Thursday, July 24, 2008

Party Like It's 1889 in Los Alamos, CA

See my last post for the beginning of this tale.

The smallest village in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos (population 1,300) is the stagecoach stop that time forgot. It’s like the Old West frontier town you might see in a Disney theme park – but entirely authentic. (That is, barring the Chevron station.) The whole town, and I mean the whole town, comes together at the Steelhorse Lariat Saloon, complete with swinging Western doors and an excitable resident dog. I’ve never seen more of a true watering hole in my life.

Naturally, that is where we find ourselves after a day of wine tasting by limo. (What urbanites!) After our final tasting at Bedford Thompson in downtown Los Alamos (poured by the vintner himself, Stephan Bedford), we hear live music and follow it like a pied piper to the saloon. Next thing we know, people are buying us drinks, the girls are dancing on the bar, and the band (scheduled to end) is playing for three extra hours. New friends from their 20s to their 80s (yes, octogenarians!) help us cut a rug and set the town ablaze.

Somewhere along the way, we walk two blocks to American Flatbread and devour the best pizza I’ve ever had. You may have seen this organic brand in the freezer section at Whole Foods. They bake their amazing flatbread pizzas (made from all locally sourced ingredients) in Los Alamos, and on Fridays and Saturdays, open their facility as a restaurant. With its enlightened vibe, California-only wine list and community approach, I can’t get enough of the place.

Just as we’re finishing our to-die-for pizzas, Ron, the owner of The Steelhorse, pops in to let us know that a second band has shown up just for us. Aren’t we coming back? Dutifully, we return to party some more with cronies like Maxine, a white-haired hoot of an older lady (she's the one clapping in the right corner of the photo above), and Kate, a pretty twentysomething who moved back home to "hear the crickets."

Does this kind of experience happen in LA? No. Does it happen often in “Little LA,” as some jokingly call Los Alamos? Yes.

The other thing that gave me goose bumps was that I got an idea for a novel. After bonding with Kimberly, the caretaker of the Union Hotel, who lives in Room 23 full-time with her husband, I suddenly wanted to write a story set there. It would be full of vignettes about all the kooky characters (like, ahem, us) that pass through. Plus, the hotel (built 1880) itself is a character – think moving bookcases, hidden passageways and an eccentric former owner. No, I'm not making this up. Here's a shot of Dana, the current owner, showing us a sliding bookcase.

So the questions I'm now facing are: Is it about the history? Clearly, historic small towns are an aphrodisiac for me. Or is it the warmth of small town denizens – and the ability to connect with them so easily? Perhaps most importantly, could I get inspired creatively in a small town in a way that I simply can’t in the big city? That final question may be the most arousing of all.

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