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The Coast Road: Pictures of the Gone World 1

These fragments I have shored against my ruins. – – The Waste Land

The full moon is sliding down the dark sky over Catalina Island off on the western horizon. Slipping in and out of sheets of haze it spreads a blue on darker blue pool of moonlight out from the silhouette of the island’s steep hills and across the open slate water to the shore. Below me to the north, the winding lights of the village converge on the long dark strand of the Pacific Coast Highway arcing up and over the hills of Laguna Beach and on into the towns that string out towards LA, growing ever denser along that route until it fades into the bleak streets of the metropolis.

Driving that way towards the central coast, you’d be tempted to give up the coast highway, old Route 1, for a quick transit through LA and out over the Grapevine and down into the featureless plain of the Central Valley and the torpor of Highway 5. But if you stay on the Pacific Coast Highway as it disappears into the scuzzy sprawl of LA, you’ll find, in time, you took the better route.

It’s true that to find the deeper rewards of the Pacific Coast Highway you have to crawl through endless renditions of our modern malaise laid out as the strip malls and neighborhoods of low degree in that part of the passage — the fried food joints, the store-front fortune tellers, the endless quick shot bars and bad to mediocre restaurants, drive-through churches — but in the end the Highway emerges in Santa Monica, gives way to the long beaches and headlands of Malibu, sweeps out of the city completely and leads to highlands and sea cliffs and past San Simeon and it’s sea lion and finally to the Sur.

You’d never get to the Sur if you take the fast and easy freeway to the east. It is true that you might get to someplace else, some other clot of cities, quicker. But then you’d just find yourself in another variation of Los Angeles. It would be as if you never left, since, in truth, you had not.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you take your time with a journey, you have a much better chance of finding, again, that the journey itself is the destination and not some distant city; that if you can accept you need to pass through the uglier parts of the landscape to get to the highlands and the vistas, they will in time appear again. But if you try to take the fast route, the route that leads around all the clutter, detritus, and smash of our disposable culture, you will, in the end, have seen little and understood less, you will be traveling on the bland Highway 5s that always run into the dark end of nowhere special.

Our recent ability to achieve speed in transit has infected us with the idea that all transitions in life need to be done at speed. After this, we complain that there seem to be far too many wrecks and breakdowns on these highways of our lives. We complain that there is always too much traffic around us and all we can do is hunker down in our own steel shell and drive with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, boxed in by a flying wedge of semi-trucks hauling things we don’t need to houses that are not quite homes and tailgated by our own impatience to get there on time only to discover that our destination is not really where we needed to be at all.

We think that the “road rage” we see around us as millions daily take to these expressways — made so that goods can flow into our stores and workers get into their corporations — is something fairly new on the scene. But it isn’t.

“Road Rage” is only the expression of our inner rages and compulsive demons telling all of us to get some where, to be some one, to have some thing. Of course, in time, being in that where will become old and a new where will beckon. In time becoming a new some one will not be the one we then need to become. In time having some thing will only compel us to have some other thing. There’s no “being” to it, and less “becoming” about it. There is only the having to have and the getting to be spending.

And when we are done with years of it, we will look back and know that it was all a waste of life; that what was really worth having was all off on the side roads that took a lot more time to travel and forced you — with their sharp curves and high cliffs — to slow down and take it all very carefully. Wise men and women have told us all of this for aeons, but with our power windows cranked up, our air-conditioning on high, and our radios tuned to the latest news or the new hit of meaningless trash music, we cannot hear them. We live in a time where timeless wisdom has become mere whispers heard through glass.

Worse still, we will not hear them. If their ghost voices were to intrude on our world of piped-in music to everywhere, car, house, restaurant, and bar — to intrude upon the beep and rattle and hum of our oh-so-networked offices — to speak over the custom musical ringtones we’ve programmed into our cell phones — we would, utterly without thinking, and as a programmed response, hit scan and pass on to the next frequency where we would be more assured of receiving confirming, upbeat messages that we are doing all right and everything is perfectly and finally on track. All we have to do to keep up is move just a little faster on the freeway, speed it up, close the gap.

I know this road well. I wasted many years on it. It can be long or short, but in the end, I found it only leads to a parking lot where, if you are very good and very diligent you will get a personal parking place with your name stenciled over the name that was there before. That’s one end. The other is where, if you plan wisely, you’ll have a structure that will enable you to park three cars inside it and close the door with the touch of a button. I know many people travel this road willingly and many others travel it because they believe they have to because there is just no other way. They’ve all sped up so much and taken on so much weight that they missed the small sign that said “Scenic Route.”

