Day 21 – Cambria -> Santa Cruz CA

This morning we limped down the hill from our campsite in San Simeon State Park, hoping that our pressure-starved tire will get us to a repair shop close to a good breakfast place before it bottoms out. We made it to a Chevron station in Cambria, and we left the truck there while we looked for breakfast.

The Cambria Cafe specializes in Mexican food, so we had a chile omelette and an order of huevos rancheros. We were especially pleased with the home fries that came with our meals. It was a good thing we were relatively early, as the lunch crowd appeared while we were there and seemed to overrun the place.

When we got back to the repair shop the truck was ready to go, so that’s what we did. Today’s drive is widely regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Route 1 clings to the cliffs high above the ocean, occasionally winding into a canyon to cross a stream and wind back out to hug the cliffs again. The entire road was intact, but with earthquakes and mudslides it isn’t always so.

We feared that, being Fourth-of-July week, the road would be choked by rolling condos and land yachts. Happily, traffic was light since we were going south-to-north while most traffic seems to be north-to-south.

People like to travel that route southbound because the vista points overlooking the ocean are all on the right, and the view of the coast is more “full.” Be warned: it takes at least 3 hours to cover this section of road, and there’s not a lot of margin of error between the twisting blacktop and the rocky shores hundreds of feet down.

South of Carmel we took a break to walk to the beach and touch the ocean for the first time (something we hadn’t gotten around to this whole time) at Garrapata State Beach. It was late in the afternoon when we were back on the highway for Santa Cruz.

We got there just before dusk and contacted our friend Martin. Rozie and Martin worked together in radio production when they lived in Kansas City. He had visited us in La Crosse a few months ago and was expecting us on our return visit. We sat down for Thai food at a place called Sabieng until Martin showed up with his sweetie Vicki.

After dinner they took us on a walking tour of downtown Santa Cruz and set us up with a campsite at Bob’s Pine Grove. There would be plenty of time to catch up tomorrow.

Late that night we were sitting up having a beer when suddenly, out of the blue, came this very interesting bird sound. Then we noticed the sound kept changing, and it didn’t move. This was odd. We got closer to the sound and couldn’t scare it, and couldn’t get it to shut up.

Maybe it’s a good thing that some neighbor had a house alarm that made bird sounds instead of alarm sounds. But as annoying as it was to us, it wasn’t annoying enough to encourage someone to turn it off.

Day 20 – Paradise Valley -> Cambria CA

We woke up at our indiscreet campsite in the trailside grickle grass, and discovered that plenty of people were passing by and noticing us. The thing is that nobody cared, so that was good. We folded up our camp, hiked back to the truck, and deployed our tailgate kitchen to prepare coffee and bagels.

Yesterday we paid for a full day of parking and “use” of the national forest, so we had no plans to leave early. We came to swim, so we embarked on a day hike to find a place we liked.

At this time of year, this part of the Santa Ynez River valley is a series of spring-fed ponds, and most of them are lined with granite. The first two ponds we came to were busy. One had a sandy shoreline that was kid-friendly, and the other was larger with a high perch for jumping. The third was smaller, but bigger than most swimming pools, and vacant.

We swam for about an hour, exploring the three-dimensional world of rock formations below the surface. After drying off in the sun, we hiked back out and were on the highway by mid-afternoon.

California 154 follows a direct route from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria over San Marcos Pass, while US-101 goes straight west, then straight north. The forests on the mountains, the greenness of the farms and vineyards along the way, and the fresh water swimming holes in the national forest were all much more appealing to us than the parade of offshore oil platforms seen from 101.

After replenishing ourselves at a Chinese buffet in Santa Maria, we pressed on to San Luis Obispo, where we picked up Route 1 to get back to the coast. Our map seemed to indicate that once we passed San Simeon, camping opportunities would be scarce. So we pulled into San Simeon State Park and set up camp high on a windswept hill overlooking the ocean.

Not only had we set up camp, but it was early enough to get a good walk before dark. When we came back to camp, we discovered that the left rear tire on our truck was low, so we will need to deal with that tomorrow.

Day 19 – Oxnard -> Paradise Valley CA

We got a good night’s sleep at the Regal Motel (though it was “regal” in name only). Since we arrived so late, we requested and received a later departure time so we could get some needed rest. We left Oxnard at around lunchtime to continue up the coast, driving on the coast highway when we could and US 101 when we couldn’t.

