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.”
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.
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.
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….