Up the Valley: M’lady’s Backside

August 1, 2013

Has the Napa Valley Wine Train revealed that St. Helena’s slip is showing? Today’s column in the Star…

Tourists are different from us, not just in origin, but in mindset. This was never clearer to me than during a recent cross-valley trek on the Napa Valley Wine Train.

The word “trek” is defined in the Random House Dictionary as “to travel or migrate, especially slowly or with difficulty,” and in South Africa: “to travel by ox wagon.” I’ve never actually traveled by ox wagon, but I suspect that your average well-motivated oxen can haul their keesters faster than the Wine Train chugs its way up and down the valley. And while I would never describe one traveling in the leisurely luxury of the Wine Train as experiencing “difficulty,” the phrase “especially slowly” fits its schedule to a T.

This is not a bad thing. For vacationers wishing to drink in the beauty of the Napa Valley — its lush vineyards, verdant hills and expansive skies, while sampling delectable food and wine — it’s a delightful experience. Guests can choose from the retro skyline rail car with birds-eye view, the rough-n-ready open-air saloon car and luxury dining cars recalling train travel’s glamorous heyday. With stop-and-go traffic a major hassle for visitors, the chance to relax and let the train engineer do the driving must be a treat.

But for a bunch of busy local business-owners trekking in the middle of a workday, it became an exercise in Zen Buddhist mind-control. I’m talking about a recent trip organized by the ever-energized St. Helena Chamber of Commerce, when a phalanx of local leaders, merchants, restaurateurs and other chamber members were invited to enjoy lunch on the train. Like many locals, I had not experienced the Wine Train, so it was a chance to discover why so many call it a highlight of their valley visit and to meet its friendly and knowledgeable staff.

The company was congenial, the wine flowing and the food thoughtfully prepared by Chef Kelly Macdonald. But as I toured the other cars, each brimming with well-dressed revelers enjoying their vacations, I couldn’t help but compare them with us stressed-out locals. Disconnected from our offices and forced to “be there now” for what felt like an eternity, we stewed watching our everyday landscape pass by in slow motion. And while we settled into semi-relaxed conversation, many of us lunged for our cellphones at lunch, seeking an Internet connection like addicts scrambling for a fix.

The train slowed to a crawl approaching St. Helena, so several of us decided to take a closer look at our fair city from the viewpoint of a Wine Train passenger. And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that what we observed was disturbing. Because like many cities viewed from the train tracks — as opposed to the view from the main highway — it often looked downright shoddy.

Picture a panorama of the backs of buildings with unmatched or peeling paint, punctuated by trash containers, weeds and broken asphalt. A few were well tended, and some unkempt buildings were spruced up with flower boxes and other random decorations. But overall the view revealed an urgent need for a total makeover of the Great Lady of St. Helena’s backside, and the immediate application of the municipal equivalent of Spanx so that her unsightly bumps and bulges might be more completely camouflaged.

I sympathize with the building owners, who likely never expected their backyards to become Napa Valley focal points. It’s as if a magazine offered to do a photo-shoot of your home, but then only photographed that ugly spot right next to the compost bin where you’ve stacked your old skis, rusting hammock stand and unused trampoline awaiting eventual consignment to the dump.

I had a similar experience recently while making my bathroom sparkle, suddenly noticing its unsightly ceiling. What was shiny was now splotchy, and little bits of soap congealed above the shower were now turning colors like specimens ripening in a laboratory. I considered cleaning the ceiling, but for those who have never tried it, let me give you a word of warning: “Don’t.” First you spot-clean, but those spots are now a different color from the rest of the ceiling. So you try cleaning the whole ceiling, but the finish changes and so you need to repaint, which is impossible to do without dripping paint on the walls, so now you are repainting and re-flooring, and you really might as well just move to a new house.

We all have some eyesore, junk drawer or embarrassing backside we don’t want exposed to the public, whether in our cities, in or homes, on our persons or in our personal histories. Luckily the Wine Train tourists experiencing St. Helena’s rearview seemed unfazed. They laughed and ate and toasted and drank, no doubt planning to visit Main Street for a shopping excursion during their trip. As for us locals, we resolved to add: “Tart Up St. Helena’s Posterior” to our to-do lists, just as soon as we were finally able to detrain in Napa, reconnect to our smartphones and retrace our treks — briskly — back home.

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