So it is at this point that we had decided to dramatically scale back our grandiose scheme to travel all the way up the coast to Seattle. The trip to Los Angeles had taken more out of us than we realized, and we were going to be able to spend so little time in some seriously cool places along the way that we chose San Francisco as our northern-most stop, and then would head back inland.
That being said, we still had 450 miles of coastline to skirt along before we made the big turn home. Things started out very promisingly in the city of Santa Barbara, a charming town that has managed to stay just out of reach of LA’s sprawl. Spanish tile is everywhere in this town. I may have even seen a couple of babies diapered with Spanish tile. But it’s a good thing! Santa Barbara is the super-chill place that Los Angeles could never be, that one uncle in your family that you hang out with on holidays because he thinks your relatives are crazy, too. But alas, we could not dally long. The Coast was calling.
Highway 1 or the Pacific Coast Highway in California has gained somewhat mythic status. There are far quicker ways to get to San Francisco from LA (The PCH ranks just above crawling through molasses) but it boasts such breathtaking views of the shore that it’s hard for a road-tripper to ignore its siren song. It is also mythic because of its long stretches of increasingly-dangerous curves and switchbacks, making it very hard to actually enjoy the scenery you’re there for. Throw in some reckless motorcyclists and some downright insane cyclists, and you have a recipe for Whiteknuckle Stew.
The other concern we had, aside from not careening onto the gorgeous shoreline, was that the stops along the road to Big Sur were packed. This was on a Monday, and we had assumed all the weekend warriors would have their ties firmly knotted and be back in their office towers. But no, every campground we were passing was full, every roadside stop was overflowing with cars. We had planned to pitch a tent at Andrew Molera State Park, grounds that operate on a first-come, first-served basis, so we were beginning to get nervous that we wouldn’t be able to camp at all, and have to skip Big Sur altogether.
And it was close! Only three spots remained when we rolled in, panting and dazed from the drive. Some combination of stress, vertigo, and sleep-deprivation had set in, so I’m sure whatever we wrote in red grease pencil on the payment envelope wasn’t entirely legible to the park rangers. But, we would be camping! For two nights, even!?
The hike in to the campgrounds is lovely. It is forested with huge trees, some of which are collapsing with age and their own weight, and shot through by the Big Sur River that eventually empties into the ocean. The campgrounds themselves…are spartan. The trail empties out into a large plain with only a few trees, and the drought-yellowed grass is chewed up further with squirrel holes. But camping is pretty utilitarian, so it only followed that the grounds were the same. Besides, we were there for the scenery! And there is beautiful scenery at Big Sur.
So we hiked. We hiked to the shore, marveled at the coast, played with the gulls, clambered over rocks, did our best to sneak past waves and failed often, and tried to soak as much of it in as we could. We hiked back, and got lost. Not terribly lost, but certainly off-track. We ended up on the horse path somehow, dodging their piles as we hoped we were headed in the right direction. Filthy and exhausted, we stumbled back to our tent at around 4pm, and crawled onto our air mattress for a nap. Low clouds had hung over the coast for our entire trek, but we were hoping they would break for a spectacular sunset on the beach. They did not. In fact, when we woke from our nap, they had begun to drop rain on us.
Now, California is a state in a state of severe drought. Voluntary water-conservation measures were being made mandatory even as we were traveling, and we could see that many people were giving up on their (tiny) yards altogether. Fire danger was listed as EXTREME on every sign we saw. So the fact that it rained through the rest of the night and most of the morning was pretty goddamned hilarious, especially considering our experience at the Grand Canyon.
The next 12 hours was spent in our tent. Dozing, poking at our phones that had no service, and eventually coming to the emphatic conclusion that we’re just not campers, let alone happy campers. Two nights of this was out of the question. The grip of Big Sur’s majesty just wasn’t enough to hold us. We packed up our shit that morning, still exhausted and in fouling moods, and decided to seek out more hospitable lodging up the coast in Monterey.