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The edge of California, along Hwy 1,
part of the Phantom's postcard collection

The Edges of California,
Part 1, Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz 

by Diannek 

Jan 28, 2014, 60 miles, approximately 1 hour drive on Pacific Coast Hwy 1

I’ve been thinking about making a road trip around California, using highways as close to the California border as possible. I’m calling it “the edges trip”. I’ve been talking about it for over a year now and I can’t get anybody to do it with me so I’ve decided to drive it alone, in chunks. I have already driven most of the western edge of California, but always piecemeal, heading for some particular destination, and not exactly paying attention to what is there. So I'm going to drive it again, to take in the scenery without having any destination or time crunch.

The western edge, especially once you leave Santa Barbara heading north to the Oregon border, can be beautiful in places, but mostly it’s desolate countryside, miles and miles of nothing much, foggy a lot of the time, especially in the summer morning hours. There aren’t many roads that cross California, it’s a long state and the road engineers of the middle part of the 20th century must have assumed that we want to drive north and south, not east and west. That is probably why so much of the California coastline is rather undeveloped. You can only reach it by a handful of east-west roads and then you have to travel Hwy 1 to get from town to town.

Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or “the PCH” in Southern California, is mainly a two-lane road, curvy, hilly, narrow in places, and frustrating for the speedsters, until one of those passing lanes appears. The stretch between Carmel and Cambria is known as Big Sur, a slow and spectacular drive that draws out-of-state tourists who poke along gawking and stopping. There’s a lot to gawk at so it’s definitely worth a trip.

It’s a cloudy day, but what else can one expect for January. And it's foggy in Half Moon Bay, a smallish town on the coast. I drove up up Hwy 280 from my hometown, San Jose, and cut west on Route 92, which either goes to Half Moon Bay or east to San Mateo, take your choice.

Brown pelicans on the job, a common sight along the
California coast.

Half Moon Bay is noted for its garden nurseries and bookstores, with a lovely old Main Street that attracts tourists on weekends. Lots of inns, B&Bs, and motels dot the highway so I guess tourism is probably an important source of revenue for the town. It’s always cool, usually about 30 degrees cooler than most inland cities during the summer. The consistent mild weather is something to brag about, but the locals don’t. They want to keep it a secret.

Just north of Half Moon Bay is Pillar Point, near Princeton Harbor, where the Mavericks surfing competition is held. It's one of those spur of the moment deals in the winter, when a big storm is brewing. The waves get as high as 40 or 50 feet on occasion. The call goes out around the world and the surfers show up to test their skills in a life or death duel with the sea. That whole sport is a puzzle to me.

When I reach Hwy #1 I turn south toward Santa Cruz, and once I leave town it gets even foggier. I’m in a line of cars all following one of those Isuzu trucks. I hate them, in general, because one of them rear-ended me at a stop light a while back. It was just a tap but I was seriously pissed off at the guy. So I’m holding a grudge. Of course the Isuzu is making good time, so I keep my place in line, along with half a dozen others. Let the Isuzu lead the way through the fog for all of us.

There are lots of small state parks along the route. I can glimpse the ocean now and then. It looks like whipped cream one time, white caps meeting fog in an eerie mélange. Unreal. The next time I see the ocean it reminds me of the meringue on top of the lemon pie. Hmm. I must be getting hungry. Then as the fog starts to lift, the sun hits the ocean and it reminds me of tin foil that has been balled up and then straightened.

The landscape at times is coastal flatland with stumpy trees here and there, the rest of it just dried grass. California is experiencing a drought this year. I suppose that the grass and brush is usually green by this time. But today everything is bleak under the fog and low skies. Occasionally I spot those famous large black rocks offshore, something you will see all along the coast.

There are very few bays and inlets along this stretch, making it very dangerous for small boats and large ships as well. Northern California experienced lots of ship wrecks in the old days when navigation was iffy and storms made for rough going out there. Even today, sailors, fishermen, yachtsmen, experienced and inexperienced, all have their problems along this part of the California coast. Not a summer goes by without somebody capsizing and losing their vessel or worse. There must be lots of junk littering the sea bottom around here.

I pass Ana Nuevo state park, where you can watch the sea lions. I’ve seen them before. They love to sun bathe in the warm sand, and bark, and they smell bad. Once you’ve seen the sea lions you don’t need to make a special trip for them. The most unique sea lion viewing is at Pier 39 in San Francisco. They have taken over the small boat docks, permanently. I think the state is ready to declare them a state treasure because the tourists count them as an important attraction. But you can find harbor seals and sea lions on duty along every pier in California. I know. Karen and I have done many pier reviews.

This is West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, about 60 years ago,
the very edge of California...
another old postcard from the Phantom's collection

By the time I get to Santa Cruz the afternoon sun is making its appearance. According to the road sign, 55,000 folks call Santa Cruz home, but there are lots of temporary residents too. UC Santa Cruz accounts for several thousand students, and there are tons of tourists and part-time residents who also swell the population both in the summer and winter. Many Bay Area folks have summer homes in the area, and retired seniors might spend months here in the winter in this uber-liberal hippy town. To me Santa Cruz always seems to be just on the cusp of either going belly up or into a sublime period of economic boom. Houses cost plenty, and rentals sky rocket because of the visitors, but much of the town and surrounding area is sort of seedy-looking. Maybe it's just the sea air.

Out on the Santa Cruz wharf you can watch the surfers and paddle boarders, listen to the sea lions, and feed the resident --always hungry --  brown pelicans, while munching fish and chips on the wharf. They do their swoopy thing along the water but a handful of them just perch and bother the pier fisherman instead, stealing their bait when they can. I love them, such wonderful, sly old pre-historic birds.

Believe it or not, this is the Summit Crossroads circa the 1940s.
From the Phantom's postcard collection

Time to head back over the hill, as they say. Highway 17 from Santa Cruz to San Jose is a half hour nail-biter over the Santa Cruz Mountains. 24 miles of mountain freeway with sharp turns, steep slopes and narrow lanes. Speedsters weave through lines of regular, sane folks driving normally for the conditions. There aren’t many highway patrol cops on the beat because there are few places to pull people over. When accidents happen, frequently, traffic can be tied up for hours. Nothing can be done to make the road safer, other than the cement wall they have erected between coming and going traffic. That has eliminated the head-on's, for which we are thankful.

The distance in miles between the coast and Silicon Valley is short, but the lifestyles are so different. It's like entering different time zones in different countries. It's not just the pace, but the cultures are remarkably different too. That must be why we are all so eager to spend a little time along the edges of California, if only for an hour or two.

From time to time when the spirit moves me, I'll make another run along the edges of California and report back. Hope you enjoyed the drive and the postcards. Next time I'll stop for lunch or stay over in some rustic spot. That might be fun too.

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