By Mac McClelland, Oct 1, 2018
There’s a picture of me from the early ’90s: I’m 13, leaning against the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, peering down into the water below. I look somber, possibly because my father had shared on approach to the landmark that it was, at least then, the most popular bridge in the world to jump off. Or maybe it was some other reason.
I was definitely freezing, my long legs in jean shorts exposed to the summer San Francisco air, which manages to look cold even in the photo. I would remember the unrelenting windy unpleasantness of that first trip to the city often after I moved to it more than a decade later, walking from work past tourists by the hundreds who were similarly underdressed, unable to fathom that there could be inclement weather in California.
That was the final stop on that family vacation, which was the first time I encountered the state, but it wasn’t the first discomfort during our trip. We’d gotten to the Bay Area via State Route 1, the epic and winding coastal road also known as Highway 1, my sister and I nauseated in the back seat and my mother panicking in the front as we took turns along cliff edges too fast. We had started in Los Angeles, where we had flown from Cleveland and stayed a night, we kids left at the motel while my parents went out. In the faraway unfamiliar city, noises through a door that opened directly to the outside, we were terrified.
It wasn’t that I was looking to reclaim the highway, or the state, when I embarked on the trip in the opposite direction from my home in Oakland last month. I didn’t have a strict agenda. I was open, as one needs to be here, to where I would end up.
IF MY INITIAL EXPERIENCE OF CALIFORNIA
doesn’t sound instantaneously enchanting: well, it’s a land of contradictions! And that land is stitched together from far north of Sacramento to almost San Diego by 659 miles of a highway that itself is dynamic and complicated. Most people who’ve driven the 1 mention wanting to throw up and the breathtaking beauty and danger in the same sentence, being carsick and awe-struck and scared. The road was built in pieces starting about a century ago, partly with prison labor and explosives; pieces of it still close, for fires, for eroded bridges, for falling right into the ocean. Most recently, in July, a stretch south of Big Sur that had been impassable for more than a year was finally reopened, repaired after six million cubic yards of landslide buried it in its tumble toward the Pacific.
In the most evocative parts of the drive, the drop, separated from your car by just a guardrail — or not — is hundreds of feet.
Somebody who lives on the East Coast once told me that they don’t like California because it’s so big and full of possibility that they feel like they could disintegrate. That it makes the space between their cells feel too vast. There might be nowhere that space feels vaster than on Highway 1.
Though my memories of the road from that first time are Dramamine-blurry and sick, I’d since driven it, as far as Big Sur anyway, multiple times as an adult. But this was the first time I was doing it all the way to Los Angeles, to where I’d first landed, and solo.
I LEFT MY HOUSE IN THE CRISP
invigorating East Bay morning, elegant hills and gentrification shrouded in fog or wildfire smoke or both — usually, recently, both — and headed toward a bridge to the San Francisco peninsula, instantly sighing and celebrating. The city by the bay turns to bucolic beach town in about 15 minutes along the 1, as the ocean rolls into view on your right and cityscape empties out, and soon, you are in Pacifica, a seaside outpost that feels both remote and right down the street.
But this time, I skipped Pacifica for a new (to me) stop, in Pescadero, 30 miles farther south. I pulled away from the water and into the tiny town, wandering the main road waiting for Duarte’s, its 124-year-old tavern and restaurant, to open for lunch. The coffee shop across the street was playing a weird old movie in a nine-seat theater tucked in the back. Arcangeli, a grocery store and deli a block down, sells fresh-baked cookies bigger than my face, and I ate one.
When I did finally walk into Duarte’s, which I never would have done if a friend hadn’t tipped me off, I ordered a swirl of the cream of artichoke and cream of green chile soups. It’s not on the menu — I was additionally tipped off just that morning by the same friend. This stretch of coast is frequently, as it was that day, hugged by chilly overcast, and I heard every local around me order the same. The sourdough bread from a bakery a bit north in Half Moon Bay that the restaurant serves hot was as good as any I’ve had on Fisherman’s Wharf.
