The 1 and Only: Cruising California’s legendary coastline

I couldn’t help giggling last night, looking forward to the next day’s adventure: driving to Los Angeles to visit my friend Beth, my cohort in crime in graduate school. We’d spent three summers together at UC Santa Barbara earning our masters’ in French, and I couldn’t imagine a better apartment-mate and friend with whom to share such an ordeal. That’s us in the picture below with all the bottles. We studied very hard—Beth more than I did, I’m afraid—but we managed to throw a party or two. This photo’s from the last of our now-famous chocolate tasting bashes.

I giggled, too, about the last-minute decision to go south on Highway 1 instead of Interstate 5, even though it would certainly take more time. I-5 is the straightforward choice between Silicon Valley and LA—an easy six hours—and while I wouldn’t call it boring, nothing compares to the legendary stretch of winding asphalt on the 1, barely clinging to the cliffs overhanging the Pacific far below. The whole way isn’t that perilous, but enough of it is to make it a truly excellent driving experience.

Ray’s at the wheel now while I write in the car. I drove until Ragged Point, just shy of San Simeon and Hearst Castle, including the 26 miles between Monterey and Big Sur. They’re the famous ones, those 26—the official route of the Big Sur International Marathon—a killer footrace for those so inclined, but I prefer doing it by car these days. They’re not for the timid motorist, these twists and turns. At midday on a Thursday, the traffic’s not as heavy as on the weekend, but even on the best days, you can find yourself behind a few slower drivers. The wise choice is to just relax, relax while gripping the steering wheel, paying attention to every hairpin turn and harrowing drop-off into the Pacific—and enjoy the view! About an hour back, a black Honda Accord zoomed to within a foot of my back bumper and laid on his horn. We were already the eighth car in an uphill lineup. This cracked us up, and we yelled at him through the back windshield: Dude, chill out—you’re on the 1! He leapfrogged our car and started beeping at the next car. Incredulous, we laughed again like idiots, as he wove frantically, looking for a way to pass: If you’re in a hurry, why are you on the 1?

A few moments later, every car found its pace, and the traffic fell into an easy rhythm. We took the curves comfortably, crazily at an agreeable velocity for a 1997 Riviera with a supercharged engine. It’s on days like these when I really love my car, though it’s quickly becoming an ancient relic/grand old classic: lots of road-hugging power for screaming up the hills and yet still tight enough to not throw us around on the curves.

Today the windows are down because the A/C’s broken, and today I don’t mind. I don’t mind that the window’s down or that the A/C’s broken. It would have been 30 degrees hotter on I-5—thus influencing this route—and if we’d had A/C, I never would have agreed to the windows being down. The Grace Kelly ideal of scarf and sunglasses in a sexy convertible on a Riviera roadway sounds good on film, but I’ve never been a windows-down kind of girl. I have long, dirty-blond hair that gets curlier every day—downright frizzy in the ocean mist—and snarls up at the slightest breeze. The scarf would be wrapped around my face and sunglasses whipped from my head before even leaving the driveway. My dad once rented a convertible for a weekend that he and I had spent in Vegas many years ago, back when we’d both been in the Air National Guard, and I’ll never forget his disappointment when I didn’t want the roof down. I’ve felt horribly guilty about it for years, but I’m still not sorry that I didn’t have to rip all the knots out of my hair that night.

But I’m glad the windows are down today at this slow, but aggressive pace, so that we hear the waves crashing and the gulls screeching. My hair’s a mess, but I can smell the ocean and rejoice in the spectacle that will be over too soon even at this speed. It takes forever, yet it’s over too soon.

I have this fantasy of driving Highway 1 in its entirety—starting in Northern California where the 1 meets the Redwoods Highway—and coursing it south, past wonderful-sounding placenames such as Sea Ranch, Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Half Moon Bay; traversing the Golden Gate Bridge; beach-bumming in Santa Cruz; touring Hearst Castle; enjoying a sunset at Pismo Beach; waving a salute to my alma mater in Santa Barbara; spying on celebs in Malibu; entering Los Angeles at Venice Beach, hopefully not at rush hour; dipping into the ocean again at Huntington Beach; finishing the journey at Dana Point, just south of San Juan Capistrano—taking my time, camping in the car or my backpacking tent whenever I need to stop. I’ve thought about it a lot and charted the course on Google Maps, toyed with the idea of using my infantine filmmaking skills to make a documentary of the adventure. What should such a documentary look like? I don’t have helicopters at my disposal, so I can’t do dramatic shots swooping over bluffs into heart-stopping dives over the waves, but I’ll try everything else. Any ideas for what you think might be fun? I think I’d like to focus on the lesser-known segments of the route. Monterey to Big Sur is awesome and belongs in the film, but what about Sea Ranch and Pescadero in the north and…? Well, I was going to say several beach names in the south, but they’re all pretty famous, so never mind. They don’t round out my sentence very well.

That’s the fantasy anyway—making a documentary as a justification to drive all of Highway 1 at a leisurely tempo, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and maybe a visit or two with locals along the way. As if one needed justification.

We made it to Los Angeles that night—Ray, me, and the Riviera—cutting inland from the 1 at Ventura. How lovely to embrace my friend and her husband at the end of the day, welcomed into their home at the foot of Mount Wilson. I’ll most likely write much more about Beth* in future posts. [I’ve included many of our ‘French Camp’ exploits in my upcoming novel. I’m shooting for it to be available through Amazon at the end of 2012!] The only thing that matters tonight, though, is the abundance of wine, chocolate, and laughter among friends after an arduous day sur la route.

* Beth wrote an excellent blog about enjoying “The Journey”. Check it out here.