AMERICAN HIGHWAYS—The Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1)

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Snaking over 650 miles down California’s coast, the Pacific Coast Highway is both an engineering marvel and one of the most spectacular drives in the country.

It’s a bit easier to get there now, as long as you have the gas money and reasonably good tires, but I do the same thing every time I stand on this coastline. I consider what it’s meant to countless people who crossed the country and got a look at this ocean for the first time. There they were, after thousands of miles of travel, having watched all the terrain swell and dry up and shift behind them, standing on the edge of the continent and looking at the biggest thing in the world.

Whether hanging from a cliffside or skirting the water’s edge, the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in America. Its construction feels both inevitable and insane, as it sits at the mercy of coastal winds and erosion, and subject to landslides that can close whole sections of the highway for months.

But man, what a view it provides.

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The most famous piece of the highway is the section around Big Sur, and there are plenty of drivers who avoid the highway outside of this area. But the road extends deep into Los Angeles and Orange Counties in the south and as far as Mendocino County in the north, and there is hardly any of it you could write off as not being worth it.

But I’m sad to say I gave up on the northernmost strip early on. Coming down from Eureka weeks ago, I jumped onto Highway 1 right where it begins around Leggett. This stretch takes a long, twisty route that avoids large stretches of the so-called “Lost Coast,” which has avoided development due to its dramatically shifting terrain. But I never made it. The road is so twisted up here that I actually got nauseous, and I’m sure that had nothing at all to do with the gigantic brownie I’d just eaten. In any case, I only got five miles before I turned back, so consider this my incomplete personal narrative of the road in question.

My own journey on the highway begins at Point Reyes, a National Seashore that arcs out into the Pacific and creates a protected lagoon inland. A few small communities have sprouted up here, including the hidden hippie town of Bolinas and the delightful little town of Point Reyes Station where, in typical California coast fashion, you can see work-worn pickup trucks parked side by side with Lotuses and Ferraris.

The drive to the Point Reyes Lighthouse feels like a trip to the edge of the world. The road stretches about 40 miles through marshland and coastal mountain, passing old cattle ranches that have become historic markers as they continue to operate inside the federally protected land. Eventually, on a high promontory so blasted by wind that the trees grow sideways, you come to a little parking area, and after a ten minute walk and a descent of some 400 stairs, you come to the lighthouse, and take in the shifting waters of the Pacific.

That’s the easy way to come into Point Reyes. The hard way is just south of the lighthouse on Limantour Beach, which is the terminus of the American Discovery Trail, a coast-to-coast walking trail stretching some 5,000 miles from Delaware to California. After covering the final 43 mile stretch from the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Reyes, hikers dip their toes in the Pacific, signalling the end of their journey. If you’re aware that even now hikers are finishing this trail after months of walking, then driving through this area can make you feel like a pretty serious wimp.

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Further south, Highway 1 skirts around the stunning Muir Woods (named for the naturalist John Muir), where you can see old-growth redwood trees that stand over 200 feet high and date back over 1,000 years. From here, it’s a short drive to the Golden Gate Bridge, and the loveliest spot in San Francisco: The Presidio.

A former military base that housed soldiers from Spain, Mexico and the United States in its 219-year history, the Presidio became part of the National Park Service in 1994. It’s a beautiful stretch of green space capping the San Francisco Peninsula, and offers impossible views from several vantage points. Underside view of the Golden Gate Bridge? Check. Overview of the bridge and the windsurfers and kitesurfers taking advantage of the howling winds underneath it? Check. Expansive view of the Bay emptying out into the Pacific? Check. This is always my first stop in San Francisco, and if I could camp out inside its borders for a month, I would.

Back on the highway, drivers inch their way along the edge of San Francisco and, after screaming their lungs out in traffic through the city and down into Pacifica, eventually come to another quiet little town called Half Moon Bay, home to a massive pumpkin festival and a surfing spot called Maverick’s, one of the most inhospitable, dangerous, and impressive big wave breaks on the planet. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area when the wave breaks (which is not often), you will find the nearby cliffside swarmed with photographers, each hoping to sell their shot of the big wave riders to various surfing mags.

South of Half Moon Bay is where California’s Central Coast begins, and this is where things really start to get interesting. This area, which stretches roughly from the surfing Mecca and hippie-dippie town of Santa Cruz to the plush seaside community of Santa Barbara, makes for some of the most beautiful scenery of the drive, and holds some of its most interesting artistic history.