There’s a goat dairy in town, with a tasting shop. Eight miles south, there’s Pigeon Point, one of the West Coast’s tallest lighthouses. There’s the famous old-timey, roller-coaster-and-arcade-studded boardwalk at Santa Cruz 30 miles past that, and plentiful beaches and parks along the way. I opted for turning off the 1 at Davenport Beach, its own bakery and roadhouse looking exploration-worthy for another time, and headed up to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, because I had never been there, either.
I waffled about the detour right up to the last moment. Should I get on the unknown, even more winding path up into the forest? But there are no wrong decisions along the 1, Big Basin included. One could spend days there, on 80 miles of walking trails among the earth’s tallest living organisms, many of these redwoods between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. And there are amenities to boot: a staffed headquarters, maps, all-gender bathrooms — and a form to fill out saying where you went, so someone can look for you if you don’t come back.
I took the Redwood Trail, a short, easy stroll through the wooden giants. I hike with some regularity among other Northern California redwoods, marveling at the scorch marks on their bark or through their middles, the way they withstand fire. The pamphlet I picked up at the beginning of the trail informed me that one of these trees burned and smoldered for 14 months before the fire in it went out. The pamphlet also told me to step inside the big hole in another one that has been ablaze multiple times and look up; I did, and there, a hundred feet above, was a circular window to the sky. Shocked to see blue overhead, I burst out laughing, the sound filling the space where the tree’s heartwood should be, bouncing off its hollowed insides.
A singular tree, less than a hundred miles from my city. It’d have been worth traveling from anywhere to see it.
I wound my car back to the ocean and rejoined the road alongside it, eyeing the options that arose: Moss Landing, with whale- and dolphin-watching boats. Monterey, of course, where my parents took us to the elaborate aquarium. Carmel-by-the-Sea, where I have only a vague memory of a street full of shops so fancy I couldn’t even really understand them. I continued straight to Big Sur.
Big Sur. The sound of it, even; the brevity and weight of both words. A road between rock faces, one side rising up and one sheer down — amid a cloudscape, it looks like, when the fog hangs low over the water and it seems like you’re driving above the sky. Or, when the haze is thinner, and blurs the line between water and air on the horizon, like you’re driving next to infinity.
Tucked among trees on the landside is Deetjen’s, a 1930s-era National Register of Historic Places-designated inn, a rambling collection of dark-wood structures with thin walls and entirely varying rooms inside. The map of the property that guests are given at check-in lives in a frame in my house, from one of several stays; the room I booked this time had a shared hall bath, a twin bed and a kitchen sink. After dinner in the restaurant, I lay down and read one of the room journals that guests are invited to write in. A recent entry was from an elderly man on the precipice of a “scary and exciting” move alone to a new state, where he said he had no context. He also said that he left a joint in the teapot. I looked up and saw it sitting on a ledge. When I opened it, it was stuffed full of wishes written on scraps of paper.
I SET MY ALARM FOR MIDNIGHT.
I drove, in the dark, down the 1 to Esalen, a nonprofit institute with workshops and lodging that opens its cliffside hot springs to anyone who books one of the limited $35 spots online fast enough when same-day registration opens at 9 a.m. The thing is: The spots are only available from 1 to 3 in the morning. The process of waiting by the side of the road and being rounded up and registered and led onto the property was not particularly warm or welcoming. But in the clothing-optional, open-air stone tubs, where the lighting is very dim and the crash of the waves far below is loud, the feel of it did melt off some as I soaked, breathing in eucalyptus, salt, redwood, pine.
I opted for a daylight version of the same view — ocean forever — on the giant deck at Café Kevah for breakfast the next morning. I could talk for hours about what I did as I continued south that day: stopped at the 80-foot, roadside McWay Falls. Stood in an exhibit on Pelton wheels (a type of water turbine) at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. I took the steep and mildly dangerous footpath down to an abandoned beach at Ragged Point Inn and Resort and decided to strip down to my underwear and plunge into the sea. I pulled off the side of the highway to watch, with a group of other travelers, a pod of dolphins apparently mating below.
