DRIVING MISS DAZY: Cruisin Californiaís Route 1
(from Japan International Journal)
by Blake More
Not a state, but a state of mind, California is undoubtedly one of the most diverse and influential regions of the United States. Huge in a country that worships largess, it's a big land populated by even bigger personalities. Celebrities, millionaires, surfers, vegetarians, homosexuals, deadheads, cowboys, gang bangers, Buddhists, Christens, artists, salesman, developers, and the United Nations come together in a vortex of humanity that can be likened to a giant drain where everything whirls together before disappearing down the unknown.
And, despite riots and other suggestions of civil war, California wears this individuality and perpetual change with pride as it upholds the label of American trend setter. More than sun, fun, and guns, California is the landscape of a global society. It is Silicon Valley, the cyberspace of high technology, and two of the five best known cities in the US. It is Napa and Sonoma, America's retort to wine snobs east of the Atlantic. Via Hollywood, it is the fantasies of the world's population (like it or not), and its fecund central valleys put fruits, nuts, and vegetables on tables across the globe.
All pretty impressive considering that, although "discovered" in 1542 by Portuguese navigator Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo, the coast of California was deemed tabula rasas--as yet untouched by European influences---up until around 1769. Thus, in terms of Western civilization, even American civilization for that matter, California is barely a toddler. Nonetheless, it inhabitants have spawned vast changes to the face and soul of its once virgin wilderness. Some have been beneficial and made life in California worth of respect; others, like the dense brown air that now threatens some of the states most prized areas, have turned California it into a place of concern.
Still, whatever profile taken, the California you see owes much of its identity to migration and the automobile. Attracted by temperate climates and thrilling coastlines, as well as by "lands end" opportunities, people from all over sought paradise among the palms and brushy chaparrals of the southern regions, the low farmlands and regal oaks in the middle, and the wind-bashed crags and ancient redwoods of the North. And, it was the automobile---which re-routed California settlement and fed the development of suburban expanse and its adjoining freeways---that made it all possible.
By now, you may be asking yourself what's so great about a schizophrenic stretch of land. The answer's simple: US Highway 1, the 700 mile thoroughfare that hugs the coast of California from Dana Point to Legget and everything in between. Picture a road. Not just any road, but two lanes in either direction that alternately straddle shore, sea, and forest. Two lanes of sheer epiphany offering mile upon mile of Pacific Ocean--ocean framed by massive sandstone bluffs and hillsides that glow like a Van Gogh sunset. All this and more linked remarkably together by one revered little road.
Called Route 1, Highway 1, 1, Pacific Coast Highway and PCH---depending upon who you talk to and where you are--US Highway 1 was once the main artery between north and south. Now, two other routes, Interstate 5 and US Highway 101, bear the brunt of intrastate traffic, leaving route 1 for respectful neighbors and open-mouthed tourists. Of course, the lesser highways---overrun by the prehistoric-looking, eighteen-wheelers which are almost extinct along Highway 1---are long, straight, and fast, promising 6 to 9 hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco rather than the 15 hour commitment of PCH.
Ahh, but when you open your eyes and swallow---especially when driving a convertible---time slips into the abyss. Fifteen hours is nothing if you take a weekend or more and wind slowly along the sea-skirting route that has sired volumes, ignited wars, and colored a multitude of pallets. So, with this in mind, I saved up some time, enticed a couple of friends, and rented convertible---eager to explore the homelands that had become more distant to us than the third world.
Statistics hint broadly at California's love affair with the sea: roughly 80 percent of its 30 million lives within 40 miles of the ocean. Nowhere is this romance more evident than along its southern edges. From the US genesis of Highway 1 to Point Dume at the tip of the LA basin, miles of developed waterfront dominate the few remaining natural wetlands and provide the impetus for Southern Cal's water-centric lifestyle. Almost every town ends with Beach----Laguna, Newport, Huntington, Long, Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan, Venice---the others assuming Spanish names with a similar theme---San Pedro, Rancho Palos Verdes, Playa Del Ray, Marina Del Ray. Without question, this has become an urban land, a hectic mix of condominiums, power plants, and oil wells splattered atop broad strands of contiguous beach---all bound by a common thread: Pacific Coast Highway.
While certainly a worth a look, the southern leg of PCH is subject to the whims of rush hour and, for purists looking for unadorned plant and sea life, doesn't get breathtaking until the Los Angeles sprawl disappears in the rearview mirror. So, resisting the temptation to wander off PCH for a side trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios (if only we had more time) we raced through the land of La eased off of the accelerator and really began to fly.