It was along this stretch of California that Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck set most of his stories. Steinbeck has long been one of my literary heroes, and my favorite book of his—Cannery Row—takes place among the sardine canneries of Monterey’s waterfront (and if you haven’t read Cannery Row yet, stop reading this and go do so right now—it’s one of the funniest books ever written). The town of Monterey is also home to a long-running jazz festival, the best aquarium in the United States, and a couple of friends of my uncle who put me up for the night, and whose house nearly caught on fire while I stayed with them through no fault of my own.

Carmel-by-the-Sea (actual town name) also has a long artistic history, with writers such as Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, George Sterling and Upton Sinclair settling there in the early 20th century. More recently, it’s been known for its long-running Shakespeare festival, its proximity to the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links, and for being the home of Clint Eastwood, who served as mayor for a time and, it should be noted, could probably still kick my ass.

But as artistic locations go, Big Sur is the one that really stands out.

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The Bixby Creek Bridge, an engineering marvel.

Let’s start with the coastline. I can’t help but think of Slartibartfast, the planetary designer from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, who is particularly proud of his coastlines (especially Norway’s fjords and their “lovely crinkly edges”). As a profound nerd, I am deeply hopeful that Big Sur was one of his projects, as I’m certain he would have won an award for it.

The Big Sur coastline is a work of art, and its beauty has served as inspiration for countless artists. First of all, the engineers who built the highway that connected it to the rest of California, with 33 bridges running along its length. This stretch of highway took 18 years to build, and winds an impossible trail along the cliffs that cascade into the ocean. Highways are pieces of art, too, and this stretch of Highway 1 is close to being a masterpiece.

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Big Sur in the morning. (photo: Alex Fox)

Other artists soon came here. The great poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti kept a cabin here, and a series of visits to the cabin by Jack Kerouac inspired one of his best known works (Big Sur). Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favorite writers, lived on the coast here, a neighbor to the folk singer Joan Baez. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth purchased property here and built a home they never stayed in, which is now the site of Nepenthe Restaurant. Perhaps the greatest literary stamp on the area came from novelist Henry Miller, who made this his home for 18 years. The Henry Miller Memorial Library sits hidden along the highway, and is one of the area’s cultural hubs.

The road continues its snaking route south until it finally starts to straighten around San Luis Obispo, then broaden at Santa Barbara. The road starts to intertwine with the busier U.S. Highway 101 here, continuing to hug the shore all the way to Malibu. It’s on this stretch that you can feel the divide between Northern California and Southern California most prominently. Gone are the jagged cliffs and high pines of the more rain-swept and mountainous north, replaced by desert landscape and increasingly busy beaches of the south. The dunes start to pile up, and you begin to see surfers on the breaks. You’re level with the coast now, and the parked camper vans and surfmobiles tell you that you’ve moved into a whole different way of living.

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Close to the shore near Malibu.

The highway’s final stretch, from the Malibu Pier to the Santa Monica Pier and down to Dana Point, represents the California most people imagine before they come here. Sunny, sandy, crowded. Cars merging into traffic and pedestrians in bathing suits. Surfboards, rolled down windows. The Hollywood Dream and the surfer’s paradise.

There’s a way you can look at the drive as a journey through California’s various epochs. To the north is the early days. Sparse population, difficult roads, unspoiled coastline. Through the Central Coast, you can see how engineering brought the difficult to reach places within range of the cities, but it still comes largely from mid-twentieth century work. The elements of the information age are there, but large chunks of the coast, partly through inaccessibility, still feel much as they probably did fifty years ago. Then, in the south, the metropolitan sweep of Los Angeles, her gaudy essence extending all the way to the beach. Here is modern California in all its glory. Big and crowded, but still just as much an escape for dreamers as it ever was.

There’s an element of time travel to the Pacific Coast Highway. It brings hundreds of thousands of people annually to remote parts of this coast, but mudslides and construction still close sections for extended periods of time. The land is still rugged, and it is still evolving, and the highway has to make accommodations for that.

The Pacific, however, makes no accommodations. It sits there the same as it ever was. You look at it as you go down the highway and it rolls on forever, just on the other side of the glass, to the other side of the world.

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AMERICAN HIGHWAYS—The Loneliest Road in America (U.S. 50 across Nevada)

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Another series as part of this road trip will be American Highways, where I’ll examine some famous American roads, their history, and what it’s like to take them. Up first, U.S. 50.

