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State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Forget the bridges of Madison County, the bridges worth writing about are on the Oregon coast.

As the coastline meanders in and out along the Pacific, the roadmakers were faced with two problems: how to climb the rocky headlands and how to bridge the broad, flat river estuaries. They took care of the headlands with dynamite and pick, but the rivers were something else.

First, they were unusually broad, combining, as they do, elements of river, estuary and tidal mud flat. The soft ground didn’t make it easy to anchor a bridge. Second, the usual material for building bridges in the early part of this century was iron, which tended to rust out very quickly in the salt-spray air of the coast.

Wilson River Bridge

Wilson River Bridge

Consequently, most rivers were crossed only by ferry, even after the Pacific Coast Highway was dedicated in 1923. It wasn’t until federal matching funds were made available for highway construction, and later the Works Progress Administration kicked in, that the final T’s were crossed and the last bridges were installed.

Now, bridges ordinarily don’t get me excited. I like a good bridge as much as the next guy, but I can’t claim to be a fanatic. conde mccullough

But the bridges that cross the Oregon coast are different. They are some of the most beautiful bridges ever built. And the credit goes to one exceptional man: Conde McCullough, a South Dakota-born engineer who presided over the Oregon Highway Department as bridge engineer during those critical years.

His designs are admired both for their engineering skill — he was an innovative engineer and used many new techniques, including prestressed concrete, for the first time, or very nearly so — and for their aesthetic grace.

I cannot speak with any authority on their technical aspects, but I can say that, taken as a whole, they are the most beautiful set of highway bridges I’ve ever seen.

McCullough had a few recognizable habits. He used a good deal of Art Deco ornament on the bridges. Many have decorated pylons at the entrance to the bridge. Others have abstract floral scrollwork carved into their girders.

And these certainly make the bridges distinctive.

But it isn’t the ornament that makes them so satisfying to look at; rather it is the incredible sense of proportion and rhythmic movement McCullough managed to enshrine in his steel and concrete sculptures.

Anyone who has taken notice of the mint-green steel arches between molded concrete abutments that cross the river mouths on the Oregon coast will be able to recognize McCullough’s handiwork whenever else he sees it.

Coos Bay Bridge

Coos Bay Bridge

The bridge over Coos Bay, for instance, which now is named the McCullough Memorial Bridge, is a series of long arches like the path of a bouncing ball. Over them the roadway passes, rising slightly and connected to the arches underneath with a series of vertical beams, just the same graceful thickness as the arches themselves.

Coos Bay Bridge girders

Coos Bay Bridge girders

And across the main span, an equally graceful series of steel girders crosses the roadway in a series of gothic arches, crossing themselves in a way reminiscent of the great crossed arches of Exeter Cathedral in England.

As you drive across, you can’t help but have the feeling that you are driving down some great dignified nave.

His bridge over the Rogue River is a counterpoint of tall, Roman-aqueduct-style arches against the longer bouncing-ball arches of the spans themselves. Built in 1931, it was the first structure in America to be constructed with the Freyssinet method of pre-stressing concrete and has been designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Cape Creek Bridge

Cape Creek Bridge

Three different types of arch work together in the Cape Creek Bridge at Devil’s Elbow State Park, and in the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport, the 3,223-foot structure is a graceful ascending line of highway supported by long, flowing arches, with a center-span arch that leaps high above the roadway. The center span is further set off by the concrete ”finials” that top off the support span.

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Yaquina Bay Bridge

A lot of money has been spent on public art, but very little is of such lasting significance as these civil projects created by an engineer who was also an artist. When McCullough died in 1946, he left a more lasting and distinct personal signature on the state than any political or social leader.

St. Johns Bridge

St. Johns Bridge

Near Bruhel's Point, Mendocino Cty, Calif

Near Bruhel Point in northern California, the rocky cliffs look out over the Pacific Ocean in a way that is common to much of the northern coast.

From the top of the bluffs, the view is spectacular; it seems as if you can see everything. But don’t be fooled: It’s a lie.

Everywhere, when you take the time, the hidden secrets of place slowly let themselves be seen, as if they were cats waiting to test you out and see if you are friend or foe.

