Big Sur for Sunset or Bust

Time was that I believed the location from which you watch a sunset was only important insofar as you had a good, unobstructed view of the setting sun. But this trip’s been changing that. In my opinion, a sunset is a pretty cosmic experience (dude), and the cosmos is all about sapce. Different spaces have different energy (and I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy New-Agey “everything is vibration” kind of way, but in a genuine, palpable experiential sense). So having that cosmic experience in a particularly meaningful space obviously deepens the impact.

When I left Ojai in the morning, my goal was to reach Big Sur for the sunset. It wasn’t that I was convinced the sunset would be particularly spectacular there (although I was) but rather that I wanted to experience the sunset from there. The rugged wilderness of Big Sur (“el sur grande” = “the big south” of the Monterey peninsula) is a place of legend: its rugged, wild coastline and utter isolation have offered inspiration to a disproportionally large number of artists, and also seem to provide a site for engagement with nature and spiritual transcendence (don’t take my word for it; go there if you haven’t. I defy you not to see the face of God — Whoever you think He Is or Isn’t — in the coastline). Thus, it seemed particularly auspicious to watch the sun dip from such a place.

As I wove North on the PCH, I began to become increasingly worried that I wouldn’t make my goal. The elephant seals had slowed me down, and the fact that there was an irresistible place to stop every five miles wasn’t helping either. But soon, I passed a simple wooden sign that read “Welcome to Big Sur.” Literally as soon as I passed the sign, the roads became rife with sharp turns, curves, and blind corners. To the East, steep hills speckled with shrubs led up to massive trees, a dense cluster of foliage that seemed nearly impenetrable. And the road climbed, quickly giving a spectacular view of the distinctive coast to the West.

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Although the highway was far from crowded, the amount of cars on the road certainly didn’t match the wilderness. I suppose in coastal California, wilderness has a different meaning. Big Sur is about four hours from LA, one of the biggest cities in the US. Meaning that you can go from what’s considered utter wilderness to dense urban sprawl in a single morning. To clarify, consider the wilderness of Northern Ontario: it’s rugged, like Big Sur. It’s gorgeous, like Big Sur. But it also happens to be about fifteen hours from Toronto. There are places that are hundreds of kilometers from anything remotely resembling a city centre; perhaps even hundreds of kilometers from a real grocery store or hospital. There was ample construction on the PCH, so there were a few places where I had to stop, bringing up the rear of a line of cars. Of course, it wasn’t exactly terrible to be stopped on the edge of the ocean, breathing the fresh air and listening to the waves lap on the rocks hundreds of feet below.

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It was always easy to tell which cars are being driven by locals. Because they don’t really drive. Rather, they seem to become every crevice and contour of the highway, drifting across its paved surface with the grace, ease, and experience of a figure skater cutting across the ice. They go faaaaaast, and they go sure. Tourists (like yours truly) seem to be responsible for staying out of their way. There were numerous short gravel pull-offs (not unlike the ones in Colorado for run-away trucks) so that slower vehicles could pull out of the way of faster ones.

As the sky turned golden and the ocean began to glisten with that distinctive dusk luster, I scoured the roadside for a place to stop.

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The place I found was a small gravel parking lot pressed up against a six-foot lump of dirt and pine needles. Over the lump was a cliff facing the ocean. Judging by the empty beer bottles, I’d hazard to guess that I wasn’t the first schmuck with the bright idea to watch the sunset from here.

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I arrived on the cliff and took my seat (can of Chunky soup in hand) just in time to see the sun sink below the horizon and cast a refracting corona of light over the Western waves.

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The quality of this sunset was permeated by the elevation. Being so high up, looking down at the ocean and across the whitecaps to the setting sun, made me feel more elevated and freer than dusk at — e.g. — Huntington Beach. I was up above it all, amongst the trees, on a quiet stretch of highway in a quiet stretch of California. After the bustling cosmopolitanism of LA and the sleepy suburbia of Ojai, it was monumentally refreshing to be in the wild again. 

