Havin’ a Blast in the Santa Ynez Valley

Hey, The Militant took another road trip outside Los Angeles! Well, not that far from the city…and since it was really just a day trip (no overnight accommodations), the jury’s still out on whether this is an actual road trip or not, but considering he had an adventure, let’s just count this as one.

It started out as a whim: SpaceX’s Maxar 1 mission launch was scheduled for 11:36 a.m. on Thursday, May 2. Since it was a daytime launch, it’s not going to be visible from the front yard of The Militant Compound. But…what if he went out to Vandenberg to see it? So, on a whim, The Militant woke up early and headed up the 101 on Thursday morning to see his very first in-person rocket launch!

Knowing how SpaceX delays launches for myriad reasons, this decision was a crapshoot – it may or may not launch on Thursday morning. But even if it didn’t, he had the Santa Ynez Valley to explore regardless – if there was no launch, it was his Plan B. If there was a launch, he could simply do his exploration afterward.

The rural landscape of Route 246 towards Lompoc and Vandenberg.

Out To Launch

He left Los Angeles before 7:30 a.m., dashed through the 101 in reverse-commute traffic and wound up in Buellton at around 9:40 p.m. It was a left turn at the exit and a straight shot down Route 246 through some very lush green rolling hills, accented by patches of wildflowers. There were numerous vinyards along the way – and we’ll get to that part later – but he passed through the streets of the town of Lompoc and out into some flat farmland areas west of the town. The lighted road warning signs read, “ROCKET LAUNCH 11:30 A.M. THURSDAY – NO PARKING ON SHOULDER”. He headed towards Surf Beach, located on public land between Vandenberg’s northern and southern sections, but at the intersection of Ocean and Pacific Sugar avenues there was a roadblock with cones and a pair of military dudes and a local police car. Each car that approached made a U-turn and parked along the south shoulder of Ocean Avenue, despite what the signs said. The cop didn’t cite anyone here, so, When in Rome…

The launch was less than an hour and a half away. It appeared he got there right on time, as there was only 8 or so other cars parked on the road. But that number would grow steadily as launch time approached. The sky was clear, if minimally hazy due to the thin Marine Layer, and there were birds chirping in the shrub-heavy canal that lay between Ocean Avenue and an adjacent farm. The wind oscillated between light and moderate gusts. He chatted with some of the others who were there to watch the launch most of whom were first-timers like The Militant, but a few were experienced spectators who passed on some viewing tips.

Cars parked on both sides of Ocean Avenue west of Lompoc in anticipation of a SpaceX rocket launch.

Mobile reception out in the farmland was very spotty. He couldn’t get on the SpaceX website to see the launch feed, so he just trusted it would launch on time and other rocket-watchers would chime in if there’s a delay. When 11:36 came around, he didn’t hear anything otherwise, and everyone had their eyes, phones and cameras pointed to the hills towards the south.

“There it is!” one watcher exclaimed. A visible flame rose silently above the crest of the hills, with the 229-foot tall Falcon 9 rocket directly above it like a dark candle. We were about 3 miles as the crow flies from SpaceX’s SLC-4E launch pad, so the rocket itself looked relatively tiny. But the rocket’s nearly sun-bright orange flames waved surrealistically like a streamer against the mellow, pale-blue coastal sky. Once the rocket gained an altitude of a few thousand feet, a loud, deep rumble faded in, and as it climbed even higher, that rumble transitioned into the violent ripping of air as it rose even higher (The Militant normally turns his phone 90 degrees when shooting videos, but vertical video was totally justified in this case). Some 30 or so thousand feet above Vandenberg, the heat of the rocket’s 9 engines condensated the cold air and created a short vapor trail, which cut off after a few thousand more feet. Then the ripping transitioned back into the rumble, which gradually faded as the rocket hooked southward.

The perspective of the launch was much different here: From Los Angeles, the launches (during dusk/nighttime) form a long south/southeastward arc in a display lasting over 5 minutes. But from the Vandenberg vicinity, it’s strictly a neck-craning vertical affair, and since this is a daytime launch close to high noon, the 2nd stage quickly became harder to see as it advanced over Baja California on its journey towards the South Pole where it would eventually deploy Maxar’s Earth-imaging (your Google Maps’ satellite view uses Maxar’s image data) satellites in polar orbit.

But we weren’t done yet. We were in for a special treat, as the reusable 1st stage of the rocket was bound for a mainland return back at Vandenberg eight minutes later. So the crowd patiently waited until 11:44. Some who carried binoculars shouted, “I can see it!” but most didn’t spot it until 11:46 when a rapidly-descending flame was spotted dropping silently behind the same hill it rose from 10 minutes ago. After it vanished from view, two loud bangs of a sonic boom rattled the sky like cannon fire; the second one sustaining like thunder for nearly a minute before fading away. Some in the crowd applauded and cheered, just before the sound of car ignitions starting and the cars gradually left the scene one by one.