It starts with a Life Magazine article from the mid-80’s, proclaiming that this stretch of road was the loneliest one in America—a rambling strip of two-lane blacktop through tough, unforgiving, mind-altering desert vistas that followed the old Pony Express route and offered only limited salvation at a few old mining camps. It was supposed to be a perjorative, but the State of Nevada ran with the phrase, attempting, with surprising success, to turn the highway into a tourist attraction.

Today, there are signs all through the state that proudly declare the highway’s “lonely” status. There are even mock passports that you are encouraged to have stamped in each town along the way, containing information on local landmarks. It’s a strange kind of tourist that would get excited about a barren highway in the desert. The kind of person with a few screws loose. A person, I like to think, kinda like me.

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Provided by the State of Nevada.

The Nevada section, particularly between Ely and Carson City, is known as the Loneliest Road, but it’s the section in Utah between Delta and the Nevada state line that feels truly lunar. The stretch that runs through the Sevier Desert and the Confusion Range in southwestern Utah makes everything in Nevada look like a flea market. Just outside of Delta, there’s actually a sign that reads: NEXT SERVICES—83 MILES. This is not encouraging.

Two words of advice for crossing Highway 50. First of all, keep alert. It’s nothing but flat ribbons of asphalt extending to the horizon most of the way and several sections have no shoulder. Sagebrush creeps right up to the edge of the road like it wants to ambush you. It can be easy to lose focus and start to drift over the line (this is the only road I’ve been on with billboards advising travelers to take breaks so they don’t fall asleep).

Secondly, do not drive at night. Critters start to creep up the edge of the highway and birds start coming out of the bush, dive bombing around your car in their evening dance. I almost hit a couple of birds. Or, I should say, they almost hit me. I also spotted jackrabbits, antelope, deer, and a badger. Which is fine, except when you’re doing 70 miles an hour in encroaching darkness on a two lane blacktop. I’m not a big fan of roadkill, especially when it’s me.

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In Ely (pronounced EE-lee), I spent the night at the Hotel Nevada, a huge neon beacon that was once the tallest building in the entire state. There’s a casino in the lobby and plenty of photos on the walls of the place back in its wilder days. It doesn’t get the kind of traffic it used to, but it’s still the crown jewel of throwback hotels in a town full of them. For those who are used to the consistently predictable franchise motels off the nation’s interstates, Ely feels like it’s still in the era of road trips in big fat Cadillacs and Chevy’s the size of tanks. All the motels have an old school vibe and art deco signs. There’s even an old fashioned soda fountain and drugstore called Economy Drug (where I had a milkshake for breakfast), as well as the Cell Block Steakhouse, where you can have dinner inside an old jail cell. Because Nevada.
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My dinner, behind bars.

The first thing you see as you roll out of Ely is a sign advertising the road’s lonely status. And after that you don’t see much except desert with the occasional mountain pass for about 70 miles until you hit Eureka. Where Ely trades on a stock of fading glamour and Austin (we’ll get there) feels completely left behind by modern progress, Eureka seems to be thriving. Clean and well-kept, but still very much a historic town, Eureka is the one spot on this side of the state that feels like an oasis.

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Like all the towns on this road, Eureka was a mining camp (the name means “I’ve found it”), but now makes its living as a retirement community and tourist attraction. The town’s old Fitzcarraldo style opera house serves as a community center, the original courthouse still functions as a courthouse, and the main drag is lined with false front buildings.

It was starting to get hot by the time I made Eureka, but I was in no position to complain, because right before I left, I ran into a pair of cyclists.
“Where you coming from?” I asked.

“We started in Virginia three months ago.”

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These two Norwegians are more badass than you.

Seems these two ladies came all the way from Norway to ride the breadth of the USA on a pair of touring bikes. Flat tires, high temperatures, aching muscles and all, they’re a slow motion Pony Express running all the way to San Francisco (they anticipated they were about two weeks away). We talked travel for a while, and they snapped a photo of me in my cowboy boots and hat leaning against my pickup truck with a copy of Walt Whitman in my hand, which I believe is the most American pose I could’ve struck.

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Austin cemetery.

A junkyard greets you as you roll into Austin, which is about the halfway point on the Loneliest Road. Dangling off the side of a mountain and at the end of a long series of switchbacks, Austin has an air of abandonment about it. It once housed a thriving community when silver and gold deposits were easy to find all over the state. But the mines dried up, and so did the towns. Austin still rolls along, and includes an interesting little museum of local history (on the left, as soon as you come into town), so it’s a far cry better, I believe, than some of the possibly abandoned towns around the state.