Soon, I was back on the highway. Now, instead of worrying about missing the sunset, I was worrying about how dark it would soon be and how obstacular (it’s a word, I swear) these roads were. The locals still raced along with a seemingly spiritual connection to the asphalt, but my speedometer dropped right down.

I regretted not reaching Big Sur when I had some time to explore in the daylight. One distinctive thing about the whole area is that there are very few lights. And by very few I mean none. There seemed to be a community-wide vendetta against the smallest amount of light pollution. Speaking of community: there were occasional gravel driveways jutting off the road at weird angles, but virtually none of the homes were actually visible. The occasional grouping of buildings popped up, but because of the lack of outdoor lighting, at night the largest hint that you’re in the midst of civilized abodes is the glint of headlights off of windows and parked cars.

So I briefly toyed with the idea of camping somewhere in the vicinity. How much could it possibly cost? I asked myself. It’s wilderness, I don’t need any services. Hell, I don’t really even need a site; I just need a place where I can park for seven hours or so and pass out in the back of my van. There were very few incognito pull-offs, so I looked for a campground. Again, the lack of outdoor lights made this a daunting task. I pulled off at what I believe was called the Big Sur Campground. I was greeted by a dimly lit park store and a woman standing on either side of the road. “How can I help you?” the one at the driver’s side asked in a South Dakotan drawl. “Do you have any sites free?” “Sure. They’re forty dollars a night, plus a parking fee.” I wondered to myself why there was an additional parking fee; it was hard to imagine that a lot of people made it here without a car. But I was pretty covert about it. “Where’s the next place to stay to the North?” I asked. “I didn’t make as good time today as I was hoping.” “Carmel,” she said. “About 25 miles North.” After briefly considering, I thanked her and turned around. 40+ dollars for a night of camping was beyond my ability to justify. In retrospect, how can you put a price on Big Sur? But ah well.

I backtracked a little ways south and checked out another campground. No one was working at this one; campers were expected to place money in an envelope and check their desired site off on a whiteboard. Again, $40 for a night plus a $10 parking fee. I stopped at yet another place, but this was a lodge which (given its expansive windows, fancy-looking dining room, and excess of land rovers, was further out of my price range than anywhere else). However, before I pulled away, I thought about filling up at the gas tanks out front. They were barely lit, but the tiny illuminated LCD price monitor read $5.19/gallon. 5.19. Just let that sink in. The highest prices I had seen (which seemed relatively incomparable) were those in LA that had soared above the $4.50 mark. And in Big Sur they were demanding 70 cents more. Anyway, not to harp on inconsequential gas prices or anything…But again, I was forced to think about the differing definition of wilderness. LA was four hours down the road, for Pete’s sake! It’s not like we were in the middle of the Mojave here guys! But I suppose the PCH is the only access, and it’s not exactly a desirable route for transport trucks and tankers and the like. In my mad pursuit of economy, I passed it all up. 25 miles wasn’t far. I could make it in a night. Especially if I could traverse the entire state of Missouri after dark. Besides, I had a vague memory of seeing signs declaring that the PCH would be closed overnight in this area for roadwork. The schedule I was imposing on myself didn’t allow for any more hold-ups (ahem, Colorado). So I kept driving.

Locals raced by while I paced myself. The curves of the road came out of nowhere, and I was taking no risks when there was a four-hundred-foot plunge down to the cold, unforgiving waves. A few miles up the road I did manage to spot a pull-off. I thought about setting up camp there, but it was still early (well before 9pm) and there were ample signs discouraging people from doing just that. I wondered briefly about whether an official authority would actually take the time to peer through car windows and ticket as necessary. There were other cars parked there, seemingly with no visible permits. Nonetheless, I decided not to risk it. However, I did park and cross the highway to a path that I’m sure is stunningly gorgeous during the day. Not that the darkness denigrated its beauty in any way. A narrow, well-trodden path led through rampant wildflowers and shrubs onto the cusp of a jagged rocky cliff that stood a hundred feet or so above the ocean. Rough waterways were carved through the rocks, and had I had the sun on my side, I definitely would’ve tried to make my way down to the water. As it was, I was content with sitting, hugging my knees to my chest, and embracing the utter darkness. A vast celestial tapestry was splayed overhead, and the lapping of the waves pulled me into a trance. It was late enough that cars didn’t pass often, so there was mostly silence. I hovered in the void for a while, then decided to get back on the road.

