Road Trip, chapter 3: Big Sur

B’bye, Monterey – thanks for the memories. I’m associating you with a power outage, deep-fried artichoke hearts, and the aquarium, in that order. Yes I know it’s unfair – we can talk about it later.

Houses and commercial properties thin out quickly approaching Big Sur’s unofficial northern boundary somewhere outside of Carmel. What kind of place is this, where even farmland and pastures look out to the ocean? Straight sections of Highway 1 gave way to gentle climbs and curves that opened onto increasingly broad and beautiful views. I don’t remember the location, but around one of those curves came the first breathtaking vista of mountain beyond mountain plunging into the ocean as far as we could see.

Before immersing all of us in more of this majestic scenery, we wanted to find a good place where we could play with the kids. The weather was clear and warm, and a guide book suggested Pfeiffer Beach, which turned out to be just our cup of tea – beautiful and uncrowded. Lauren’s hip injury was still quite fresh, but she decided it wouldn’t stop her from swimming in the cold water. She and Zack dove into several waves; Susan watched pelicans, surf, and a surfer; and I climbed out to get as close as I dared to the bigger waves crashing against rocks.

Back on the road Susan and I couldn’t get enough of the spectacular scenery. We stopped at one pullout after another, sometimes traveling less than 50 yards before hopping out to take another look. We probably averaged 25 mph or less for 90 miles, and sometimes that seemed too fast.

Lauren and Zack didn’t see much difference between one viewpoint and another. If you’ve seen one sheer rock wall dropping hundreds of feet into boiling surf against a backdrop of miles of unspoiled mountains where California condors soar and sapphire-blue ocean rolls onto pristine beaches, you’ve seen them all, I guess. Zack said as much: “It’s rocks and water. It all looks the same.” Here’s a surprise: even my lecture about people coming from all over the world to see Big Sur didn’t make them more interested. Susan managed to persuade me that we could still enjoy sightseeing whether or not the kids wanted to. The fact that this struck me as a revelation illustrates that 1) I have almost no common sense, and 2) Susan has enough for both of us. I have subsequently learned that kids’ ‘lack of interest’ in natural beauty is a common element of family road trips.

Big Sur is one of the best arguments I know of for protecting land from development. It’s painful but not difficult to imagine those hillsides and bluffs dotted with houses, souvenir shops, and other roadside attractions. Yikes – picture the gas stations and the garbage, the signs and the sidewalks. San Francisco is just 125 miles away. Yet here instead are miles of beaches, coastal mountains, hidden valleys, and jagged cliffs inaccessible by car. Who gets to live in a place like this? We were able to learn about a few of those fortunate enough to call Big Sur home – check these out.

Obviously, Big Sur’s power to inspire is far greater than my ability to describe. I like to think that I have a pretty good capacity for enjoying beauty, but this was overwhelming, and we were just seeing it from the road.

We had decided before leaving home that we’d rather spend our one day in this section of the California coast driving through Big Sur. That meant we wouldn’t have time to see Hearst Castle, which marks Big Sur’s informal southern boundary. That was okay with the kids. Zack thought if we couldn’t swim in the outdoor pool, there wasn’t much point in going there just to look at it. Anyway, our sightseeing sponges were pretty full when we drove by Mr. Hearst’s home. Maybe next time. For now we just wanted to get to our motel in San Luis Obispo.

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