One hour north of Santa Maria is where my journey started, where I took the Morro Bay exit off the four-lane Highway 101 and ventured toward the two-lane, curvaceous Highway 1. After 10 miles of anticipation, I hit the coast and saw the beige of a long beach out my window. Out the other, huge spendy houses and tourist-trap restaurants streaked by. After that, a meander through hilly pastures, cows, and signs that shouted “COASTAL ACCESS” with arrows that pointed down dirt-roads, led me to Cambria and San Simeon, where the cliffs and beaches begin to fight each other for ocean-front property and Big Sur looms — not visible, but in the distance stated on a highway sign.
Up and down and side-to-side the road started to move as I left the last sign of civilization behind me and orange poppies began making their token appearances on California’s coastal cliff sides. I know, maybe it’s too poetic, but that’s how I felt when I was driving. It’s like the more I wound the wheel and the more I alternated between the gas pedal and the brake, the further away I moved from whatever it was I needed a break from. The coast took over and it became exactly where I wanted to be, and my mind fell away and left me weightless.
At this point the trip was a few weeks ago, and what it was, was a weekend camping meetup with a friend of mine. Big Sur was the halfway point between her and I, and what a place to spend a couple of days. As you drive north, the coast comes at you in phases. After the poppies start, the hills began to roll again. Indian paintbrushes, silver lupine, and other flowers I don’t know the names for popped in and out of view in front of me, and lush green reached out and touched the crumbling cliffs that dropped off into the sand.
Signs for vista points lined the side of the highway, and eventually the one I was waiting for stood out brown and white, warning drivers that elephant seals would soon come into view. I, of course, pulled off the road too early, which is something I tend to do when I don’t know exactly where I’m going. But lucky for me there was some species of seals there and a white heron stalking the water with that jilted bird-like gait.
The next vista point turn-off was where the real seal party was though, and every tourist on Highway 1 that Saturday knew it. The parking lot was full, a vendor was selling plastic elephant seal water bottles, and a state parks ranger person was roaming around. A fence lined the cliffs around the beach so nobody could do anything stupid, no matter how badly they wanted to. And it smelled like fish breath. Big beasts rolled around groaning, slapping at each other, and sunning themselves.
Although I still don’t believe they were elephant seals, I’ve since been told that they were. They didn’t look big enough and their noses were short and delicate, not the flubbery hanging jowls I associate with the elephants, but they were loud and stinky all the same. That was the first stop on my drive north. Next up was construction, traffic, and more cliffside views of the sunny ocean…not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning.