Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The High Road

The Pacific Coast Highway between Carmel and Santa Barbara is pretty much the perfect road. If you like winding, narrow, slow, hilly, cliffy and terrifying, it is Plato's ideal. If you like straight, flat and fast, you're going to hate it.

But if you're like me, the PCH is one of those drives you have to do at least once - although I can't imagine how those views could ever get old. It's the only road to Big Sur, but it's not really about going anywhere, it's just about the driving - it exemplifies the "it's the journey, not the destination" maxim. There are lookout points round every other bend, and you make friends with the other drivers as you all stop, and look, and marvel, and take each others' pictures.

Misty morning on the PCH

I left Carmel around 10 am, and as Mustang Sally and I climbed into the hills, we rolled into a surprisingly white world. Fog and mist and mizzle left us blind to the views, and for awhile, it felt more like Christmas than July in California. But the best part of the fog was that it made you focus on the sounds, and even above the rush of wind - yes, I had the top down - you could hear the crashing waves a hundred feet or more below.

I drove in fog most of the way to Big Sur, but just before it, the clouds cleared, and - wahhhh - the ocean appeared, roiling and beating the rocks below.

I had been following a Harley most of the way, and right before Big Sur he turned down a single track road that said 'beach access.' Assuming that bikers always know the best hidden routes, I decided to follow him. The road was barely wide enough for Sally, and panic set in when  headlights appeared in the other direction. It was the first of several subtle negotiations as Sally and I eased our way the few miles - straight down - to Pfeiffer Beach.

But it was all worth it. At the bottom of the road, there was a narrow path that opened out onto a sheltered beach. Enough people not to be lonely, but far from crowded, there were surfers and sunbathers and kids running in - and out - of the cold water. I walked around enough to get my feet wet and sandy, and sat for awhile on some rocks, passing the time of day with the seagulls.

Surfer Dude at Pfeiffer Beach

Doorway to the Pacific? ~ Pfeiffer Beach

I joined up with my biker friend - Mike from Detroit - as we both headed up the beach to leave. He seemed amazed that I had come "all the way from Canada" even though he had ridden his bike more than 2000 miles to get here. He said he recognized my accent because he watched a lot of HGTV - a channel loved by bikers and non-bikers alike, apparently - and he said, "Canada makes the best reality tv shows." Dubious honour, perhaps, but I'll take it.

Near John Little State Reserve

Back up on the PCH, the road hangs over cliffs that are, in romance-novel parlance, "perilous," and the twisty-turning lasts for about three hours, until, mercifully, the path straightens out and you can fly, free, on a fast road for the first time. For awhile the road heads east, and seaside villages turn into scruffy Old West towns, and then you climb through hills of grapevines and olive groves, and when you feel like you can't drive for one more minute, you reach Santa Barbara, a gorgeous bougainvillea town with white Spanish buildings and a wide beach, and amazing cliff-clinging houses, each more expensive than the next. It's a perfect Californian city, at the end of a perfect Californian road.

Who can ask for more than that?


  1. Loving your blog, Marliss. I'm thinking of sabbatical in California and this is encouraging me even more!

    1. Thanks Christine! And if you have the chance to come here, jump at it. It's a place I could spend a lot of time!

  2. You are making me want to travel the same highway, even though I hate high winding roads. Can't wait until you tell about what you find in Santa Barbara.

  3. So did you hit Carmel? Santa Barbara's prettier and less accessible sister.

    1. I did. Carmel is fantastic. Almost too pretty, if that's possible. But I loved it. Could definitely spend some quality time there.

  4. Oh to be young and (foolish) brave!! You go girl. I can live my dreams vicariously through you who is much braver then I. Cannot wait until you get to South Africa. Post tons of photos please. Stay safe. Love, the other cardmaker.