A few months ago, my sister came to visit while I was living in Santa Barbara. Gifted with a day to kill and a full tank of gas, we decided to set out along highway 154 toward the Danish town of Solvang. I hadn’t been to Solvang since the unmentionable teen years, and I couldn’t quite understand the place. Solvang is a Danish town, and a very Danish town, smack dab in the middle of “God’s Country.” Around it sprawl low brown hills with oak groves folded into any spare grooves. It’s a land of cattle, long fences, Chumash and vineyards. It’s a place where just looking at the horizon makes you thirsty, where John Wayne probably filmed a gunfight over the next hill.
And, apparently, it’s a land of windmills.
I didn’t know a thing about Danish culture. All I had was the vague notion that the word “Danish” somehow fit in with the already crowded vocabulary of Dutch/Holland/Netherlands, or maybe belonged alongside a splash of Hamlet or Beowulf. I had a hazy image of windmills, embroidered skirts, and sausages.
I still know very little about Danish culture, but at least now I can throw some good pastries into the montage.
My sister and I packed my roommate’s picnic basket and turned onto the 154. In my Santa Barbara vocabulary, this highway is synonymous with “Adventure.” One of my favorite restaurants, an 1800s stagecoach stop called Cold Springs Tavern that keeps taxidermy in business, sits just before the exit to the forest area where the poet William Stafford worked in a camp for conscientious objectors in World War 2. Any number of off-roads could keep you aimless until the sun goes down.
But on this particular day, we had an agenda. Our plan: a picnic at Lake Cachuma. Lake Cachuma sits about halfway between Santa Barbara and Solvang, and it serves as a popular recreation area for boaters and campers. As a manmade lake it looses something of the natural feel, but it is nonetheless the depository of a large quantity of water. I had driven past the lake before, but never without the familiar twinge of water-lust. So my sister and I came with a picnic basket. We came with a towel. We came with a floppy hat.
We did not, however, come with ten dollars for parking.
The man at the gate told us that we were okay to visit the recreation area so long as we didn’t stay longer than fifteen minutes. We smiled casually, then wheeled through the parking lot and found a spot as close to the lake as we could manage. I slung the picnic basket over my shoulder and ran in my sandals through the dust. We flung out the towel over a patch of gravel and threw open the picnic basket.
Then, we sat. We ate snap peas and carrots at our leisure. We snapped a few pictures. After a few minutes, we fastened the leather latch of the picnic basket. We folded our towel. Then we booked it back to the car and left the parking lot with 30 seconds to spare.
We drove the remaining distance to Solvang beneath white clouds pulled like taffy by an icy wind. Stepping onto the main street in Solvang, I felt suddenly out of place. The buildings shouldered heavy wooden beams and signs painted in thick blues and yellows. Store windows displayed cuckoo clocks and blue-and-white saltshakers. And there, on the corner, stood a solid windmill selling glass animals and long-stemmed plastic flowers from its stone belly. “I feel like I’m in some different country,” my sister said. I couldn’t disagree.
As we walked down the street I gradually lost the feeling of displacement. The store windows repeated the same pattern of butter dishes and spoon holders, and I could see a row of natural-toned houses beyond the main street. But just as I would begin to grow tired of the tourist draw, something charmingly new would appear around the next corner. Like Olde World Clocks and Music Boxes, whose shopkeeper played us her favorites of the polished music boxes she ordered from Europe. Or a new wall of cuckoo clocks with unique, hand-carved figures. Or the pastry from Mortensen’s Bakery that made my sister and I agree from behind twin masks of whipped cream that this trip was our best decision of the week.
We left Solvang with confusion turned to contentment. But we weren’t done yet; our next stop was Pea Soup Andersen’s, an iconic restaurant in nearby Buellton. To get to Buellton we drove past the Ostrich Farm, a coral full of ostriches that I someday hope to visit. We passed the ranch of Monty Roberts, best known as “The Horse Whisperer,” who my socially clueless, horse-obsessed 13-year-old self had once gifted with an unfortunate hand-sewed pillow.
We arrived at Andersen’s Pea Soup just in time for an early dinner of—surprise, surprise—pea soup. The soup was as good as could be expected of split pea soup. I was mostly intrigued by the décor of the place, an accumulation of silk flowers and tiny lights that called to mind the over-the-top decorations of the nearby Madonna Inn. Though overdone and the tiniest bit shabby, the restaurant made for a diverting meal. The extensive gift shop looked like it might also be worth perusing.
Sadly, though, our excursion had run out of time. We paid our bill and drove back along the highway just as the sun began to set. The mountains grew into shadows against the twilit sky, but we hardly noticed. The road spun silently like the panes of a windmill, and we followed it back into the damp air of Santa Barbara.