RICHMOND >> Interesting things pop up when you try out the habitats of Americans far from your own nest. On a West Coast safari, we encountered an attack breakfast, a herd of cattle in the middle of a highway, a serious bar and pharmacy deficiency and unexpected encounters with strangers.

For a number of years, motels large and small have jumped into breakfast with a vengeance. They started by serving the so-called continental, including a muffin or a bagel, juice and coffee, cold cereal, all billed as free. Yogurt added, then the do-it-yourself waffle maker, which brought an authentic aroma of breakfast.

But at one place my sister and I stayed recently, things had gone awry. The inn served the sausage gravy so loved in the south and west, but offered no biscuits. Eat it on the potatoes, one client was advised. Does anyone eat sausage gravy on hash browns? But the place was also on the attack in other ways. They used real plates and metal utensils, and signs sternly advised against taking dishes or food to rooms. Even taking a banana was a no-no. We should have sensed the presence of attitude when we had to force the indifferent desk denizen to change our room because of a clanging air conditioner.


A few days later, driving toward Crater Lake, we pulled onto the verge to photograph a rainbow. Minutes later, we fancied we saw a herd of cattle coming toward us on the two-lane highway. Not, it seemed, a mirage. No human led them, but the gang came on, a hundred or so, fairly leisurely, with a really big Hereford in the front. They ambled past us on both sides of the car. At the end, two small dogs were keeping the stragglers moving, and we met the farmer on an ATV with a boy aboard. He stopped and explained that the creatures were heading to a different pasture because they had used up the grass, probably because of the lack of rain.

Signs of drought were everywhere in northern California and Oregon. At my niece's house, a large bucket stood under the shower. At our house, water just plunges down the drain while you wait for it to get warm. At her house, it goes in the bucket and is used to water her fruit trees. The warm-up fills the bucket every time.

We ran into another oddity when we discovered that chain pharmacies in California didn't carry tonic water to make our favorite vodka and tonics. Even a restaurant in the city of Davis — a university town — had no tonic to go with their vodka. But you could get a Cape Codder (vodka and cranberry).

One of the delightful oddities came at a restaurant in the same city where we were told not to steal the flatware. We were babbling during our dinner about our bird watching adventures and a couple came over, admitted they'd been eavesdropping and wanted to know why the redwood forests have no birds. We had no idea, not being experts, and the woman speculated it might be lack of insects or sparseness of food on the forest floor. It was a lovely chat. Then an older man who was seated behind us appeared at our table. We had mentioned seeing a ruby-crowned kinglet, and he said that brought back his childhood in Vermont, so our birding took us down his memory lane for a number of fun minutes and gave us a chance to tell him about the wonders of birding Arcata, California, with a marvelous guide named Rob Fowler. Birders will love that his email and web site cleverly are named fowlerope, a play on phalarope — red-necked, Wilson's or just red. Three birds I've never seen.

Ruth Bass added new birds to her list this trip. Her web site is