Come the beginning of October we’d reached a disheartening anniversary. A year had passed since Cora and I had taken a trip to anywhere besides Home Depot, the grocery store and a couple of al fresco lunches. October 2019, we spent a few days in Reno, Nevada. Reno isn’t exactly the flower in the garden. There are some, many in fact, who might argue that it’s the thorn of the rose. Over the years it’s been our short getaway place. I go to lose money at the blackjack tables and Cora feeds slot machines. Cora relaxes in our room or by the pool and I find a losing team to bet on at the sports book and then, well, I watch my team lose on a gigantic screen. And then there’s eating, far too much eating. For the foreseeable future the casinos and casino buffets are off the itinerary.
Over the summer we’ve lamented what we’ve had to forego. In July we were supposed to have done a swing through the midwest, visiting major league baseball stadiums along the way. Because of COVID that trip struck out. Right about now we should be on our way back from three weeks in Italy.
Getting over corona consternation
It wasn’t that long ago that we were remaining within the fortress of our home and yard. We were washing groceries and sanitizing canned goods. I left the house only for essential errands and early morning runs. Over the summer, science has revealed that we can prudently loosen restrictions but normal as we once knew it such a short time ago is going to be taboo for some time to come.
Cora and I have remained behind the vanguard when it comes to relaxing our behavior. We eased into outdoor lunch, visiting parks and going shopping beyond foraging for the essentials. Each loosening of our behavioural bindings has come with some serious forethought and about 14 days of nervous afterthought.
In late August I floated the idea of taking a short trip to Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada. That plan went up in smoke when the State of California caught fire and the park was closed indefinitely. I tried to opt for Big Sur on the Central California Coast but the Dolan Fire had most of that area closed. On the verge of admitting defeat I took a last look at my California guide book and found Morro Bay, a seaside community south of Big Sur.
Morro Bay Remembered
I remembered Morro Bay from my childhood though I’d never been there before in my life. My recollection of Morro Bay came from a Golden Stamp Book about natural wonders of the world. The stamp book; it’s a long extinct relic from pre-internet days. But for a few odd collectors they never gained the nostalgic appeal of old comic books, Necco Wafers or metal lunch pails. Golden Stamp Books were themed activity books that included educational pages and gummed stickers. Each educational page had a place to stick the appropriate sticker. This particular book had a page about Morro Rock (More on Morro Rock to come. Stay tuned.).
Funny isn’t it how I can remember a particular stamp in a stamp book from my childhood and not remember what I had for breakfast. Okay maybe it’s not so funny. Something for another post – if I don’t forget to write it.
As is the case with just about everything during the period of COVID, the virus played a part in writing the narrative. The original plan was to leave home on Sunday and return on Thursday, but in an attempt to minimize being in crowds we decided to leave on Monday and return on Friday (retirement can be boring at times but it does have its perks). Normally I would open guide books and plan visits to museums and other indoor attractions. COVID changed all that. Instead of looking for places to visit I was looking for what would be open – and safe.
There are two ways to get to Morro Bay from home. The fastest and most direct is down the San Francisco Peninsula on Highway 101. Not so scenic unless gazing at glass and steel tech company buildings on either side of the freeway are your idea of a panorama. The other route is down Highway 1, with the dramatic Pacific Ocean as your companion to your right and the changing scenery of the immediate inland to your left. This was a road trip and a road trip should offer as much scenery per mile and surprises per turn as nature can possibly provide.
There’s something very special for me about road trips with Cora. We can be listening to music or talking about the trip in front of us or what we’re taking back with us or we can just sit in silent enjoyment of each other’s company. There’s a particular warm closeness that comes over me as the miles pass and the scenery changes.
On the road
We hit Highway 1 dropping down from the coastal hills of San Mateo into Pacifica. As you descend towards the coastline you can see a stretch of beaches interrupted only by the Pacifica Pier jutting into the cold (and it is cold) Pacific waters. The water off Pacifica, particularly at Rockaway Beach, is frequently dotted with surfers. Even on days that most of us wouldn’t think of as a beach day can find the parking lots jammed with surfers gearing up in their wetsuits and carrying their boards to hit the waves.