We briefly popped off of the freeway for bit of kitsch in Carpinteria: the Santa Claus Lane exit. There was a “Santa’s Village”, complete with a huge rooftop Santa sculpture to lure in passing motorists with small children. We drove by to gawk, but we didn’t stop. We turned around and sensibly drove on.

We got to Santa Barbara early enough to have breakfast at Pavlako’s on Milpas Street, which served fantastic Greek-style omelettes and home fries. We gave ourselves a bit of a walking tour of downtown Santa Barbara, and lingered a bit around the Amtrak station and found a very large and unusual tree.

The Moreton Bay Fig Tree doesn’t have any figs on it. It’s unusual for its age and its size. Planted in 1876, it still thrives today. It isn’t that tall but it has an enormous root system, and it’s limbs extend great distances horizontally. They say it spans 170 feet, so it offers a lot of shade on a sunny day. From a distance it looks like a big green umbrella.

Moving on, we followed old Highway 101 out of Santa Barbara and though Goleta to the west. After passing the airport we turned left toward the beach and the student enclave of Isla Vista. This was once known as the most densely populated square mile west of the Mississippi. Isla Vista is mostly massive apartment blocks packed tightly together, and the students are packed tightly together in each apartment.

This community left a mark on Obbie when he survived there living on the streets through the summer of 1981 (long story for another venue). We visited the small park where he camped, checked out the public fruit trees where he ate, and stopped for coffee at the cafe where he made lots of friends.

Over the mountain from Santa Barbara, in Los Padres National Forest, is a place called Paradise Valley (bringing to mind a line from an old Eagles’ song: you call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye). The beginnings of the Santa Ynez River run thru there, and at this time of year the river bottom is a series of spring-fed pools where the water is so clear you can see the bottom ten feet down and the temperature can only be described as perfect. In the late 80’s, Obbie discovered secluded places for swimming that were absolutely magical.

Unfortunately, it seems as if every mutant from LA to San Luis Obispo has also discovered this place by now. Even worse, the Forest Service has started to require a $5 “Adventure Pass” for every day that every vehicle dares to park anywhere in the national forest. Not only are they milking more money out of us for something that our taxes have already paid for, but they are taking away an important refuge for a class of American nomads and low-budget travelers: the time-honored tradition of free camping in national forests. So while the timber and minerals of the national forests are being plundered by corporate America at give-away prices, the rest of us have to pay 5 bucks to take a swim.

It was dusk when we arrived, so swimming will have to wait until tomorrow. We drove as far as we could on the paved road and parked in the lot by the trailhead, which was where we met the extortionist demanding $10 for an “Adventure Pass” for today and tomorrow. We loaded our camping gear onto our bikes, thinking we could ride down the trail to find a camping spot.

The trail that looked like a gravel road turned out to be more rocks than gravel, and our metropolitan hybrid bikes weren’t going to handle this. We walked the bikes down the trail until we found a spot in the grickle grass that was big and level enough to set up our tent. It’s not very discreet visually, but hopefully we can get packed up before too many people come by in the morning.

Day 18 – Huntington Beach -> Oxnard CA

Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) had some surprises as we left Orange County and entered Los Angeles County. We saw an offshore oil platform early, and quickly found ourselves in Long Beach, passing one oil refinery after another. The air smelled weird and toxic until we turned north again. Even though all the towns here seem to have names that end with “beach”, that doesn’t necessarily make them pleasant.

Coffee and lunch came in the form of a Thai buffet in Hermosa Beach. Lunch buffet was $7, the food was excellent, and it was good to experience an Asian buffet that was different.

We’re experiencing a bit of culture shock with California driving habits. Time was that roads here were fast and crowded, but orderly. Not any more. A lot of behavior that used to be confined to the East Coast has found its way out here. For example, when lanes merge, it used to be that the cars in the merging lanes would politely take turns getting in line. Now you have people swinging around the outside to cut in line, and they always seem to be driving Yukons or Expeditions or some other rubber-tired tank.

