Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Big Sur Road Trip Diary

Date: July 3, 2013
Departing from
: Seattle, WA
Destination
: Eugene, OR
Distance
: 280 miles
Prad dropped the GPS on the concrete of the rental car parking lot. He picked it up, dusted it off and then dropped it once more, this time definitely rendering it useless. An auspicious start to a road trip of 2000 miles.

Prad’s clumsiness added to Santy’s frustration. It was 6 p.m. and we were two hours behind “schedule”. Santy’s goal of making it in time to eat at Chennai Masala, a restaurant near Portland he claimed served the best chicken biryani, was under serious risk. It was rare to see Santy flustered in front of a steering wheel. This was a man who drove solo from Seattle to Yellowstone National Park, a 1,900-mile drive with only himself and his car radio for company. Very few things tested his patience on the road. So it catered to my sadistic tendencies to see Santy curse away while cutting through traffic, desperate to get to his chicken biryani at Chennai Masala.
Once we passed the initial bottlenecks, the drive was excellent. The car, a standard SUV, hit its stride after some coaxing and we zoomed past neighboring vehicles. The best section of the drive arrived when we were a half-hour from Portland: the landscape was golden under the setting sun, and Amit Trivedi’s best played through the car speakers. Who knew the music from Dev D and Ishaqzaade could sound even better at 80 miles per hour?
At Chennai Masala—we made it with minutes to spare—Victor fell in love with his chicken tikka dosa. Victor is Mexican, but is frequently mistaken for Indian and so we gave him the name Tejas Vetrivel. He was beaming after eating his dosa and so it was easy to convince him, a strict chocolate-milk drinker, that as part of his South Indian experience he end his meal with a filter coffee. He had his first sip of the greatest drink ever and ended his meal with a pained expression on his face. This was in direct contrast to my reaction. I was pumped up and ready to romanticize the shit out of that filter coffee. I kept thinking about that last sip, that final pull of the sugar that had settled at the bottom of the tumbler. Uff.
We were 100 miles from the Best Western in Eugene, our final stop for the night, but the miles flew by as we took turns recounting our many embarrassing incidents with women, one of which sent Victor into a five minute laughing fit. For the first minute, I felt good about inciting such laughter, but by minute three it got disconcerting and by minute five I was seriously questioning my life choices. It doesn’t matter if they’re laughing at you as long as they’re laughing… right?

Date: July 4, 2013
Departing from: Eugene, WA
Destination: Santa Clara, CA
Distance: 570 miles
We woke up early, crammed muffins, mini pancakes, bagels and toast at the Best Western and got on the road, plenty of distance to cover. The day began with this question: If an insect flies in to the car and is then released miles later when the window is rolled down, is the insect confused? Or is this an elaborate ploy by the insect, a form of hitchhiking, the insect making its presence known when the car is approaching its stop? Top conversation, really.
The first stop of the day was at Hugo, Oregon, a blink-and-miss kind of town. The lovely people at Dutch Bros coffee asked us if we were first time visitors and when we nodded they gave us coffee on the house. Fortified by their generosity and the caffeine, we made our way into California, driving along the coast on 101S. As we passed through Crescent City, I rolled down the window, peered out and felt the wind on my face, the scent of salt strong in the air.
Driving through the Redwoods

We passed one motel after another as we entered Eureka and it seemed like the town knew the business inside out, the entire range covered, from shady to standard. The most interesting aspect of Eureka was the naming convention of the streets: it started with A St. and made its way through the English alphabet. Once Prad had dropped his thing for the day, an ice cream cone this time round, we left Eureka and drove through the Redwoods. Tall, coniferous trees flanked the road on either side, sunlight poured through the gaps, and we passed cars till the road narrowed to a single lane. A couple of bright yellow lines separated the traffic gunning past in opposite directions. The bright yellow lines fascinated me. It got me thinking about the people and the machines that drew these lines, the people and the machines that built these roads. It’s incredible how easy it was to go from the sloping streets of Seattle to the alphabetically ordered ones of Eureka.
Even if I wasn’t looking at road signs, the dryness of the grass was a dead give-away that Washington and Oregon were long gone and that we were firmly in California. We got sudden views of deep chasms surrounded by trees and more trees. Creeks sparkled, and layers of mountains created a brownish hue. We drove up and down single lane roads and passed fields of grapes on either side with hills forming the backdrop. It was hot and dry, the temperature hitting 100F at one point, but from within the air-conditioned confines of the car what was most impressive was how the land shone in the late afternoon sun.
First sight of the Golden Gate Bridge

