Pacific Coast Highway
Mail on Sunday, 2004
In the John Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, California, making a diversion inland from the coast, I spotted the T-shirt bearing a quote from the author of 'The Grapes of Wrath.' It said, 'A Journey is a person in itself. No two are alike.' That inspired an imaginative game - trying to put a face to this particular journey. Rugged fisherman? Cranberry farmer? Tangle-haired beachcomber? Surfer babe? Impossible - because the famous Pacific Coast Highway has so many faces. One thing I know, it's a route that everybody should dream of driving. Even if to dream is the nearest you get.
I'm writing a book about iconic road trips in the USA, and the power they have to change you - of course, travelling my preferred way: on the back of a rented Harley-Davidson ( piloted by a great friend and colleague). Two years ago it was Route 66; before that Bob Dylan's Highway 61. Asked to choose, I'd judge Pacific Coast Highway, from Seattle to San Diego, as the most variously beautiful route as well as the most easy. That's because, off season, decent accommodation is easy to find without booking ahead and (unlike in some of the more 'hick' inland areas) you can always end the day with a bottle of chilled Californian Chardonnay. You travel down three states, Washington, Oregon and California, always with the mighty Pacific Ocean not far away.
This whistle-stop account starts in Seattle, one of the USA's great cities, home to the brilliant and original Music Experience Museum - where you can study the life of Seattle's famous son, Jimi Hendrix, shed a tear over tragic Janis Joplin's pink boa, and learn instruments in free workshop-booths. The city offers tours to all the locations of the movie 'Sleepless in Seattle', including the houseboat - but it's more interesting to hang out in Pike Street Market, where the food and flower displays are works of art and the fish are as fresh, large, salty and gorgeous as the guys who catch and sell them.
After wandering through every sort of stall you can eat in the diner where Tom Hanks was filmed, watching the ferries and fishing boats move busily to and fro across the Puget Sound. Even if time is short, you have to go up the landmark Space Needle to appreciate the surrounding landscape fully - a dramatic vista of water and hills, with the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula in the distance, wreathed in lowering grey cloud.
That was our dramatic destination, leaving the city. We picked up the huge, black Harley-Davidson Road Glide, from a dealership north of Seattle. It had been sent up by road from California, and we had to deliver it back within the month. Such excitement at the beginning of the journey, even though the minimalist art of packing a motorcycle is a booklet in itself.....and always you glance up at the sky. On the Port Edmonds ferry to the Kitsap Peninsula a fellow biker warned us, 'The weather changes completely every fifty miles. Sure - you'll get rain, man!'
Our plan was to follow the line of the coast, looking over towards Canada, passing through Sequim and Port Angeles - aware all the while of the lowering pine-clad landscape inhabited by bears and cougars and the dramatic heights of Hurricane Ridge above. This area is a National Park: a mecca for hikers, wild-life watchers, birders, and eccentric recluses. The coastline is empty: a silent vastness of sea and sky, always with the smell of sea weed in your nostrils and salty freshness of the breeze on your face.
Of course, you feel you're on the true journey when you reach the Pacific Coast itself, having cut across the 'shoulder' of the Olympic Peninsula, and ready to high tail it all the way down to the Mexican border. On this stretch we discovered one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen - Ruby Bay. Sunlight sparkled on breakers, the wind was cold and I felt overwhelmed by the desolate beauty of pewter sea and pearlescent sky.The almost deserted shoreline is littered with 'beach logs' in vast piles, some twisted into fantastic shapes - the bones of a rain forest picked clean by the sea. Looming over the waves are enormous towers of rock, eroded into the ghosts of headlands, where cormorants and other sea birds strut, wheel, scream and nest. This is both magical and sinister at the same time. Everywhere you see warnings of Tsunamis - the lethal tidal waves which can be caused by undersea earthquakes in Japan or Alaska. You feel as vulnerable as a baby anemone in a rock pool.
