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By Richard Bilow

I can’t say I was super thrilled when my wife told me she wanted to go to Solvang for her birthday. I was the one who suggested that we do something special, and obviously the destination should be up to her. I just wasn’t ready for Christmas, and Solvang is what she and many others call a “Christmas Town.” It’s charming, beautiful and less than a 2 ½ hour drive from our home in Los Angeles; but with the 2022 midterm election underway I was not in the holiday spirit. I was however very ready to get out of town. I knew my wife would have an awesome time, if I could just keep my grumpy attitude under control. 

Wine Valley Inn & Cottages; photo by Richard Bilow; courtesy of ETG

Thankfully my honey reminded me of the awesome strategy we came up with before Covid put our travels on temporary hold. “Why don’t you get up early, pack your camera and go for a hike, while I spend my day in town” she suggested. Somehow, I had forgotten all about this formula that we had worked out long ago. Neither of us wants the other to miss out on the things we love, so when we travel, we often go our separate ways then reunite later in the day to enjoy our time together.

Solvang is a ton of fun when it comes to retail therapy, eating baked goods and wine tasting. If those are things you enjoy, it’s a blast. There are numerous wine rooms throughout the town with vineyards and wineries all around the surrounding areas. I completely understand why she wanted to go there for her birthday. However, it’s the natural environment of the Santa Ynez Valley that was of greatest interest to me. My wife was right. There was no need for me to be so grumpy. A short drive in any direction and I could be somewhere gorgeous. 

A Mountain Oak Tree, Santa Ynez; photo by Richard Bilow; courtesy of ETG

There are numerous world class hiking trails less than a half hour from town. Since it had just rained the day before we left, I decided to start my day with a short drive and a very short hike to Nojoqui Falls. I knew the rain was not significant enough to get the waterfall really flowing, but I just needed a taste of nature to put me in a better state of mind. The drive alone was enough to quickly change my attitude. As I passed through tunnels of old oak trees adorned with hanging mosses, enjoyed the hawks circling the skies and admired the wild turkeys which roamed the fields, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I knew my wife was having a great time in town, so I felt free to commune with nature guilt-free. 

A Wild Turkey, Santa Ynez; photo by Richard Bilow; courtesy of ETG

It only took me 15 minutes to arrive at the park, and I was one of only a few people who started their day there. It must have been my destiny that one of those few people was a guy named Fernando who runs 805hiking on Instagram. He noticed my camera, introduced himself and just like that I found myself with one of Santa Barbara County’s most knowledgeable hiking experts by my side. It turns out that Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley are actually in Santa Barbara County, and Fernando was more than generous when it came to sharing his tips on other spots I should consider for another hike. While I was not able to allocate the time needed to experience the vast views from Grass Mountain, I did hike the trail for a couple hours and really enjoyed the majestic oak trees, unusual foliage, mountain peaks and grass covered hills, all of which were bathed in light under the wispy clouds and blue sky. 

While I did have my professional camera and several lenses with me, I never used any of that gear on my second hike. With only a handful of hours allocated to spending time with nature, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to experiment with my new iPhone 14 pro camera. While there are certainly limitations to what can realistically be achieved with a cell phone camera, the convenience and freedom is an acceptable trade-off for times like this. I was really pleased with the clarity and dynamic range of the images, and I enjoyed the simplicity and freedom of never taking my “real” camera out of its bag.

All in all, I had an excellent day reconnecting with nature and was looking forward to hearing about Kathy’s wine tasting experience in town.

Photo shot with a Iphone 14 pro; photo by Richard Bilow; courtesy of ETG

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