As a teenager, I loved travel literature. I was an eclectic reader, enjoying everything from the philosophy of travel that Bruce Chatwin would sketch in his Moleskine notebooks, to the hilarious adventures told by Bill Bryson (à la mode of the National Lampoons), without omitting Gerald Durrell’s naturalistic journeys, and many many more.
There is one single book, though, to which my understanding of travel is most indebted: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon. The book is a detailed chronicle of the author’s journey, in 1978, as he drove through the United States in a van, steering away from the cities and freeways, taking the time to discover and understand the people and places lining the Country’s smaller and less traveled roads – drawn in blue in the Rand McNally atlas – while obviously understanding himself and his own identity.
This is the kind of travel that I enjoy. What’s a lucky man? A lucky man is one who does as an adult the things he would read about as a kid (unless he really loved to read horror novels).
Freeways and Interstates are a godsend, but on the Freeway, you are going somewhere. You’re actually traveling to some place. As soon as you exit and venture on a State or County road, that’s where the real travel begins. You’re traveling, period.
Last week Anne-Claire had to go to San Francisco for work. I carefully kept the weekend free from work so that I could go with her. Or rather, my plan was to accompany her to LAX at five in the morning, and then drive to San Francisco through the 101 and then the iconic California 1.
I got to Santa Barbara a little before daybreak, and I bypassed the coastal portion of the 101 that goes to Gaviota to climb the Highway 154 instead, the Chumash highway that winds through the Santa Ynez wine region.
The first wonder I saw was the fog lifting from Lake Chumash in the grey light that precedes dawn. If that was the most beautiful sight I was going to see that day, well the trip would have already been a success.
I was getting hungry for breakfast at that point, and I tried my luck in different towns for an appealing eatery. Most places were still closed.
Los Olivos, as the fog cleared, was my last hapless stop. My eyes were satisfied with every turn of the road, but my stomach begged to differ, so I drove further North, to the charming town of Arroyo Grande – where both my sight and my hunger eventually found solace.
Fortified by eggs, pancakes and a side of hash-brown, I hit the road again. In San Louis Obispo I exited the 101 to finally explore the many marvels of the California 1.
By the time the fog cleared completely, I had reached San Simeon – the beauty of the beach greeted me, together with a low fly-by of a devilish Turkey Vulture.
A few miles north, I was in for a treat. I pulled over at the Elephant Seal Vista Point. I was expecting the “usual” seals basking in the sunlight, but a legitimate National Geographic moment unfolded before the observers’ eyes (and lenses): several males wrestled in the shallow water – to the complete indifference of several unimpressed females.
I stopped several times along the road in Big Sur. As in the case of Sedona, photography has a hard time giving justice to the whole area. Big Sur is more than a beautiful sight: it’s a symphony of visions where each glimpse adds meaning to what you just saw and foreshadows what you are about to see. I am far from claiming that my work is done there, but relying on the aerial camera (the drone) allowed me to paint some slightly more comprehensive images of the cliffs and shores among which the CA-1 winds and climbs.
I spent a few hours in Big Sur, but no matter how much time you spend there… it always feels as if you would need a lifetime to understand what you see, let alone report the beauty you are witnessing.
If you plan on rejoining the 101 after Big Sur, you may feel as if your journey to the Bay Area is almost over. But if you intend to continue through Monterey, Santa Cruz, and drive the 1 all the way up till you reach San Francisco from the Western coast of the Peninsula, then you know there are many hours and many stops before you reach your destination. Big Sur was as wonderful as ever in a rare clear summer day, and it took quite bit of esthetic resolve to resume the drive North. Nevertheless, the landscapes I was to encounter in the next couple hundred miles were going to prove a clear reward for my decision not to linger further but to drive on.
To be continued and concluded in Part 2.