Monday, April 22, 2013

California Cruising – The Cabrillo Highway and El Camino Real



We took a prosaic road trip down I-15 to San Diego last fall, my wife Tracey and I, and decided to take the scenic, long way home on coastal California State Highway 1, also called The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), The Cabrillo Highway and sometimes El Camino Real. The Cabrillo highway is named after Juan Cabrillo who ‘discovered’ California in 1542 and promptly died there, apparently from too much bliss. El Camino Real is the Royal Road or the King's Highway that roughly connects all of the 21 Spanish Franciscan Missions, mostly along California Highway 101. These roads meander in and out of each other in the shape of Freeways and two lane highways and we wanted to see what was left of the old roads. We figured the weather would be good for some intermittent credit card camping, and the traffic would be light for us to drive our little Mini Cooper fast but leisurely up the coast. So with a tent, some sleeping bags and a sack full of snacks, we headed north on a typical sunny November Sunday in Southern California.

The coast thru North San Diego County is lined with contiguously cool little towns, each with their own flavor, all the way up to Oceanside where we were forced off the coast on to "The 5" for a long stretch to get around camp Pendleton. I swear the US government could balance their budget if they sold all their prime, coastal real-estate in California. We finally exited towards The Cabrillo - Highway 1 and the Beach Cities at Dana Point to visit good friends Laguna and plow thru Newport, Huntington and Long Beach. We had to bail from the coastal road again when we got to the busy LA City beach towns (Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan) and we headed for “The 405” to circumvent the traffic and 1960’s strip mall madness. Highway 1 thru LA can be like a visit to an old college roommate; sometimes you just don't want to have that much fun.

Federal and State freeways all have names in California but they change and everyone calls them something different, so they just label them "The" followed by the number. It is very personable. CALTRANS runs the greatest road system in the world, because they have to, but they do have their quirks. They don't allow unprotected left turns so every traffic light, although actuated and timed to perfection, includes annoying, protected left hand turning movements. They also don't believe in clearly marking roads for you once you are on them so make sure you are on the right road when you start. Finally they write directions in the road, which seem backwards to me, and they have Braille dots for lane devisers so blind people can drive too, which is nice.

We took “The 10” west to get around LA and visit the stately Santa Monica pier and hippy-dippy Venice beach before heading north to Malibu on The Cabrillo Highway 1. Besides the rock and roll history of Topanga canyon, a few trophy homes and a cozy little pier, there is no 'there' there in the famous 27 miles of Malibu beach front. At the north end we camped in Point Mugu State Park nestled up a Sycamore lined canyon where you can hear the surf and not the highway. It costs 35 dollars to camp in California State Parks now and I understand it is very competitive in the summer to get a campsite. I think they are trying balance the state budget with exorbitant camping fees.

In the morning we popped out into Oxnard and Ventura, found a Starbucks in a Speilberg suburbia and followed the merging of The Cabrillo Highway 1 and El Camino Real Highway 101 up to Santa Barbara. This is a recurring theme along the coast; just when you get into the rhythm of The Cabrillo Highway 1, you get dumped on to El Camino Real Highway 101 or another soulless freeway.

Santa Barbara is a great little upper middle class, medium sized beach hamlet. They have eclectic, high end shopping on the red bricked sidewalks of State Street but the historic adobe Presidio from 1776 and the incredible courthouse from 1929 are infinitely more interesting. We took the free elevator to the tower overlook to really see the town and then took the stairs down and snuck into the rest of the building to see court rooms painted like the Sistine Chapel with the history of the area, a column supported spiral stairs and arched hallways suitable for Versailles.

We followed the winding, split-level local streets up into the hills to the original Mission that was built by Spanish Franciscan Monks to indoctrinate the local Indians and lure them away from Russian influence in the late 18th century. California Missions bounced quietly between Span, Mexico, the US and the Catholic Church before gold and freeways were discovered and the place went nuts.

North of here we were funneled back onto “The 101” - El Camino Real again for a while but we did escape to The Cabrillo Highway 1 near the rolling hills of Lompoc and the Eucalyptus lined beach towns south of San Luis Obispo. We detoured to Avala beach for some killer fish tacos and to watch some south swell surfing next to the nuclear power plant. SLO town is a wonderful berg, rated as the happiest and most livable town in the USA, or some such nonsense, but it does really have a pleasant downtown and a State University to keep it vibrant. We continued on to the foggy coast town of Morrow Bay and the smaller, simpler town of Cayucos for the part of California that time forgot.

Further up the coast is undeveloped range land for 100 miles, except for the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and a few lodges and hippie enclaves. The 2-lane Cabrillo Highway serpentines in and out foggy coastal canyons, ad infinitum along this stretch. Egrets and buzzards graze in pastures while Elephant Seals and Sea Lions rule the rocky beaches. This is the postcard California of Chevy and Coke commercials with the open road, rocky cliff beaches and the ubiquitous sunny Pacific Ocean.  This is what the coast is all about, no freeways, strip malls or stop lights, just the American two lane highway and there was not a motor home in sight.  It was heaven. I was torn between driving race-car fast to relish the corners and the G - forces, or grandpa slow to savor the incredible scenery. We climbed over a thousand feet above the ocean, above clouds, and dropped back down to cross majestic arch bridges over deep, narrow canyons. Landslides cut the road down to one lane in several places where CALTRANS worked feverishly to fix the road, stabilize the slide or permanently mitigate the danger with new cantilevered bridges. We rested at a small turnout and ate lunch with the birds and the bees above the cerulean sea.

When we had had enough driving we dove inland into the Redwood Canyons of Big Sur and found a campsite surrounded by 15 foot wide trees that were hundreds of feet tall. Cool, quite and dark, these forests provided a nice change from the dynamic sunshine of the day. I truly believe I saw Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy working on a 57 Chevy at one of the road house grilles. 

Further north, the road alternated between a shamelessly commercialized 2-lane and a standard freeway thru the towns of Carmel, Monterey and the agricultural top of the Salinas valley where at least there were some killer farm stands and the apparent last sighting of Bobby McGee. Further on is Santa Cruz which prides itself on 'still being weird', and it is, but I still don't get it. With Trophy beach front homes and a sleazy pier, a yuppie downtown and a campy carnival, it is contrarian more than a contradiction, more awkward than an anomaly. There is a Coastal Redwood preserve up winding Highway 9 that gave us a sense of what the area was like before it was weird.  After Santa Cruz, the beach towns’ end and the shorts and flip flops are replaced with something warmer, something more seasonal. The Cabrillo Highway becomes 2 lanes again with bucolic agriculture and pasture land stretching to the ocean cliffs. The last 60 miles of road toward San Francisco, above Half Moon Bay,  becomes increasingly rural, sub urban, urban and eventually citified, but we could not bear it. It was time to turn east, up an unnumbered winding rural road thru the hills, and head for home.

On the way home we had a date with an old friend in Palo Alto, a very old friend with more than 101 years on this coast. She has seen some changes in a land where every road wants to be a freeway and every town wants to be a city. She tells us of a simpler time and a kinder and gentler place. There were 2 million people in California when she was born.  In 1980 California had 20 million people and I thought that it was full at the time and had ‘been had’.  California now has 40 million people and adds another million every three years or 70 million by 2100. California and its coast are indicative of our future, the microcosm of the American dream, and they are being loved to death. Still, we were able to find the old highway and a few glimpses into the past of what California once was; a place where we could be alone with the beauty and diversity of the undeveloped left coast.   I can’t help but think that maybe this spring we will drive the coast north of San Francisco and discover yet another California, before it disappears.