Leaving Pacifica the road rises again and cuts through McNee Ranch State Park and after a brief break from the ocean you drop back down to the coastline and a stretch of small coastal towns; Montara, Moss Beach, Pillar Point and Princeton. Looking east from the highway you see a deep green table of brussel sprout fields broken up in autumn by the bright orange of pumpkin patches. To the west is a continuous stretch of beaches interrupted by the Pillar Point Marina and Princeton by the Sea where my dad used to take me fishing. It’s here that you can find Mavericks where surfers challenge waves that can top out at 60 ft (18 m).
After Half Moon Bay you lose sight of the ocean but every few miles you come upon crossroads that lead west to more beaches. At San Gregorio you can take an inland road for a few miles, drive past farms and an old stagecoach stop. Back on Highway 1 San Gregorio State Beach is where you hit the ocean’s edge again and pass another string of state beaches.
Pescadero is home to a vast wetland, a sandy beach and rocky tidepools. A few miles later, on a promontory overlooking the ocean is the Pigeon Point Light Station. A few miles later at Ano Nuevo, you can see one of the world’s largest mainland breeding colonies of elephant seals (Seal viewing temporarily closed due to COVID-19. The seals don’t have it, the people do. Mask up so that we can put COVID in the rearview please). Below, three views of Pescadero.
Just north of Santa Cruz we passed the entrance road to Big Basin Redwoods, California’s oldest state park highlighted by magnificent redwoods, tall as the Statue of Liberty and over a thousand years old. My dad and I used to camp at Big Basin when I was a kid. We loaded the station wagon with a big old canvas tent, a pair of cots and enough ancillary gear to support a company of Marines.
These days the entrance road is blocked. You see, Big Basin is a charred shell. Forty percent of the redwoods burned in a fire caused by a lightning strike. Many of the park structures burned to the ground. It will be years before the park opens to visitors again. The fire hadn’t dawned on me until I slowed and noticed to our left that the land was charred right down to Highway 1. We were right at the Pacific Ocean. There was no place else for the fire to go.
Nearby is the little town of Davenport, population 264. Davenport, founded in 1867 started out as a whaling town. It’s a charming place with a picturesque beach, a roadhouse, a wine tasting shop and a bakery. On good days you might be able to spot gray whales, blue and humpback whales, otters, dolphins, porpoises and sea lions. On this day we spotted a lot of homemade signs scrawled on everything from poster board to plywood with messages of thanks to the firefighters who quite probably saved the town. I remember Davenport from my childhood for being the last major landmark before we arrived in Santa Cruz a few minutes later (as a child that few minutes still seemed like a couple of hours).
Santa Cruz, The Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur
It was mid morning when we arrived at Santa Cruz, famous for the beach boardwalk. When I was a kid, Santa Cruz was the closest thing that we had to Disneyland in Northern California. When the weather looked promising (no fog), mom would fry some chicken, make a bowlful of macaroni salad and we’d pack the Scotch Cooler with Shasta soft drinks and make the drive to the beach boardwalk. On that beach even with the grit of a little sand, I don’t know that fried chicken ever tasted any better. Shasta sodas? They were the best; vanilla cream, cherry cola and yes chocolate cola.
As we pulled into Santa Cruz I asked Cora if she wanted to take a bathroom break at the boardwalk but what I really wanted was an excuse to walk over to Mariani’s to buy the biggest box of salt water taffy available. Mariani’s was always a necessary stop in Santa Cruz for a candied apple to eat there and a box of taffy to take home. I suppose that I should’ve suspected something was off when I managed to park right at the beach boardwalk. Normally parking is a challenge to both patience and wallet.
It was eerie to see the boardwalk nearly empty. A few people strolled past motionless amusement rides, locked shops and food stands that would normally be serving anything that can be deep fried and some things that shouldn’t be deep fried – ever. There was a sprinkling of people on a beach that would in regular, non-viral times be packed and ringing with the sounds of carnaval music from the boardwalk, and the laughter and shouts of play from beachgoers dodging the crashing waves.
