San Francisco

We landed in San Francisco in the afternoon, flying low over the ocean on the approach and over the pink salt flats with water channels curving through. We cleared the border and then took the train to pick up the rental car. When we booked it we’d gone for a Toyota, but a few days before we left I changed the booking to a convertible Mustang without telling Darcy. When we got to the desk the guy confirmed it and she gave me a dig on the arm, pretending to be shocked, but really she was happy. The drive in to San Francisco was pretty hardcore, hands gripping on the wheel. It’s always intense driving a new car in a foreign country on the freeway straight off a long flight, but we always seem to survive. We were staying the first night of the trip in an old motel right in the middle of the Tenderloin. The area is still full of poor destitute crazy people, but they don’t seem to pay much attention to anyone else. 

We checked in and got an Uber down to the Mission District for Thai food. The restaurant was loud and busy and the waiters were running around serving people and dancing happy clappy birthday songs to other people in the room. We stuffed ourselves and then went for a beer and had a little argument about the usual stuff. The jet lag kicked in and we decided to head back to the hotel. Darcy fell asleep instantly, her head nodding in the back of the taxi.

San Francisco → Monterey

In the morning I went out and bought us coffee from a place a couple of blocks away. The streets were still and quiet, only a few people that had woken early walking to work and some lost souls still awake and wandering the sidewalks. I got us two black coffees and some root beer and took them back to Darcy. We lay in bed talking and making plans for the day. Before breakfast we walked down to City Hall, a huge building with a golden dome. We went inside and read about the history, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married there, along with thousands of gay people when they made it legal. Outside there was a small extinction rebellion protest going on, a few teenagers lying down playing dead with banners draped over them. In the square old Chinese people were doing Tai Chi facing a small speaker that shouted out tinny instructions. They noticed me watching them but didn’t seem to mind. We walked to Brenda’s Soul Food where I’d eaten a year before on my own and ordered Eggs Benedict with Fried Chicken and French toast with lots of syrup and fruit on top. Metal and plates clanged and the light pierced through the shutters and the world felt loud and bright at the beginning of everything that lay ahead of us. After eating we checked out of the hotel and walked out into the city. Walking through the Tenderloin Darcy got nervous as we passed groups of homeless people arguing and sleeping and shuffling around on the street. The kind of destitution you see in California is different to London. The people seem so far removed from normal life, so broken and spaced out, almost like they have become a different type of human. They never seem to notice you, they’re so caught up in whatever drama or rambling thoughts they’re having it feels like they don’t even see you. We crossed through Union Square and walked up to Chinatown, past all the souvenir shops and food spots selling strange Chinese ingredients we didn’t recognise, then up through old Italian North Beach. We visited Pier 39, which is like a Disneyland version of a pier, all candy and fish and chips and themed bars. It’s pretty tacky but ok for a few minutes.
I wanted to see the sea lions slobbing about on their platforms, but there were only a couple there, honking at each other. We found some bikes and rode out on the long path to the Golden Gate Bridge. The mist hung over the bay and as we reached the bridge and slowly crossed it the tops of the red pylons disappeared up into grey clouds. We stopped halfway over and I looked down over the edge and for the first time in my life got vertigo. In my defence it is fucking high up there and there’s no barrier. We rode on and I got wobbly anytime I thought about the drop to my right. After a break on the other side we crossed back over the bridge, speeding up and passing hundreds of other people on bikes and on foot. I thought about the San Andreas fault and what it would be like to be on the bridge if there was an earthquake, then decided to stop thinking about it. The cycle back into town along Polk Street was dreamy, like what you imagine San Francisco to be like, steep roads and colourful shops and all kinds of people mixed together. It’s a strange city, so much poverty and so much money all in together within a few blocks. On the way to get the car we stopped to buy some weed. It’s still weird to buy weed legally and we felt a bit pranged, but we got some mellow stuff and we were both excited to give it a go.

We picked up the car and started out on the road. The drive down to Monterey took us out of the city on the freeway to the beginning of Route 1, starting as a 3 lane highway but then squeezing down to 1. To our right the Pacific Ocean spread out hazy grey and enormous. Up and over hills and through tunnels and forests, we wound around. It really felt like we were on the start of the road. The sun set through the mist over the sea and after a few stops to see kite surfers in the surf and the sun setting over huge fields of strawberries, we reached Monterey. We had Tom Collins’ for dinner and came back to our little lodge room and fell asleep together.