After the pretty awesome launch spectacle, The Militant back-tracked on Route 246 through the town of Lompoc, a central coast town of some 44,000 people, known for its floral industry, produce and wine-producing agriculture, and of course the Vandenberg military base itself. In the past 30 or so years, it has also been known to support the arts, especially in the form of its 30-plus downtown-area murals, depicting the history and culture of the town and curated by the Lompoc Mural Society. Most notable along Ocean Avenue/Cabrillo Highway were the Floral Industry mural, one of the oldest in town, a mural of the seafaring, native Chumash people (the town’s name is of indigenous origin – lumpo’oΜ₯, meaning, “In the cheeks”), and a few celebrating milestones of various space missions launched from Vandenberg.

Colorful mural of three children surrounded by numerous orange and lack Monarch butterflies in the outskirts of the town of Lompoc.
The recently-restored Monarch Magic mural, formerly located 3 blocks away from 2006 to 2019, was re-painted at a new location in 2023.

Of note was the vivid Monarch Magic mural by Collen Goodwin Chronister, originally painted in 2006 at a location on H Street, three blocks west. In 2019, some property dispute led to its removal, but the artwork depicting three children surrounded by numerous Monarch butterflies near Vandenberg was re-painted at the east wall of the Grocery Outlet (bar-gain market…) on E Street and Cabrillo Highway in November of last year.

Buellton’s Day Off

Down Route 246, right where it meets the 101 was the roadside town of Buellton (population: 5,100), best known for Pea Soup Andersens restaurant, a local icon for 100 yea…oops, it done closed suddenly in January. The Militant, who hasn’t eaten here since he was a Lil’Mil, stopped by to pay his respects. A green sign on the shuttered door read, “Pea Soul Andersen’s – Temporarily closed for redevelopment” and a hand-written sign to the right of it that said, “Come to AJ Spurs 350 E. Hwy 246 for delicious soup & more. Open 4 p.m.- 9 p.m. 805-868-1655.” He peeked through the doors and found an empty restaurant frozen in time for four months, though it looked like it was vacant for much longer:

Empty Pea Soup Andersen's restaurant in Buellton, CA. A guestbook on the left and a merchandise window is on the right.
The interior of the shuttered Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant

Peeking inside, he found an open guest book with the names of what may or may not be Buellton Andersen’s last customers ever, and a historic Andersen’s merchandise display a few yards to the back. To the left at the rear of the lobby was the entrance to the restaurant’s dining room, with a solitary ceiling light illuminating what was once the gift shop. Though the adjacent Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn and the Santa Nella branch of the restaurant still remain in operation, the fate of the century-old pea soup eatery remains in question. Long story short, the current owner (who also owns the aforementioned AJ Spurs eatery), reeling with damage from a 2023 fire and the reality of maintaining a structure built during the Calvin Coolidge administration, doesn’t wanna pony up the dough to keep it restored. So he’s looking for a new owner to bear the burden, or just sell the damn property that could be razed so something new and inevitably soulless and generic could be built in its place.

Going On A Side(ways) Trip


The Militant proceeded up the 101 for a bit to L.A. – Los Alamos, that is. This town of 1,800 along the 101 (ironically, much smaller than the Orange County city of Los Alamitos, CA) is nestled within California Wine Country South – which comprises of the Santa Ynez Valley and neighboring environs. This region got its 15 minutes of fame from the 2004 motion picture Sideways. And while a number of local wineries were featured in the film, The Militant wanted something really hidden-gem and local and, upon an operative’s personal recommendation, went to Bedford Winery, located in a humble storefront and adjacent garden space along Los Alamos’ main thoroughfare of Bell Street.

This sign was confirmation he made it to the right place:

Sign along Bell Street in Los Alamos, CA reading, "YOU ARE EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE."

The server was the winery’s personable owner and proprietor, Stephan Bedford, who started the business in 2003, right before Alexander Payne’s movie hit the screens. In fact, he mentioned that some of the B-roll footage of grapes being harvested were filmed at his vineyard. The Militant sampled his 2018 Pinot Gris, 2020 Chardonnay, 2021 Pinot Noir, 2021 Syrah and 2022 Grenache, all grown in Los Alamos (save for the Grenache, which is cultivated a few miles north in Edna Valley, outside of Santa Maria).

The Militant proceeded to purchase a $55 bottle of the Pinot Noir, which had the most interesting aroma of the wine quintet. It’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention, you know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world.

Slightly buzzed, The Militant took a walk up and down Bell Street to sober up before hitting the 101 again. The town, founded in 1876 was best known in the pre-Wine Country era as the onetime home of Californio bandit Salomon Pico (whose more famous cousins you may or may not have heard of before). Salomon was the real-life archetype of author Johnston McCulley’s fictional bandit, Zorro.