As the landscape allows you nearer, you find details and surprises.

The narrow sandy beach was perhaps a hundred feet below and we could see no way down but to climb. What we couldn’t tell was that the hillside was so steep and so gravelly, that we began to slip and slide, tossing pebbles every which way. They only prudent way to descend was on our backsides.

The surf crashed around the rocks that stuck out of the sand off shore. The biggest of the rocks was about 40 feet high and had trees growing on its summit. The others were smaller and grew bushes, lichen, mosses and nearer the tide line, barnacles and sea weed.

All around were poppies and a variety of succulent phlox that seemed to carpet all the drier rocks in yellow flowers.bruhel point tidal pool starfish

At the tideline the hidden world opens up in a delight of color and textures. The starfish clinging to the tide-wet rocks were maroon and ocher, with a knobbly surface that seemed artificial. They moved slowly over the crust of barnacles enjoying the tidepool version of the businessman’s lunch.

Another pool was full of anemones and purple sea urchins.

Echinoderms live on a different clock from us. They sway and move with the infinite deliberation of a bomb squad.

But for every hidden treasure you find, there is a payment to be made.

We enjoyed our visit there for about an hour and then started worrying about how we were going to climb back up to the car.

We wandered down the beach looking for an easier climb and found what looked like a good way out at the creek mouth. All along the coast, there are headlands that jut out toward the sea and coves cut back into the mainland where streams let out. The hill was less steep there, but there was small shanty built under the trees there and we didn’t know if we would be disturbing anyone.

It was then that we spotted the two large and hungry-looking German shepherd guard dogs legging it to us at an alarming speed. They bore down on us with all the fury of avenging gods, protecting the sacred center of the Earth.

So with teeth flying and paws scratching sand, they ran up to us barking like schizophrenics.

At such times, you don’t know what you will do. I stood in front of my wife to protect her, wondering if a swift kick to the nose would discourage the hounds.

When they reached a point about 10 feet from us, I heard a sound come out of my mouth, with all the authority I could muster:

“Sit!!!”

The two hounds came to a toe-nail scratching halt, looked at me quizzically for a second or two, barked, snarled, whimpered and then sat down and wagged their tails.

We edged ourselves away slowly in the shallow water and along the beach, away from the dogs; they sat for a few seconds and then retreated to the shanty.Bruhel's Point, Calif 2

Eventually, we found a spot a little less steep than the one we descended and, with hard work and diligence worthy of Horatio Alger, we scratched our way back up to the top. We swigged some water, collected our thoughts and eased the car back onto the road.

About a hundred yards down the highway, we found a set of stairs that descended all the way to the beach. It had been hidden from us by a small headland of rock.

If I were Montaigne, I might find a moral in that.

pacific coast highway

The Pacific Coast Highway travels up the western edge of the North American continent like the vein down the back of a shrimp. 

It has claim to being the single most scenic road in America, passing between the mountains and the sea for 1,500 miles from Southern California to Puget Sound in Washington. 

There may be shorter sections of other roads through the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians that are equally stunning, but nothing approaches the Pacific Coast Highway for glory over so long a haul. 

If you pick it up in San Francisco, you cross the Golden Gate Bridge and north of the city, you take the cutoff for California Highway 1, leaving behind U.S. 101, and head for the hills. The road to the coast is so curvy and filled with switchbacks, you swear to give up driving altogether. But it finally breaks out onto the sea, and the ride is one of the best in the world.PCH north of SF

The northern half of the Pacific Coast Highway is notable for its quiet emptiness, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do. 

Among the attractions you will pass on the Pacific Coast Highway driving from San Francisco to Olympia, Wash.: 

Marin Headlands National Recreation Area — Within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the headlands rise above the frequent fog and provide hiking, beaches, history and a Nike missile silo. golden gate bridge in fog

Muir Woods National Monument — One of the great groves of redwood trees, just a short hop from the city and great place for a quiet walk in the woods. 

