tide pool rocks at sunset

Twists And Turns Of The 1

bixby creek bridge on highway 1With the ubiquitous scent of cypress and eucalyptus wafting through the open car windows, we mounted the 1 in Sausalito just across the Golden Gate Bridge and began our twisting climb toward the southern edge of the northern California coast. It had been a hard six weeks and even after planning this trip for several months, I wasn’t convinced my timing was right. I had already postponed it from the week before after fighting to make it fit into my calendar. As bad as my timing was, I wasn’t going to simply skip it. I just wanted to be in Northern California. Even if it wasn’t convenient for my career.

At 5 a.m. we woke, drove to Detroit metro, caught our flight and flew west. By 11: 30 a.m. we were landing in San Francisco on a perfect California day. At 12:30 p.m. we were in our car and headed north out of the city. By 1:10 p.m. we were making the turn off 101 and onto the 1 on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon in a single file parade of cars, vans, and motorcycles, each with seemingly the same idea in mind. It didn’t matter how many were in our parade. We were here. It was now. For the first time heading north in California, I was the passenger. This never happens. I am always the driver. I’m never the passenger. I’m always the one behind the wheel catching snippets of scenery between darting glances ahead, at the dividing yellow line, the sharp edge of a shoulder-less road, at the oncoming cars. I am never the one with her head on a swivel soaking up the scenery ahead, to the right and to the left noting odd signs, unique buildings, changes in the landscape and terrain, seeing people who don’t see me, a voyeur in a car. From the turn east off the 101 I was instructed to sit back and enjoy the ride and this trip was already amazing.

We climbed. As we climbed, we joked. Can you imagine riding a bike on this? The first biker passed us wheeling in the opposite direction within minutes of our comments. Then a group of three, then a couple. Then a mature woman who’d dropped her husband to attack the winding climb in her own zone. All moving from north to south on the narrow two lane road with no shoulder, no barriers, no promise that the next motorist behind them wouldn’t ‘go wide’ on the next blind curve they’d emerged from, not see them, and not hit them. I caught my breath more than once watching man, bike, car and road co-exist. The stunning determination of the cyclists whom I knew, knew what challenges they faced in the road ahead. How…? How. Again, I was amazed.

“This is incredibly like Ireland,” I murmured out loud, “save driving on the right hand side of the road.” I had once complained that the worst thing about Ireland was that it isn’t attached to the U.S. so we could get to it on the weekends. I realized now that maybe I was wrong. Maybe a piece of Ireland had been here all along and I just hadn’t known it.

As we emerged from around a curve, I sighted the ocean for the first time from the 1. It rose up from the end of a long valley between two mountains in a Vee of gray blue. “There it is!” I pointed and scrambled for my camera to get the shot that disappeared as fast as it had appeared. “Crap! I lost the shot.” I huffed, letting the camera and my hands drop to my lap, only to raise them again around the next curve when the view returned from a slightly different angle. I soon understood that these shots and that phrase would recur over and over for the next four-and-a-half hours. I settled back in my chair, watching. Waiting for the next missed shot and scheming my rebound strikes. We weren’t 20 minutes into this trip and I was captivated.

The road curved due north. At this point in the drive, the road is close, tight on either edge. The terrain is close. The land is steep and falls sharply on the west side of the road down into rocky crags to the ocean and up away from the water on the east side. I wondered if I could live here, thinking of the winding mountain passes in eastern Vermont and New Hampshire where suddenly towns pop up around tight hairpin curves. White church steeples with fresh black tiles topped with bright white crosses penetrate the evergreen blanket of the landscape to indicate that humanity lies ahead. No, I couldn’t live here, even with the expanse of the ocean opening up between each winding detour in the road that dents into the land and then snakes back out to the sea. The trees hover too thick. The walls of the mountains are too close. The absence of unfettered views. I couldn’t do this every day even if today I need it. Today I need the closeness of this place, my companion, and my thoughts. I need to be wrapped in the place that I am. Insulated, and for the first time in a very long time, wholly in the moment that I am. In this place on the 1, that is all that there is. This moment, my companion Stu, our car, this road, this terrain, the ever present scent of eucalyptus, the ocean, and me. There were no other things. There is no other place. There is just here. Just now.