Gettin’ Down In Dane Town

The afternoon shadows were growing longer, and Militant was feenin’ for some provisions at this point. So it was a quick, 20-minute trek down the 101 to where else but Solvang, perhaps the most well-known town in the Santa Ynez Valley. This by of some 6,000 people was founded by a group of Danish Americans based in San Francisco who desired to start their own Just Like The Old Country-style enclave like all immigrant groups in California do in some form. The opportunity came in 1911 when they purchased 9,000 acres of the former Mexican land grant Rancho San Carlos de Jonata, adjacent to the old Mission Santa Ines. Since then, Solvang’s pioneers encouraged others in the Danish diaspora in America to come move to the Santa Ynez Valley (including one Anton Andersen, who opened a pretty well-known pea soup restaurant three miles west in Buellton). But it wasn’t until the 1939 when Solvang garnered the attention of the world, when Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Ingrid (who later became the country’s monarchs 8 years later) paid a visit and put Solvang on the map. In 1947, Solvang went the 1940s-equivalent of Going Viral when the Saturday Evening Post magazine published an article on the quaint little Danish-style town found near US 101 in California. Soon, domestic tourists from both Los Angeles and San Francisco made a trip on the 101 with their postwar automobiles and spent their postwar tourist dollars on Solvang…and the rest was history.

The first stop was Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, a Solvang institution since 1970, owned by a family with Danish baking blood 4 generations deep. The Militant got some pastries, some bread rolls (which taste AMAZING after being warmed in an oven for about 5 minutes, yielding a nice crunchy crust) and a pack of butter cookies in the iconic white bucket.

The Militant did what he always likes to do when he’s traveling – walk around town. Virtually every building along the main thoroughfare of Mission Drive had the tell-take Danish Provincial-style architecture featuring dark-brown timber cladding (or at least a visual representation of it).

The Militant walked east to the grounds of Mission Santa Ines where Springtime reared its lovely head: A native plant garden featuring a plethora of California Golden Poppies and a vista overlooking the Santa Ynez Valley proper, bordered by rolling bright green hills, dotted with the dark green foliage of Coastal Live Oak trees made The Militant stop and admire the mild, green season while it lasted (though the pollen of the season reared its ugly head and caused The Militant to achoo accordingly…).

The green rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley, as seen from the grounds of Mission Santa Ines.
The Santa Ynez Valley, as seen from the grounds of Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang.

With that, it was time for dinner, and what else would The Militant partake in here in Solvang, but Danish food? He dined at The Bit O’Denmark restaurant on Alisal Road, just off of Mission Drive, in the east end of Solvang. He decided to have the Frikadeller (minced meat patty) with brown sauce (gravy, basically) and Danish sausage combination plate, which is accompanied by red cabbage (kinda like a Danish version of sauerkraut), cucumber salad and roasted potatoes. Velbekkome!

Danish combination plate with Danish Sausage, frikadeller, red cabbage, cucumber salad and roasted potatoes.
Danish combination plate with Danish Sausage, frikadeller, red cabbage, cucumber salad and roasted potatoes.

The building that housed the restaurant is chock full of history – it was one of the O.G. Solvang structures from 1911! It had originally housed the Bethania Lutheran Church before their current building was built in 1928, and later became a school, before being adaptively re-used as an eatery in 1960. The Bit O’Denmark restaurant has been operating there since 1966.

The Militant did another walk across town, where the warm lower 70s daytime turned into cool 50s night – such is the unique, grape growing-friendly climate of the Santa Ynez Valley. By 9 p.m. most buildings are closed and only a handful of cars are diagonally-parked on Mission Drive. Strings of small white lights give the town a Disneyland vibe, which made it look somewhat surreal (yet awesomely appealing) when empty. 

Solvang after dark!

No visit by The Militant Angeleno to some place – whether in Los Angeles or farther afield – would be complete without visiting a hidden, obscure and/or unique feature, and Solvang did not diappoint. Walking north a few blocks along Atterdag Road, next to the parking lot of the Atterdag Village retirement community was a curious metal structure, seemingly randomly-placed here. It’s actually a musical instrument, over 100 years old – the Solvang Windharp.

The Solvang windharp, along Windharp Drive, is an artifact from the Denmark pavilion at the 1915 San Francisco world’s fair. It plays bell-like melodies when blown by the wind.

Built 109 years ago as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, it stood atop Denmark’s pavilion and was salvaged when the temporary structure was demolished at the end of the world’s fair. Being something represented Denmark in The Golden State, the natural home for the aeolian harp was Solvang, of course. Granted, it was only mildly breezy when The Militant stood beneath it, and the winharp played like a shy child being forced by their parents to play the piano to guests visiting their house, but goes a little somethin’ like this:

It seemed like The Militant’s day went full-circle; he arrived in the area this morning craning his neck at a vertical object pointing skyward, and ended his visit craning his neck at a vertical object pointing skyward. And that was music to his ears.

Yo, whatup! Did you enjoy this virtual visit to the Central Coast? The Militant may or may not want to do more of these Militant Road Trip posts in the near future! Support The Militant Angeleno’s covert operations: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=K5XC5AM9G33K8

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