Bolinas — The small town at the south end of Point Reyes doesn’t encourage tourism. Its citizens have been known to take down the road sign out on the highway to mislead travelers. But it so beautiful a town you can understand why they want to keep it to themselves. 

Point Reyes National Seashore — California 1 rides literally atop the San Andreas fault along the eastern edge of Point Reyes. On the other side, a renegade tectonic plate slowly has floated from Southern California to its current location north of San Francisco. Its hills, beaches and farms eventually will move north to Alaska, but give it a few million years to do so.

We’ll take the road further north, but let’s now consider the southern part of the route. We’ve already covered the glory of the Big Sur, but not all of the southern half of the road is quite so sublime. 

It is, of course, not a single highway, but a confusion of roads, for the PCH, as it is known in LA, is not an official name but a popular one, and it covers several U.S. and state route numbers. 

It is best known, for instance, as the beach road in Santa Monica. You will hear natives say they are going to take the PCH to Point Dume or Leo Carrillo State Beach, but the map of the area shows that the road they drive actually is called Palisades Beach Road. 

What is more, when it was cut through the bluff bottom in 1929, it was called the Roosevelt Highway. That is still its secondary name. 

It is also California Route 1. Through most of the state, the PCH follows California 1 and U.S. 101, hugging the coast and its scenery. 

The PCH is born haltingly and in patches south of Los Angeles. 

If you drive north from San Diego, you will be able to skirt the ocean through the city suburbs. California S21 goes through Del Mar and Cardiff-by-the-Sea, but north of Oceanside, you have no choice: You have to get on the interstate. Interstate 5 goes through Camp Pendleton and San Clemente to the actual origin of California 1 near San Juan Capistrano. 

As it travels north through Orange County and Los Angeles, California 1 is just a city street, blocked with stoplights and suffocated with traffic. It isn’t until Santa Monica that it develops its character. The spiritual beginning of the highway is where Interstate 10 ends and dumps out on the PCH under the muddy slumping palisades past the Santa Monica Pier. PCH begins at santa monica

This is the beach California is famous for — surfers and frozen yogurt shops, lifeguard stands and parking lots crammed to the gills with shiny Hondas and Toyotas. The land of swelling bikinis and glistening sunglasses. 

On summer weekends, the traffic is bumper to bumper through Topanga Beach and Malibu. It doesn’t let up — and then only a little — till past Point Dume. But the wait is worth it as the natural world reasserts itself at El Matador, El Pescador and Leo Carrillo state beaches. PCH at_Gladstones Malibu

And if you are lucky enough to be there at midweek in midwinter, you can have the beach all to yourself. Los Angeles is just a bad urban memory. 

For the next 100 miles, the road alternates between beach and city, passing Oxnard, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo on one hand and Point Magu, Refugio Beach and Pismo Beach on the other. The road takes a long inland detour around Vandenberg Air Force Base, through Lompoc, beloved foil for W.C. Fields, and although the ocean is hidden, the grassy golden hills of California make a fitting substitute. 

It is north of Morro Bay, however, that the PCH earns its reputation. It would be hard to find a more stunning stretch of coast road anywhere. 

California 1 rides a shelf above the sea cliffs with the ocean on the west and the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east. At times, the mountains crowd on the highway; elsewhere, the broad grassy plain widens out, pushing the mountains back. Farmhouses and pasture fence off the flats and some of the country’s best campsites are just beside the road. 

William Randolph Hearst’s castle, San Simeon, is the biggest single attraction in the area. The original yellow journalist and the newspaper publisher who brought us the Spanish-American War spent more than a quarter of a century building the mansion, turning it into a grandiose monument of risible bad taste. 

So much for the comic relief: The grand climax of the entire West Coast rises out of the water north of San Simeon. Big Sur, it is called, and it is the very model of the rocks and sea fighting over territory. Bixby Creek Bridge Big Sur

The highway through the area wasn’t opened until 1937. Men died cutting the road from the mountains. It corkscrews in and out of coves and headlands, up and down, with precipices to one side and breakers to the other. 

Writer Henry Miller lived in the area in a little shack on Anderson Creek for years. 