I watch the road. I narrate the scene for Stu and he drives with two hands on the wheel and two eyes riveted to the winding narrow pass of road. I check myself from suddenly pointing and exclaiming, “look at that!” so as not to distract him. As we pass each new road leading to ocean access and beach entry off the 1, the other cars have begun to fall away. Past Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, the outlook at Gull Rock, the marsh and bird watchers at Kent Island, past Five Brooks to our first stop at Olema the traffic in turn reduces. At Olema, we stop as the few cars ahead of us turn inland. Olema is slightly inland too.

We park in the center of town, find our way to a long narrow restaurant and sit in the back garden under a pergola under the sun that is sliced into strips by the white lattice above our heads, tucked into a garden that is neither cool nor hot. The sounds of the road erased by the flora. People around us talk in quiet relaxed tones and we order our lunch. Two fish tacos, a plate of grilled oysters on the half shell with pesto glaze and assorted cheeses and crackers. For me, an iced tea. For Stu, a Laganitas Pale Ale. There we linger. The food is good and we savor it slowly, and when it’s done, we step back out on to the small space between the restaurant and the road. I duck into a deli for some chocolate, Stu waits outside talking to a man in his mid to late 60’s, a cyclist, about biking the 1. When the conversation ends, we mount our trail again toward Point Reyes Station and on along the edge of the beautiful Tamales Bay still nestled into the land and tucked into the road. I dub this section the Killarny section of the trip after the Ring of Kerry area in Ireland south of Tralee.

At the end of Tamales Bay, the world opens into broad pastures and the happy cows of California begin to dot the landscape. I watch as ranches begin to appear. First one or two, or three. Then five or twelve as we continue to move north. Horse farms and riding stables appear. I watch with both awe and jealousy as I realize that these bovine residents have the best views of any of the inhabitants of this land. I could live here where the angle of the land eases into plateaus of long, broad expanses of both ocean and ground. I could live here where the flora starts to change from cypress to thick pine and redwood. I could live here. Through the towns between Marconi and Elk, I think with the whimsy we allow ourselves when we completely let go, I could live here.

As we pass through Elk, I start to recount all of the places I’d found on Google Earth for us to stay the night; recognizing them from their signs and the websites I’d visited. We are nearly half way to our final destination and my driver is feeling the fatigue of a long flight and a challenging drive, a good meal and a delicious beer. I remind him that he’s only done it for three hours. I did it every day for seven days in Ireland. “Buck up mister. We’re almost there.” He bucks up with a smile and grips the wheel with new conviction.

We start talking more and sightseeing less. We talk about our friends that we love. We talk already about our next trip together. We talk about our kids and our work and the U.S. Open and the Tour de France. We talk about the music on the radio and about earthquakes and forest fires as we come upon a group of fire fighters battling a small blaze along the side of our narrow road that was surely not a controlled burn as nervous looking residents look on.

I remember with an “Oh, yeah. There is that here in California too…” The road opens again and we watch the houses on the cliffs in a private community that seems to stretch on for miles and wonder who lives there. We talk about a for sale sign that says, “1.5 miles of ocean front property and weigh the pros and cons of a property of that kind. I settle on the fact that morning walks with the dog would be utterly amazing. Our mid-point destination nears, but before we get to our hotel for the night and the plans we’ve made for the evening I have to take pause. I am glad we came against the odds of our impossible schedules. I am glad we came this specific route instead of driving with only our final destination in mind up the 101. I am glad I am here with Stu and I am content as I have ever been.

We stop at a light on the edge of Fort Bragg where I can’t hold it in anymore. It has been building up in me from the moment we mounted this amazing road 4.5 hours earlier and I just have to say it.

“If we turned around and went home tomorrow,” I say turning to look directly at him. “This trip up the 1 was totally worth it.”

Stu smiles, the light turns and he drives on.

orgiginal photo credits: Creative Commons -Attribution - Johnathan Miske & Dileep Eduri