The turns of my life in the last month have recently given me a tour of the Scenic Route that took me to places so slow and so beautiful I could not believe they existed on Earth, and to places that might seem beautiful to some, but that I would rather not have ever seen at all. As noted above, the slow road does not always wind along trackless beaches and pristine forests, but sooner or later passes through the strip malls and junkyards of our lives; places where you want to speed up but discover your speed is limited and checked by radar or drone scanned from the air.

“On the slow train time does not interfere.”Highway 61 Revisited

I’ve been up along the Pacific Coast Highway One to Big Sur. This side road on the edge of the continent was where so many of the deeper and more lasting moments of my life either began or came to fruition; emerged from the smoke as if I always had to have part of them happen there to be real and be verified as important. My life has risen and fallen and risen again from those coastal cliffs of the Sur and the road that winds so tenuously along the edge of them. The grand abiding indifference of those mist-shrouded cliffs to both the road and lives that scuttle slowly along it never ceases to remind me of what small brief sparks we are.

Later on in the month, I threw myself on one of our high-speed buses of the air to the other end of the continent. There I got on a powerboat with an old, old friend and set out from Fort Lauderdale to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. The crossing itself is a lesson in the fast lane versus the scenic route.

Crossing to the Bahamas from Florida is not that far at all as distances are measured at sea, but standing athwart your course is the Gulf Stream. People crossing in small boats wisely keep a close eye on the weather and the wind and how they affect the Stream. Four to five foot seas are manageable but the conditions can easily and quickly shift and serve up seas twice that size or more. If that turns out to be the case, small craft warnings are issued and you’d best pay attention to them. If that turns out to be the case and you are crossing the Gulf Stream, you’d best determine the closest harbor and head towards it wearing lifejackets. It can get serious.

Our crossing, though three hours of rough slamming about, wasn’t threatening and we put ashore at West End for the recently increased moment of extortion that passes for Bahamian Customs and Immigration. From there, we made our way to the Sea of Abaco via GPS waypoints since the Bahamian method of marking navigation points and underwater hazards seem to be either a pole in the sand or no pole at all. It is a forced exercise in the slow and scenic route. That day we ran twelve hours in the boat across hundreds of miles of water with an average depth of five feet. Since that is an average and the boat drew three, we ran it carefully. Putting your utter faith in the accuracy of GPS is something you come to slowly in such waters.

The next day we docked in the Sea Spray Marina next to Hopetown and began to experience the slow and scenic route that only these places off to the side of our far too busy lives seem to provide.

Our house was at the very edge of the far side of Elbow Cay and placed so that when I stepped out the front door the stairs led down to the beach on the Atlantic side where for days big combers rolled in over the reef smashing shells into a fine almost pink sand. On the one side, was the Sea of Abaco, shallow and calm and translucent green. On the other side, separated only by a ridge of high coral and sand was the Atlantic swells rolling in from Africa. At one point, you could stand on a dune and see them both without turning your head. At one moment in that week, out on the Atlantic near the Bahamas, a cruise ship was struck with a 70-foot rogue wave that came out of nowhere and smashed in the windows on the high decks, flooded the ship, and rolled away again. It was so slow in the Sea of Abaco, that news of this only reached us three days after via an email.

My friends took to boating out from the marina, but I was always drawn back to the long wave shattered beach below our house. It was miles long and, as far as I could tell in the mornings and evenings, I was the only one on it.

As is my way, I stroll beaches looking for shells, for Anne Lindburghs’ ‘Gift from the Sea.’

Although the sand is fine and clean all along this beach, the relentless waves seem to shatter every shell to fragments as they bring them ashore. Shattered shells and lumps of brain coral are what you see step after step. But still, I look down as I walk along because I see the world as a metaphor and am always alert for anomalies.

Early in the morning, walking the beach I glance down and sitting among nothing but shattered, bleached white fragments of shells, I saw one, and only one, perfect polished and gleaming cowry. About two inches long and an inch high. One perfect thing given by the sea in a vast strands of smashed things. I picked it up and placed it in my pocket. Then I turned and left the beach and the islands.

Two days and four thousand air miles later, I gave the shell away in a coffee shop in some small town up near the Canadian border.