But that’s the thing about a lot of the towns off Highway 50. There’s no telling what’s going on in many of them. As you cruise open stretches of sun blasted highway, you will see turnoffs with signs that say there’s a town just 30 miles this-a-way. And you look out on an unpaved road, stretching to the horizon, and you think to yourself, who in God’s name lives out there? There’s something to be said for scale. Austin, Nevada might seem a bit abandoned, but out in this place it’s a metropolis.

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There are plenty of signs along the road advertising roadside attractions (mostly historical markers), and I realized I wasn’t stopping for any of them. And I thought, why not? I’m not in any hurry. Why not check out the next attraction that comes up? So when I saw a sign with a big arrow pointing left that said EARTHQUAKE FAULTS, I decided to see what the planet’s tectonic plates were up to.

I like to believe that, for the most part, I’m an intelligent man. But on every trip I take, I will have at least one moment of towering stupidity. I once spent ten minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to enter a bathroom in Costa Rica. But this was at a different level. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere, in a 24 year-old truck with a slipping transmission, on my way down the crappiest road in the state. Or so I thought. About four miles down, there was another arrow, pointing off to the right, setting me onto an even crappier road. I mean, I’ve driven some bad roads (I live in New Orleans after all), but this stretch was on the level of a bombing range. I bounced along for a half a mile, then realized that there was a crack in the middle of the road, which was getting wider. It hit me then how totally screwed I would be if I got stuck out here. I was half a mile off a nearly abandoned rock-strewn road, which was in turn four miles away from The Loneliest Road in America, which was in the middle of the Nevada desert. I’ve seen The Hills Have Eyes. I did not want to be stuck out here.

And then, on the final incline, my truck started to stall. I slammed it into the lowest gear and gunned the engine, my tires spun, caught, and the whole truck hurled itself onto the final rise. I put it in park, got out, put my hands on my knees and caught my breath. I was shaking. At first with exhaustion, and then with rage, because there were NO FUCKING EARTHQUAKE FAULTS ANYWHERE. Or maybe there were, but I couldn’t see them because I’m not a geologist. Maybe I’ve seen too many disaster movies. Maybe I thought there would be some massive fissure in the Earth with Dwayne Johnson hauling himself over the edge. I don’t know. But something dramatic would’ve been nice. All I got was this:

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Plenty of rocks. No sign of The Rock.

I bumped back onto the highway and turned west again, covering about thirty miles before I saw another turnout sign. This one was for a Pony Express Station, and considering I probably still had a little bit of stupidity to spare, I made another turn off the highway.

Considering how short lived the Pony Express was, it certainly occupies a sizable space in the American imagination. Maybe it’s the sheer audacity of the operation. Riders, many of them no older than 20, crossed the open expanse of the plains, switching horses at a series of stations spaced about fifteen miles apart, for more than 2000 miles, simply to deliver the mail. Through deserts, mountain passes, in snow up to their horses’ flanks and sun baking down on them in temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, they would ride, switching out horses at every station and switching riders every hundred miles or so. It was a brutal, fast, and sometimes deadly existence. Even more so for the station operators, who were frequently all alone for months at a time in the harshest of conditions, and completely vulnerable to attack from Native American tribes that didn’t care for the incursion, roving bandits, or any predator or venomous creature that had a mind to make them into a snack.

I took a walk out to one of the stations. It gives a whole new meaning to desolate. The remains of the station’s walls are still there, but there’s not much to speak of in the area. Just a massive alkaline lake, salt flats, and a huge sand dune whose grains “sing” in the wind, emitting a low moan that is said to be the sound of a giant snake that birthed the world moving across the desert.

It’s a lonesome place to have an office.

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The remains of a Pony Express Station.

An hour west of here is Fallon, and the beginning of the end of the highway’s loneliest stretch. Things turn green, gas stations appear at regular intervals, and the road widens to a four lane byway. Cell phone signals return and civilization again makes itself known. Beyond that, depending which way you go, sit Carson City and Reno, modern towns with modern casinos that serve as scaled down versions of Vegas. And beyond that, the high, cool peaks and lush pine forests of California’s Eastern Sierra. It’s a far cry from the desolate feel of the rest of the highway. But you’re still on U.S. 50. You’re still in America.

You’ve just left the last few centuries behind.

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