We have narrowed our wedding destinations down to three. How we arrived at that decision is a story all its own.
As I eluded to in yesterday's brief post, it's quite the story. Twenty-four hours later, it feels just as surreal. Stephanie and I started the morning late for our 11 a.m. appointment at Acacia Mansion, in Ojai. The drive leading into Ojai was pretty enough, though it brought back many memories of being dragged to Camp Ramah in the hills as a kid (that's another story for another time). As we got closer to Acacia, Steph remarked how the wedding directions on our invitations would require us to use a beat-up and rundown muffler shop and a sanitation plant as landmarks. We had no idea how accurate these omens would be.
We actually passed the "mansion" without realizing it. Acacia was on a small nondescript street filled with unassuming houses and a corner liquor store. We looked at each other with incredulous expressions as we pulled up to the "mansion." It was just larger than the other homes on the street. Roosters crowed in the distance.
Acacia Mansion was the depiction of false advertising. The photos, as you can see from this link, make the venue seem like a Santa Barbara villa. What wasn't advertised was the fact that Acacia doubled as someone's home. Or that the insides looked more suited for a Halloween party, complete with a creepy player piano that ought to have belched its haunting tunes at the Magic Castle alongside Irma. Or that rooster and dog crap were splattered all over the patio, along with the stench of horses on the side barn.
This is why the internet needs Smell-O-Vision.
In short, we couldn't have gotten out of there faster, though we were polite to the owner and listened to her spiel.
I think I left skidmarks on that street from peeling out to get back on the road. Our destination salvaged our time in Ojai altogether: The Ojai Valley Inn. But it wasn't the destination itself that made this visit memorable. Not even close.
It was the fact that we ran into not one, but two couples with whom I've worked for or with over the past several years.
We were in Ojai. Bascially 1.5 hours from civilization. On the back of a Cadillac golf cart (yes, you read that right). On a tour of the wedding venue, when off the back of the cart I spotted my friends Jason and Jennifer (who were so instrumental in my LA Marathon rallying run), and then at the very end of the venue site check, my old boss at BNC, Doug, and his longtime girlfriend Tracy. In both instances, we spotted our friends just as they were either emerging from the spa or their car. It honestly changed my perception of the venue completely. I've never wanted to be married at a conventional golf or country club. I'm not really a country club kind of guy, to be honest. But, these folks are good people whom I look up to, and Jason and Jen were in fact engaged and married at the Inn. We changed our plans to dine with Jason and Jen, listened to their wedding experience, enjoyed the cool breeze and completely pictured ourselves being married under the shade of a giant oak tree.
The Ojai Valley Inn is now one of our three finalists, all because of two bizarre, random encounters.
By now we were almost an hour late to our appointments in Los Olivos. To make up time, we shot across Highway 150 and caught some stunning views of Lake Casitas. I made a mental note to return here with my bike one day. Climbing and descending the picturesque hills would make for a fantastic ride.
With the windows down in my dad's borrowed 1981 Corvette Stingray T-top, we raced through Highway 154 and past Lake Cachuma towards our next destination, Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse. To say that Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse is nestled in the Los Padres wildnerness would be a MASSIVE understatement. In fact, what transpired getting to and from the farmhouse -- not to mention the visit itself -- had all the makings of a horror movie.
Judge for yourself.
A wildly in-love couple searching for wedding venues is charmed by the promises of a beautiful, rustic wedding off the beaten path. The "farmhouse" as it's called lies beyond the outskirts of a small, charming time filled with all the trappings of Americana -- especially on July 4 weekend. To reach the destination, the couple passes a bizarre sight all its own -- Michael Jackson's former Neverland Ranch, and remarks unknowingly how creepy it felt just to be in the same neighborhood.
That would be the most normal part of the next hour.
The road to the farmhouse began to wind up a mountain road that quickly became devoid of any other vehicles except for construction tankers. Gretchen, the friendly host of the farmhouse, instructed the couple to just keep driving for another 20 minutes up this road until we found a side road with a mailbox and an address.
When the couple comes to the side road, it's not paved and filled with gravel. The descent is at a 15-degree angle. The couple is driving a sports car, but decides to brave the elements.
How far could the farmhouse be from here?
Very, very far, is the answer.
The 'Vette performed as admirably as it could. Until an 8-percent grade stood in the way between the couple and the farmhouse. The car groaned and whined. The temperature gauge rose. It was time to shut off the engine or be stranded.
The couple is now frazzled. Where the hell are we? Why are we here? Haven't we seen enough wedding venues at this point? How are we going to get out of here?
And then it hit the couple...we may be fodder for a death trap. Maybe the farmhouse is a clever rouse to bring young lovers out into the wilderness -- where nobody can hear them scream. This greatly displeased the female. The male was more concerned about his father's 'Vette -- knowing that if the farmhouse didn't kill him, Mitch most certainly would.
Gretchen arrived in her Land Rover to rescue us. She reminded me -- err, the leading male -- of Rebecca de Mornay. Yeah, the one from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. She seemed to be a pure-bred Scandinavian, and far too alluring to be the caretaker of a rustic farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It didn't add up. The crystal blue eyes were innocent enough, but the devilish grin offset Steph to the point where she didn't want to be in any confined space with the caretaker.
The blunt metal objects hanging in the kitchen inside the farmhouse didn't help. Nor did the comment from the caretaker that she often desired to project images from horror movies out onto the trees in the looming distance at night while guests were on site.
To be fair, this was also the point where I fully expected a Blair Witch Project sequence to occur as the doors bolt shut, Steph and I get separated, and full-on carnage ensued.
This was also the point where I decided that we were officially done wedding venue shopping.
Stephanie and I eventually fled from the farmhouse, not even waiting for Gretchen to guide us off the dirt road in case we had car trouble.
G-d bless that 'Vette. In the movie, the car would stall, we'd be forced to stay overnight, and the search parties would still be hunting us down. All while the caretaker giggles and playfully tells the police that no visitors ever came on property, but they should come on in to try the mince meat pie she just baked up.
If we could have made the Scooby-Doo running sounds as we bolted to our car, we would have. The dust cloud caused by the Vette is probably just now settling down.
As we sped back towards civilization -- if Neverland Ranch can be called that -- I calmly told Steph that we were no longer visiting wedding venues.
She whole-heartedly agreed.
The rest of the evening was lovely.
We dined at Brothers Restaurant at Mattei Tavern in Los Olivos, which if we get married at the Firestone Vineyard in town would be the site of our rehearsal dinner. Our hands were still shaking from our Freddie Krueger-near miss, but it didn't stop us from scarfing down by far the best pork chop and applewood bacon mashed potatoes I've ever eaten. Not to mention the homemade shortbread berries 4th of July sundae.
On our way out of town, we checked out the Fess Parker Inn as a possible place for guests and Steph and I to stay for the wedding. While the hotel itself is small -- only 10 rooms -- it was charming and quaint enough for the town's official cat to prop herself in a lobby chair and proceed to clean herself in unmentionable places. (Because she can.)
Yep, we'd experienced it all yesterday.
Finally, about 12 hours after we started, we stumbled back home and went straight to bed.
As unbelievably ecstatic as my night with the Lakers was a few weeks ago, yesterday's wedding venue adventure was equally unbelievable -- in a creepy, bizarre way.
Surely there's a movie plot in this story somewhere. I may just have to write it one day.
138 days and counting.