I’ve driven much of this route before, but not in this direction and it has been a handful of years, so it feels almost as new to me as anything else I’ve encountered lately.
Heading north from Santa Barbara along U.S. Route 101 the earth has a green-yellow tint, sometimes more yellow and sometimes more green depending on the water supply and I’m sure other factors the scientist in me knows nothing about. No matter, even when yellow it is much more alive here than the drive I’ve just completed through inland central California.
I first pass through Solvang, a tourist town famous for its Dutch-influenced architecture and culture. I do not leave the car, but instead feel out the town from behind the wheel, a bit avoidant of commericial tourism today, and I press onward.
Los Olivos is a neighboring small town that lies a touch northwest. It is wine-heavy (I can appreciate that), but I’ll see it another time. I’ve calculated that, if I stick to my route, the day’s light will fade just as I’m reaching the southern entrance to Big Sur—one of the most scenic drives in the world—but for now and several more hours the sun is high.
The road winds around a good deal in this part of the state, its shape opposite in every way to my recent drive down the 99. We (the car and I) pass through Santa Maria and then San Luis Obispo, but I do not stop at either. Santa Maria is the largest city in the county, but I’ve never stopped here as it doesn’t come across as culturally interesting – but perhaps I’m not educated on the matter and I’m open to being proven wrong. That will have to be another day.
San Luis Obispo carries much more appeal; it’s a college town complemented by a heavy dose of the farming industry. I’ve wanted to explore it the times I’ve passed through, but like Santa Maria I haven’t executed that plan. From SLO, I turn west onto Highway 1 and head back toward the coast, catching first glimpse of it at Morro Bay. Bays are few and far between on the California coast, but I cherish them for their calm demeanor. I am not a person to enjoy fast rides, loud noises or extreme sports, so it makes sense that I would prefer a quiet bay to white waters and wild ocean.
Cayucos is next. Cayucos is special. I stopped here during my move to San Diego to use the library’s restroom. At a four way stop, with the top down and a guitar poking out of my backseat, a local yelled, “Watch out Hollywood!” He had the wrong city, but it has been a head-spinning few years. I was half embarrassed to appear so cliché to the locals, and half proud that my presence did not go unnoticed. I have not forgotten the intersection at Cayucos where he said this, and I stopped on my way back north to take a photo and remember how far I’ve come since the day I drove through 3 1/2 years ago.
And then Cambria. My spirits are lifted by now. I’m charmed at every small town and boutique and slice of countryside or coast. Cambria is beautiful and charming and I want more of it in my life; unfortunately, all lodging is sold out for the night. The sky is dimming now, and quickly at that, but in the morning before I drive Big Sur I’ll come back to Cambria’s Moonstone Beach to comb its sands for the colorful rocks that gave this beach its name.
San Simeon is tonight’s destination. It is the southern portal to Big Sur and the location of the famous Hearst Castle, an elaborate estate surrounded by hilly grasslands grazed on by herds of zebras. I imagine they are descendants of the original zebras that lived here when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst made the castle his home. Hearst died in 1951, and today the estate is open to the public with tours given numerous times each day.
And now it is late, and the only tour I want is the one that leads me to my hotel room and into bed.