”Often when the clouds pile up in the north and the sea is churned with whitecaps, I say to myself: ‘This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the Earth as the creator intended it to look.’ ” 

Miller also said, ”It was here at Big Sur that I first learned to say amen!”  

Everything beyond the Big Sur is anticlimactic: The land slowly uncurls and flattens and the real estate becomes populated. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a town of tourists and the slumming wealthy. Coffee shops replace redwoods and couture replaces granite. 

Just outside of town, there is Point Lobos State Reserve, a jutting peninsula filled with sea-weathered rock and Monterey cypress. 

And in the town of Monterey, the aquarium is a perennial favorite. 

But the landscape seems hopelessly mercantile after the sublimity of Sur. Monterey Bay is one vast, flat, muddy estuary given over to the growing of garlic and artichokes. 

North of Santa Cruz, nature reasserts herself, though less majestically. At Point Año Nuevo, there is a state reserve where elephant seals breed each winter. Access is by ticket only, and reservations are a necessity. Pigeon Point lighthouse PCH

A few miles along the road, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the site of a hostel run by American Youth Hostels with a hot tub perched on a rocky cliff. 

The landscape is green and wet, with creeks gathering from the mountain runoff and pouring into the ocean in sandy deltas lined with beach. There is little traffic most of the year, despite the proximity of San Jose, less than 10 miles away but shielded from the coast by impassable mountains. PCH Pacifica headland

But the closer you get to San Francisco, the more development you find. North of Half Moon Bay, there is only one more brief run of wildness, as the road has to bend around San Pedro Mountain. At the place called Devil’s Slide, where the road cuts through a very unstable portion of the mountain, the road often has been closed by landslide. It is now bypassed by the Tom Lantos Tunnels, which are more efficient, but less adventurous. 

The southern half of the Pacific Coast Highway alternates between the most asphalt-choked cities and the most untamed nature, culminating in the great crescendo of the Big Sur. 

It can be seen as a kind of symphony, building to a grand outburst of brass and timpani, then quieting down to a final city cadence. From Los Angeles to San Francisco — something like 500 miles by this circuitous route — you can forget the planet is filled to the breaking point with humanity. You can reacquaint yourself with the elemental forces of rock, water and air and recharge your batteries. 

But there are some people who say it gets even better. North of San Francisco, there is almost nothing but nature. golden gate bridge

If the southern half is a symphony of alternating moods, the northern half of the PCH is more like the Bach cello suites: solitary, quiet, sublime but reflective. At times, you may feel as if you are the only car on the only road in the hemisphere. 

There are state beaches and parks along the way, and a few towns, like Fort Ross and Albion, but for the most part, this is a road between a green interior and a rocky blue sea: a ribbon of innigkeit. At least until you come back to quasi-civilization at Eureka, and the road (now U.S. 101) heads north into Oregon. 

Along the way, there are punctuations. 

Fort Ross State Historic Park — North of the Russian River, you find explanations for the name: Russian architecture speaks of the days when that nation attempted to colonize the western rim of North America. Sonoma Valley fence

Mendocino — One of the most beautiful of the small towns along the PCH, Mendocino is in grave danger of selling out to tourism. It still is worth visiting, but it will not be long before it goes the way of Ferndale to the north. 

Fort Bragg — Much more blue-collar, and therefore much more real, than its tourist-funded neighbors, the town is home to lumber mills and commercial fishing. In it, you can catch the flavor of what actual living is like on the Northern California coast. Mendocino County, Calif Fort Bragg

Leggett — At this little town, not much more than a point on the map, California 1 rejoins U.S. 101 for the trip through the heart of Redwoodland. It is also the home of the ”original” drive-through tree (there are several others). 

Avenue of the Giants — A 33-mile side road that parallels the main highway from Phillipsville to Jordan Creek, California 254 is an old byway that takes you through the heart of the old tourist redwood areas. There are lots of places to buy clocks made from redwood, and several old-fashioned tourist traps for kids. It is hokey enough to be worth visiting. It is also beautiful. 

Humboldt Redwoods State Park — One of the largest stands of redwood, with 50,000 acres along the Eel River, this is the true heart of redwood country. Camping, hiking and just sucking in the ether makes this one of the best stops along the route. 

