CC Roadtrip: CA Hwy 1 Revisited; Part 1 – Cambria To Half Moon Bay Via Big Sur

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California’s legendary Hwy 1 has played a defining role in my relationship to the Golden State. In the spring of 1972, I left chilly Iowa and hitchhiked out to to sunny California for the first time, and began a six-week-long ramble up the coast, following Hwy1 (and 101) to Eugene, Oregon, where I stayed a few days before heading back to Iowa. That trip would become a preview of my later life journey; moving to So Cal in 1976, and moving north up the coast in stages roughly along the same path eventually ending in Eugene, this time to stay. Stephanie and I have driven Hwy 1 numerous times over the decades, although mostly on the stretch north of San Francisco. But since we’re on vacation in Half Moon Bay near San Francisco, we decided to revisit one the most scenic stretches to the south, and rekindle a few old memories, including the search for one particular redwood tree. Of course, there’s always a few old cars to shoot too.

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Hwy 1 (as separate from 101) is not continuous along all of California’s coast; there are some sections in Orange County and Los Angeles, and of course the famous stretch from Santa Monica through Malibu, but then it turns inland and merges with 101 near Oxnard. But from Morro Bay on, Hwy 1 gets serious, and hugs the infinitely scenic and often rugged coastline all the way to Legget, way up in the northern end of the state.

In 1976, when I was living with my then-GF in San Diego, my sister and brother came out and we headed north to San Francisco, with the intent to follow Hwy 1 to the full extent possible. That turned out to be a memorable trip, the four of us in my 1968 Dodge A-100 van, but trying to stick to Hwy 1 through the built-up and industrial parts of Los Angeles County was not one of them.

Hwy 1 south map

This time, we drove south from Half Moon Bay–where we’re house-sitting a beachfront house–on 101 (blue line) through the vast agricultural Salinas Valley, and crossed the Coast range over Hwy 46, which intersects with Hwy 1 just a few miles north of Morro Bay, and then headed back north.

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The grassy hills covered with wildflowers were aglow in the late afternoon sun as we began the return leg on Numero Uno. One of our motivations for going out of our way and re-doing this stretch was to see Hearst Castle, which for some reason neither of us had ever been to. An overnight in San Simeon made sure we got an early start on that.

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But not before turning off at one of the endless roadside pull-offs, to take in the view north towards the rugged mountains in the distance, which is where Big Sur lies. And what other car is there? A virtual dead-ringer to my ’86 W124, right down to the color.

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It’s a bit of Niedermeyer automotive history encounter at the beginning of this trip, as we made many memorable trips in the beloved 300E along Hwy1; the past meets the present. For that matter, our new Acura TSX Sport Wagon is the first car since the Benz that is a genuine “driver’s car”, after a string of family-centric kiddie haulers. And a worthy successor at that; it’s great to be behind the wheel of a fine new car again, especially on this stretch of road. It’s comfortable but utterly tenacious no matter how abruptly the road suddenly turns on the steep cliffs. It inspires confidence, and it’s even quite efficient, with a solid 30 mpg average on this trip, which included running at 75-80 down 101, and the undless ups, downs and a few 7000rpm passes on Hwy 1 on the way back.  The 300E rarely did better than 22 mpg; progress. Or maybe it’s because that there weren’t any kids in the back seat.

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A closer look reveals that not only is this W124 not a 300E, but it’s a 200D, a model that was never imported. With 71 hp, it marked the low end of the range, and was commonly used as a taxi cab in Germany. (W124 CC here) How did it find its way here?


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Media-baron William Randolph Hearst built his “castle” on a hilltop of ranch land his family owned and used to camp on when he was a child. He was a voracious collector of European antiquities, and the main house evolved from a 21 room villa into a 105 room structure that evokes an Italian church from the front and a hodge-podge of additions in the back. It was a 28-year work in progress, and far from finished when he died.

It’s an eclectic conglomeration of styles in the main public rooms, with large architectural artifacts, tapestries, tiles, wooden ceilings, fireplaces, etc. from various cultures, countries and eras; all an a grand scale and all very intermingled. A true New World castle.

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Hearst kept the scavengers of Europe’s antiquities busy for decades, and spent time here whenever he could in his very busy life, entertaining Hollywood celebrities and other luminaries of the time.

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The views in every direction  from some 700 feet above the coastline is superb; this golden girl can’t seem to get enough. And the turkey vultures are on the hunt for expiring tourists.

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On the road again, which runs through meadows and hills, with the ocean perpetually dominating the views to the west.

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It’s hard to resist stopping at the numerous pull-offs, as each one has its own charms, like these harbor seals basking in the sun. Yes, it was sunny, which is more common along the California coast in the spring, fall and even winter than it will soon be during the summer months, when the fog season begins. Which of course coincides with the maximum tourist season, to their misfortune. Come to the California coast anytime, but just not during June, July, and even August. Well, it does rain in the winter (hopefully), but even the drama of a winter storm beats the cold, wet windy fog of summer here.

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The road starts to rise as it approaches the Santa Lucia Range. Hwy 1 from this point to where it drops back down into Carmel wasn’t finished until1937; before that the whole region was very isolated. Hearst had his own dock for ships, as well as an airstrip and a private DC-3, for ferrying in guests as well as copies of all of his newspapers.

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This is something of an auspicious shot, as it captures the two predominant cars from my first trip there in 1972 and the current one. You all recognize the VW bus; this one is of course restored and tricked out. In 1972, VW hippie buses were of course the in vehicle of choice for folks to head to Big Sur in, and I saw plenty at the time. And the other car is a current Mustang convertible; about every third or fourth car on the trip was one, as the rental of choice for tourists to drive down (or up) the coast between SF and LA. Mostly white or black, and a few silver ones for good measure. Stephanie thought I was exaggerating until I pointed out  the endless onslaught of Mustang convertibles coming the other way.