In Venice, PCH is known as Lincoln Boulevard, and it’s about a mile from the actual beach. We parked the truck a few blocks toward the beach and set out to explore the area on our bikes. Obbie’s bike had a leaky tire, so the first stop was a bike shop to get that fixed.

Once we were our way to the beach, we passed through the Venice canals, a widely overlooked and forgotten feature of this community. The construction of the canals in the early 20th century was an attempt to recreate Venice, Italy in California. When cars got popular, many canals were filled in and turned into streets. In recent years the remaining canals have been cleaned up and revived, and they’re now a great place to wander about in a canoe or a small boat, or you can walk or bike on the sidewalks on either shore.

The Venice Boardwalk is not really a boardwalk. It’s more of a paved street that separates the public park and beach from private real estate. It’s where you find the weightlifting club (aka “Muscle Beach”), performing skateboarders, busking musicians, and all kinds of street vendors. There’s a strip of grass between the boardwalk and the bike path, which snakes its way along the beach to the other side of Santa Monica.

We got some exercise riding on the bike path as far as we could before turning back. On our way back to the truck we visited the Santa Monica Pier, where we could watch the traffic from I-10 flowing onto PCH. It looked like we would need to kill some more time before the traffic on PCH became bearable.

This part of Santa Monica sits on top of a cliff, with PCH between the foot of the cliff and the beach. Between the top of the cliff and Ocean Avenue is an iconic strip of parkland which is popular among runners who wish to be seen. We made note of the intersection of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, the western end of what was once Route 66.

Eventually we got back to the truck, loaded our bikes onto the roof rack and found our own way onto Pacific Coast Highway. Before we passed from Pacific Palisades to Malibu, we turned into the mountains to visit Topanga.

The Zendiks (and Obbie) lived at a place in Topanga for a couple of years in the early 80’s, and we were pleased to see that everything he built survived the fires and earthquakes of the last 15 years and remains standing.

A stairway made from repurposed tires, built by Obbie in the early 80’s in Topanga.

Obbie’s most lasting contribution to the property was a series of rock-wall terraces he built on the hillside, which were now hidden under the overgrowth, but they were obviously still there.

An interesting observation from visiting old homesteads was to see how a place evolves as it is refined and adapted by successive owners. This was especially true of the Topanga place, which is on at least its fourth owner since Obbie lived there.

It was getting late by the time we were on PCH again, driving through Malibu. We started looking for a room as we got to Oxnard but it wasn’t easy to find one. At the Regal Motel, we got a $15 discount on a room… “I haven’t had a chance to clean it yet, but it’s only needs a very minor cleaning. One of the beds wasn’t even used.” We took a look, and yeah, we were willing to live with it. We were too tired to continue searching.

After a day of traffic stress, we reminded ourselves how there are people who deal with this mess for an hour or more each way, EVERY DAY! With that much stress, it’s not surprising that they were shooting each other for a while. We are proud to say that we made it thru the entire LA area (Orange and LA Counties and beyond, from San Clemente to Oxnard) without setting tire on one freeway. The roads we were on were crowded, frantic and stressful enough.

Day 17 – Morena Lake -> Huntington Beach CA

The crows at Lake Morena were still scolding us this morning as we packed up camp and headed toward Campo. From there we followed Cal-94 toward San Diego.

We stopped for lunch at the Potrero Cafe. It was your basic back-country diner food: enough food but not a lot, good enough but not great, and priced fairly for what it was. We were still in the remote boondocks, so there were no other choices unless we wanted to starve until we reached San Diego.

Not far out of Potrero there was a fork in the road, with the left fork going to Tecate. This is the only border crossing between San Diego and Calexico, but it’s relatively quiet. Tecate is best known for its huge brewery, but it’s a modest sized town that’s a much more pleasant dip into Mexico than Tijuana.

But we don’t have time for that today. We stayed on highway 94, which dropped from the high desert to the coastal plain as houses started getting newer and closer together. The road got wider and more freshly paved until it eventually became a freeway that brought us into the heart of the city.

We stopped at a park-and-ride in Old Town to ride downtown on the San Diego Trolley. This innovative system was started over twenty years ago by reclaiming nearly abandoned railroad tracks and hanging electric wires overhead for modern trolley cars. The system was built quickly and cheaply, and it is heavily used. In the afternoon (before commute hours) the trains ran every seven minutes and they were always mostly full.