I’ve been to San Francisco a few times, but each time I’m taken by my first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s always unexpected and it’s always awesome. After hours of being on the road, the sudden view of that red metal was a burst of energy we needed. We were mostly winging it – we knew we wanted to be in Big Sur by Friday but that was pretty much the extent of our plans. And so to be in San Francisco in time to catch the July 4th fireworks was quite something. The fireworks lasted for twenty-three minutes at Fisherman’s Wharf and were accompanied by oohs and aahs from the crowds cheering from the piers.
It was after midnight and I wasn’t sure if sleep or hunger was my primary feeling. The fireworks were a hazy memory as I held my head in my hands at an IHOP in Santa Clara. Despite my demeanor, I realized the comfort that IHOP offered. I was starving and all the places I wanted to eat at were closed, but I found solace in the knowledge that IHOP’s doors were always open and that their containers of syrup were always full.
Date: July 5, 2013
Departing from: Santa Clara, CA
Destination: Big Sur via Monterey, CA
Distance: 150 miles
Got up at 10:45 a.m. after one of those rare dream-less sleeps, but really only woke up after brunch at the Saravana Bhavan in Sunnyvale. We didn’t have too many miles to cover and so being stuck in slow-moving traffic on the CA-1S wasn’t too irritating. It allowed us more time to stare at the beautiful green fields. The farmers were tilling away and the sprinklers were in full effect on this cloudy morning. The breeze and the scent of the wet soil took me back many years. It reminded me of the road trips we would go on as a family when I was a kid. For a moment I wished I was in a “travels” vehicle - that white Ambassador car with the steering column gear and the distinctive cushioned bench seat. And then all of a sudden the smell of fish overpowered as we passed Moss Landing. Strong, cool winds blew and waves crashed on fine, light brown sand.
Monterey was our first stop for the day. Pam and Rosalie at the Visitor Center helped us out by marking up a map of Big Sur with places to visit. When I asked Pam about the bridge from Kerouac’s Big Sur, she mentioned matter-of-factly, “Yes, that’s Bixby Bridge. Many accidents, many suicides. Most photographed bridge. Good place to visit.” I doubted the most photographed aspect having just the previous day seen way too many drivers taking pictures with their phones while driving on the Golden Gate Bridge, but I let it pass without question and in return heard an even more entertaining anecdote. “You should stop by the Henry Miller Library,” Pam said. “Miller met this woman called Carol Hill there, they fell in love and took off to Europe and India.” When I asked about this story later at the library, one of the volunteers said, “I do not know a Carol Hill, but I wouldn’t put it past Henry Miller.”
Point Lobos

We kept hunger pangs at bay with coffee and tiramisu at Caffé Trieste and headed towards Big Sur. On the way we saw a wedding party at Point Lobos, a group dressed in white and black, tiny in front of the ancient rocks and rough waves. Clouds dispersed and we could see the homes on top of the hills accommodating those lucky enough to wake up to views of the ocean meeting the horizon. The engineering genius behind the Bixby Bridge fascinated me as we drove across it. One look at the fierce water swirling below was reminder enough of the awesome power of nature.

I sat on a boulder and gazed at an endless spread of blue. The clouds that threatened earlier were nowhere to be seen. The sun warmed the land. For a short stretch, no cars passed behind me and the only sounds were those of the wind and the water. A one-on-one with the vastness of Big Sur.
McKay falls

Our road trip was inspired by a picture of McKay falls, but looking at it from the designated vantage point it was the smallest high-profile waterfall I’d seen. Tourists arrived to stare at the advertised image of Big Sur and there were plenty posing for pictures. One of them was a young Indian guy whose father was prescriptive about what he wanted in the picture. “Tone down your smile, man,” the father said to the son. “Too much teeth.”
Henry Miller Library

The crowd was in splits by the time the credits rolled. La Bifle was the name of the film. Translation: The Dickslap. We had accidentally landed at the Henry Miller Library for the Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series. Four short movies were screened outdoors under the starry sky. There were about sixty people on the lawn, some in blankets, others in sleeping bags, and the four of us on chairs shivering in our summer clothing. Green tea, bottles of Stella and the laughter induced by La Bifle distracted me from the cold for a bit, but the powerful ending of the final film, Dotty, was plenty sobering.
We crashed for the night at a Travelodge in Monterey, but only after chugging hot saké and chowing down some Veggie Maki at a sushi restaurant that the owner kept open late for us exhausted stragglers. As impressive and amazing as the sights of Big Sur were, little could beat the high produced by the kindness of those who went the extra mile for us weary travelers.
Date: July 6, 2013
Departing from: Monterey, CA
Destination: Mount Shasta, CA
Distance: 420 miles
This time it wasn’t coffee that woke us up. Bagpipers walked through the parking lot of the Travelodge, playing their tunes, destroying the morning for everyone around them. The return journey thus began and our first stop was at Santa Cruz where Prad bought sandals to replace the ones stolen by the waves and Santy discovered that his ace parallel parking effort had resulted in a ticket for blocking a bike lane. An old, bearded man on a bicycle stopped by to commiserate and encouraged us to fight the ticket. “But there is no bike lane sign! How would you guys know?” he said. We nodded sadly in agreement.
This way to San Francisco