Despite stopping for a couple of quick ocean swims, we still managed to pull into the mission cum college town of Santa Barbara by three in the afternoon, hitting our self-imposed 75 mile-a-day limit just in time to catch the late afternoon light. As amber blended with bougainvillea and leapt across whitewashed walls and terra cotta roofs, Santa Barbaraís Spanish colonial heritage became glaringly obvious. Feeling a little like early settlers ourselves, we debated whether to take a seaside siesta or sample some indigenous vino at the Santa Barbara Winery. We opted for the wine.
The damp, cask-like tasting room took us past the bright seas and unbroken skies and into the areaís romantic heritage. We lost the next couple of hours deciding upon the perfect accompaniment to that evening's sunset. The following morning, as we sat on the sand watching the lumpy chain of islands that hem the Santa Barbara coastline, someone quietly mentioned the highway...and, once again, it was just us, Miles Davis, and the solitary lines of PCH.
None of us spoke until around Lompoc, where lured by a cardboard sign promising "fresh strawberries and ripe avocados," we pulled in for lunch at one of the nameless fruit and vegetable stands that dot the highway---a quick fix that instantly became a mid-day habit. Filling the cooler with broccoli, cherries, and a carton of fresh lemonade, I pointed out that we were standing between North and South, on the ridge which many, political inclinations notwithstanding, believe should form the border between two separate states. "You all are in ëGod's Countryí now," bragged the farmer responsible for our lunch. "So you'd better get ready for some of the most wondrous territory in the world."
Maybe he was prejudiced, but, I'm not and that's exactly what we discovered. Driving on, we watched bays merge with cypress-dressed headlands and rocky palisades rub against ocean floors. We strolled through fishing villages---like Morro Bay one of the coast's largest estuaries and our home on the second night out---and navigated our way across creaking ropes and scrambling gulls so we could spy on seals, sea lions, and otters as they dozed and played on nearby rocks.
Yes, as you may well attest, hyperbole is the rule of the game when describing the northern curves of Highway One (which is what northerners call PCH). It's no wonder, since---save for Hearst's Castle, the state owned remains of the decadently opulent, and sometimes tasteful, lifestyle of American newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, the Montery Bay Aquarium, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and a handful of museums---PCH has more for the outdoor enthusiast than for the attraction seeking tourist.
And from Morro Bay to Montery this ruggedness became increasingly apparent. Our access to the shore was often blocked by jumbled cliffs (good thing, since we later learned that this highly photographed length of PCH rises above refrigerator cold surf), so we became junkies for gravel turnabouts. Like a local train going from station to station, we inched onward in complete awe. Suddenly, we were twisting through the remote grandeur of Big Sur---an independent backcountry nooked with artist communities, where tie-dyes, wooly flannels, and decorated VWs roam freely amid the basic browns and greens of Golith redwoods.
Just when we were beginning to feel like intruders in an enchanted forest, the highway opened up beside the sea, and we began outlining the fingered promontory of the Carmel Highlands and Point Lobos State Reserve. At about the index finger, we parked yet again, but this time set off down the cliff, happy to join the pelicans, diving cormorants, and loons as we explored well-kept trails that looped us around intertidal zones, open fields, and thick stands of pine.
Once we made it back to our preferred trail, it wasn't long before Monterey and its twin, the fabled Pacific Grove came into view. Both of these playground cities are popular with still-in lovers and golfers with cash---since they offer plenty of opportunities to stroll hand in hand or tee off into the wild blue. Although looking for neither of the above, we decided to hang out anyway, choosing a bright yellow, Victorian bed and breakfast to make our stay authentic. Good thing, because over coffee the next morning, our host broke down and revealed why locals fear that their city, once described by Robert Louis Stevenson as "the shore traced in transparent silver by moonlight and flying foam", is losing its charm to the aftermath of its popularity: tourists. No worries though because, in his opinion, "the fat lady hasn't even begun to sing,"---thanks in part to enlightened developers, whose uncharacteristically subtle designs have seen to it that panoramic views still dwarf the swelling touropolis.
Two days later, anxious for road, we again met up with our two-laned companion, who started our day this time by hooking around the wide mouth of Monterey Bay---a route less visually endowed, but remarkable in other ways. For only on this stretch of PCH could we have experienced roadside artichokes in Castroville, the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world, or gotten the chance to motor past an area so full of lettuce, cauliflower, sugar beets, and Brussels sprouts---just to mention a few---that it answers to the nickname "America's Salad Bowl."
At the upper lip of the bowl, Highway 1 came back in line with the Pacific and led us to Santa Cruz, the summer utopia some call "the sunny side of the bay" since it rarely suffers the fog that haunts its northern counterparts. Opting for a dose of family fun---beach and Boardwalk---as well as the adult kind---Bonny Doon and Hallcreast Vineyards---we stopped in Santa Cruz and evened out our tan-lines (but ignored our waistlines) before heading up towards Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, four days later.
