Rows of sherbet-orange blossoms marched to the right, sloping toward a hillside of bubblegum pink, ruby red and sunny yellow.
Immersed in 50 acres of flowers, I could have been Dorothy on the way to the Emerald City, minus the sleepy effect of poppies. Instead of shimmering green buildings on the horizon, I saw the glimmer of ocean beyond strip malls to the west and the purple shadows of mountains to the northeast.
The sea of color has drawn spring visitors to this location -- the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch in Carlsbad, Calif. -- for more than 60 years every March through mid-May. The giant Tecolote ranunculus blooms covering the hillsides looked like the love child of poppies and peonies: vibrant color, delicate stems and full-bodied blooms dense with silky petals. They flourish here, where the climate is mild and the soil is sandy and well drained.
"There's something about being surrounded by all this color that's just magical," said Lisa Merriam McClure, my friend and travel partner, a California transplant from Minnesota.
We wandered together and apart, ambling up dirt paths, deciding it's impossible to find the perfect angle -- a spot that fully captures the brilliance. I fell into step with Cheryl and Richard Hampton, who have made four spring road trips from Las Vegas to see the Flower Fields.
"This place is phenomenal," says Cheryl. "We're standing here in the flower fields and looking at the ocean. How can you not have a good time?"
Richard, white-haired, handsome and mellow-voiced, offers his business card, telling me not to laugh. His career? Impersonating Kenny Rogers for 17 years. No wonder he seemed familiar.
For me, last year's March vacation was inspired not so much by the need for warmth as the need to lay eyes on more than grays and whites. I dedicated a long weekend to a 90-mile road trip with Lisa and her 3-month-old, Kate, that started with the Flower Fields on this sunny coastline, climbed through cool mountains and dropped into the desert, each place erupting with its own palette of spring color.
From beach to mountain
The ocean called to me in shades of sun-infused blue. That's not to say it was warm. Though I was zipped into a wet suit, the water numbed my bare feet. Lisa is married to an enthusiastic surfer, and I felt compelled to try my luck on a board.
I apparently did great for a first time out, making it to a standing position on one of my first attempts. But surfing mostly feels like those rough stretches of life. Wait, wait, wait for it. Miss your timing. Take a clumsy fall. Haul yourself back up. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
After my encounter with the waves, it seemed wrong to turn our backs on the ocean. But we were in the mood to explore, to see someplace new and leave busy coastal cities behind. We ditched a traffic jam and picked our way east through suburbs until they were gone.
We climbed, hugging mountain curves with motorcyclists, bicyclists and convertibles, likewise soaking up scenery. The valley dropped below us. Roadsides blurred with the hazy lavender of wild lilacs and smatterings of orange poppies.
It was only 60 miles from the coast, but Julian -- population 300 and elevation 4,300 feet -- felt like another world. Apple orchards with clouds of white blossoms and vineyards flanked this historic mining town tucked into piney mountains. Daffodils dotted wooded roads, and homey whiffs of apple pie, dumplings and pastries wafted into the narrow Old West downtown. A horse and buggy clip-clopped past, and a giggling group of girls tried to sell us a cat.
Fog and drizzle rolled in as darkness fell and we found our way to a cabin at Pine Hills Lodge, a log resort built 100 years ago. We bundled Kate into a dresser drawer with blankets as a makeshift cradle. Then we fired up the heat, climbed into bed, and reminisced.
The next morning, we filled up on quiche at Julian's Candied Apple Pastry Co. We'd had our requisite pie and chose one of their chocolate bomb cakes to go. Moist and decadent, it alone could inspire a return trip. The cake became a roadside lunch, along with grapefruit bought on the honor system 30 miles to the east in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Like the contrast between beach and mountains, this section of Southern California's Colorado Desert also feels like another planet.
Yawning, scrubby flatness leading to Borrego Springs had that vacant "Are we lost?" feeling. But we discovered we were in good company as we pulled into a busy parking lot at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest of California's state parks and a bit off the beaten path.
Most of the park was brown. But near the visitor center, which was dug into the earth, irrigated areas coaxed succulent blooms from cactuses. Hummingbirds darted in and out of tubular orange blooms on a blue elf aloe. We strolled by and admired hot pink flowers on beaver tail cactus, translucent yellow on a prickly pear and a fiery orange on claret cup cactus.
We reluctantly pulled away from the soothing landscape of desert and mountains and headed back to the busy coast, meandering through the scenic Cuyamaca Recreation and State Park district. During our last night in San Diego, we watched the sun turn the harbor pink, then shared a milestone together: feeding Kate her first serving of rice cereal.
We clicked through our photos, smiling again at baby faces, beach shots and brilliant blossoms. Best of all was discovering that a friendship can be like spring flowers after a long winter. They both burst into bloom just when you need something to celebrate.
St. Cloud-based writer and photographer Lisa Meyers McClintick writes about Minnesota at www.10000Likes.com.