I remember my first trip to California. The year was 1972, I flew in from Chicago, as I was about to begin a new career. The fabled terminal at LAX was a fraction of the size it is today. The horseshoe design of the access road was already in place, but the terminals were one level in those days (vs. today's two and three-story buildings swallowing up departing passengers and spitting out the arrivals.) Over the dozen years I lived in Los Angeles, I occasionally drove south from Los Angeles to San Diego or north to Santa Barbara. But any other in-state travel was of the "fly-over" variety.
A few years ago (2014) I actually drove to Los Angeles from Mendocino County (mostly on I-5) to attend a memorial service for a dear friend. That Friday night I stayed with friends in the Hollywood hills. Saturday morning we all went to the memorial—in typical L.A. fashion—in numerous separate cars. As quickly as I arrived, Saturday afternoon I found myself back in my car and headed north on I-5. Neither the drive south on Friday or the return on Saturday motivated me to consider the beauty of this state's "agricultural engine", that enormous food-producing region covering the central part of the Golden State.
For some reason, as summer 2018 began I felt the urge to make contact. I reached out to one of my friends from that October 2014 visit. Harold Childs has been more than a friend. Hell, we worked together for a couple of decades. The call felt good and after a couple of months of trying to find the perfect moment we finally found a weekend that would work for us both.
Leaving Mendocino County on a Friday morning (again) I headed south, this time down the coast through Jenner, across the Russian River, over to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock's The Birds was filmed), past Point Reyes Station, which I once described to someone (as a good thing) as a "coastal town that time sorta forgot". I continued south through Olema and on to the Golden Gate Bridge. From there I drove past Golden Gate Park to Highway 92 and headed toward Half Moon Bay. Finally I was going to once again be enjoying the ocean views.
Part of my motivation for this route was the wonderful news that a beautiful stretch of Highway One near Big Sur had been repaired, reopened, and ready for traffic. I should have expected that with the highway reopened, a few thousand of my closest friends would also be headed to Half Moon Bay, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, and other points south..
Somewhere just north of Monterey my iPhone's GPS suggested—I guess most of these devices have learned to make suggestions to we puny humans—that I move over to Highway 101. It would be faster, and as it was now past noon, and I had hundreds of miles to go, I should get a move on.
In short order I found myself speeding down a wide-open 101, glancing left and right to take notice of the vast agricultural land I heretofore had only sped past at night or high above in a Boeing jet. It was sunny and beautiful (albeit 90+ degrees outside) and as I passed Watsonville I thought about the green vegetables and fruit often labeled as having come from this particular part of the state. When I read the highway sign that said "Soledad, 10 miles" I decided I'd had enough of the hot and dry ag-land and would head back to the coast. One problem: once you're past Soledad, Gonzales, Greenfield or dozens of other towns you realize there is no quick and easy route back to the coast from 101. Never mind. I still had my iPhone and even if this was miles from the coast, the drive might be worth it.
As I turned west from Greenfield, I navigated my way along a series of two-lane blacktop highways with names like Elm Road (no elms to be seen), Arroyo Seco (a dry creek it was), and Carmel Valley Road, which gave me some confidence that my general direction was west. As I drove past vineyards and orchards I couldn't help but notice so many hard-working men in the planted fields and rows. I was reminded (once again) how lucky I've been.
Some twists and turns (and perhaps 2 hours after leaving 101) I suddenly found myself in the charming town of Carmel Valley. It's about 15 miles from the coast and the parts of it I saw were just plain lovely. I quickly began reorienting myself from the dry roads, valleys, and hills and focused on this oasis. Clearly the real estate was well out of my league, but I had no interest in moving here anyway; and a stop after so many hours of driving seemed like a very good idea.
I turned right into the parking lot of the Corskscrew Cafe, with a sign telling me that lunch was served until 4:00pm. Glancing at my watch and seeing it was 3:30pm, the decision was easy. A glass of wine, a salad, and at 4:30pm I was back on Pacific Coast Highway. Sightseeing was becoming less and less of a motivation, as I knew I had many miles to go to get to Oxnard before midnight.
PCH became Cabrillo Highway, and I observed names and places that, had I not been so tardy driving this far, I would be stopping to take them all in. I looked up to see (in the far distance) the great American cabin in the woods known colloquially as Hearst Castle at San Simeon. I waved to the ghosts and continued south traveling through towns like Harmony, Cayucos, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, and Pismo Beach. By the time I reached the outskirts of Santa Barbara I was tired but feeling like I was actually going to make it to Oxnard.
Arriving at my Air B&B I can only say that it was better than the Alkistis Hotel in Athens but not by much. (The Alkistis was $10 bucks a night in 1976 and way overpriced then). Never mind. I won't bore you with my whiny accommodations story; perhaps another day.
Saturday morning my friend Harold picked me up and we started our day at a local coffee spot. We then spent the next ten hours catching up. Some wine, some food, a personally guided private tour of Oxnard—did you know it was founded by Henry Oxnard, or that the Navy not only maintains a base in Oxnard (Port Hueneme, actually) but there is a museum dedicated to the amazing work of the Sea Bees. If you don't know, it's the name given to the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalions)? We had dinner at a local favorite (in Ventura, as I recall), and then another Lyft car to get us back safely. Oxnard is a nice place to live and I can see why Harold likes it. Close enough to greater Los Angeles to stay in touch with friends and family but better air, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
Sunday Morning we had more coffee, said our good-byes and I was on the road again. I drove straight back to Mendocino County, taking 101 most of the way. When I got home I didn't need anyone to remind me how much I like living up here. But I will say, reaching out was a great idea. Most importantly I renewed a friendship that I've treasured for 40 years. And I was reminded, along the way, what a great state California truly is. There is so much here to explore and discover, and none of us will live long enough to see it all or even half. But while you're busy making plans, take a turn. Stop in a small town. Explore a museum. Gaze at the ocean. And visit with an old friend. It'll make you feel young again. Really.