There’s a picture of me from the early ’90s: I’m 13, leaning against the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, peering down into the water below. I look somber, possibly because my father had shared on approach to the landmark that it was, at least then, the most popular bridge in the world to jump off. Or maybe it was some other reason.
I was definitely freezing, my long legs in jean shorts exposed to the summer San Francisco air, which manages to look cold even in the photo. I would remember the windy unpleasantness of that first trip to the city often after I moved to it more than a decade later, walking from work past tourists by the hundreds who were similarly underdressed, unable to fathom that there could be inclement weather in California.
That was the final stop on that family vacation, which was the first time I encountered the state, but it wasn’t the first discomfort during our trip. We’d gotten to the Bay Area via State Route 1, the epic and winding coastal road also known as Highway 1, my sister and I nauseated in the back seat and my mother panicking in the front as we took turns along cliff edges too fast. We had started in Los Angeles, where we had flown from Cleveland and stayed a night, we kids left at the motel while my parents went out. In the faraway unfamiliar city, noises through a door that opened directly to the outside, we were terrified.
It wasn’t that I was looking to reclaim the highway, or the state, when I embarked on the trip in the opposite direction from my home in Oakland last month. I didn’t have a strict agenda. I was open, as one needs to be here, to where I would end up.
If my initial experience of California doesn’t sound instantaneously enchanting — well, it’s a land of contradictions! And that land is stitched together from far north of Sacramento to almost San Diego by 659 miles of a highway that itself is dynamic and complicated. Most people who’ve driven the 1 mention wanting to throw up and the breathtaking beauty and danger in the same sentence, being carsick and awe-struck and scared.
The road was built in pieces starting about a century ago, partly with prison labor and explosives. Pieces of it still close, for fires, for eroded bridges, for falling right into the ocean. Most recently, in July, a stretch south of Big Sur that had been impassable for more than a year was finally reopened, repaired after 6 million cubic yards of landslide buried it in tumble toward the Pacific.
In the most evocative parts of the drive, the drop, separated from your car by just a guardrail — or not — is hundreds of feet.
Somebody who lives on the East Coast once told me that they don’t like California because it’s so big and full of possibility that they feel as if they could disintegrate. That it makes the space between their cells feel too vast. There might be nowhere that space feels vaster than on Highway 1.
Although my memories of the road from that first time are Dramamine-blurry, I’d since driven it, as far as Big Sur anyway, multiple times as an adult. But this was the first time I was doing it all the way to Los Angeles, to where I’d first landed, and solo.
I left my house in the crisp, invigorating East Bay morning, elegant hills and gentrification shrouded in fog or wildfire smoke or both — usually, recently, both — and headed toward a bridge to the San Francisco Peninsula, instantly sighing and celebrating. The City by the Bay turns to bucolic beach town in about 15 minutes along the 1, as the ocean rolls into view on your right and the cityscape empties out, and soon, you are in Pacifica, a seaside outpost that feels both remote and right down the street.
But this time, I skipped Pacifica for a new (to me) stop, in Pescadero, 30 miles farther south. I pulled away from the water and into the tiny town, wandering the main road waiting for Duarte’s, its 124-year-old tavern and restaurant, to open for lunch. The coffee shop across the street was playing a weird old movie in a nine-seat theater tucked in the back. Arcangeli, a grocery store and deli a block down, sells fresh-baked cookies bigger than my face, and I ate one.
When I did finally walk into Duarte’s, which I never would have done if a friend hadn’t tipped me off, I ordered a swirl of the cream of artichoke and cream of green chile soups. It’s not on the menu — I was additionally tipped off just that morning by the same friend. This stretch of coast is frequently, as it was that day, hugged by chilly overcast, and I heard every local around me order the same. The sourdough bread from a bakery a bit north in Half Moon Bay that the restaurant serves hot was as good as any I’ve had on Fisherman’s Wharf.
