Driving the Big Sur

big sur coast

The sun is dropping into the Pacific, and I’m turning north on the Coast Highway, headed for Big Sur.

The California coast south of Monterey is one of the most glorious in the world. It is a great bumping of hard stone and cold seawater. The headlands jut out into the ocean and the waves erode them back, and at all times you hear either surf or wind, and often cannot tell which.

It is one of those animated places in the world’s geology that reminds you that even if there were no people on it, even if no animals, the Earth would still be alive.

Twilight is early and long in December, and although it has been a clear blue day, there is a ridge of fog out at sea that threatens to come inland and block the last rays of sunlight.

It is about 4 p.m. as I leave Morro Bay and head north. The highway is a four-lane divided road and traffic zips at 70 mph past the small resort towns of Harmony, Cambria and San Simeon.

Then the road becomes narrow and so curvy it seems like an asphalt moth as it flits up to the right and down to the left, not making up its mind where it wants to go.

I have been driving nearly 300 miles since leaving the Mojave Desert in the morning. And I’m feeling a little giddy as I drive the car like an arcade game, following the twisting road, racking up points by passing slower traffic.

The fog bank stays out over the water, but a large, dark patch of cloud lowers over the coastal mountains that rise up out of the water. The Coast Highway hugs the shoulders of those mountains, wrapping into the coves, where streams drop into the sea, and back out around the headlands.

For patches, the road will straighten out as it passes through flat grasslands that make a border between the sea cliffs and the more inland hills, but just as you get used to that, the road climbs up and over a rocky promontory and begins weaving again.

This is not a road for everyone. You have to love driving. I do.

So as the sun goes cold behind the fog, and the light turns a shadowless twilight, I race along like a maniac. big sur

It’s most likely that I’m a bit daffy from long hours behind the wheel, but I can’t help myself. I’m enjoying screeching around the bends, taking the hairpin turns on what feels like two wheels, and passing every slow road-clogger whose backside I come up against.

It is a 90-mile stretch along the Big Sur, that great rocky headland that sticks its face into the sea wind between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. In places, the road is nearly washed away. Only one lane remains and traffic has to take turns going north or south along the remaining pavement.

And with the sun finally below the horizon, there is a strip of bright sky remaining above the fog belt and below the great dark cloud. It is reflected in the sea in a phosphorescent turquoise green that cannot be real.

As I whip along the road with my up-beams gleaming back at me from the reflectors on the road stripe, I can occasionally see a flash of light in the corner of my eye. When I look, there is nothing, but when I turn back to the road, it flashes again.

I almost think it is an angel flying beside my Toyota, keeping me safe; but no, it turns out to be my own running lights reflecting off the guard rail at the edge of the road.

When the last bit of dusk has been drenched in black, there is nothing to see but the reflectors. They dance in my eyeballs. I recognize the symptoms of road hypnosis, but I don’t slow down.

Up the rise, around the tight bend, down over the bridge and up the next rise, all I see is the twin yellow lines of dots flashing at me from the center of the road.

The windshield begins to fog. I wipe it inside with a cloth.

A car comes the other way. I drop to low beam. big sur river inn sign

It is completely black, but there are grades of black showing in front of me. The blackest black is rock, rising to the right side of the road. The lightest black is the ocean below.

I am doing 55 around turns that say ”Curve: 25 mph,” alternately braking and accelerating. It has become a game.

But when I finally recognize my own exhaustion, I pull into a motel on Pheneger Creek and feel how cold the air is. I am almost shaking from tiredness. I cannot wait to sleep.

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