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Another pull-off, with a splendid cove below. The Pacific’s color is always changing, depending on the light and other conditions. We’d never seen it looking as tropical as this day. There are rugged trails down to most of these coves and beaches, if one really wants to get away from it all.

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But the next pull-off yielded an even more spectacular sight: a 1969 Corolla. This is the first gen1 Corolla I’ve seen in ages, and I will be doing a full CC on this very historically significant car (it became the #2 selling import car in 1969, its second year on the market; quite a feat). And this particular car has quite a story, which I got from its owner. Stay tuned…

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Unfortunately there are no pics of the best part of the road through here, as my hands were too busy whipping the steering wheel through the endless tight turns. I missed shooting the sign for the Esalen Institute, one of the more famous outposts here. I was moving along pretty briskly, as we were eager for lunch. And that just had to be at the legendary Nepenthe Restaurant, an icon of Big Sur, a center of life here since it was built by Fasset family in 1949 on the site of an old trail cabin once owned by Orson Wells, and then being rented by playwright Henry Miller.

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Designed by architect Rowan Maiden, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite disciples, the Nepenthe first attracted a literary/artist crowd, and then of course became a magnet for the counter-culture scene in the sixties. A terrific building that makes the most of its spectacular site, as well as local materials (redwood and stone) and artistic flourishes by the various artists who contributed to it. (Nepenthe history here)

I remember happily forking over some of my very meager $125 budget for my whole six week trip for one of their Ambrosiaburgers and fries, and sitting here soaking up the atmosphere in 1972. According to a customer, I had just missed Neil Young. Now it’s well-heeled tourists, or maybe other former kids who found their way here back and were looking for a bit of a memory replay.

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The views are worth the somewhat lofty prices; my whole $125 budget back then would have just about been blown by our lunch with wine and the best banana custard pie ever.

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Just past Nepenthe, the highway dips into a little valley for a couple of miles. Its the site of the town of Big Sur, such as it is, with a couple of gas pumps, a store, some cabins and lodges, and nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the major campground in the area. Protected from the ocean winds and fed by a stream, redwoods grow back here, and one of them was calling to me. So we parked, along with this nice old Karmann Ghia from around 1968 or so, and decided to look for it.

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In 1972, after one cold night bivouacking on a windy slope facing the ocean, I headed here into the park, where there were quite  a few others young seekers camping; some legitimately; others not so. My budget didn’t allow for campsite fees, so I wandered around amongst the redwoods and stumbled into this tree, which just happened to be hollowed out at its base from a fire, who knows how many eons earlier.

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Redwood bark is naturally fire resistant, which accounts for their longevity (up to 2000 years). But in a forest fire, some of the smoldering ashes can work their way through small openings, and cause the base of the tree to smolder away for a long time, perhaps until the next winter’s rain, leaving the base hollowed out. It’s not an uncommon site to see a redwood with a big chunk our of its base.

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But this one was exceptional, as there was a perfect circular room inside of it, fully protected from the elements and with a soft mattress of springy redwood duff, and a small opening on one side (here) as well as a “door” on the other. I had found a perfect place to call home for some days of merrymaking and nature-worship.

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One night, I was hanging out with some other campers who had some very potent weed, and got mighty ripped. I found my way back to my tree, and stretched out, feeling wonderful. That is, until a rather unusual night-time wind came up, and the tree started groaning and cracking, like the heavy timbers of a sailing ship at sea. The sound carried right down to at the base of the tree, and I was stoned enough to get a bit paranoid about it. What if the tree fell over? Right; from a little breeze, after withstanding hundreds of years of winter storms.

It took some doing to find the tree again, but I did. And it also happened to be windy, so I could relive that sound (along with a witness), to confirm it hadn’t been my imagination.

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Very near to “my tree” was this highly vintage tent; a true Campsite Classic. Which reminds me, I need to get out my 1972 vintage Coleman tent one of these days…

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In Niedermeyerworld, a hike is always called for, especially after that big lunch. The trail to the ridge looking out over the ocean was closed due to a fire last year, so we took the Valley View trail, and looked down where our car was parked.

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After Big Sur, the road starts its long and windy descent towards Carmel and Monterey. I remember exactly the cars I got rides in the day I hitchhiked out in 1972: the first was a 1957 Chevy 150 wagon, driven by a very old-school Big Surian (1950s intellectual-backwoodsman), who was heading into town for some supplies. And the rest of the way to San Francisco I was in the back of a ’59 Chevy 3/4 ton delivery; like a Suburban without the windows.

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I won’t bore you with pictures of Carmel-by-the-Sea, which became way too precious and pretentious of a tourist trap ages ago; it was well along to being so already in 1972. It was unbearably so in 1982, which was the last time I set foot in the place.  North of Monterey, and much of the way back to half Moon Bay, agriculture is still the predominant use of the land next to and near the ocean, thanks to aggressive land-use laws and conservation easements. These are fields of artichokes; if you ever eat any, the most likely came from the fields here surrounding Castroville, the Artichoke Capitol of the world. And then there’s the stawberries, and the Brussell sprouts, and the….

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Of course there’s endless beaches, and California mandates access to all of them. This area, very close to the bustling Bay Area, is surprisingly unspoiled for the most part, and there are some little gems of villages tucked into the valleys of the streams that feed down from the Santa Cruz mountains to the sea. If you want to step back in time, have lunch or dinner at Duarte’s in Pescadoro.

It had been a full day, and my camera hand was ready to be finished, but I clipped off one more shot of what I thought were just early evening rays through the clouds at this beach pull-off as we rolled by at a good clip. It wasn’t until I just opened it now that I see there’s another Curbside Classic that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. It is a magical coastline…


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