There’s a goat dairy in town, with a tasting shop. Eight miles south, there’s Pigeon Point, one of the West Coast’s tallest lighthouses. There’s the famous old-timey, roller-coaster- and-arcade-studded boardwalk at Santa Cruz 30 miles past that, and plentiful beaches and parks along the way. I opted for turning off the 1 at Davenport Beach, its own bakery and roadhouse looking exploration-worthy for another time, and headed up to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, because I had never been there, either.
I waffled about the detour right up to the last moment. Should I get on the unknown, even more winding path up into the forest? But there are no wrong decisions along the 1, Big Basin included. One could spend days there, on 80 miles of walking trails among the Earth’s tallest living organisms, many of these redwoods between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. And there are amenities to boot: a staffed headquarters, maps, all-gender bathrooms — and a form to fill out saying where you went, so someone can look for you if you don’t come back.
I took the Redwood Trail, a short, easy stroll through the wooden giants. I hike with some regularity among other Northern California redwoods, marveling at the scorch marks on their bark or through their middles, the way they withstand fire. The pamphlet I picked up at the beginning of the trail informed me that one of these trees burned and smoldered for 14 months before the fire in it went out. The pamphlet also told me to step inside the big hole in another one that has been ablaze multiple times and look up; I did, and there, a hundred feet above, was a circular window to the sky. Shocked to see blue overhead, I burst out laughing, the sound filling the space where the tree’s heartwood should be, bouncing off its hollowed insides.
A singular tree, less than a hundred miles from my city. It’d have been worth traveling from anywhere to see it.
I wound my car back to the ocean and rejoined the road alongside it, eyeing the options that arose: Moss Landing, with whale- and dolphin-watching boats. Monterey, of course, where my parents took us to the elaborate aquarium. Carmel-by-the-Sea, where I have only a vague memory of a street full of shops so fancy I couldn’t even really understand them. I continued straight to Big Sur.
Big Sur. The sound of it, even; the brevity and weight of both words. A road between rock faces, one side rising up and one sheer down — amid a cloudscape, it looks like, when the fog hangs low over the water and it seems as if you’re driving above the sky. Or, when the haze is thinner, and blurs the line between water and air on the horizon, as if you’re driving next to infinity.
Tucked among trees on the landside is Deetjen’s, a 1930s-era National Register of Historic Places-designated inn, a rambling collection of dark-wood structures with thin walls and entirely varying rooms inside.
I set my alarm for midnight. I drove, in the dark, down the 1 to Esalen, a nonprofit institute with workshops and lodging that opens its cliffside hot springs to anyone who books one of the limited $35 spots online fast enough when same-day registration opens at 9 a.m. The thing is: The spots are only available from 1 to 3 in the morning. The process of waiting by the side of the road and being rounded up and registered and led onto the property was not particularly warm or welcoming. But in the clothing-optional, open-air stone tubs, where the lighting is very dim and the crash of the waves far below is loud, the annoyances did melt off some as I soaked, breathing in eucalyptus, salt, redwood, pine.
I opted for a daylight version of the same view — ocean forever — on the giant deck at Cafe Kevah for breakfast the next morning. As I continued south that day, I stopped at the 80-foot, roadside McWay Falls and took the steep and mildly dangerous footpath down to an abandoned beach at Ragged Point Inn and Resort and plunged into the sea. I pulled off the side of the highway to watch a pod of dolphins apparently mating below.
At a beach near Point Piedras Blancas, hundreds of elephant seals were lying around or playing, some of them 16 feet long and 5,000 pounds. I waved at Hearst Castle as I passed it, high on the hill to my left — a place I did visit with my parents, where the tiles of the Roman pool room glitter with real gold. I witnessed a 600-foot, 23 million-year-old volcanic remnant, visible for 10 miles, rising in the distance in Morro Bay. I parked at the foot of it, where otters were floating around in the water right in front of me, their little hands rubbing their faces, rubbing their chests, holding each other as they tumbled, a stuffed-animal dream come to life.
Plans change. Landscapes change. Perilously, climates change.
It wasn’t just how you could die in California, on a famous bridge, that my father had taught me almost exactly 25 years ago. It was also how you could live. It turned out to be my place for sanctuary, too.