For reasons I no longer remember and therefore cannot be very important, I breezed by Carmel and ended up in Monterey. I found a McD’s grabbed a Junior Chicken, and holed up on the second floor (that’s right: a two-story McD’s!). I did some Skyping, some blogging, and some route planning. It looked like there wasn’t much in the way of 24-hour Wal-Marts in the vicinity. The nearest one was a fair bit of driving away. But these parts were so isolated, the roads having so few turn-offs, that I saw few alternatives. The isolation would mean one of two things: either no one would bother me wherever I was, no matter what; or I would stick out like one of those really sore thumbs that sticks out, and I would undoubtedly run into trouble. Embracing caution yet again, I resolved to trek to the nearest Wal-Mart. The McD’s closed at 10pm (unusually early) so I cleared out about 15 minutes before that. A few blocks away, I found myself on a quiet, dark, rather accommodating residential street. Taking a lesson from my time in Williams and Ojai, I found an unassuming spot that wasn’t in plain view of any front windows and parked, thus narrowly averting yet another night spent beneath an offensive Wal-Mart flood light.

 

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Elephant Seals

Barely 10 minutes up the coast from Moonstone Beach Drive, I came across a sign that pointed towards an “elephant seal viewing area.” Of course couldn’t pass that up. So I pulled off the PCH and parked. The lot was surrounded by fencing, and there was a drop down to the ocean. At first, I expected this to be one of those wildlife viewing areas where you can sit for hours and never see the thing you’re supposed to be viewing. I looked around a bit, and the lack of any elephant seals seemed to support this theory. Then I went to the far side of the lot, where people were gathered, and there they were. Literally hundreds of seals, slumped lazily all over the beach. And each other.

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One’s first glance at an elephant seal may incite a response something like “guh.” However, they’re not a creature to simply be glanced at; to really appreciate their grace, peculiarities, and abilities, they have to be watched. And knowing a little bit about their biology certainly doesn’t hurt. 

They get their name from their probiscus (elongated snout), which allows them to make loud roaring sounds during mating season. More importantly, though, numerous cavities in the probiscus allow them to absorb moisture when they exhale: because they seldom leave the beach during mating season, and thus have no source of water, they need to conserve as much as they can.

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Above, that’s a male’s snout with the probiscus. Compare to the female (they’re way cuter):

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Northern elephant seals are those that live on Pacific coastal Canada, USA, and Mexico; Southern elephant seals live in the southern hemisphere. The Northern males grow to be about fifteen feet in length, tipping the scales around 5500 lbs, whereas the females rearely surpass 11 feet and 1400 pounds. Thus, it’s quite easy to tell the males form the females. There only seemed to be one male for every six or seven females, which isn’t so surprising when you consider that a single male elephant seal will impregnate up to fifty females per season.

Below, the male is the big one, surrounded by much smaller females. The males would frequently flip their tales so as to cover themselves in sand and protect themselves from the sun.

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On average, elephant seals dive 300-600 metres when hunting for food; the dives typically last about 20 minutes for females and 60 minutes for males (although they can hold their breath up to 100 minutes). Their blubber is mostly what protects them from the cold. Their torpedo shape is what allows them to move so fluidly through water. On land, they may look like big…well, sacks of blubber. Nevertheless, they can apparently move quite fast, even out of water, and there were numerous warning signs around the viewing area, making it clear that they’re extremely dangerous and likely to cause severe physical injury if you approach them.

If you’d asked me a few hours before how long I could spend standing next to the fence and watching the seals, I probably would’ve capped it at five minutes or so. After all, what do they really do other than lie on the beach? Well, I stood on that beach for a good half-hour and still wasn’t bored when I left. For a few minutes, there may be silence, but then the males start flipping sand onto themselves, which sometimes incites the females to move. When they move, they sometimes make a weird kind of braying sound, kind of like a horse drowning in honey. When when they move over each other, thus upsetting whoever gets stuck on the bottom, they bray even louder, occasionally snapping. It was almost like watching a particularly strange group of people (PARTICULARLY strange) communicating in a simplistic language you don’t really understand.