And Mariani’s? It was dark, the taffy pulling machine motionless. We drove away taffy-less, which was probably a good thing given that I would probably have eaten a good pound or more of the soft little gobs by the time we’d hit Morro Bay. That’s how it is with me and Mariani’s. A few miles down the road and the backseat is littered with wrappers that I toss over my shoulder.
Back on Highway 1 south and soon we hit the little beach town of Aptos. I guess I was about 22 or 23 years old the last time I’d been to Aptos. I took frequent trips south from San Mateo to meet up with Mayumi, the younger sister of a coworker of mine who’d introduced us. She was a student at Cabrillo College, where we would meet up in the parking lot. We dated for a short time, more than once taking in some music and a decent amount of beer at The Catalyst, a music club and Santa Cruz institution with a long and storied history. Jerry Miller, former mainstay of the 1960’s San Francisco psychedelic rock band Moby Grape was a Santa Cruz resident at the time and at times it seemed a resident at the club. While we didn’t often go to The Catalyst every time we went Mr. Miller and friends headlined.
The Catalyst, a Central California music icon, started as the Catalyst Coffee House and Delicatessen until it was bought by Randall Kane, a businessman who sported rainbow suspenders and had a vision of owning a music venue. In 1973 Kane moved the club to its current location. In its heyday the club featured some big time acts; The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Janis Joplin, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Iggy Pop and Nirvana. Today, like many similar businesses, COVID has closed The Catalyst and the club is hanging on by a thread.
While I wasn’t one to readily admit it, Mayumi probably knew from the start that it was a relationship with no future, and not just for the fact that my commute was sixty miles each way. Even with gas at around .55 cents a gallon it was a definite strain on my meagre retail wage. The more compelling reason for the short shelf life of our romance was the necessity of having to meet up on the sly (hence the Cabrillo College parking lot). Her father wouldn’t have been at all happy about his daughter getting involved with a guy who wasn’t Japanese and so after a couple of months she decided that family came before a situation that didn’t figure on showing any long term promise. It was just as well. Why cause unneeded drama in the young woman’s domestic circle.
Carmel by the Sea is expensive, high brow and artsy fartsy. That said it’s still a fun place to visit with it’s boutique shops, an eclectic blend of restaurants and an abundance of galleries offering a wide variety of art, all beyond my means. All of that and it’s dog friendly (even though we didn’t bring Lexi with us).
It was about noontime when we approached the outskirts of the village so it seemed only natural that we stop for lunch. Being a pandemic Monday I was expecting no crowds, acres of open parking and plenty of restaurant seating. The main thoroughfare is Ocean Avenue where we found throngs of people, not a single parking place and packed restaurants. I turned to Cora, “Is Carmel, like, immune from the coronavirus?”
It was a rhetorical question of course but it sure seemed like Carmel considered itself to be a virus free bubble, or at least everyone in town seemed to act that way. Very few masks and there didn’t seem to be much spacing between dining tables. Cora shook her head, “Nevermind.” After Santa Cruz and Carmel it was COVID 2 – us 0.
Next stop, Big Sur. Going in I was hoping we could stop at Limekiln State Park, known for its rugged coastline, the views of the redwoods and a spectacular coastal canyon, the deepest in the continental United States. And going in I knew it was going to be iffy at best. For days I watched the progress of the Dolan Fire, one of many scorching the state; this particular one affecting Big Sur. Containment was progressing and I was hopeful as we entered Big Sur. Closed. Every park and beach in Big Sur was closed.
While the parks and beaches were shuttered many of the businesses along Highway 1 were still open. I have to hand it to the business owners in Big Sur. It’s a stunning place: redwoods, trails with dazzling views and rocky shores that tempt the photographer and sandy beaches that draw the sun worshippers. But it’s a place that’s been racked time and again by mother nature. A few years back it was a landslide that closed Highway 1 for 17 long customerless months. This year a pandemic and a fire.
With everything closed and hunger closing in we stopped at the Big Sur Deli and General Store. It’s one of those little food emporiums that features basics for the camper along with a prodigious sandwich menu and a shit ton of craft beers. Would I get the “Italian stallion,” “chicken pesto,” “southwest chicken,” “Mexican speed wrench” or “Big Sur hipster.” None. Just your basic tuna salad on rye. Why, you ask? Why something so mundane as tuna when all those specialties were available. Because I’m just a boring guy?