The Washington Coast is always beautiful, with pretty towns like Westport and Raymond-on-the-Willapa showing that human habitation doesn't have to spoil things. The mist rolls in from the sea, hanging jewelled spider webs on everything. You move from a sense of the coast as livelihood (husband and wife teams working as teams on fishing boats called Trollers) and industry (we stayed next to a fish packing plant one night), to pure, carefree Seaside. Ocean Park is an odd spit of land that's one long resort: amusement arcades, children in hired sand buggies, bicycle paths, shops selling everything from Washington snow domes to shell curios. At last, just three days after we'd left Seattle, we roared across the mighty Columbia River - and into the state of Oregon.
These are the cranberry lands, and you can visit farms and displays about the magical litte fruit. Also - I can recommend two essential sights for male travellers on this stretch of coast: the state-of-the-art Maritime Museum at Astoria and the (more old-fashioned) Air Museum at Tillamook. It's not that women aren't interested in such things, but I confess that I wouldn't have stopped if I'd been piloting the Harley myself. And then I'd have missed so many examples of astounding courage, on the pitiless sea and in the air - stories which remind you of what is most awe-inspiring about being human, whatever your gender.
Coastal routes make you far more humble than inland roads - something about the eternal presence of the ocean, and the knowledge that there is nothing but water between you and Japan, 3,800 miles away. Whether you are travelling by motorcycle (the most testing, naturally) or car, the Pacific Coast Highway unfolds pine woods, spectacular lighthouses, littered sands for beach combing, and capes where the winds can reach 100 mph. Quite apart from the astounding scenery, the wildlife count was impressive.We saw whales, sea otters, seals, and pelicans, not to mention racoons, elk, eagles, wild turkey and (further south) sea lions.
The Oregon coast is justly famous for its sand dunes - towering golden cliffs fringed with coast razor-sharp grass, buzzing most of the day with beach buggies which can mount the steepest slopes in acrobatic swoops and parabolas. But best of all is early morning when you can contemplate the endless movement of the waves in total silence as the sun behind you casts before even the tiniest shell a shadow of mortality.
In truth, after Washington and Oregon, it was an anticlimax to cross into California. I'd read about the great redwood forests, but they weren't as exciting as the vistas of rock and dune we 'd just seen. There's plenty of hard-headed commercialisation here too. An attraction called 'Trees of Mystery' leads you on a walk through the Redwoods, and carries you in a ski lift to the top of the ridge where you can see forest stretching for miles. But a skein of Canada geese flew overhead, honking and an osprey rose above the trees - and all the souvenir shops in the world can't spoil the majesty of ancient woodland.
Every few miles along the road you pass sprawling sales points for huge chainsawed carvings of totem poles and Indians and bears holding signs saying 'Howdy' - so many things you really wouldn't want, not even as a gift. At Leggatt you turn from 101 on to Highway 1 - the original Pacific Coast route. And there you find is the world famous 'Drive-through Tree' attraction. Yes, in a forest of magnificent redwoods there is one tree unfortunate enough to be so large they've carved a passageway through it large enough to take a car. What do you do? Become tacky tourists and ask somebody to take your photo riding through....
We became oppressed by blanketing fog which made the hairpin bends terrifying. The ocean, glimpsed between trees, looked dark and bleak, and seals lay on blackish sand like sardines turned out of the tin. The cloud sucked the colour out of everything. Yet this was California! I felt cheated. At 4.59pm one day, thoroughly chilled, we still pushed on another forty miles to Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock's 'The Birds' was filmed. It wasn't hard to imagine our feathered friends taking revenge as they gathered on wires in the twilight and watched our Harley rumble by disturbing their cold, cold air. By now we'd done 1270 miles, in just one week on the road.
You have to be ready to make detours, so we decided to leave the foggy coast and head inland for some sun and a sight of the Californian vineyards. Sonoma, Calistoga and Napa itself could occupy you happily for a week, but we just stole a couple of nights before heading back down the switch back road to pick up the coastal highway once more, bowling past beautiful Tomales Bay to one of the world's most perfect spots - Point Reyes. There's no space here to detail the wonders of wilderness and open space of an area saved by conservationists for all time. Enough to say that the little town is full of 'alternative' shops, galleries, organic food and funky-looking people - for this is Marin County, where somebody bothers to alter a sign on a wall from 'No Parking' to 'No Barking'. Perfect.