So, needless to say, this seemed to be a popular destination. Elephant seals are oddly fun to watch. And wherever there are a lot of people, there’s usually a proportionally high concentration of seemingly fearless creatures looking to pick up the crumbs.

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San Luis Obispo County II: Volcanos and Driftwood

Just Southeast of Avila Beach, Highway 1 juts North and cuts out a significant portion of coast, a portion which is home to the Montana De Oro State Park. The PCH (Hwy 1) rejoins the Pacific in the quaint little fishing village of Morro Bay. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Morro Bay is Morro Rock, a volcanic plug that’s nearly 600 feet high. It used to be completely surrounded by water, but the Northern channel was eventually blocked to form the town’s harbour. Access to the Rock is prohibited, mostly because it serves as a sanctuary to the peregrine falcon. However, you probably wouldn’t want to climb it anyway, because word on the street is that the rocks tend to be pretty lose and prone to sliding.

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The streets seemed fairly deserted, and all of the restaurants were eerily empty (although it was around 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon). Although tourist shops dotted the harbour and sidestreets, the tourists were conspicuously missing. This desertion, combined with the strange Rock, gave the town a bizarre feeling. Especially considering that the Rock was big enough that, wherever you looked, it was pretty much always in your frame of vision. Like a vast ghost looming over the town, ensuring its isolation.

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And this, which was the nicest, most polished and well-restored VW I have ever seen:

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The falcon isn’t the only species given sanctuary here. The harbour forms an estuary, which is essentially a body of water separated from, yet still connected to, the ocean. It undergoes processes of both the ocean (tides, etc.) and river environments (flow of fresh water and sediments). What this amounts to is a near-perfect habitat for scores of marine wildlife. Aside from the usual birds, I spotted some elephant seals flopping lazily on a marker of some kind.

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 Because of the lack of people on the streets and docks, I decided to embrace the temporary sense of peace. I stood on a deck overlooking the harbour for a while. Down below, a fishing boat was docked. Two anglers (?) — a woman on the boat and a man with a pony tail and a metal T-shirt on shore — were talking. I listened intently. It seemed that he was looking to pick up work, not only as a bater, but also as a fisher. I think. She went on the explain the perils of being “spined” by a fish. How much it hurts, what a pain it is, etc. She told him how once it had happened to her and the wound got infected, and she had had to go to a hospital. The medical care, combined with the drugs they gave her, ended up costing upwards of $400000. Of course, this number shocked me. Then again, I’m from the fabled land of free healthcare. She spat the number out like it was nothing, like it was all in a day’s work. Like that sort of bill was just one of the prices you pay for living in the land of the free/home of the brave. Suddenly, Tire Guy at the Ojai Lookout didn’t seem so ridiculous for being surprised that Canada had free health care.

On the recommendation of my guidebook, I found my way to a place called Taco Temple, a little ways from the shore. Unfortunately, it was closed Tuesdays. The parking lot, street, and — as aforementioned — entire town around it were deserted. I began to wonder if I was just out of the loop on some local “Tuesday’s the new Sunday” convention. Of course, another point to remember is that, up until this point in my journey, the PCH and Interstate 101 had been pretty much inextricable. Now, I was just on Highway 1, meaning all the high-speed freeway traffic was inland on the 101. This road was undoubtedly meant only for locals and tourists interested in the scenic route. To be sure, the difference was palpable: commuters in ‘Cedes and Range Rovers were replaced by bearded dudes in camp vans and middle-aged couples fiddling with road maps behind the wheel of their Rav-4s. The hustle and bustle of the capital city of celebrity was finally far behind. 

My next stop was in the equally quaint (and much smaller) town of Cambria. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least partially motivated to visit because the name of one of my favourite bands is Coheed and Cambria (no relation. That I can see.). Moonstone Beach Drive seemed to be the place to be, and indeed, the scenery was no disappointment. Something about the sign next to the parking lot made me chuckle. 