Monterey → Big Sur

In the morning I woke early and drove through the morning mist to fetch us coffee. All the old houses of Monterey lined up on each side of the street, pale green and blue and pink wooden boards emerging as I drove by. We went for a jog along the coast on a path that wound through the sand dunes, sometimes on a boardwalk, sometimes on white or black sand. The waves crashed through the fog, cutting jagged rocks on the beach and sending spray up into the air. After a couple of miles we found a long white sandy beach and walked along popping pickled onion seaweed under our feet. We packed our things and Darcy drove us down into Monterey town for breakfast an hour or so later, casually cruising the giant Mustang like it was her Fiat Seicento. We ate eggs and coffee and then walked to Monterey Aquarium, where hundreds of people milled around giant tanks with tuna and sharks and a giant octopus that sucked onto the glass trying to escape or maybe eat the gawping children that stood all around it. We found dark rooms with huge pale moon jellyfish lit up against a deep blue background, pulsing and sliding around with no thoughts that anyone could understand. It was busy by then so we decided to get back on the road, Darcy drove us South to Carmel by the sea, full of old fashioned houses and soft people with soft dogs.

We walked around but it wasn’t our scene, too many boutiques, not enough coffee and pie. That meant getting back on the road, I took over the driving and after a few miles pulled over and took the roof down. Now we were really moving, the sun came out and the road wound around high hills where the mist still clung at the top and the sea smashed at the rocks miles below. Darcy’s blonde hair blew in every direction and the sun beat booming down on our faces. Deadly sheer drops or sometimes thin strips of grass appeared to our right and sloping creased hills sunbaked on the left, rising up beside us silently as we accelerated down the straight sections. We pulled over on dusty laybys and stared at the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean as it leaned into the land, long white lines of current drawn across the water way out to sea to eventually crash into the rocks below. This was Big Sur, beautiful and brutal and ancient and formidable. One wrong turn or misjudged corner would send you flying into the abyss to be eternally churned up along with everything down below. But for the time being we slowly made our way between the lines along the cliff’s edge. After a few miles the road turned suddenly inland, to Big Sur state park. The road plunged down between huge trees that towered either side of us, sending the thick smell of pine into the open car. We passed huts and small wooden cabin stores and the sun cut yellow lines through the trees along the smooth black road and the light was cut off all around us. After a while we reached Deetjens lodge and found our small ancient wooden room, built and not changed since 1850. We drank red wine in the small restaurant with a log fire and classical music played on old records and when we finished we fell asleep in the pitch black silence as soon as our heads hit the pillow.

Big Sur

We woke up on Sunday in our cabin surrounded by forest.
I fetched us coffee from the main lodge and brought it back to the room. The morning mist still hung over the huge redwood trees surrounding Deetjens’ lodge but the sun shone through sharply in straight yellow lines. The mist turned to fine droplets floating in the blue sky and the light cut the shade and lit up silver cobwebs hung between the buildings. We drove to a small deli by the roadside a few miles North and ordered huge roast beef and turkey sandwiches and coffee and took the roof down and sat on the back and ate them in the sun. The mountains in front of us rose up between the trees, crumpling into each other from billion year old collisions. The sky was a hot deep blue and cars rolled by on Route 1 heading South, waving at us sat on our car. After breakfast with the roof down and the sun buzzing and the wind rushing all around us we smiled big open teeth smiles and soaked up that moment and didn’t have anywhere else to be in the world except swerving around Big Sur. After a few minutes we turned off and slowly crept down a track through the giant redwoods. We found the lazy Big Sur River and walked along the riverbank and down to the water’s edge. Stepping over stones I slipped and my whole left shoe filled up with cold water. I paused for a few seconds to let the whole scene sink in for myself and for Darcy who stood open mouthed then burst out laughing. I squeezed the water out of my sock and tied it to my bag, then we walked barefoot up the river getting our jeans wet but not minding. At the other side of the river we walked through the forest, seeing small campsites to our side from time to time and agreeing with each other that this was real camping. We crossed Route 1 and drove a winding, pot holed 1 lane track for miles down to Pfeiffer beach. The temperature dropped as we reached the beach and salty ocean air blew in the wind. We walked further along the sand and huge waves burst through a hole in the middle of the rocks just out to sea. I had been here a few years ago with some friends and I remembered taking photos of a man stood on a huge boulder gazing out to sea smoking a cigar and looking like a real giant American hero. The wind whipped sand into our hair and cameras and Darcy wrapped up in a hoodie and we stuck close and felt properly alive so close to the exploding ocean. After a while we drove out, up the track and eventually off Route 1 up into the hills where the sun pressed everything down again and the air was boiling hot.

