Two hours north of Los Angeles, or however long it takes you to crawl 120 miles along LA freeways, just past the Santa Barbara beaches there is a 90-degree dogleg-right in the 101 freeway. As you veer around the bend, a tunnel materializes suddenly before you, which burrows through a jagged peak of sandstone. It is my portal to another world.
This tunnel is about a football field long, but when you emerge on the other side, it is as though a wormhole has transported you to another time and place. The climate changes dramatically. The shivering, fogbound coastline is replaced by high flying skies and pointed sunlight. Crispy chaparral on bare slopes gives way to a forest of live oak that climbs the brief but steep pass over the mountains. After your ascent, there is a short stretch of flat road—a deep breath on the way for you to admire the hills and vines crisscrossing your path, before you drop into the Santa Ynez Valley. Here is wine backcountry, where GPS guidance is as lost as you, while you ford dry creeks to taste Pinot Noir in corrugated shacks and A-frame barns and tuck into creaky tables in old stagecoach stops.
“Here is wine backcountry, where GPS guidance is as lost as you.”
For years I fled LA to cross the threshold of this transporting tunnel as often as I could. I would even do the drive roundtrip in one day if that was all the time I had. My world down south was full of grief and loss, some belonging to others, some belonging to me. I was a chaplain and grief counselor working in hospice. I sat at the bedsides of people taking their last breaths. I tried to provide a teaspoon of comfort for their loved ones on one of the worst nights of their lives. I listened to and held all their questions, memories and emotions. It was profound and strange work. And it was often exhausting.
On my hardest hospice nights I would fantasize about taking the tunnel. Everything in my world seemed to be fading and dying, but the world beyond that tunnel felt so full of life and abundance, where nothing ever dies. Santa Ynez seemed like a garden always in bloom, its vineyards coursing with life and energy and its people dining joyfully at long tables set with bottles of wine at every place.
I lost my hospice job a few years ago. I was thoroughly burned out and suffering from what is politely called compassion fatigue. The place I went to heal was the Santa Ynez Valley. It took a while. But on one drive through the tunnel, the portal must have closed behind me, because I haven’t gone back.
This article originally appeared in the Best of Year 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!