In the mid-afternoon sun in Santa Cruz, California, topless men in backward baseball caps and baggy shorts played volleyball on the beach. Their tanned, toned torsos leapt into the air, raised an arm, ran backward, and lazed on the sidelines drinking water and high-fiving one another. We watched them from the pier. It was late September and, though still warm, the season was nearing its end, so the boardwalk rides had been closed when we walked through them, feeling like we we were in a ghost amusement park, devoid of people.
We had driven the hour and a half South from San Francisco and stopped for lunch, and now we were headed onward to the seaside town of Monterey, once a Spanish colonial settlement, to spend the night.
We arrived late in Monterey and left early, stopping only to eat dinner on the wharf and stay the night at a nondescript motel. We ate chocolate and drank tea while watching Nickelodeon in our beds at 10.30pm.
“Party animals”, said Amanda sleepily as I turned out the light.
Then we were on the road again, heading for Highway 1 and Big Sur State Park, along the famous California central coastline. Within less than an hour, we were looking out at a blue and silver sea cashing against rugged grey cliffs on our right, while rolling green hills rose up to our left. Our first photo stop of the day was at Bixby Bridge, the iconic bridge with its enormous arches over the scenic Bixby Creek that can be famously seen on many postcards of Big Sur.
After that, we drove onward to Pfeiffer State Beach. This dramatic cove is easily missed – the turn-off is well hidden in the trees, and then the 2 mile road down to the beach is narrow, winding and unmarked. Meeting another car on its way back up would have proved a challenge, if I hadn’t already been used to driving on Irish country roads. Pfeiffer Beach is rugged, its white sand contrasting starkly with the dark grey cliffs on all sides. It was a blustery day, and waves crashed roughly on the shore. We dipped our feet in the frothy, chilly Pacific, and dug them into the wet sand to find swirling layers of purple and rust colours underneath the surface. Because of its position far beneath the road, at the bottom of the cliffs, the beach feels utterly isolated from civilisation in its wild beauty.
At this stage we were hungry, so we retreated to the car and drove back up the winding path to the highway and pulled in to the Big Sur Tap House for tacos, which, bizarrely, was all decorated for Halloween with spiders, bats and witches’ cauldrons, even though it was still a month away. I had looked forward to visiting the nearby Henry Miller Memorial Library, with its famous bookstore, cafe and garden, but was disappointed to find it closed. We stopped a number more times along this coastal road, taking in the view, and enjoyed driving along the seafront with the top of our Mustang convertible down and the smell of salt in the air.
After another night in a second nondescript motel, this time in the tiny San Simeon, a coastal town with fewer than 500 inhabitants, we were driving South again, and noticing the weather become considerably warmer as we went. By midday, we were in sunny Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara’s streets are lined with whitewashed, Spanish-style colonial buildings with decorative archways and terracotta-tiled roofs. The romantic architecture is complemented by carved stone fountains and cobbled walkways. The city’s main thoroughfare, State Street, leads to its seemingly endless beach, which stretches as far as can be seen in one direction, and is bookended by its pretty harbour in the other. The beach is lined with a row of towering palm trees, with Southern California’s desert mountains in the distance forming the backdrop for it all.
This was my first taste of SoCal, and I didn’t yet know that this combination of brilliant blue sea with giant palm trees and a mountainous background would come to be among my favourite places in the world. Moving onward through Malibu, the drive provided us with the contrast of red cliffs rising up to our left and the sun setting into the sparkling blue sea on our right. Eventually, as dusk fell, we pulled up outside the Hotel Carmel in Santa Monica, where a valet took our car and we checked in, tired from our journey.
The following day, Santa Monica revealed its offering of wide beach, palm trees and glittering sea to be even more brilliant than Santa Barbara’s. We hopped on Los Angeles’ open-top bus tour and had our first experience of LA’s immense distances. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said in his travelogue America that LA is “in love with its limitless horizontality, as New York may be in love with its verticality.”
Two hours of long, straight boulevards lined with even more palm trees (I’ll never get tired of them) later, we were on Hollywood Boulevard, at the Eastern end of the Walk of Fame, where celebrities of the past and present have their names permanently embossed into the pavement in brass, each with a star shape around it.
A twenty minute walk, stopping along the way for photos with the names of our favourite stars and starlets, took us to the Chinese Theatre, Hollywood’s famous location where countless movie stars have written their names in the cement.
This is tourist central, and street performers dressed as famous characters and icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Captain Jack Sparrow join the visitors in crowding the street.
My impression of Hollywood fits with its reputation as a run down dive. The Walk of Fame and Chinese Theatre are worth seeing, and it’s possible to glimpse the famous Hollywood sign up on the hill through the gaps in the buildings, but beyond that, Hollywood Boulevard has little to offer other than choking heat and concrete. Immediately North of this sit Hollywood Hills, a mountain range right in the middle of the huge city, offering hiking trails and a scenic drive along Mulholland Drive, where the rich and famous have built their mansions in seclusion from the busy city and prying eyes. I drove from one end of Mulholland to the other, stopping at view points over Universal Studios, the Hollywood Bowl, Downtown LA and even one looking up at the Hollywood Sign.
We finished our Californian dream sitting outside a bar at the end of Venice Beach Boardwalk, eating pizza and drinking beer while the sun descended behind black silhouetted palm trees. Around us, street performers danced, drummed and rallied the crowd, hippies sat on the boardwalk braiding hair and painting henna onto tanned skin, and skaters performed flips and tricks nearby. Venice’s chaos is generally seen as LA’s bohemian side – to us it seemed a place simply focused on enjoyment, an easy 30 minute walk back to Santa Monica.
Driving to LAX the following afternoon, we looked up at one point to find seemingly never-ending layers of freeway upon freeway laced on top of us, twisting in every direction like spaghetti. LA’s freeways are the veins of this sprawling city. I was reminded again of Baudrillard’s assessment of the city:
“Gigantic, spontaneous spectacle of automotive traffic. A total collective act, staged by the entire population, twenty-four hours a day. By virtue of the sheer size of the layout and the complicity that binds this network of thoroughfares together, traffic rises here to the level of a dramatic attraction, acquires the status of symbolic organisation. … The city was here before the freeway system, no doubt, but it now looks as though the metropolis has actually been built around this arterial network.”
Indeed, the traffic here moves like ants with a single hive mind, and as a driver you become part of that mind, taking your place at speed among the moving vehicles. It was sad to say goodbye to our Mustang at the airport, but I even after this first visit I knew that I would be back to Southern California.
Western USA road trip!