Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Pacific Coast Highway and Road to Fresno

Rich folk stream out of the woodwork along the California coast and gather at watering hole towns like Carmel-On-the-Sea and oceanside inns with names like Tickle Pink Inn that line the Pacific Coast Highway.  The rich in California have a different look --skins leathered by the sun, less intellectually inclined than their East Coast counterparts, and a smooth sense of entitlement in their distant eyes that reminded me of our lives as penurious graduate students at another such waterhole decades ago—the University of Southern California.  These are the towns where the men purr by in fantastic automobiles, women browse in sugar laced shops called “Linens and Such”, and where couples dine at faux bucolic restaurants  named “Forge in the Forest”. Heading south from Monterey on the Pacific Coast Highway, the ocean lies on our right.  On the left are the mountains and the thick redwood forests where other kinds of men live: shaven headed big men heading down from the hills with firewood on their pickup trucks; wispy bearded men in their fifties with golden locks and dreamy looks; and men who believe in the powers of nature and healing crystals. 

The Pacific Coast highway stretches like a fog encrusted diamond as it enters Big Sur from the north: its heath, heather, bracken and hardy wildflower coated impromptu meadows sloping sharply up to form mountains, its salty air that curls one’s hair in minutes and puckers the skin into leathery wrinkles.  Up around here the road whipsaws as if suspended by springs, between the fog in the mountains to the waters below, through picturesque bridges built in the 1930s to overlooks and bluffs that gaze out over azure waters and picture perfect landscapes.

At Carmel, a few miles south of Monterey, the shopping mart at the crossing of Rio is the last bastion of civilization where you can gas up your cars, buy groceries and pick up a cell phone signal.  Crossing Rio we drove 11 miles south, taking a left at Palo Colorado: a narrow, foreboding road that winds up the hills through dark redwood growths.  We had rented a cabin a few miles into these woods, with a toilet and shower out on the deck where one bathes in the privacy of the forest, watched only by the birds that walk the deck railings head cocked to one side.  Darkness comes like a clear glass of water here; the sky is free of scattered light, and, after gazing continuously at the sky so as to get the eye adjusted, one can see the rich distribution of stars that is hard to see in other places.

In the morning the cabin owner came by to say hello.  A transplanted southerner, he moved out of the big city to Big Sur for the life style and was able to continue to work remotely in the financial business.  He had the look of someone content with where he lived.  After a long chat, he left us with the advice to invest in gold.

That first morning we drove out further East on Palo Colorado into the forests, the road climbing the hills through a series of switchbacks and ending five miles later at a campground and trailhead.  Over there we met a man who worked for the forest office and gave us directions to the trails, sharply instructing us to refrain from smoking.  The landscape is arid and a lit fire will run ragged through the dry grass.  He asked me about India and told me he spent 6 weeks there on his way back from Kathmandu in the mid-seventies, winding his way from Calcutta to Madhya Pradesh, to Maharashtra.  I assumed that he was someone from the hippie generation: westerners who roughed it out in India as young men and, to the day, retain a fondness and inquisitiveness about that country.  

From the trailhead we took a 3-mile hike down a redwood forest to a shallow mountain brook with clear cold water making its way through a bed full of rounded boulders and stones.  Lightning strikes are common in these forests—on many occasions we came across trees charred black by lightning, the outer half-inch circumference of the tree transformed into charcoal.  Over time the soft organic insides of the dead tree decays and all that is left is the hard carbonaceous burnt shell of the trunk.  On the sides of the mountains the air is still and flies swarm the body.  At times the trail emerges at vistas that overlook steep mountainsides covered with pine forests. A gentle breeze blows here that is scented with the smell of pine resin and it cools us down.

