Words by Ben Starkey
I love travel cliches; there, I admit it. If I’m driving down the Californian coast, I’m wearing a white T-shirt and Wayfarer sunglasses, the windows are down and Bruce Springsteen is playing. And it has to be a big all-American car, a Dodge or a Chevrolet. Unfortunately, despite my remonstrations, the hire company didn’t have any such cars and I had to settle for cruising through Big Sur in a Hyundai SUV instead. But, never mind, the windows were down and Bruce was reminiscing about his various high school sweethearts and car wash jobs.
For a long time, I’d put off travelling America. I believed it would be similar, culturally, to the UK and prioritised places I considered more different and diverse. Road tripping down Highway 1 proved me wrong and showed me everything that is great about travelling in the US. Big Sur is not so much a specific place, rather a roaming area of Pacific coastline, mountains and forest, all imbued with a relaxed, reflective attitude that draws diverse admirers, from escapees from the cities to artists and dreamers. From Monterey Bay to the north, through Big Sur to the beaches of Santa Barbara, this 250 mile stretch encapsulates the great outdoors, the open road, the grim and the glam. It is a microcosm of America.
The town of Monterey is the setting of John Steinbeck’s novella, Cannery Row, which features possibly my all-time favourite opening paragraph, Steinbeck bringing to life the beauty, romance and despair of working class America. Historically, it was a blue collar port town, where fishermen and sardine canners lived cheek by jowl in shack housing; immigrants from across the world fuelling industry to make the USA a twentieth century superpower.
Cannery Row, where the sardine processing plants were located, is now a tourist ghetto and Monterey Bay is famed for its aquarium and whale watching trips rather than its industry. However, strolling its harbour and coastal footpaths, my mind was transported to Steinbeck’s day, imagining the noise and the stink and the hardship he described. Heading out to neighbouring Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck lived for over a decade, the craggy shoreline was a place where man and nature mixed seamlessly, a recurring theme in California. A well maintained path hugged the coast, overlooking the kelp forests into which sea otters dived, returning to lie on their backs on the surface, cracking open and devouring urchins.
Travelling with my family, we left our cottage in Monterey in the early morning, mist pouring in from the Pacific. A section of Highway 1 was closed due to heavy storms over the 2016-17 winter and a mud slide in May 2017, so we were unsure how much we’d be able to access.
Driving south into Big Sur, I expected the rugged beauty to be what hit me first, but this came later. Even before reaching the winding clifftop section of Highway 1 that navigates the coast, the very essence of the place surrounded me. Indicators of the wholesome Californian way of life were everywhere. Handmade roadside signs advertising sweet cherries and pumpkins for sale; avocados at 5 for a dollar on an honesty box system.
Heading down the northern stretch of Big Sur, mist surged up from the surf below, blanketing the road and creeping up the mountains above, causing the visibility to fluctuate wildly. We pulled into lay-bys to wait for the mist to retreat and reveal the beauty hidden beneath its cloak. The weather changed by the minute as the sun tried to burn through, warming my shoulders. When the mist abated, the scenery was spectacular; chains of rocky inlets were strung in either direction, the sea crashing at the foot of the mountains far below the road. Pelicans dived towards the ocean, plumes of spray coming from their water-ski feet on landing, while gulls plunged steeply in search of fish.
First stop was Point Lobos, where trails traversed the top of a network of granite caves. Rocky promontories provided basking spots for seals and sea lions, who attempted to scramble out of the waves to jostle for the best spots.
Further south, we explored the beaches and headlands of Garrapata State Park and Andrew Molera State Park on foot. Both stretches combined the serenity of isolation with the awesome power of nature. Far from a pristine, idyllic beaches, this coast was rugged. Rocky outcrops jutted into the ocean; the water was dotted with stacks cut from the mainland, now standing sentry with foam washing their feet. Hunks of driftwood peppered the beach, some used to construct pyre-like shelters. For all the glitz and brashness of the American reputation, there was perfection in standing on the edge of a continent, mountains at my back, watching pelicans plummet into the sea and return with a bill full of fish.
Slotting in alongside the wonders of nature were manmade achievements, including Bixby Bridge, located between Garrapata and Andrew Molera. The bridge was constructed in just over a year during the Great Depression and is now one of the west coast’s most photographed landmarks, a combination of grace and utility arching above pristine sand and sea. Prior to its completion in 1932, travellers were forced inland on a lengthy detour via a dirt road now only recommended in a four wheel drive or on a mountain bike. Again I was transported back to the years of the Great Depression, imagining travellers marvelling at the innovative new bridge providing access and quick passage.
Heading south, signs reminded us of closures on Highway 1. Arriving at the cut off point, it became apparent that a stretch including some of the big attractions, such as Pfeiffer Beach and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, was largely inaccessible without lengthy hikes or the use of extortionately priced rental bikes, with some parts completely unreachable. We assessed our options over a stroll through a forest of Redwoods. I found it humbling walking through the avenues of sky-scraping trees, who dwarfed all before them, a metaphor for the American Great Outdoors. Time ebbing away, we decided to head back to Monterey, the way we had come, with a view to exploring what we could of the southern end of Big Sur the following day.
The inland Highway 101 bypassed the road closures, allowing us to double back and drive up the southern tail of Big Sur, until barriers and a single police officer reading under a gazebo indicated it was time to turn round again. This stretch allowed us to absorb the views from another landmark, the Ragged Point Inn, a hotel and restaurant perched above the waves. Inlets of the rocky coastline undulated away to the north, the mountains plunging to the surf and the start of the infinite Pacific Ocean. The wind blew up from the water and the afternoon light twinkled on its rippled surface. Other than Highway 1, there was no sign of human development and it was easy to understand why literary figures such as Beat poet Jack Kerouac adored and wrote about the solitude of time spent in Big Sur.
Now racing the dying light we reached the Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve, pulling off the road to witness a spectacular scene, quite at odds with the serenity of much of the coast. A signposted car park bulkheaded a wooden-fenced gravel path, overlooking a beach below. This coastal road runs alongside many beaches, but this one was different, home to both the graceful and the frankly quite repulsive extremes of wildlife.
Pelicans skimmed in formation across the ocean’s surface, close enough to feel its spray, sensing the opportune moment before rising slightly to dive into the water in search of fish. Treading the path and looking down onto the sand, a mass of bodies sprawled out towards the surf. Hundreds of huge, blubbery elephant seals, basking and snorting in the sun’s final rays.
Elephant seals spend much of the year in the open ocean, returning to rookeries such as Piedras Blancas to mate, birth and moult. Males grow up to 5 metres long and can surpass 2,000kg in weight. A huge shape appeared in the shallows, the foam cascading from its bulk; a large male was making his way up the beach. He shuffled across the sand, ripples of blubber shivering across his flanks as he propelled himself forward. He stopped, raised his head and opened his mouth, his trunk-like nose flopping back and forth as he emitted a series of grunts and barks. Proceeding towards the masses, he argued and bullied his way past a number of lesser males, seeking the best spot. Any standing in his way were snorted into submission. Satisfied with a berth squashed amongst the pack, he flopped down to bask as we turned to leave.
Our next stop was to be the chic, ‘American Riviera’ city of Santa Barbara, a further showcase of the California lifestyle. Leaving Big Sur behind, we continued south on Highway 1 as the sun sank over the Pacific horizon. The air was warm, the trees bathed in an orange hue and the atmosphere relaxed and content. The only sounds to be heard were birds chirping, enjoying the last of the day, and Bruce Springsteen’s voice escaping the windows of a Hyundai SUV.
Words by Ben Starkey. Pictures by Layla Gilmour.