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I mean, what did they expect me to think? That the road DIDN’T end where a guardrail separated pavement from open, rocky ocean? That it somehow kept going, against all semblance of common-sense intuition provided to me by my visual faculties? Well, I guess it’s always better to air on the side of caution…although I’ve never been quite clear on how you “air” on the side of anything.

A fantastic boardwalk cut along the shoreline, and I passed a few overweight thirtysomething women walking equally chubby dogs.

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Luckily, I managed to direct my gaze away from the ocean and see this beaut:

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The beach itself was gorgeous, and, refreshingly, it seemed to be au naturel. Meaning they didn’t have a big gas-guzzling tractor drag it every morning to remove sticks, stones, lumps, footprints, and other “imperfections.” (Did you ever think that maybe nature’s perfection lies in its imperfections? Or at least that which we might call imperfection?) The result was that lots of driftwood littered (again, a word of our own making that connotes something negative, although I don’t mean it to) the beach. Also: a visible tide line; there was a three-foot drop at the high-tide line.

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Tide pools had also formed, accommodating gulls and (ostensibly) other lil critters.

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The mountains to the North were much more jagged and wild. Of course, that should come as no surprise, since the North is where the legendary wilderness of Big Sur lay.

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Matching the jagged mountains were the jagged rocks just off-shore. They acted like teeth upon the first sip from a can of ginger ale, stirring everything up, creating fizz and unexpected liquid gushes.

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And this beach also seemed to nurture the canine joy that an ocean can provide.

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San Luis Obispo County I: DInosaurs and Dogs

After the urban domination of Los Angeles and the beach cities sprawling up the coast from there, San Luis Obispo (“St. Louis, the Bishop of Toulhouse”) was a refreshing change. Because of its distance from the major city centres of LA and San Francisco, it has managed to retain a rural, small town kind of feel. It’s often referred to as the Central Coast, and while the county chair — city of San Luis Obispo — is about 11 miles inland, the coast is a various collection of small, oceanside communities.

Turns out the guidebook actually could’ve elevated me above and beyond the abilities of the road signs. Unbeknownst, I cruised right past the internationally famous Pismo Beach (home to the dunes where Cecile B. DeMille filmed the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments). I’ve always had a thing for dunes, so this was a little disappointing. But by the time I realized what I’d missed, I was already 15 miles up the road, and I couldn’t force myself to turn back. Not when there was still so much ahead.

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So, I saw the dunes from a distance when I stopped at the stunning bluffs of Dinosaur Caves Park. And when I say “stunning,” I mean “STUNNING.”

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The water was full of life; long, waving trails of underwater vegetation were the visible indication, but ample signage assured me that there were plenty of fish, sea lions, and other ocean creatures chillin in there among the rocks.

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Thousands of years of waves smashing violently into the rocks had worn gnarled channels and caves through their centres, creating pretty awesome examples of why water is a force not to be reckoned with:

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The park was mostly on the summit of the bluffs, but I walked a ways along the shore and discovered a staircase down to the water. Obviously (obviously) I took it.

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The sand at water level was some of the coarsest I’ve seen, but whereas the coarse sand on some other beaches tends to jab and irritate the soles of your feet, the sand here was like walking on the fingertips of a thousand message therapists.

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 The waterfront here was by no means a swatch of wilderness, but the houses were at least modest. Reasonable. Although I’m sure their prime oceanside views still fetched a pretty penny.

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After my explorations, I sat on a bench and enjoyed a particularly tasty can of Campbell’s Raviolio (yup, that’s the spelling I believe; dunno what’s up with that). The tourist crowd around these parts seemed to consist mostly of elderly couples driving expensive sedans. But they smiled a lot. Even at me! Don’t think I spotted any locals (assuming you can tell a tourist by the camera around their neck and the hat on their head).

To strategize my next move, I did consult my Frommer’s. It spoke highly of Avila Beach, so I got back on the PCH and kept my eyes open for signs. I followed the turn-off, and to my surprise, the beach was at least eight or nine kimometers off the highway. Small resort outposts dotted the side of the road: sail boats rocked in the wind, canoes and kayaks lined beaches, pleasure boats rocked beside docks.

