
"Hey, Mom," Alex says. "You know what I really want for Halloween?"
"Some bear boots."
WHERE TO RIDE IN SONOMA
To find the start of the Sonoma bike path, take Spain Street West from the Sonoma town square to Junipero Serra. Turn right on Junipero Serra. You'll see the bike path on your right. From there to Sebastiani, the path is approximately 11/2 miles.
Visiting Lachryma Montes. General Mariano Vallejo's home is open every day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Kids under 17 are admitted free. Adults are $1.
Visiting the Depot Park Museum. The museum is open from 1 to 4:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free.
Other Museums. There are several historical museums, as well as the Sonoma Mission, located around the town square.
If you have places you would like Janis Cooke Newman to explore in future columns, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Noe Valley Voice at email@example.com.