At a beach near Point Piedras Blancas, hundreds of elephant seals were lying around or playing, some of them 16 feet long and 5,000 pounds. I waved at Hearst Castle as I passed it, high on the hill to my left — a place I did visit with my parents, where the tiles of the Roman pool room glitter with real gold. I witnessed a 600-foot, 23 million-year-old volcanic remnant, visible for 10 miles, rising in the distance in Morro Bay. I parked at the foot of it, where otters were floating around in the water right in front of me, their little hands rubbing their faces, rubbing their chests, holding each other as they tumbled, a stuffed-animal dream come to life.
NONE OF THAT WAS PLANNED
when I woke up that morning, excited about my actual destination: an anomaly of a resort in San Luis Obispo called the Madonna Inn. On our way through on that family trip, my parents bought a book of postcards depicting the 110 themed rooms, and though we didn’t stay there, I had savored it, hoarded it, studied it so closely that I remembered the features and names of some of the rooms decades later, including a rock-waterfall wall and shower in the Cave Man Room. Which is precisely the one I checked into, and which somehow exceeded my expectations, though I’ve been expecting them since I was 13 years old.
The Madonna Inn is beyond garish, wild with over-decoration and lack of subtlety and colors — the steakhouse oozes with every shade of pink, because Alex Madonna, the second-generation Swiss who opened this hotel in 1958 and was a ranching partner of John Wayne, was not concerned with what you thought about his masculinity. But every detail of the million details throughout the sprawling property is clean and classy and meticulous — and beautiful.
In my room, where the ceiling, floor and walls were made of real rock, there was a set of clubs — cave-person clubs — hanging in wall-mounted holsters at either side of the king bed. When I picked one up and turned it around in my hands, it was heavy: hand-hewn from a solid piece of wood. The window in my bathroom was a stained-glass rendering of a cave man overlooking a valley rich with jewel tones. I’ve been to countless hotels in dozens of countries since I looked at pictures of the Madonna Inn as a teenager. I am unconvinced I wasn’t somehow looking for the Cave Man Room the whole time.
The next morning, I had planned to wake up early. But I slept, in soft sheets and with animal-print blackout curtains drawn, for 12 hours. I had planned to lunch at one of the classic seafood spots along the 1 in Malibu, where it’s called the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead I stopped at another beach on the way and sat and stared in the wind and then had to head more directly to the airport, accounting for Los Angeles traffic.
Plans change. Landscapes change. Perilously, climates change.
BEFORE THIS TRIP, THE LAST TIME
I had been on the 1 was three springs ago, revisiting with my then husband, after we had moved away from the Bay. One morning, I found myself alone behind the wheel at a sharp curve in Big Sur with a strong enough urge to drive off it that I realized I needed to change my life. Within a year, I had separated. Within another, I was finalizing plans to move again, to find my way back, to the state.
It wasn’t just how you could die in California, on a famous bridge, that my father had taught me almost exactly 25 years ago. It was also how you could live. “Lot of gays here,” he had said our first morning in San Francisco, over breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I’d wondered, heart racing, if he had brought it up because he had seen two men holding hands on the sidewalk outside the window next to our table; trying not to leap out of my chair to look, I asked how he knew that. Both of my parents sort of shrugged. Everybody knows that.
It turned out to be my place for sanctuary, too. When I moved here in my late 20s, I drank too much, and built a career I barely could have dreamed, and got evicted by tech workers and had the time of my life and had to fight for it, too. Moving back a few months ago, in my late 30s, not just queer but also openly trans, I was new but rooted in a place that is capable of holding so much complexity. That expands the definitions of what’s worthwhile, building and maintaining a road on an ever-shifting stretch at an edge of the world. That is harsh and precarious and utterly nourishing. That understands how a person or a tree or a planet can be simultaneously burned out and voraciously alive; that gender can be a construct, and a spectrum, and a death sentence. That my path here was switchbacked but perfect, and that you don’t have to be born someplace for it to be home.