Big Sur and Beyond

Everyone has heard of Big Sur – it was the requisite hippie stop for all California road trips in the 60’s. It’s still pretty groovy, and still feels like a bit of a time warp. Very little has changed – certainly not the scenery – and with the exception of a few motels, campgrounds and cafes along the way, it is all about the natural environment. People are here to camp, hike, listen to the surf, and possibly reminisce about the good old days. To that end, there are no shortage of VW camper vans.

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We were excited to have the chance to drive down this iconic stretch of Hwy. 1 – it had been closed south of Big Sur for 14 months after a devastating landslide. It reopened again just a couple of months ago, and the damage from the slide is still evident in spots.

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Highway 1, south of Big Sur, is the stuff of motorcycle dreams and convertible ads. Ocean on the right, mountains on the left and a twisting, rollicking road in the middle. There were no dreaded switchbacks, but the road is so curvy and winding it took three hours to drive just over 50 miles.

The beauty of this road is that there are innumerable pullouts, and we took full advantage of them to admire the view, take photos and let cars pass us. As soon as we had more than two cars, we’d pull over, and we were almost always rewarded with a wave or a honk. We’re trying very hard not to be annoying and oblivious RV people.

So back to Hwy. 1 – these are the reasons you want to drive this road.

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We saw surfers. It is hardly noteworthy see surfers in California, but I liked this shot.

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We drove over many bridges just like this one.

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The highway climbs up, up, up and then descends back down to the beach, and then does it all over again.

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All too soon, our delicious ride was over. Actually, I am speaking for myself. Stephen did all the driving on that stretch and had to pay keen attention to navigate truck and trailer safely on all the curves. I got to sit in the passenger seat and admire the view. Slowly, that is changing as we both gain confidence in my trailer-hauling abilities.

We arrived in Morro Bay for the night, and backed in like pros to our campsite. This was our view:

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Morro Bay is a charming small city with lovely curved streets lined with typical California bungalows, unusual shops and restaurants and a waterfront filled with the usual fish and chip shops and many purveyors of salt water taffy. I’ve always wondered why one feels compelled to buy salt water taffy every time one is within spitting distance of an ocean and yet live happily without it everywhere else.

I also often wonder why people think their dogs are human and/or have no impact on others. I’m a dog-lover, and don’t want to be cranky but no, I don’t want your boxer’s backside on my lunch table.

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Morro Bay is dominated by this very large rock.

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It is possible to drive out along a causeway, and then walk or cycle all around the rock. Morro Bay struck us as being a happy place for locals – prosperous without being exclusive and full of important amenities – walking and cycling places, boating and kayaking, a great library,  a beautiful natural setting and a wonderful temperate climate.

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As we left the coast to head inland toward Death Valley, we drove through many different landscapes.

Massive oilfields:

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Lush wine country

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Pretty leafy roads

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And agriculture – avocados, nuts, olives, nuts – agribusinesses that ran for miles in broad, flat valleys and small market gardens. This is part of the country that helps to feed  Canada and the U.S.  and the scale is hard to imagine.

I don’t have a photo that does this area justice, but I do have a story. I bought cherry tomatoes and once we got them home, I discovered much to my surprise that they were grown in Mexico, shipped and packaged in Ontario and then shipped back to California. The 2000-mile diet.

Enroute to Death Valley, we had to stop overnight at an RV park in Lake Isabella, in order to break up a 9-hour drive. This was a disturbing glimpse into a side of California that does not show up in the brochures.

Lake Isabella is not on anyone’s flight path, and I doubt they often get travellers. The RV park was run-down and filled with mainly old, moldy-looking trailers decorated with  American flags and pots of artificial flowers. We spoke to one lady who is so spooked by the fires she is moving back to Ohio as soon as she sells her trailer and finds a way to move her 19 cats.

The next morning, we made our way east to Death Valley National Park, and the landscape became more barren as we drove along.

This shot was taken about an hour outside the Park:

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Now we’re in Death Valley – so much to discover here. See you again in a few days.

Heading toward summer

We left Prairie Creek State Park (our second campground in Redwoods National Park) and headed south with great anticipation of finding warmer temperatures. Our destination for the night was The Golden Rule Campground in the small town of Willits, which was a most unique stop. The campground is run by Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule and lived up to its name by offering us a most hospitable and enjoyable stay, without any religious intervention. We did have an interesting chat with a man who wondered about our viewpoint on same-sex marriage, and quickly told us he couldn’t understand “that stuff.” Stephen told him he just hadn’t met the right man yet!

The campground is situated on the sprawling property of Ridgeville Ranch, which was horse-racing icon Seabiscuit’s final home and resting place.  It is still a working ranch, has a charter school and offers tours.

