Berkeley to Cambria: A Prison, A Rookery, A Clydesdale

Yesterday morning, I left Berkeley in my car with a suitcase, a bag of food, and a plan to get to Louisiana at some point. I’m not sure of the path I will take, or how long I will be on the road, but I am happy. Free and unreliable and doubled masked. My first destination: Cambria, 200 miles south on the California coast.

I love driving through California. Its varied landscapes are beautiful and dramatic and full of history. Because I’ve lived here most of my life, some of its landmarks connect me to landmarks in my life. I got a little of all of this in the first few hours of my road trip.

From Berkeley, I headed toward south to Highway 101, driving mindlessly until I got past San Jose, and then mindfully through the Salinas Valley on the west side of the Gabilan mountain range. Growing up, I loved the stories about this part of the state written by California’s literary hero, John Steinbeck. As a child, I felt connected to the Gabilans even before I saw them because, in Steinbeck’s Red Pony, Jody names his horse Gabilan in honor of these “beckoning mountains with a brown grass love.”

Pinnacles National Monument at the Southern end of the Gabilan Range. Photo: Brittanica

A few miles south of Gonzales, I pulled off the freeway to get some fizzy water from the back of the car, and inadvertently ended up at the entrance to Soledad State Prison. I have a connection there too. On July 25, 1993, Soledad State Prison released a man who had been incarcerated for most of his adult life. He left the prison at midnight with nothing but a bus ticket to Oakland and $100. A few hours later, he was in my house. Things weren’t looking too good for me until a pistol-waving, epithet-screaming police officer broke down my back door. Fortunately, no one was hurt and I learned something new about our fucked up prison system. I later wrote about it in an op-ed piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle, asking what legal thing that man could have done with $100 and no where to go at midnight.

The tower at Soledad Prison. Stock photo.

Feeling grateful – for the thousandth time – for my luck 27 years ago, I continued to Cambria, arriving in time to visit Piedras Blancas, the elephant seal rookery just north of Hearst Castle. In the 20th century, the elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction. Now the state protects them along this 6-mile stretch of coast where 25,000 of them visit every year. As the sun hung low over the Pacific Ocean, I hiked along the cliffs overlooking rocky beaches full of moms with nursing babies and bellowing males. It’s rutting season so there was a little drama, mostly in slow motion.

This morning, I hiked along the coast in a conservation area called Fiscalini Ranch. February is migration season for grey whales so I stopped several times to scan the horizon with my binoculars. I didn’t see any whales but I saw a large group of seals bobbing their heads in the surf — exciting! And then a local told me the seals were actually logs even though I didn’t ask for his opinion. Sheesh.

And then and then and then….I rode a giant Clydesdale through the wooded hillsides above Cambria. “Autumn” was sweet but plodding. Er, she’s a “plow horse.” The big excitement was a lumbering trot that lasted about 8 seconds. Worth it — a wonderful end to a wonderous California day.

Autumn was 18 hands (6 feet at her withers), making her the biggest horse I’ve ever ridden.

If you are wondering whether I am crazy to travel during a pandemic, I respond that I might be crazy but I am safe. Per my consultations with Dr. Fauci, I can take the same precautions I take at home. I avoid situations where I am sharing indoor spaces and wear two masks. I can get groceries delivered to my accommodation or order take out. Hotels now have special protocols and I’m  planning stops where I can do outside things — like hiking or kayaking or walking through interesting neighborhoods.

So stay tuned if you are interested in things you can do on a road trip during a pandemic….


“…we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us as a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.”
— Joan Didion


  1. I happened to call you this evening, so I was looking forward to your post.

    I hope you realize that you don’t have to wear your masks when you’re driving in the car by yourself ; -).

    Always on a new adventure. How I envy you while admiring you.

    I read both _Grapes_ and _Eden_ again last year, and what a beautiful experience. Resolved to go to Salinas valley, but deferred, somehow taken in by the word “isolate” – and a bunch of “health issues”. A bunch? No a cascade, a Colorado River of issues, I’m a little preoccupied for a trip. Pilar, my remote (Madrid) woman companion and I resolved to visit there when she comes out here the next time, see the locations in the book, and also, there’s a Steinbeck Museum which I first heard of this year – and then San Simeon. If the road to Big Sur is open, invite her to Nepenthe for an ambrosiaburger Something to look forward to during a Pandemic.

    muchos abrazos, Steve

    1. I am “reading” the audible version of Slouching Toward Bethlehem during the drive. Somehow I missed it, although I have read all of Didion’s other works. It’s the perfect accompaniment on 101

  2. Cambria sounds like a great first stop! Love the pic of the Pinnacles; camped and hiked there about 10 years ago. How cool to see reference to Autumn being “6 feet at her withers.” Reminded me of when I was a kid and loved to read about and look at photos of all the different breeds of horses and discovered the measurement of horses was the same as my last name! Have a lovely trip!

  3. Hi Kim ! perfect timing for a vicarious share of your adventure…..My favorite place in Calif is the Big Sur coast…..your blog reconnected me there and to the other places mentioned……thanks and Buen Camino !

  4. It is so obvious you are happiest while traveling whether it’s the world or your own backyard. I am so glad you are back on the road enjoying the experiences as you make your way to ME! And how could I forget that unfortunate morning in 1993 when right after I left, having spent the night, you were attacked. Please remind me that I did not leave the door open. See you soon Kimmie. XOXOX

    1. Yes, you locked the back door Belle! The intruder punched a hole in the panel and then the officer finished it off! But here’s the creepy thing — he testified that he saw you leave!

  5. I lived in King City in 1977 with a sunflower farm down the street and a view of the Pinnacles out my kitchen window. That was the year I moved to California, and never left. The 101 corridor between Monterey and San Luis Obispo was where this then 22 year-old, Midwesterner saw many things for the first time – eucalyptus, fields of artichokes, sea otters, even a mountain lion. It was magical, and still makes me very happy when I am there.

  6. Hi Kim!

    Awesome and inspiring – thank you for sharing.

    It is a true gift to travel, especially now – appreciating learning about your trip. I love the central coast and going south!🌼

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