Finally, I came to the beach. Parking was roadside, so I had to run barefoot (my choice I suppose) across the road to get to the sand. Speaking of sand: it was some of the whitest and finest I had seen. Avila Beach is at the centre of San Luis Obispo Bay, meaning it faces due South. This gives it more sun and less fog than a lot of the more West-facing beaches on the coast. Perhaps the excess of sun was what bleached the sand white. Whatever it was, it was damn fine to walk on (pun intended).

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It was a dog-friendly beach, and I was made supremely conscious of how much dogs seem to love water and sand. Mutts of all sizes charged back and forth along the shore, chasing balls or just plain loving feeling their ears fly back in the ocean breeze. I wanted the run with them, to chase them, but that probably would’ve seemed a little strange to their owners.

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Sail boats were plentiful just a little way out from shore, indicating to me that this was definitely a leisure beach. Because who else but people with time on their hands and fun on their minds takes up sailing?

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Return to the PCH

To the West, Ojai Avenue became North Ventura Avenue, then Highway 150. I followed it as it spiraled around the gorgeous Lake Casitas (the existence of which I was oblivious until after I had passed it; I assumed that the stunning coastlines were part of some overbeautified reservoir like the one in the groves).

The basic, underlying quest of my West Coast travels was to drive up the coast, from San Diego to San Francisco. Thus, there was a sense of returning to the trip’s destiny when I rejoined Highway 101/1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) and hit the Pacific again. Of course, I had to stop and breath that sweet ocean air.

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Soon after, I stopped at a rest area to wash my face, shave, etc. Feeling fresh and back on track, I continued along the PCH. I scoured my guidebook for something that would entice me to stop and explore Santa Barbara. However, it seemed that, aside from its idyllic Mediterranean climate (hence the monicker “American Riviera”) it was simply another expensive, manicured, sunsoaked coastal Californian tourist trap. (Don’t for a moment think I’m being dismissive; I’m sure SB has worlds to offer. But I had to be selective; the call of home was getting stronger with each day that passed over the two-week mark, and there was still plenty to see on the coast. Besides. I was satisfied with how many quaint, wealthy, liberal communities I’d seen. Much more exciting was the prospect of finally extricating myself from the vast urban area surrounding LA and seeing some real wilderness.) So, I simply cruised through the Riviera.

Somewhere in the Western half of Santa Barbara, the PCH strayed from the coast, so I enjoyed the steep Santa Ynez mountains to my right and let the road take me where it would.

In Lompoc, I stopped in a Sears parking lot (okay, perhaps not the most inspired choice) to check the tour book for coming attractions and get a better idea of my route. Up to this point, my route had seemed fairly straightforward. Not that this had changed; head “up” on the PCH was pretty much all I needed to know, driving-wise. But there seemed to be soooo much stuff packed into this portion of coast. And the Northward thrust of the journey meant that I was constantly anxious I would miss something and regret it later. (There’d been very little turning back on this trip; I had enough driving to do as it was.) It looked as though there were a string of gorgeous beaches ahead, so I ultimately decided to let the roadsigns do the work for me and hit the road again.

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Interlude: the Ghost in the Machine

I’ve been driving since I was sixteen. So, about eight years, give or take. Cars have always seemed like a rather benign and (it may not make sense) secondary instrument in the whole experience of driving. Sure, driving is, in essence, driving a car. So much of the feel depends on the sensitivity of the gas and break, the response of the steering, the type of tires and their grip on the road, the shape of the windshield, the quality of the shocks and struts, etc. But for me, the experience of driving seems to transcend the particularities of the vehicle. Being out on the open road, controlling your speed with your feet and your direction with your hands, always seemed to be an activity that was somehow separate from the car, yet still linked to it. Kind of like Descartes’ mind/body dualism: they’re inextricable, and yet your experience of each is vastly different, and, in a certain way, somehow separable.