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Not to make light of the horrendous wildfires that have been burning in the area, but our approach to the campground was a little biblical. We had no idea what we were driving into; we thought we were heading toward a storm. We found out later the town of Paradise, 160 miles east, had just burned to the ground. This is what many Californians live with – out-of-control fires that spring up with little or no warning. After the damp, moist cool climate of the Redwoods, everything in central and southern California is tinder dry.

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Our original plan was to hit the coast highway and stop at Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay, but after reading that the road to the coast was filled with switchbacks and the coastal road itself required “nerves of steel”, we shifted course and headed to Monterey and Carmel. We’re still driving with caution and not yet comfortable with navigating tight switchbacks with our trailer in tow.

Monterey was a terrific “Plan B.” We discovered another unique campground, right in the city. It is situated in Veteran’s Memorial Park at the top of a hill, about a mile walk down to the historic waterfront. It’s been in operation since 1926, and had everything we needed – hot showers, water, and a dumping station. We’re getting the hang of “dry camping” – switching over to propane and our solar panel.

Monterey and Carmel are an interesting study in contrasts. Monterey is a working town with its roots in fishing and sardine canneries. Cannery Row, which Steinbeck so famously depicted in his novel of the same name – depicts the challenges of that stinky, tedious work. Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have become the centrepieces of the waterfront.

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Monterey’s downtown and waterfront have been meticulously restored. The one-mile walk from downtown to Cannery Row was filled with cyclists and pedestrians enjoying the bright sunny weather.

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The big drawback to the Monterey waterfront, for us at least, is the proliferation of tacky tourist traps, same-same souvenir shops and questionable-looking chowder houses. The area is stunning, the history is fascinating and the architecture is exquisite. Why add a wax  museum? This is a shot of Fisherman’s Wharf:

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The promenade is filled with murals, such as this one that show the cannery workers having a break – “the dripping, smelly, tired Wops and Chinamen and Polacks” (Cannery Row.)

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Three of the original, tiny shacks that housed some of the workers.

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The city of Monterey rises up from the bay and climbs around several hills, creating gorgeous sightlines and strenuous workouts. The historic part of the city is clustered around the waterfront; its streets filled with unique, iconoclastic architecture and interesting little shops and restaurants. Since many structures are made of adobe, we were intrigued by these signs that we saw on a number of buildings.

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This home looks as though it could withstand a few tremors. It is built of Carmel stone.

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Even in November, the gardens in Monterey are still lush, and the area trees are simply formidable. If anyone can identify this species, please let me know.

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A peaceful scene in a pocket park, by the Monterey Museum of Art.

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Carmel-by-the-Sea, just a few miles south, could not be more different. It is manicured, pedicured, blow-dried and primped. The actual village of Carmel encompasses about one square mile of pristine laneways; one distinctive home outdoing the next. Homes in this rarified zip code have no numbers. They are identified by their names – Seventh Heaven, Dreams Come True, and the enigmatic I’m Done.

A sampling of what life in Carmel is like for the lucky few.
An English cottage:

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A Spanish colonial:

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Hansel and Gretel:

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A typical back laneway:

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The shopping streets of Carmel are carefully curated and no less charming. There are an astonishing number of art galleries in town; not surprising since Carmel began as a bohemian artist colony. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for painters and writers.

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There are rules to be followed, however. Women are not allowed to wear high heels in Carmel: a rule that came about to avoid lawsuits in case a nasty fall occurred on the uneven streets.
Another rule revolves around not offending the established aesthetic. No nasty neon or garish plastic in Carmel – even the gas pump has to comply with a tasteful sign.

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As you might expect, Carmel’s fire station is photogenic.

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In case this all sounds a bit cloying and precious – it really isn’t. Carmel simply has very exacting standards and it sticks to them. Build it and the tourists will come –  it is the swarms of people like us that help to make it feel a bit contrived.

The beach keeps it real, though. Carmel is blessed with an absolutely gorgeous white-sand crescent beach – we spent a good hour walking along the shore.

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And the dogs! We had heard that Carmel was well-known for its love affair with all things canine, but boy – they may outnumber humans two to one.

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We spent our final day hiking the oceanside trails in Point Lobos Park, just south of Carmel. This was a taste of what was to come driving down Hwy. 1.

Many of the trails were filled with trees typical to the area – Monterey pine, Monterey cypress and live oak.

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A typical sea view as the trail dipped in and out of the forest.

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After worrying about whether we could manage the switchbacks of Highway 1 to Mendocino, we bit the bullet and drove that iconic road south through Big Sur to Morro Bay, where we are now camping. The highway had been closed for 14 months, due to a landslide, and only opened again a few months ago. We’ll see you again in a few days with photos and stories from that drive.