The famous car show at Pebble Beach was on and, headed for dinner back into civilization and driving north on the highway, we found ourselves stuck between Jaguar F roadsters, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, old Porsches, and Bentleys in an expensive traffic jam.  On a two way jammed street where traffic had slowed to a crawl, I observed the rituals of this tribe.  When one driver crosses another with a vehicle that is commensurate with his own in status, they exchange a wave and nod.  At times an idling super engine will let out a rumble of impatience as its driver stabs the gas briefly on neutral, this then evolving into a call and response as other drivers gun their engines in sequence.  There is something about the deep, throaty sound of certain engines, and some of it is pure nostalgia and a bridge to one’s youth.  I longed, at that moment, to hear the rumble of a Royal Enfield Bullet.  In the 19th. Century,  men gathered around outside the Church on Sunday afternoons discussing their horses.  This American ritual has continued but the car has replaced the horse.

On the third day, we pack up our stuff and say goodbye to the small cabin in the Redwoods and head south on the Pacific Coast Highway.  After about 20 miles of ups and downs, crossing the little hamlet of Big Sur, we drop closer to the ocean and the road settles down running relatively flat. Barbed wire fences and No Trespassing signs mark off enormous tracts of private lands on either side of the highway.  A lot of these are ranches with grazing cattle.  One of the largest is the close to 9000 acre El Sur ranch, decreed to the Mexican governor of California in the 1840s and now privately owned by a family.  Sharing the coastline along with these private lands are public parks with rocky beaches, breathtaking vistas and meandering oceanside trails.  Big swathes of drifting fog stretch from the cliffs and extend into the ocean, like a slowly drifting puff of smoke.  There is little traffic along this stretch and we occasionally cross a lone bicyclist.  Twenty more miles of this, and we arrive at the southern reaches of the Big Sur near Hearst Castle, where California sprawl picks up—seaside Inns, motels with 1960s designs, sandy beaches, gas stations, the precursors of little malls.  It is here, beyond the town of Cambria that we take a sharp left and head into the mountains using Route 46.   The landscape is now brown, with dried grass and at higher altitudes, coniferous forests.  Gone are the ochre, red and orange heather and bracken that set the oceanside landscape apart.  

Across the mountains, the temperature rises sharply from 65F oceanside, to 102F within 40 miles.  Vineyards, invitations to wine tasting, and an occasional olive grove dot Route 46.  The wineries are usually small—a hill or two of rows of greenery and a large billboard with the name of the winery.  The scenery progressively gets sparsely populated as we drive inland.  The sense of utter desolation distills to its purest form in these dry, wide open expanses of Central California where a single two lane highway flips up and down over small hills on a gray-brown landscape.  Hot air reflects mirages off the blacktop, playing games with the eye.  Songs are written in America that describes human life as it unfolds along the road.  But this is a road that chronicles loneliness.  There are low hills out in the distance. Barbed wire fencing separates enormous parcels of property.  A lone mansion stands on a hill in splendid isolation, a winding dirt road leading up the hill a quarter mile to the house.  You wonder how many people have walked through that gate, straddled between two incongruent pillars that rise out of the ground. The picture is stark and bleak.  You can go for miles this way, till another lone road meets at right angles and there is a picture perfect traffic light in the middle of nowhere like an empty chessboard, replete with left turn lanes, red, green and yellow lights, an icon of civilization in want of civilization, a story of a light that gazes and blinks waiting for a passing car.

We spend the night and evening at K and K’s home in Fresno and while away the evening in their backyard on a green lawn , a swimming pool with gurgling water and fountains and the reflections of the night lights shimmering over the moving water. Palm trees and flowering trees ring us.  The air is dry and the temperature has started to drop after a hot afternoon.  There is music in the air through loudspeakers.  The moment grabs you.  And it is not too different than how I imagined the Mughal nobility would spend their evenings in a hot Delhi evening 300 years ago—there would be music, the same dry air, the fountains, the sounds of water, roses, and the smell of attar.  The feeling of the moment, I am convinced, was the same, though the level of exclusivity of the revelers quite different.

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