By this point we thought we'd seen the best US 1 had to offer, and understandably, were already thinking about skyscrapers, signals, and streetlights---and anything else remotely familiar. But leave it to PCH not to rest on past laurels. No way, instead, we got 70 glorious miles of bucolic tranquillity and don't blink towns---all leaning comfortably against some of California's most turbulent seas. In order of appearance, we passed Wadell Creek, the killer break where the lunatic surfing fringe risk wicked currents and wickeder sharks for that perfect wave; Ano Nuevo State Reserve, one of the few spots in North America where elephant seals come ashore to breed; Pescadero, a one-time Portuguese whaling village who's current claim-to-fame is a gorgeous amalgamation of pale beach and the ciopinno at Duartes Tavern; and Half Moon Bay, the calico town famous for its main street USA atmosphere and annual pumpkin festival.
But, as we knew it had to, once past Pacifica, our glorious PCH managed to become comparatively ordinary. Dunes and cliffs rapidly faded into homes and highway, and other cars made rubbernecking a dangerous memory. Still, we didn't care, because we knew it was coming---San Francisco, the Golden Gate and all it befriends, marking the end of one drive and the beginning of another world.
PCH HIGHLIGHTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE:
Santa Barbara Winery, 202 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93427, 805-963-3633; tours, tasting, picnic area, open 10-5 daily.
Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara, CA, 805-682-4149; open daily.
Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa, Chorro and Montery Streets, San Luis Obispo, CA, 805-543-6858; open daily.
Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA 93452, 800-444-7275; tours daily.
Henry Miller Memorial Library, Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, 408-667-2574; open 11-5 Tues-Sun.
Seventeen Mile Drive, the senic route from Pacific Grove to Carmel; $6 toll for cars and takes about 1 hour; bicylists permitted during the day only. 408-625-8426; open daily.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo, 3080 Rio Rd., Carmel, CA, 408-624-3600; open daily.
Montery Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Montery, CA 93940; 408-646-4800; open 10-6 daily.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060; 408-426-7433; June-Sept open daily, weekends and holidays all year.
Bonny Doon Vineyard, 10 Pine Flat Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95061; 408-425-3625; open for sales and tasting 12-5 daily; tours by appointment only.
Hallcrest Vineyards, 379 Felton-Empire Rd., Felton,CA 95018; 408-335-4441; open for sales and tasting 11-5:30 daily; tours by appointment only.
For a calander listing of California happenings and a free copy of THE CALIFORNIANS: BED & BREAKFAST INNS DIRECTORY, contact the California Office of Tourism, P.O. Box 9279, T98, Dept. 1003, Van Nuys, CA 91409, 800-862-2543.
SIDE BAR -- A WINE COUNTRY DETOUR
Perhaps the most acclaimed---and certainly the most fruitful---of California's fertile valleys and hillsides are the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, located just above and a little to the east of San Francisco (and PCH). And thanks in part to a legacy bequeathed by Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra, the state's original viticulturist, these valleys now support a majority of the 500 plus wineries that have earned California its lofty reputation as one of the most versatile wine growing regions in the world. Today, just about anyone who knows will tell you that you haven't experienced California until you've made the trip to its northern "wine country", where during harvest, just a peek at the ample, well manicured rows, heavy with green tendrils, can itself be intoxicating.
One of the best of these wine country getaways is Healdsburg, the Sonoma town located in the heart of prime growing territory. It hosts some of California's largest vintners, names like Clos Du Bois, Windsor Vineyards, Piper Sonoma, and Kendall-Jackson, many of which supplement sales with tours and tasting. Even better, Healdsburg is a walking town, meaning that nobody has to forfeit a single taste in order to man the steering wheel. There's also a lawned plaza with ample spread-out space for the spur-of-the-moment picnic needed to justify that irresistible bottle of reserve. Then again, if you prefer the fuss of multiple courses and a sommelier, you can always dress up and dine a la nexus of nouvelle at famous eateries such as Tre Scalini or Chateau Souverain.
But while in Healdsburg beware, because while strolling beneath tile-roofs and windbreaks of Lombardy poplar and Italian cypress, you may be fooled into thinking that you're in Tuscany or Provence rather than Northern California. Until, that is, you turn on your radio and hear the Big Bopper---a sound that is unmistakenly American.
For more information on places to stay, restaurants, and special events in Healdsburg, contact the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce at 800-648-9922 (within California only) or 707-433-6935.
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