We were met by a hippie called Mollie, who took us on her horses on a trek up the mountainside. I rode a horse once when I was 8 and was so allergic I had to get off and walk all the way home. This time I was dosed up and rode a giant war horse that was rescued and rehabilitated and now sleepy and gentle. Darcy’s horse had an eating problem and was huge but incredibly lean, with big thick veins crossing its sides. We rode up through the baking heat into the mountains, clip clopping along the sheer drop, but trusting that the horses didn’t want to fall either. They sweated and swayed but kept pushing on, Mollie’s dogs running alongside us the whole way. One of them was pure white and wild looking. She told us it was three quarters wolf and I gave up on finding safety on the ground if my horse went crazy. The wolf dog was friendly though, and the horse didn’t want any drama. After a while we peacefully walked all together back down the hill. When we got home we showered and walked a mile back up Route 1 to Nepenthe, a restaurant with a view that took in the whole huge bay below. The sun was setting and the sky turned orange pink and blue in a gradient fading into the sea where the evening mist met the water. We drank cocktails and beers and as the sky became dark the moon lit up the ocean, reflecting white light across the feet of the mountains. I started nodding off from the food and probably the cocktails, so we paid up and walked back down the road through the pitch black, talking to each other about the possibility of wild bears in Big Sur. The bears never came though, and we made it home to sleep one more night in our old log cabin.

Big Sur → Santa Barbara

 On Monday we woke again in the woods of Big Sur. The sunlight was shining through the trees and the plants that grew all over everything. We ate breakfast outside the lodge quietly taking in the layers of leaves and flowers and hundred foot trees spreading green arms over everything. Around 11 we got back onto the road, swinging left and South along Route 1 through the trees. After a few miles they thinned out and on the right the road disappeared into great yawning thick air all the way out to sea. We curved around corner after corner, the bright yellow line on our left snaking through the black asphalt. The road felt like it was sewn onto the cliffside, following every edge and ripple of every mountain and doing everything it could to hold on. Cruising with the roof down in the sunshine listening to music we talked about childhood and sometimes didn’t talk and just watched the world come in and out of view. We stopped at McWay Falls where a small waterfall falls straight onto the beach, then after a while at a beach where crowds of Sea Lions flopped around, honking in the heat.

The landscape started to change and we left the cliffs of Big Sur behind. The land flattened into low hills and huge grassy fields. We took the 101 on a detour to the city of Pismo Beach, a faded seaside town with a huge pier reaching hundreds of metres out to the ocean where surfers waited for huge green waves. We were hungry so we shared a hot dog and thick milkshakes and enjoyed the shade and the cold air in an old diner a few blocks back from the beach. Back on the road Darcy led us to Route 154. We passed through peaceful vineyards and up over hills overlooking huge valleys that baked for miles in yellow and gold and further away green and blue where the mist hung in the distance. We found Santa Barbara in the sunset and checked in, before heading out to a bar where we drank big beers and ate and felt peaceful and laughed at all the American things. When we were full we went back to the hotel and smoked our weed sat by the pool, laughing happy nervous then going to bed and watching American adverts and laughing more before drifting off to sleep.

Santa Barbara → Los Angeles

We woke early on Tuesday and Darcy went down for coffee before I opened my birthday presents. From our window the palm trees swayed like strings in the breeze. We walked a few blocks to a gym and sweated out booze and tacos, then walked back to the hotel along the warm, quiet streets of Santa Barbara. After checking out, we drove up to Mission, full of old Spanish buildings that make the town feel more like Europe than America. We found a diner and ate big omelettes and bowls of fruit and watched people walking by. We drove to another small town a few miles away and lay on the beach in the sun. I ran into the sea and got smashed apart by big waves that came in close sets of 3, only a few feet between them. We still had another couple of hours to go until we reached LA, so we got back on the road. Route 1 gets patchy around there so we had to keep joining the huge relentless 101 pounding between LA and San Francisco. 

When we finally rejoined the 1 it was almost empty, sloping around long corners past sandy beaches and motorhomes parked sideways looking out to sea. We drove slowly, soaking up the last of the road. Eventually the houses on each side became more frequent and we reached Malibu, which is supposed to be beautiful but is actually a big dusty road with houses either side, a bit like the North Circular. The road led us straight in to Venice Beach where we drove around for a while looking for parking, then checked into our hotel.

At the end of our road the chaos of Venice went on outside and the sun set through the blinds but together in our place it was peaceful.