The key turned. A spark of ignition. The rumble of the engine. A smile on my face. It’s always this way when I commence a road trip. I have three days to cruise down the Californian coast and soak it in. I put the car in drive. I’m gone.
The buzzing lights and noise of the airport vanish in the rearview mirror of the rental car, my home for the next few days. To my right, my camera sits on the passenger seat. I don’t have a dog, my Leica is man’s best friend. I check my mirrors again. They are clear. I take a right on HWY 92 and head for the coast.
It’s been years since I’ve driven HWY1, the meandering road that hugs California’s rough coast line. It’s an achingly beautiful drive, but due to massive landslides a vast section of the road south of Big Sur has been closed. Thankfully, it’s open now. Sure, there are faster ways to travel than taking HWY1, but who wants to take those? My goal is travel, not arrive. My tank is full of petrol and the skies are blue. I’ve got all I need.
I stop for a drink in Half Moon Bay, walking up to Pillar Point, the sight of the annual Mavericks big wave surfing competition. The swell is low today, but the ocean still froths angrily, surfers relishing in the tempest. Dogs, large and small, shaggy and wet, bound passed me chasing balls, rescuing them from the seas embrace. I sit on a log, sip my drink and watch the marine layer fog drift in. For now, it’s bright and sunny. I let nature recharge my batteries.
Somewhere between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz the fog catches up with me. Cold, moist air envelopes the land, compressing the world around me until I can barely see out the window. I twist my wrist, turning the headlights on. It’s 11am, yet feels like twilight. The lights fail to cut through the fog. The best they can do is cast a glow to warn other travelers of my approach. Barely half an hour ago I was sweating on the beach. This is the central coast. Raw, and ever-changing. Traveling down HWY1 you travel slow enough to experience it all. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
I pull off at Pigeon Point Light House. With the fog surrounding me, this place feels desolate. I could be at a remote cliff in far northern Scotland, or the rocky southern tip of Tasmania my ancestors once called home. I walk slowly, taking photos imaging living life off the grid, just me and the elements. A tour bus disgorges it’s passengers: French, German, and Italian’s squeals in delight. I love the joy in their eyes. It’s pure excitement. They walk around exploring the cliffs. They shiver in the cold, despite being bundled up in scarves, puffy jackets, and gloves. I’m in a t-shirt and flip flops. I know the fog won’t last. Everything changes. We all embrace it in different ways.
Back in the car, I head south through Santa Cruz, pass by Watsonville with its vegetable farms spreading out from both sides of the road, rows of vegetables, green and lush, burst from rich soil, bound for grocery stores around the country. The fog has long since burned away leaving brilliant blue skies. Dozens of men and women, working in the sun, hunch over the crops harvesting them with practiced skill and dexterous fingers. A tractor bounces across a field tossing plumes of dirt into the sky. I watch fascinated by the spectacle. The dirt looks like a halo around the tractor. It’s beautiful.
Past Monterey and Carmel I go. I consider stopping, but something pulls me further towards Big Sur. I know this feeling. It’s the road. It’s calling me like it always does. I twist the dial on the stereo, music swells in volume swirling around me. It’s Kaleo, Way Down We Go. The song fits the moment: I’m going way down the coast, and I first heard it when roadtrippping through New Zealand a few years back. Now, New Zealand, that is a country made for road trips. I make a mental note to return soon.
The sun shines brilliantly overhead. To my right, far below, past the rocky cliffs, lazuline ocean glitters majestically. I stop for lunch at Nepenthe, eating on the outside deck. In between bites of my burger, I spot whales breaching close enough that I can hear the gush of water before they disappear beneath the surface again. Another bite, another breaching. This is truly a magical part of the world.
I meander blissfully along the most remote part of the drive, corner after twisting corner unfurling before me. I pass construction workers still toiling away fixing the road as best they can. I wonder why it took me so long to return. Mile after mile the views spellbind me with their grandeur all around me. Waves pound below below. Harley’s rumble by beside me, American flags fluttering from the pillion seats. Eagles drift on the breeze above me, wings barely beating. If the view from the car is spectacular, I can only imagine what it looks like from up there.
Eventually the road straightens leading me into Cambria and Santa Barbara. By the time I arrive it’s 6pm. The sky is crimson and the wind is warm. I’m tired. The drive is beautiful, but exhausting with all of its corners. I stop at a local pizza place, Gianni’s, ordering the local special: a pie stacked with ham, salami, local peppers, olives and seasoning. It’s delicious. I eat half before admitting defeat and retreating to a nearby hotel to lick my wounds.
The next morning, the fog has returned with a vengeance. It’s thick and wet and cold. I sip a coffee and eat avocado toast at the Breakfast Culture Club. It’s my kind of place: great coffee, clean lines, local art on the wall, and incredibly friendly and vibrant people. I meet a friend whom I haven’t seen for years. We wander through the damp fog exploring a local farmer’s marketing making fun of the gnarled and disfigured vegetables and catching up. It’s bliss.
By 10am, the fog is waning, blue sky peaking through. It’s time to move on. That’s the thing about road trips, they never end.