American West, beach, california, Drone, Nature, Personal, Philosophy and Photography, travel

California 1, Part 2

The road after Monterey was new and exciting to me. Every panel and exit sign looked like a page from Steinbeck’s novels. Monterey, Cannery Row, Salinas, Moss Landing, Santa Cruz. The land I drove through was just as literary as agricultural. A city slicker with a fast car and a Western heart, I glided down the California 1 looking to my left and to my right, trying to guess what was the name of the crops grown along the road.

When the fog clears, Moss Landing is a fun sight to behold. It somehow reminded me more of the purpose-driven landings of the Northern Pacific coast than what I usually see in Southern California. Also the fact it’s called Moss Landing and not Moss Marina must be indicative of some difference. If the fog does not clear, you can still hear the clear calls of the sea lions who welcome themselves on the piers and pontoons.

After the busy bypass of Santa Cruz, the solitary wilderness becomes once again the most faithful companion of the California 1.

A few miles north of Santa Cruz I had to quickly pull over for what instantly became my favorite road sign west of the Mississippi. Someone had painted a capital red HAVE FUN on a white wooden board. Maybe I needed the reminder, the explicit injunction to have fun and enjoy the moment. That made me wonder if sometimes we are so absorbed in doing what we like and doing it well to the point that we forsake the importance of having fun.

Had someone asked me, “are you having fun?”, I would have enthusiastically said yes, but it’s also true that the road had not been devoid of overthinking. Primarily about where to stop and whether to stop and what photos to shoot which ones could or should be taken another time maybe a better time what does the future holds I remember when I was a child and this was the kind of trips we’d take with my parents from Portland, OR to San Francisco and where have all the flowers gone long time passing.

That sign cleared my mind as an instant mantra. Make sure you are having fun and quite literally enjoy the ride, and all the rest will come naturally. I smiled and took a deep breath, sat down, rolled down the windows, turned off the radio and put the car in gear.

I knew this was going to happen at some point, because most of the peninsula boasts some impressive mountains, but I did not expect the 1 to climb so abruptly as the gentle shore was replaced by humbling wind-swept cliffs. I stopped frequently, carefully crossing the road and carefully peeking over. I have a mixed relationship with heights but holding a camera usually makes me bolder – probably because of our usually unjustified exchanges of confidence between unrelated domains.

The California 1 descends to kiss the Ocean again at Waddell Beach. It appears to be a pretty cocktail of Ocean spray, wind, sand, and mountains that make the Beach a popular destination for hikers, kite surfers and hand-gliders.

One thing struck me since the very first miles past Santa Cruz: the extremely young age of the people I would run into. Now, I’m not that old myself but I am way past the age of college. At most gas stations, state beaches, parking lots, all I would see was college kids going surfing and enjoying the beach driving old Ford Explorers. I was not surprised, given the number of Universities scattered around the Bay Area, but it was amusing to feel as if I was really tapping into the cliché.

Such thoughts was I musing on when I saw another road-sign. “Slow for pie”, it said, in a neat cursive writing. That was not as good as “HAVE FUN”, but it was a refreshing change from the usual moralizing panels instructing drivers to slow down for kids, pets, cattle, trucks, pedestrians, bikers, horses, deers, bears and more horses. I slowed down indeed, I pondered it in my mind for ten seconds, I made a U-turn, and reverted back to the farm to which the sign belong. It was the Pie Ranch. I’ll keep it short, because if you go there, it’s worth a stop, while if you don’t plan on going there, I will only make you envious. The Pie Ranch is an educational farm south of Pescadero on the California 1. Among many wonderful things that they do, they bake pies out of amazing ingredients that are virtually all seasonal, local, and organic. I drove off with a blackberry peach streusel pie that gave us two wonderful breakfasts in San Francisco.

More miles. My eyes were on the road, my mind was on the load (the newly adopted pie). More beauty made me stop. The part of the road between Santa Cruz and Pescadero is overall astonishing and I’ve made many mental notes to come back and dedicate more time to each place.

Pescadero is incredibly magic. You’ll find some big rocks jotting out into the ocean, beaten by the wind and the waves.

Notwithstanding the gusty winds, the shore was too gorgeous not to attempt to frame it from above. I had one more full battery in my drone, and it quickly took off. It’s always interesting to notice how those little guys handle the wind far better than we think they would.

Look at the second jetty, if I can call it this way. There are two tiny black spots: those are people, and this should let you figure out the impressive magnitude of this natural work of art. My flight didn’t last long, because a flock of seagulls quickly caught eye of something braving the wind as well as them, and quickly moved over to have a closer look (and repel the aggressor). Out of respect and out of fear, I don’t take chances with probing birds. I landed right away – and a few seagulls followed way too close for comfort until the very touchdown.

At this point… my plan changed a bit. My original idea was to follow the California 1 all the way to San Francisco, park at the Golden Gate lookout, look out at the Golden Gate, and then meet Anne-Claire at the hotel. Truth be told, I had been on the road for more than eleven hours and I was feeling a little tired. I drove through San Gregorio, Half Moon Bay, and fancy Pacifica (I finally understood why the Chrisler car was called this way). In Half Moon Bay, a street, Ruisseau Français Avenue – literally meaning French Creek Avenue – caught my attention and I promised to enquire during my next trip. Why French creek? Did some French explorer come and baptize the place “French River” and his colleague said “Jean, let’s be realistic, this is more like a French Creek”? Maybe. We will never know. Or we will.

Anyway this was my intellectual level when, close to Daly City, I saw the sign for San Francisco via the Interstate 280 and I said “Alright, let’s bring her home”. I feel a little bad, because I cheated myself out of my original plan for a handful of miles, but they might have prolonged my trip by one full hour easily – and I knew I didn’t want to cross urban San Francisco from North West to South East at rush hour with twelve hours of driving on my back. I was happy to find out though, thanks to Wikipedia, that the Interstate 280 is “referred to as one of the most scenic urban freeways in America”. It was scenic indeed, and the elevated winding road got me away with a few nice captures of San Francisco during my final approach.

There I was, tired and happy. More than 450 miles, twelve hours and twenty minutes and two meals after leaving Los Angeles International Airport. This had been a mighty trip, a day to remember. A day of slow driving and windy roads, a day of fun and pie ranches and elephant seals and foggy mountains. A day of blue highways.

Supplement

I meant to dedicate the following day to taking photographs of San Francisco, but unlike the day of my arrival the air was hazy with local fog and smoke carried from distant fires.

The only worthy image I could capture is this skyline of San Francisco from Treasure Island, monochrome for obvious reasons. You can go on my Instagram and see a detailed version of the same panorama in ten photos.

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beach, california, Drone, Nature, travel

California 1, Part 1

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.

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