Scorched redwood, Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Scorched redwood, Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Ferndale — If you really, really want a place to buy souvenirs and ”old fashioned” candy, the likes of which no old-timer ever saw, Ferndale is the place to do it. Like a chunk of gingerbread Disneyland set down in paradise, it reminds us, if we are ever in danger of forgetting, that America runs on money. 

Eureka — The largest town on the route north of San Francisco, Eureka is another gritty blue-collar town, and a healthy dose of reality after the ersatz huckstering of Ferndale. It is also the home of the Samoa Cookhouse, one of the great eating places in the state, where food is served family style and in huge doses. 

Redwood National Park — Spread out in discontiguous patches through Northern California like spots on a Holstein cow, the park protects about 100,000 acres of redwood. It isn’t the best or most impressive stand of redwoods — I recommend Homboldt for that — it still is worth stopping for, especially for the parts that front the ocean. 

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area — For 50 miles north of Coos Bay, the oceanfront consists of mountainous sand dunes. At Honeyman State Park, 10 miles south of Florence, a 150-foot dune rises over a reflecting pond. 

Sea Lion Caves — Just north of Florence, the waves have cut a monster cave in the sea cliffs and thousands of stellar sea lions come there each year to breed. It is the only such rookery on the American mainland. It is a much worthier stop than it might sound like: The tourist trap angle is played down and the animals are real and fascinating. 

US101 Near Yachats

US101 Near Yachats

Yachats — This small town is the perfect seaside vacation resort, with all the restaurants and motels, marinas and beaches that implies. Oregonians come here to rent ”cottages” for a week or two in the summer. 

Oregon Coast Aquarium — In Newport, the aquarium is an up-to-date modern facility with wonderful exhibits and a must-stop location along the highway, just under one of Oregon’s great, green bridges, this over Yaquina Bay. 

Tillamook — One of the few places where the highway steps back from the water, Tillamook is the home of a cheese factory with tours and the world’s largest all-wooden building, which is, in fact, a blimp hangar with an airplane museum inside. 

Seaside — Actually, the whole piece of coastline from Rockaway Beach through Cannon Beach to Seaside more closely mimics the New Jersey shore than anyplace else in America. It is a place for frozen yogurt, saltwater taffy and bicycle rentals. 

Fort Clatsop — When the Lewis and Clark expedition finally made it to the Pacific in 1805, they stayed in a tiny wooden fort they built and named Fort Clatsop after the local Indians. The re-creation of this fort is one of the great historic sites and gives you a chance to learn how the 40 men, one woman and a baby spent the miserable winter before heading back to civilization. 

Aberdeen — The Aberdeen, Hoquiam bi-city area is built on the lumber business, or at least it used to be. The factories and docks are still there, although not always busy. This industrial town is also the birthplace of Kurt Cobain and you can visit the high school he attended; a scholarship has been set up in his name, sort of the equivalent of a good citizenship award named for Vidmar Quisling. 

Olympic National Park seashore

Olympic National Park seashore

Hoh River Rain Forest — The western side of the Olympic Peninsula gets nearly 12 feet of rain annually, making its temperate forest of hemlock, cedar and Sitka spruce luxuriant beyond all bounds. Giant ferns catch the humidity and green out the understory and all winter long – the rainy season – drops of water spatter from the leafage. 

Olympic National Park — North of the Quinault Indian Reservation, the highway pokes out to the ocean once more, and the Olympic Coastal Strip, part of the national park, follows the shoreline for 57 miles, making this the longest wilderness coastline in the continental U.S. 

Hurricane Ridge — The northern entrance to Olympic National Park sits just south of Port Angeles and the long climb up to Hurricane Ridge is one of the great alpine drives. You likely will pass mountain goats, elk and tons of yellow marmots, and it is not unlikely you will come across snow all year long. 

Olympia — Home of Olympia beer — called ”Oh-lee” by the locals – and the end of the route. It is the state capital, but, most of all, it’s a good place to have a beer and celebrate the end of the drive.

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.