Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

California Coast: San Francisco to Big Sur

Well, the capricious gods who rained termites and unauthorized credit card charges down upon us in mid-March apparently felt we deserved better, for they sent us a wonderful vacation in Southern California.

The plan was to leave at 8 a.m. Monday morning, but I felt moved to clean the whole apartment for the termite people, the building manager and the cat lady, so we didn’t back the Honda Fit out of the garage until noon. As usual, I packed too much: too many clothes, too many beach toys, too many books. The plan was to meander down the coast along Highway 1 South to Los Angeles, where we’d pick up Interstate 5 South to Carlsbad, named after the Czech spa town Karlovy Vary and home of Legoland.

To support us in this quest, we had our Garmin GPS navigator, which I named Greta. Greta was no help in the first day because she hates secondary roads, so we had to trick her by plugging in Pacifica and then Santa Cruz to keep her on Highway 1. Even then she tried to sneak us over to 101 or I-5, insistently demanding we turn off at 152 or 46 until I turned her off. Benny sat in the back and acted out complicated scenarios with a road atlas, two stuffed leopards and a sheep. The weather stayed clear and bright as we twisted and turned through Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel. Benny fell asleep and I kept sticking my head out the window to get a better look at the dramatic Big Sur coast, which is mostly state park.

We stayed the night in a cottage-like room at Big Sur Lodge and paid an astonishing amount of money for dinner, served next to its enormous fireplace and carved wooden pelican. The next morning we hiked around Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park, and as we headed back to the Lodge, I saw a boy hiking in the opposite direction say “Hi, Benny!” It was Evan, a third-grader from Benny’s Lucky Elementary in San Francisco.

Benny and I at Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park

Benny also bought another stuffed animal to join Leopard, Leppy and Sheepy: Dragony, who is – you guessed – it a dragon. (Benny was never big on imaginative names except for a stuffed horse a Business Times colleague gave him, named Deadline.) Dragony quickly fell in line with the rest of the pack, and Benny spent the day teaching them all about state capitals from the road atlas.

We left Highway 1 south of Big Sur to follow a poorly marked little road to Pfieffer Beach, which my 2010 California guidebook swore was free. (We didn’t consult Greta on this, knowing she would be appalled.) After about two miles, we crossed a large stream flowing across the road and pulled up to a big wooden tollbooth. The National Forestry Service had apparently moved in since 2010, and now wanted an entrance fee. Actually, I didn’t mind after all I’ve read about laid-off forest rangers.

After fording rivers in our Honda Fit and paying $5 to get there, I expected a lot from Pfieffer Beach. Well, it was worth it. The beach has purple sand (a result of manganese garnet particles washing down the hillside) and massive sandstone arches carved by the pounding waves. It was definitely a northern California beach, with giant rocks, high winds and icy-cold water. Benny ran around shouting, thrilled to be liberated from the car, Ron running after him snapping pictures.

Pfeiffer Beach

Finally, chilled through, I left them there and went back to the car, where sat and listened to a World War II podcast (“The Battle of Britain”) and watched a lady haul a large cooler out of her SUV and repack it three times.

Back on Highway 1, Ron and I had a “refreshing little discussion” about whether to stop at Hearst Castle or Pinnacles National Monument, but decided to push on. We drove along Morro Bay (distinguished by that huge rock jutting out of the harbor and its equally huge electrical plant) and steered away from the coast to cross another set of ridges. Finally we emerged into flatter, sandier lands, driving through Pismo Beach and heading due south to Guadalupe.

We resisted visiting Guadalupe’s sand dunes, described by my guidebook as “the biodiverse, coastal dune-lagoon ecosystem on the planet,” thus proving that any place can sound remarkable if you stick enough adjectives in front of it. After all, Ron and I happen to be in possession of “the largest carpeted feline resting system hosting a single Maine Coon-descended female with a moon-inspired name on the planet.” What does the previous sentence describe? Callisto’s kitty condo in our living room.

This is, of course, no reflection on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, and I would have loved to learn more, but the interpretive center is only open Thursday-Sunday from 10 to 4, so we missed our chance to see “one of the best examples of coastal dune scrub in the country.”

Instead, we skirted Vandenberg Airforce Base, which was conducted complicated military maneuvers involving a swarm of helicopters. A delighted Benny strained against his seat belt, trying to track all the helicopters rising and landing around us.

Then we found the coast again and turned up in Santa Barbara. We had truly arrived in Southern California.

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