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Weekend Escape

Lassoed Into Los Alamos

Saying howdy to a town that's in no hurry to polish its Wild West edges.


LOS ALAMOS, Calif. — We hadn't been here long, but when the waitress tried to scoop a tiny mouse into a foam cup and the lawman seated near us reached for his gun, my wife and I knew this was no wine-sipping, cork-sniffing, brie-eating kind of town.

And what a relief. Los Alamos is only about 15 miles north of the Santa Ynez Valley, the center of Santa Barbara County's wine industry, but this town of 1,000 largely seems to have avoided falling into a Pinot Noir abyss. Not that wineries are absent from Los Alamos, and not that I hold any grudge against them; but I don't drink, and I gave up recreational spitting years ago, so they're not atop my to-do list.

No, give me a place that's a little rough around the edges, where barbed wire sticks out among the decorations. I found such a place in Los Alamos: the Skyview, a quirky old motel that overlooks the town from a hill along U.S. 101.

From the highway, the Skyview beckons with a c'mon-look-around wink. But as many times as my wife and I had raced past it on the road, we never had stayed there--or even stopped in town. In August we satisfied our curiosity.

Gina and I got on the 101 in Sherman Oaks at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon. Two hours later, with the scent of campfires from Refugio and El Capitan state beaches still in our car, we turned inland through the Gaviota tunnel and witnessed the final rays of the day on the Santa Ynez Mountains. When we arrived at the Skyview around 8 p.m., darkness encroached on the last patches of pink sky.

"Motel," the sign blared in black letters on a bright yellow background. Just below this proclamation was a smaller sign with a somber-faced cowboy. "Howdy," he announced in cartoon-rope letters. At the office, the lettering on the eaves declared "Skyview," adding for good measure, "Howdy."

Chainsaw-carved bears guarded the approach to the office, next to a bench with wagon wheels for armrests. A wishing-well fountain greeted guests at the recreation room, which had a fireplace, wonderful views on three sides and Western artifacts--among them a cowboy statuette made of horseshoes, a hobbyhorse, ranch implements on the wall and a planter shaped like a cowboy boot.

Our room was small and somewhat thin-walled but handsome and seriously Western. Except for the TV, refrigerator and an ancient wall furnace, just about everything evoked the Old West or the outdoors. The ceiling's peaked wood panels were painted blue with wispy white clouds--appropriately, a sky view.

Hand-painted Southwestern designs adorned the armoire and a table lamp, while the bathroom featured a swag made of twigs, dried flowers and--yup, barbed wire. A wooden love seat sat next to a window that overlooked the town and the oak-dotted Purisima Hills beyond the 101. (We paid $95 plus tax per night; rates this winter start at $55.)

A manager later let us peek into other units, which included finely detailed headboards with farm and mountain landscapes. He told us the Skyview was 50 years old and had undergone extensive renovation in the past three years and that all the rooms' paintings were done by a local artist. (Alas, the artist hadn't gotten around to the headboard in our room.) It added up to an atmosphere that was distinctive--a little kitschy but not too precious.

We hurried into town for dinner and found the Twin Oaks. Our meals were good enough, but the floor show was even better.

As we worked on our salads, Gina glanced at the carpeting and noticed a creature stirring--"barreling toward me," as she put it.

A mouse!

Small, even by Stuart Little standards, but still with the requisite paws and tail. Gina jumped up, and soon the word "mouse" was bouncing from table to table.

The waitress grabbed a cup and plastic spoon and attempted to scoop the mouselet up, but the varmint hid under the baseboard. When it started moving again, it foolishly headed toward a bemused Highway Patrol officer at the next table.

"All right, that's it!" he declared, pretending to reach for his gun. That got the rodent's attention, and the little fellow scurried toward the front door, taking refuge in a potted plant that would later go outside. (A shopkeeper told us afterward that the town had been invaded by field mice this summer.) Our drama over, we returned to the Skyview, where we shot billiards in the recreation room before turning in.

Saturday morning, we took advantage of the motel's continental breakfast (included in the nightly rate), took a quick swim in the pool and then drove 15 minutes south to Buellton for lunch at the sunny tables of Pattibakes, a bakery and cafe.

My turkey sandwich on sun-dried tomato bread and Gina's turkey club on a Kalamata olive roll hit the spot, and dark chocolate cake for dessert hit it again. We were full, but that didn't stop us from picking up a brownie for later. And a carrot cupcake. And a scone too. And a chocolate cupcake, to keep the box balanced.

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