When Obbie left the area ten years ago, the Trolley only had one line that went from Santa Fe Depot to the border crossing in San Ysidro. Since then a line has been added to the eastern suburbs, and another to the northern areas of the city by way of Old Town. We also saw a new commuter train called the Coaster that offered a convenient way to get to the string of beach towns to the north.

Ever since we got to San Diego, the weather has been cool again, but still dry. In fact, San Diego was occasionally downright cold today … for about five minutes until the sun came out, making it warm again.

We returned to Old Town (and our truck) on the Trolley and drove to Ocean Beach to restock on groceries at the Peoples Food Coop. Eventually we were rolling north on the remnants of the Coast Highway, going through urban beach neighborhoods and suburban beach towns.

An hour north of San Diego, the road gave us a choice: Get on the freeway (I-5), or go through the entry gate to Camp Pendleton Marine Base. We chose the freeway, and enjoyed about fifteen miles free of billboards, strip malls, or residential sprawl. The marines occupied a big corner of the county, and didn’t allow much of anything to be built on their base close to the freeway, so we drove in city traffic (four lanes in each direction) with the ocean on one side and wild hills on the other.

At the end of it there was a checkpoint. The border patrol maintains a series of checkpoints about fifty miles north of the border. Most people simply get waved through. Others get asked a few questions, and anyone who the officers deem “suspicious” may get pulled into a special area for a closer look.

Once clear of the checkpoint we passed the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, right between a popular surfing beach and the property where Richard Nixon once lived. Nixon’s place marked the beginning of San Clemente and Orange County, and a few exits later was the beginning of Route 1 in Dana Point.

The plan is to follow Pacific Coast Highway for as long as it exists, which will take us far into northern California. As it got dark, we passed through more beach towns: Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. It was in Huntington where we found an affordable motel with a vacancy, where we called it a night.

 

Day 16 – Hemet Lake -> Morena Lake CA

We woke up in the Lake Hemet campground to the sounds of motorboats & leaf blowers. Our night was spent resisting our bodies’ urge to slide downhill toward the foot of the tent. The sites looked level, but the entire campground sloped gently up from the lake shore.

It took about an hour to get to Temecula. On the way, we passed high desert covered in sage, chaparral, red shank and manzanita. This was the rain shadow of the coastal range. Temecula was once a little frontier town on US-395, but when I-15 was built it brought commuters and their cookie-cutter houses sprawling across the landscape in all directions.

It was time to get gas, which is very expensive here. So far we’d been paying around $1.70 to $1.80 for a gallon of gas, but here in California it’s well over two dollars.

To get to Fallbrook, we were forced onto the freeway for a couple of exits. We went over a mountain pass and suddenly everything got green again. This side of the coastal range was covered in neat rows of avocados, citrus, grapes and other fruit.

When Obbie lived at a southern California commune, he would regularly visit George, an organic fruit grower near Fallbrook who grew the “usual suspects” for this region (avos and citrus) along with stone fruit (peaches, apricots, etc.), persimmons, and “exotics” like sapotes and cherimoyas.

We were pleased to find that George was still growing and that we were able to visit and explore his grove. He now has small greenhouses where he’s experimenting with growing tropical fruit. We bought as much fruit as we can use before it spoils, and headed down the road for our next stop.

After passing miles of commercial orange groves we climbed to near 5,000 feet and found the town of Julian, which is known for apples. You can find any climate zone you need in this area by finding the right elevation.

Eventually we arrived in Boulevard and visited the property on Tierra del Sol Road that had been Zendik Farm from 1986 until 1991. Obbie gave Rozie a tour of what had been his home for five years. The swimming pool that he dug and built by hand is still intact and in use. We chatted with the current owners, and Obbie answered questions they had about the artwork that was embedded in the property.

Our plan for tomorrow is a day in San Diego, so we need to get closer before nightfall. We found a campground at Lake Morena County Park north of Campo. Relaxing at our campsite before turning in, we fought with ants and grickle grass and were scolded by crows.

 

Day 15 – Kingman AZ -> Hemet Lake CA

A note from the “you get what you pay for” department: We spent $30 on our room in Kingman, so our room had the loudest air conditioner in the state, and the bed was a “canoe” bed. And as we head on down the road, it looks like every room in this town is less than $30.