We were on CA-17 when we saw an incredible straight arrow of cloud. It was as if the clouds were pointing us toward the white fog of San Francisco. A few rays of sunlight cut through the cloud cover and mountains in the distance looked magical in the haze. We hurtled into the streets of the city and passed through blocks of lovely, narrow apartments where no two adjacent buildings were painted alike. A palette of colors on the slopes of San Francisco.
Driving through Napa

It was too late to make it to a winery in Napa but we decided to take the one-hour detour anyway. Near St. Helena we took a turn up a narrow lane and followed a sloping road that felt never-ending in the most wonderful way. Santy pulled out expert turns and passed cars trekking up. We hit a stretch where the branches of trees on either side of the road met to form a tunnel of leaves. Windows rolled down, 73F outside and Manmarziyaan on the speakers. It made me wish for an afternoon on a balcony that overlooked the vista, an opportunity to stare at the mountains and sip the wine of the land.
After dinner at Gott’s Roadside, we began our final session of driving for the day. The sun had set and soon the only light was from the reflectors on the road. There is a thrill to night driving and a huge part of that is the music. A playlist of Thievery Corporation, Radiohead, Daft Punk, David Bowie and A.R. Rahman thundered through the car speakers. Pulsing bass, soaring vocals, and speed.
“You help me out man, and I can hook you up with some women tonight,” said Chris, the off-the-clock bartender at the lodge in Mount Shasta. Santy responded with that big laugh of his. A night with a prostitute in return for tips on Search Engine Optimization. Had such a trade ever been offered before? Chris then pitched a position on his board of directors but Santy laughed again. So Chris tried to gauge my interest in his start-up.
“I did my marketing degree at USC,” he said.
“Pretty good school,” I replied.
“Pretty good school? Pretty good? Fuck man it’s the best school out there.”
“Cool.”
“So do you know anything about SEO?”
“Nah. But this guy,” I patted Santy on the back. “He used to work at Bing,” I said and walked away.
Scadenfreude makes for a good night’s sleep.
Date: July 7, 2013
Departing from: Mt. Shasta, CA
Destination: Seattle, WA
Distance: 580 miles
It was the final day of our road-trip, and we started out with breakfast at a diner called Shasta Pinnacle. The American diner with its pancakes, waffles, omelettes, hash browns, and mugs of coffee is key in a road-trip. The booths are comfy, the hours are dependable, the menu is obvious and the servings are large. On the surface, there exists a sameness, but only on the surface. Whenever I’m on the road, I feel that the American diner offers a glimpse into the community I’m stopping through. The photographs mounted on walls, the ads pinned to boards, the drawings slipped under tabletops, they all tell a story.
"Frisco glitters up ahead. Our radio plays rhythm and blues as we pass the joint back and forth in jutjawed silence both looking ahead with big private thoughts now so vast we can’t communicate them any more and if we tried it would take a million years and a billion books. Too late, too late, the history of everything we’ve seen together and separately has become a library in itself." - Jack Kerouac, Big Sur
The mission for the day was to finish reading Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. I settled into the book; his thoughts flowed at high speed, but not without its sudden stops and quick turns. It was an intimate look into a man’s struggle with alcoholism, age and the consequences of fame.

Mount Shasta

The great views of Mount Shasta were a welcome distraction from the slow traffic as we headed north on I5. California was eventually behind us and we entered Oregon. We took the exit towards Cottage Grove in search of a snack. It was a Sunday and the town reflected it. There was hardly anyone outside and most stores were closed. A restaurant called Jack Sprats was open and we ordered coffee, cheese sticks and pie. Our waitress was the prettiest; her dark blonde hair was up in a ponytail and she wore a green necklace that matched the color of her eyes. Think Diane Kruger in small town America.
After five days and more than 2000 miles on the road, we were back in Seattle. We returned the rental and picked up my car from the nearby parking lot. I dropped Victor, Santy and Prad off and drove home, up the sloping streets of Cap Hill.
Good trip.

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