This trip changed everything. Maybe it’s because I’ve never owned my own car before. Maybe it’s because I’m four thousand kilometers from home in a (not so) foreign country. Or maybe it’s a combination of these and more. Whatever it is, I’ve begun to develop a strange new affinity with the vehicle. It’s not some freaky pansexual attraction or anything, and I know Stephen King’s Christine was just fiction. But I’ve spent nearly countless hours in this van for the last two weeks. It’s been my home, my bed, my sole means of transportation, and the only familiar object in my life.

Now, when I drive, I am perpetually attuned to the sounds, smells, and feels of the van. Even the slightest hesitation in acceleration, or the most negligible clunking sound, catch my attention like a naked man with a neon-painted penis hitchhiking in a mall parking lot. The engine speaks a language. It’s not one I understand, but it’s one I’ve learned to listen to. So far, nothing’s gone wrong, but with each kilimeter, the van gets older. The tires get more worn down. The gears in the engine grind more against each other. The belt spins more time. The pistons fire more. Etc.

I think my complete dependence on this van for multiple purposes has created this affinity (which isn’t so hard to believe, I suppose). It’s trying to comprehend its foreign tongue, of lovingly pouring fresh oil down its gullet every once in a while and anointing its pieds with air from a compressor (that last metaphor may, admittedly, be a stretch. But at least give me kudos for the gullet one. I’m proud of that.).

When I’m driving, I try to foster this connection with the van. Not in a creepy “this thing has a soul” kind of way, but in a “need man and machine be as diametrically opposed in terms of intuitive communication” kind of way. I just can’t decide whether it’s depressing or just kind of quirky that the car with which I’ve developed such a deep affinity happens to be a minivan.

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Among the Orange Groves

I awoke, warm and well-rested, around 7am. I lay and listened to the silence of the residential neighbourhood for a while. So far, California had treated me well, insofar as I hadn’t had to resort to a Wal Mart parking lot since my first night in Victorville. Perhaps it was a small difference, a big box store or a residential street. Or perhaps it was a big difference. Somehow, not having the neon lights of corporate America basking my pillow seemed significant.

No calls or messages from my relatives, and I figured it was a bit too early to be calling, so I followed the directions she gave me to see some orange groves. Back to the East end of Ojai Avenue and down here:

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Although the town of Ojai was by no means bustling before 8am, the roads that traversed the farm land were utterly deserted. It was that strange kind of feeling you get when you’re close to civilization, close to people and cars and buildings — you must be; there are roads and farms — but there are no immediately visible signs. Like being on a rooftop in Vegas: you know there’s all that hustle and bustle down below you, the clink of game chips and the rustle of hundred-dollar bills and the buzz of fluorescent lights and the dinging of slot machines, but for a fleeting moment, you’re above it all, beyond it, in an artificial state of solitude.

Just off the road were hundreds of orange trees just like this one:

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The sun seemed to shine so brightly upon them that it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between the oranges and the leaves. Dozens of ripe fruits littered the ground beneath the trees, and it seemed a crime not to stop and collect a few. Plus, like I said, there was absolutely no one around.

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The road just seemed to wind deeper and deeper into the groves. I passed a beautifully scenic pond which I assume might function as a reservoir. (Remember: California may have a lot of things, but rain isn’t one of them.) A bridge stretched across the waterway, the vanishing point of the fenceposts led the eye towards the rolling hills and outlying mountains of the Ojai Valley.

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All the roads through the groves seemed to eventually converge in the driveways of the numerous seemingly randomly scattered farms. Needless to say, I probably crossed more than a few private property boundaries. I passed a local in a big work truck at some point, and I half-expected him to stop and tell me to eff off of his land, especially if he noticed my Ontario plates. To my surprise, he smiled and waved without slowing. Hm. Maybe they get a lot of visitors through here. That’s no surprise. The hospitality was what shocked me.

I stopped on the side of a treed section of road, leaped down a steep grade of boulders to a small ravine, and brushed my teeth in the woods. Then I drove back to town and called my cousin. Unfortunately, she was still in poor health and couldn’t guarantee that she was up for a meeting anytime soon. Regretfully, I made the call: the trip must go on. I thanked her for all her advice, expressed said regret, and aimed the grill of my van back towards the coast.

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