With it being the 12th time this trip that I pack the car, the process comes easily. Large bags and those we won’t need to get anything out of on the bottom; smaller bags and frequently visited bags on top. The gaps are filled with my water filter and tea kettle along with Riley’s shoes for every occasion and blanket. I admire my Tetris-formation resting motionless in the backseat. I then hop in the driver’s seat, confirming that my field of vision is not obscured by protruding luggage, and rev up the car.
Today we’re going to Santa Barbara. Why Santa Barbara? Because we heard it’s a pretty sweet town. Plus, Los Angeles is too far a drive to make in one day; particularly a day with as many scenic stops as today. The day’s journey commences on not-too-unusual highways. By now we’ve driven on so many boring interstates that the 880’s, 280’s, 10’s, 20’s and 101’s mesh in my mind.
Our first stop is Monterey, home to many of the country’s wealthiest residents and vacationers. A 17 mile road, creatively dubbed 17 Mile Road, takes us on a loop of this affluent area. With pristine weather pressuring us to enjoy the beauty around us, Riley and I cruise along a winding one-lane road. We pass between endlessly tall trees, drive alongside unexpectedly steep cliffs and stare out our window at perfectly struck golf balls.
“How much do you think it costs to play a round on that course?” I ask Riley as we pass a man putting beside a breathtaking 50 foot cliff emptying into the bay.
We look it up. $495.
Seems like a better use of money than getting our car towed for $700.
We open a map of the area, showing 20 points of interest. We pull off at one of them; a scenic beach. A Chinese man, inexplicably excited, climbs atop his van and pumps his fists in the air, yelling manically. His friends snap photos of him. The view of the beach is nice. But not that nice.
We stop at another beach. A large rock rests in the water a few hundred feet from the shore. The rock appears typical – brownish yellow, with some rough edges. Riley and I walk over to a sign describing this point of interest. “Seal Rock,” it reads. We look closer.
“Holy cow,” I shout. “All those brown spots are seals.”
Hundreds of squawking seals and California sea lions sun bathe on this monument protruding from the water. Various species of birds circulate the rock searching for something to nibble on. One bird, tired from its constant flight, rests atop a lazy seal. Agitated that his tanning session has been disrupted the seal jumps, or rather flops, into the water.
We stop at a handful more points of interest. Each displays a unique beauty, which can only be found among this magical West Coast bay. We pass beneath a massive house, built almost entirely of glass, overlooking 10 foot waves splashing against a cliff. Soon after we pass a golf club house. On second glance, the structure is not a clubhouse, but a home. A massive home, costing more than most families make in 10 lifetimes.
The beauty around us blinds us to the needs of our body. It isn’t until 3:30 in the afternoon that we realize we are starved. We have a $10 voucher for any restaurant within the confines of the 17 Mile Drive, so we pull into one of the golf resorts. We spot a restaurant and walk in. Despite our voucher, we still spend thrice the price one should pay for a meal consisting of a handful of under-fried calamari and popcorn shrimp, 4 slimy buffalo wings and 3 potato skins.
Remember what I said above about all the highways meshing in my mind? Well, that all changes the moment we step wheel onto Highway 1. Of all the roads I’ve ever driven on in the contiguous United States, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, this one is by far the most spectacular. This one lane road runs along the Pacific coast. To our right is the ocean and to our left are the Sierras. The water has never appeared this deep a blue. And the mountains have never looked this appealing to climb. We enter Big Sur, a 100 mile drive of purely brilliant nature. We cruise along the tallest cliffs I’ve been atop since hiking Waimea Canyon in Kauai.
The sun descends on this cloudless day, casting a golden glow atop everything in sight. We stop to take a scenic picture. We stop again. And again and again. The panorama seems more and more stunning with each mile driven. The beauty reaches a climax at one particular hill. Riley and I pull of at a shoulder and follow a thin trail running up this mini-mountain. Upon reaching the 100 foot apex, we stand at the edge of a 600 foot drop.
“Wow, what a view,” I exclaim, praying I’m not overcome by vertigo. What seems like miles in front of me rests a field of lazy cows. A step and a half to the right is a straight drop into the merciless ocean; only jagged rocks positioned to soften the blow. To my left is the highway; the very same one we just drove on. And behind us is a picturesque bridge, below which rests a gray and white sand beach.
Riley, a few feet behind me, peers in front me. She quickly squirms back to her comfort zone against the back of my shirt. “We’re not going any farther,” she says.
“Let’s just take a few more steps and take a photo,” I say.
Hesitantly, Riley agrees. Fortunately, a man with the same idea as us reaches the top of the hill and agrees to take our picture. We now have proof of this magical spot.
As we stand, basking in the moment, a strong gust of winds brushes against us. I waver along the 4 foot wide ledge.
“We’re leaving,” Riley squeals.
Not wanting to tempt fate, I agree. We cautiously shimmy back down the trail, mindful of bulging shrubs and loose rocks. We make it down in one piece. Back in the car, we continue our journey.
Just after 5pm, Riley and I pull over again. The sun is an index finger’s length away from sinking into the water. We find a comfortable rock to sit on. Riley cuddles up in her well-traveled blanket as I sit beside her with my arm around her shoulder. We watch the massive ball of fire disappear for the night. It can sleep well tonight knowing it put on a most wonderful show for us today.
The final 50 miles of Big Sur are driven in darkness. With twists and turns making up the entire remaining stretch, and there being no street lights to guide us, this drive is a bit discerning. For the most part we’re alone on the road. Occasionally we encounter a fearful driver slowly trudging along in front of us or a daredevil catching up behind us. Fortunately, there are plenty of shoulders for the sluggish to pull off at. The quick pass allowing the slow to return to their peaceful route.
The road straightens and street lights appear. Big Sur is no more. Back to the old, boring highways. Hungry, yet again, we find a Trader Joe’s, where we stock up on a breakfast-worth of groceries and a few prepared dinners. 2 rolls of sushi and a couple of kale salads later the steering wheel is tightly gripped between my hands as we set off on the final stretch to Santa Barbara.
2 hours later we pull up against a curb in front of a plain, beige apartment building. After reading the parking sign 3 times and concluding we won’t be spending the following morning conversing with the local tow company, Riley and I extract our essentials from the car and head to the waist-high black gate. We enter a courtyard surrounded by 8 apartment doors. One reads “D.” This is where our Couchsurfing host, Gao, lives. We knock. A man, not even a year younger than me, although appearing over a decade younger, opens the door. Specs of gray hair huddle among his straight black mane.
“Hi Misha,” he says in a Chinese accent.
“Hello,” I reply.
Gao steps aside, allowing us to enter his mostly empty apartment. A stand-alone heater, running from the floor to the ceiling is positioned opposite the front door. Uncomfortable hot air blows from it. A few feet to the left of the front door is a twin size mattress and a slightly larger futon. We rest our bags beside our beds and sit to talk to our host. We learn that Gao moved from China to New York to attend Cornell. Upon graduating he got a job with a small engineering company in Santa Barbara, California.
“A great place to live, but not so good place to travel,” he explains when attempting to come up with things for us to do while in town.
Exhaustion sets in for Riley and I and we’re ready for Gao to depart to his room and let us sleep. Either due to cultural differences or our host’s preference to sit silently and stare at us, Gao does not get the hint. For what feels like the next hour, the 3 of us sit in a triangle, looking from one set of eyes to the next, no one uttering a word.
“Alright, I’m going to drink some tea and go to bed,” I say.
“Okay,” Gao replies, still not rising.
Only when I stand up and walk to the kitchen does Gao depart from his seated position.
“Good night,” I say.
“Good night,” the little man responds.