A few days ago we were in Gunnison, Colorado, which frequently records the coldest temperature in the country. Kingman is frequently the hottest place in the country and Needles (our next stop) is another regular winner of that distinction.

We followed “Business I-40” through Kingman, which is also known as “US-66”, and it’s lined with old art-deco motels from the days before the freeway was built. Facing a hot day driving across the desert, we stopped at a grocery store to fill our cooler with fresh ice.

We didn’t take this trip to follow the Interstate, so we embarked for Needles on old Route 66. Signs point out that tractor-trailers are “not advised,” but there was a time that this gnarly little road was the only way to get between Flagstaff and Barstow, no matter what you were driving. It was narrow – even for a two-lane road – and the pavement was cracked and weathered.

After many miles of flat and featureless desert, we started to see more color and variety to the landscape. There was nothing out here, but the remnants of an ancient gas station provided a good-enough stop for a potty break. The stop was not as brief as we expected, as other travelers (most on motorcycles) stopped by for the same reasons.

Once we got moving again, we moved through a group of mountains (I-40 goes around these mountains, US-66 goes through them) and made another stop at the crest. The air was crystal clear, though we could see a bit of haze on the far horizon… evaporation from the Colorado River, still many miles away.

As we came out of the mountains, we came to the tacky little tourist town of Oatman. Their “thing” is allowing mules and donkeys to prowl the streets, but everything else looked like a Hollywood set (for all we know, it once was) overrun with cars and polyester-clad tourists (where did all these people come from?).

With no reason to stop, we pressed on toward Needles, getting there about three hours after we’d left Kingman. This was another town with lots of cheap ($20-30) motels, as well as lots of car repair shops (people famously break down in the desert, and towns are 50-100 miles apart), but very few food options. We found lunch at the Burger Hut, and old drive-up food stand with shaded outdoor seating. Their menu had multiple vegetarian options, and the quality was decent for this type of place.

Our preference was to cover the drive from Needles to Indio at night to give our truck and ourselves a reprieve from the oppressive summer desert heat. The gremlins that messed with our schedule had other ideas. After about a half-hour, the novelty of the desert started to wear off, so Rozie napped through most of the monotony of the drive to Desert Center, where we were forced onto Interstate 10.

The next exit was onto a road that our map said would bring us into the Coachella Valley, just north of the Salton Sea. It turned out to also be a change of scenery, as we wound through grey mountains with nearly non-existent plant growth. We pulled over to take a break at a place we ended up calling “the moon.”

When we left the moonscape, we were presented with carpets of green irrigated land leading down to the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is the result of a monumental screw-up at around the turn of the Twentieth Century, when canals to provide irrigation water to the Imperial Valley were breached, and the Colorado River flowed into the bottom of this deep valley (250 feet below sea level) for a couple of years before it was stopped.

Since then, irrigation run-off supplied enough water to make up for evaporation, but the salinity (the land was already a salt flat) kept increasing to the point that almost nothing can live in that water any more. The orange groves and tomato farms we passed seemed quite out-of-place in this unforgiving environment.

One crop that is suited to this environment is dates, and once we got onto California 111 we saw a lot of date palm plantations (groves? farms?). This is where most American-grown dates come from, and we stopped at the warehouse of an organic date wholesaler in Coachella to get some.

We have begun the part of the trip where Obbie gives Rozie a tour of his old backyard from his time in California between 1978 and 1991. A back-road side trip from Indio passed some places he once lived in Thousand Palms before we turned south on Bob Hope Drive toward Palm Desert. After a long hot day, we were so done with the desert and eagerly climbed toward the switch-backs that would bring us to a higher and cooler elevation.

Pines to Palms Highway is an iconic road that’s featured in many car (and truck) commercials. It’s also where Jimmy Durante “kicked the bucket” in “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” From the view point on the top you can see a strange pattern in the landscape, where half the sections (square miles) were reserved for Indigenous and the others were occupied by white settlers (and their heavily watered golf courses). All the water went to the “white” sections, leaving the desert looking like a green and brown checkerboard.

It was getting late, so we headed down the road and set up camp at Lake Hemet. It was still warm, but cool enough to get a good night’s rest near an artificial lake.