It’s funny how memory works, or doesn’t work, in some cases. On non-working holidays like this, for instance, when I have to write a throwback travel piece about that California road trip we did in 2009, I beat my brains for details to make up even a half-coherent story, and my memory fails me.
Where did we stay? What was that park? How many days, exactly, were we on the road? How many miles was it? Why did I take that picture—was that tunnel important?
The drive along the famous Pacific Coast Highway, or California State Road 1, was a spur-of-the-moment decision—this much I’m sure of. My roommate, a Filipino nurse in San Francisco, learned that he would not be on duty the first few days of the year, my then-fiancé could take a day off, and my cousin, a teaching assistant, wouldn’t have class till the following week. I, well, I was soon headed back to Hong Kong—my home base then—and was looking for an awesome trip to end my six months in the United States.
Someone (most likely, me) suggested Highway 1, ranked seventh of 3,952 attractions in California by Tripadvisor. Someone (most likely, my cousin) rented a Pontiac, and everyone said, “Let’s go!” So off we went, driving away from 424 Arlington Street. Just like that.
In the years since, I would spend weeks, sometimes months, planning trips that had to be postponed or worse, completely scrapped for one reason or another. It would frustrate me. Why couldn’t all trips be as easy as Highway 1?
While all the google-able details of that hastily planned road adventure escape me now, I will never forget the feeling of freedom and promise I have come to associate with it. I remember how giddy I felt with my face pressed on the window of our car as we passed buildings, then the Golden Gate, then small, rich towns, before finally emerging on the coastal highway.
Our first stop for photos was the San Gregorio State Beach, less than an hour from San Francisco. Because it was winter, the place was abandoned, save for the birds. But it was a wide expanse of beach surrounded by bluffs, and there was space for everyone to nest.
About 25 minutes later, we stopped again, at the Pigeon Point Light Station. The 115-foot lighthouse, which was first lit in 1872, stands as one of the tallest lighthouses in the United States. It’s been designated as a California Historical Landmark and is listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. There are scheduled tours, if you want to stay a bit, and former staff houses that have been converted to a hostel, if you want to stay longer. In the summer, Pigeon Point is a good base for watching the California gray whales, elephant seals and birds.
But these are the stuff you don’t care about when you’re there. All you know is that Pigeon Point looks out to a vast, seemingly endless ocean, and you wonder: What’s out there? How far will you go from this place in your life? Is everything where it’s supposed to be? Yes, lighthouses have that effect on me. From there, we moved on to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, but because it was January 1, the rides at the amusement park were closed. Too bad, I was looking forward to trying the Looff Carousel, a hand-carved merry-go-round made by Danish woodcarver Charles I.D. Looff in 1911. It’s a functioning piece of history. Looff made a name for himself as a woodcarver when he completed the Coney Island carousel in 1875, but with him died the beautiful craft of hand-carved carousels. His son Arthur, though, built the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster that has been in operation, also in Santa Cruz, since 1924. Both the roller coaster and the carousel have been declared National Historical Landmarks. I thought: if I ever have children, this is the kind of amusement park where I’d take them.
The following days were a blur: I remember the 17-mile drive in Monterey only because each of us had a picture with the sign marking the start of the 17-mile drive. I remember seeing the Lone Cypress and thinking how awful it must be to be alone like that, with strangers taking your picture the whole damn day. I remember Pebble Beach Resorts with its seaside golf course that attracts all kinds of celebrity golfers and international tournaments. I read that it’s been named the Greatest Public Golf Course in America. I’m not a golfer but with those views, it has to be the greatest at something.
And then we went to Carmel-by-the-Sea. This place, I will never forget.
We spent the night at Carmel River Inn, where my two companions played a serious game of Scrabble on the bed while I sat on the terrace, staring at trees. I remember being lulled to sleep by the cold, and then having the biggest American breakfast I’ve ever had the following morning, at a restaurant called From Scratch, and then going to Carmel Mission church, which unfortunately, was closed to visitors at that time.
I remember the exact moment I saw the fairy tale cottages facing the beach, and I did a double-take—wait, are those for real?! Turns out they were among the cottages constructed by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s. Comstock began with a pair of cottages he built for his wife Mayotta, a ragdoll-maker, who needed a place to store and show her products (called Otsy Totsy dolls). The cottages, whose design was based on the illustration of a house in the woods (Grimm’s Fairy Tales), were called Hansel and Gretel.
Hansel and Gretel became such a hit that soon, Comstock was building similar fairy-tale themed houses for the residents of Carmel. Today, you’ll find houses called Snow White’s Summer Place, Honeymoon Cottage, Fables, The Tuck Box and The Birthday House all over Carmel. Their architecture has helped define the place, which every year, makes it to every travel magazine’s list of Best Small Cities in the United States. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that one of Carmel’s longest-serving mayors was actor and producer Clint Eastwood.
Everything else is hazy after Carmel-by-the-Sea. We left the place to explore Big Sur, stopping at the much-photographed Bixby Creek Bridge and the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, with its 80-foot waterfall that drops directly into the Pacific Ocean. But my mind often goes back to the fairy tale cottages. How can I live in one of those things? It’s a question I ask myself to this day.
We ended our Highway 1 road trip in San Simeon, at the Hearst Castle, which was built by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1919. The 115-room main house sits on a 51-hectare estate in the Santa Lucia Range. Because we didn’t reserve tickets for the house tour, we were limited to exploring the premises.
But we couldn’t care less. At this point in the trip, we’ve collected enough pictures and memories to last a lifetime.
Sometimes, when you need them, the memories come back to you. Sometimes, you have to dig up old photos to remind you of where you’ve been. All I’m ever sure of, when everything fades, is that this was one of the best trips I ever did—and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. ###