Well maybe but in this instance it was because I’ve been missing two front teeth since January. COVID came along and closed the Clear Choice dental office for months and the implants that should have been planted in April were never put in and won’t be until December. The backlog was that long. Without front teeth a generous sandwich might just as well be sheet metal on concrete – hold the mayo. I haven’t had a burger since January but who’s counting and that’s for a different story. The one and only silver lining to having to wear a mask is I don’t have to worry about a two tooth gap in my smile. Well, the other silver lining is that despite the raving claims of a looney president the mask does help stop the spread.
We bought our lunch and drove a few miles to a turnout overlooking the Big Sur coastline. One day and it has to be soon and COVID or not, we’re going to see more of Big Sur. Below, views of the Big Sur coastline.
We struck out in Santa Cruz, whiffed in Carmel and scored nil in Big Sur. That might be enough to put a damper on the whole thing but going in neither Santa Cruz or Carmel were in the original plans and Big Sur was expected to be problematic. At the southern reaches of Big Sur, is the little town of San Simeon. At tiny San Simeon, population 462, our luck turned around.
San Simeon and the seals
San Simeon is famous for the Hearst Castle just east of the village. Hearst Castle is an ostentatious paean to architectural extravagance built by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst Castle was one of those items on my mom’s bucket list but it never held any appeal for me because Hearst himself, being a “yellow journalist,” an anti-New Dealer and a supporter of big business never held any appeal. The movie Citizen Kane is partly based on the life of William Randolph Hearst and Kane’s fictional estate, Xanadu, was inspired by the Hearst Castle. I guess it’s useless information to drop at a cocktail party – even a Zoom cocktail party (Which I maintain is an excuse to drink by yourself, but I’m not one to judge).
Just north of San Simeon is Hearst-San Simeon State Park’s Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery with a vista point from which you can watch the big, seemingly ungainly (on land anyway) pinnipeds. Up till this point it seemed that the twin demons, COVID and wildfire, had cast an evil spell on our road trip. The vista point was open to the public and for the moment the twin demons had been exorcised.
The seals take up a stretch of beach about ¼ mile in length. I grabbed my camera and bolted from the car leaving Cora in my wake. When I got to the overlook I realized that this called for the heavy artillery so I returned for my tripod and my 600mm lens. As I was rearming my camera with the big lens Cora came back to the car.
“Paul, they’re all dead.”
I guess that would be the first reaction on seeing hundreds of seals, many lying motionless in the sand. Ah, but I knew better because I spent hours of my youth watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and all those other nature shows, most of them narrated by some chap with a British accent who always told tales of young females not wanting to have anything to do with the old males ( a good reason for a good man to stay married to a good woman). In the animal kingdom the old males seem to take rejection in stride, never resorting to bad comb overs or Corvette convertibles to try and attract the young females.
“No, they’re not dead,” I told Cora. “It’s what they do. If you look closely you’ll see them shift around and flip sand on themselves.”
The beach was populated mostly with sub-adults and females. We arrived just short of the prime season which begins in November when the adult males begin to arrive and in December begin fighting for mating rights (Isn’t it just like guys, picking fights over women). In December and January pregnant females arrive to give birth a few days after their arrival. The pups average 60 pounds at birth. When fully grown the females will reach up to 1,500 pounds (600 kg) and 10 feet (3 m) in length and the males up to 4,500 pounds (2,000 kg) and 15 feet (4 m) in length.
There’s a very large parking lot at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and plenty of room to watch and take photos. Viewing is limited to the viewing area but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the occasional knot head make his way to the beach for a seal selfie (Don’t laugh, I’ve seen people at Yellowstone try to get up close and personal with bison and bear cubs). There are plenty of displays around the viewing area which describe the seals and their behaviour. It was an excited crowd, snapping photos, pointing, gawking and enjoying a rarely seen animal in its environment. Even the 10 – 14 year olds, who often find that almost nothing is cool, were engaged.
After spending an hour or so at the rookery we continued our drive south. Next stop, Morro Bay.
Soon to come: Our stay at Morro Bay.