I hit the road before dawn on Friday. The Xterra was loaded - dufflebag with clothes, cooler with waters and Cokes, sleeping bag, air mattress, tent, wetsuit, booties, Hogfish inside, longboard strapped to the roof. My goal was to get to San Francisco that day, then push on past Marin and Mendocino, up to the Fort Bragg area. I'd take the 101up to Morro Bay, stop and have lunch with my grandmother (she was being released from the hospital, after a bout with pneumonia), then take the PCH proper - Highway 1 - across the Golden Gate and into the big empty of true Northern California. The Lost Coast. Seacliffs hundreds of feet high. Sharks. Cold, raging water. Isolation. I was giddy - this was going to be an adventure.
Surfin' Safari. A long way down. Detours. Frodo's place.
Through L.A. and into Ventura. The stretch of 101 between L.A. and Santa Barbara rolls by some great spots - I was tempted to pull off at Mussel Shoals. The right there was small, but clean and peeling, and there were only a couple of guys out. I had a schedule to keep - I'd gotten through L.A. traffic faster than I'd expected, but I didn't want to arrive at the Bay Area in darkness. I reached San Luis Obispo by noon. My grandmother was in the process of checking out of the hospital. We chatted for a bit, and realizing that it was going to be a while before she was done talking to the nurse and getting her stuff together, I left her with my aunt and cousin and continued on.
Passing Cambria, I stopped to get a couple of shots of some dozing elephant seals. A guy I knew at SeaWorld once referred to e-seals as "the only animal that smells better dead than alive". Soon after, the road began twisting its way up, into the headlands. This is a beautiful and fucking terrifying drive. There's maybe 15 feet between you and a whole lot of air, and the last thing you'll see as you soar majestically off the road are the azure waters of the Pacific rising up to splatter you across the inside of your car.
I drove and drove. I stopped briefly and considered joining these two. Workable spots along this stretch of the 1 are few and far between, unless you bring along rappeling gear and a couple of Sherpas. There was a bit of a left - you had to dodge some kelp and rocks, but there were rides to be had. I'd have felt bad, though - they were on a trip much like my own, I wagered, and I didn't want to spoil their fortune.
By the time I got to Pacifica it was pitch black; I was tired and in no mood to try to find a campsite. I pushed on to San Francisco, and had a moment of doubt - where the hell was I going to stay? I was clear across the city and the Bay from the friends I knew. I called Beth in a bit of a panic, no doubt heightened by the fact that I'd been driving for nearly twelve hours straight. Should I turn around? If I hit the 5 I could get to L.A. in four or five hours. I pounded a Coke. Head thus cleared, I decided to press on. I was on a Mission, by God.
God, by the way, was apparently having none of it. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to find that the 1 was closed for a stretch between the bridge and my planned stopping point, Stinson Beach. I had to take a back road, a narrow goatpath that ran up through the Muir Woods. After an hour of screeching around hairpin turns, I arrived at Stinson Beach. Exhausted, I pulled into the tiny parking lot of the equally tiny Stinson Beach Motel. There was a stack of business cards - "Stinson Beach Motel - Manager: Frodo Philip". Of course. Frodo (and a more aptly-named non-hobbit you'll not find - our Frodo was cheerful, stocky, and had clearly been smoking a bit of the ol' Southfarthing) seemed very glad to have a guest. After checking in, I went to the restaurant next door, ate an excellent chicken pot pie, then went back to my room and slept the sleep of the dead.
Stinson. The birdwatchers. Random outposts. Inland. A crowded lineup. The Not-So-Lost Coast.
I woke up with the sunrise. Stinson Beach Actual was right across the street; I pulled on sweats, a hoodie, a beanie, and my well-worn Uggs and strolled over to check the surf. Hmmm. Surfable? Yes. Worth freezing my ass off, not to mention the fact that my next paddle-out would be in a wet wetsuit and booties? The road won out. A cup of coffee and a quick breakfast and I was on the move.
Just past Stinson Beach is a placid lagoon. I made a quick stop - photo for posterity - and chatted with some locals who were there to check out some waterfowl. They seemed excited that I was able to identify a bufflehead - SeaWorld training, coming in handy once again - and were more than happy to tell me all about the lagoon (Bolinas Lagoon, it turns out; not surfable, so I'm not giving up a secret spot, although I now have to worry about local birdwatchers handing me a beatdown for giving all of you the 411).
Then I was in the hinterlands. Miles and miles of emptiness. People think of California as one giant sprawl, but the truth is that the state is, for the most part, unpopulated. There are vast stretches of coast, forest, and desert that remain free of people - I wondered if anyone had ever set foot on some of the beaches I passed. I hoped not. Still, it was a comfort that there were settlements - the road at one point swings east, and you find yourself in ranch country. It was a change of scenery, but not an unpleasant one. There were some cool little towns - villages, really - to be found along this stretch, places like Tomales and Jenner, which reminded me of some of the little settlements I encountered when I lived in Alaska, places that exist out of time, or rather, on their own time.
I reached the Salmon Creek turnout. There were SUV's and trucks here - a number of them. I pulled off to investigate. This was an accessible beach, and apparently it drew a crowd. There were actually guys out, surfing in less than ideal conditions - mixed up, fulminating, more white water than blue. I was reminded that the surfers up here are cut from a much different cloth than those of who live in southern and even central (including Santa Cruz and SF, for if you look at a map, there's still a whole lot of coast between the Bay Area and the border) California. Sketchy conditions, water as cold as death, the very real possibility of getting mauled by the Silent Gray Fellow, and still they paddle out. I've admitted on this site that I've become a bit of a pussy; I can't say with any certainty that I'd surf at all if I lived up there.
North, and north still. Midday, and I began to notice houses. Nice ones. New. Big. Designer tract homes. First a few, then more, dozens, hundreds maybe. Then...a tennis court? The hell? I was passing through the Sea Ranch, and mourning the depressing reality of it - that if people CAN move somewhere, they will. Houses lined up next to each other, the soulless burbs out in the middle of nowhere. This was anathema to everything I'd hoped to find on this trip - a GOLF COURSE, fer Chrissakes! Soon it was out of sight, but not quite out of mind. I still had some miles to put in, but I'd be at my final stop well before dark.