Onwards on 1 - and suddenly there is San Francisco across the Bay. We were to stay there a week, making programmes for Radio 4 and giving the Harley a rest - and since the city is one of my favourites it will merit a separate article. This great journey was changing its character all the time, and leaving the Bay Area for Santa Cruz, Carmel and Monterey you start to think inevitably of actors like Clint Eastwood, (once Mayor of Carmel) as well as all the rock stars of 'Monterey Pop' and the Summer of Love. Glamour is the key; everywhere you see luxurious homes hiding behind big gates, all with superb views over the Pacific. The surfers bob like flocks of seal in the water, waiting for the Big One.
The fun fair at Santa Cruz, the Aquarium at Monterey, Carmel's Mission (not to mention the streets of designer shops)....there's so much to see that the imperatives of the road trip become frustrating. You have to move on, because with a return flight booked you must work out the miles and stick to your plan, within reason. Still, we did make that slight detour from Monterey to Salinas so I could worship at the shrine of one of America's greatest writers, John Steinbeck. This part of California is full of his spirit - as well as businesses who highjack his name to sell their irrelevant wares. Oh well... it was Steinbeck who wrote of the American people in 1959: 'Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch, searching for a soul.'
Anybody travelling along this coast - whatever their mode of transport - should try to stop at two specific places at least for a night. Both hotel destinations have great soul, although they couldn't be more different - the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur and the Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo. The Post Ranch Inn is quite simply the most wonderful place I have ever stayed - an exquisite site on a ridge, thousands of feet about the Pacific, where everything is designed with peace and harmony in mind, and your soul feels soothed - even if your credit card hurts. In contrast, the landmark Madonna Inn, a day's journey south, is the epitome of kitsch and good fun, with mad themed rooms ( 'The Caveman', 'Irish Hills,' and so on) and a garish steakhouse.To me, they represented two sides of the spirit of California - the New Age and the old.
Everybody warns you about Los Angeles ('the traffic...the smog...be careful with the Harley' etc) but that vast sprawl had no surprises for us, since we'd ended up there after 4,000 miles along Route 66. We just wanted to get through it, and head on south to San Diego. Seal Beach, Huntingdon Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Oceanside ...a coast that is one long seaside strip. Every couple of miles there's a 'Psychic Reader' advertising his or her services, and I wonder what this tells us about modern America. The urban sprawl tells more, perhaps, for there's little of beauty to see - and I felt nostalgic for the wild beauty of Washington, Oregon, Point Ryes and Big Sur.
The Autumn weather was disappointing again; people in San Diego told us the clouds were unusual. But the city (technically the end of our journey) wasn't a disappointment, even though we knew we had little time to sample all it offers. We would have three days there before returning the rental motorcycle to Quaid Harley-Davidson in little Temecula, halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, then flying home from LA.
Oh, the pressure of the end of a journey! We felt compelled to whizz across the Mexican border to check out Tijuana (tedious and tacky), as well as zip back to the coast to see La Jolla (beautiful - a place you dream of inhabiting), beside exploring San Diego itself. The adobe Old Town, complete with historic buildings and the Bazaar del Mundo, is a great place to stay, but so is the restored Victorian Gaslamp Quarter, full of restaurants and bars as well as wildly baroque architecture. Nobody should miss beautiful Balboa Park with about twelve museums, or (for restoration afterwards) drink in Patrick's Bar, where there's live music every night, and the margaritas rock your head.
It was over. Three weeks on the road and a week in San Francisco, added up to 2,640 miles on the clock. Back home now, haunted by the idea of The Road, I'm like an addict, dreaming of more motorcycle journeys - although of course, a pink Cadillac might be an alternative. And, nostalgic for the long Pacific Coast Highway, I realise at last what personality that journey wears in my memory. Able to cope with cold, rain, coastal fog, isolation, dizzying drops and the wild wind.... Why, what else but the helmet, gloves, shades and tough black leather of the biker?