And now, I’m back at my home where the moon was falling down the sky over the slow swells of the Pacific. While I wrote this, the birds woke up and the sun rose high. It’s getting to be mid-morning and I have to go to the village and the post office now. There’s a bunch of small errands I’ve been putting off while I’ve been moving fast trying to learn to move slow.

The shell? It was left behind in the coffee shop and thought to be lost. But I’ve learned that it has been found and I’ve been promised it will be returned to the one I gave it to. I hope that happens. I hate to see the beautiful, rare, and perfect things of our lives found and rescued from the fragments lost forever.


All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
All that you love
All that you hate
All you distrust
All you save.
All that you give
All that you deal
All that you buy,
beg, borrow or steal.
All you create
All you destroy
All that you do
All that you say.
All that you eat
And everyone you meet
All that you slight
And everyone you fight.
All that is now
All that is gone
All that’s to come
and everything under the sun is in tune
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

From American Digest July 2005

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lance de Boyle July 13, 2020, 11:22 AM
  • MIKE GUENTHER July 13, 2020, 11:42 AM

    Very nice. Was born and raised in San Diego. We have/had relatives in SW Idaho and over on the coast of Oregon in Portland. When we used to travel to Idaho, we would take the route over towards the Sierra Nevada MTNs and wind our way up through Carson City, Elko and Winnemucca through the SE corner of Oregon hitting the Snake River Gorge into Idaho.

    After our visit, we would make our way West to the coast and take the Coastal Hwy back down to San Diego. It was always a beautiful trip.

    I remember one trip when we started to go over Tioga Pass towards Carson City, when we had to turn back and go 150 miles out of our way because the pass was closed…end of June or first of July.

    A lot of the interstates back then, N to S and E to W were still under construction, mid to late 60’s, even into the early 70’s.

    As an aside, we drove from San Diego to Miami in the summer of ’69 right after hurricane Camille hit the gulf coast. Most of the trip along what is now I-10, was on US routes that weaved through every little town and village along the way. On I-10, it is now about 950 miles from El Paso to Lake Charles. Back then, it was over 1,000 miles to get across Texas, and a slow go.

    I take the interstates now because I need to get where I’m going, but sometimes I’ll ignore the GPS and take the route across country, knowing that even though it looks shorter distance wise, it might take me a couple of extra hours to get to my destination.

  • Auntie Analogue July 13, 2020, 12:19 PM

    Ah, Highway 1. At rest in my soul lie fond memories of driving it in my ragtop two-seater, of camping overnight just inland from the purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach only to be met on emergence onto Highway 1 by shipmates who’d come there on the whim of a morning motor cruise and offered me and my fellow campers doughnuts and hot coffee. Doughnuts and coffee in the dawn atop a cliff at Big Sur: who can ask for more!

    But my first sunlit sight of the coast highway came upon descent from La Honda just about to the bluffs at Pescadero. The road’s magic took me instantly a happy prisoner for life. (On later excursions along the Cabrillo Highway I came to Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, long before the town had become a preserve of the Silicon Valley rich, when that gem of a bayside haven lay bucolic beside the roll of Pacific waters, and I thought straightaway: I would love to live there.)

    From Pescadero southward my mind could not take in all the sights, but it did when I got to Castroville whose road-spanning cloth banner advertised The Artichoke Capital of the World. Never cared for artichoke, but to be in its World Capital felt delightful as my eye gobbled vast, to-the-horizon fields of that green crop.

    That day’s last stop was my duty station in Monterey, whose peninsula and shores I’d go on to explore by motor and afoot, coming to know just about every wrinkle of its rocks, sands, ice plant, kelp beds, otters, starfish, sea urchins, cypresses, and all of its sensual splendor. Kayaking in the bay, just east of Lover’s Point, amid the frolicking otters, with the paddle battling weighty tangled snares of kelp, yielded a day’s end exhaustion of the “that’s a good-tired” kind, and I almost didn’t want to wash from my body the perfume of the sea.

    Asilomar became one of my favorite haunts. This was before some “authority” put up wooden rail fences along its roadway, when you could still pull onto the sandy-gravelly verge, pace out onto its rocky points – careful not to get trapped out on one of them by the incoming tide – and just gaze out at the sea, the gulls, the cormorants, the pelicans, all while inhaling the scent of salt and feeling the occasional wisp of wave spray on the cheek. Many a night there, out on those rocks, I marvelled at an enormous blood-orange moon melting slowly into the empurpled horizon. October visits gave sight of the Grey Whales in their southward procession, their slick backs curving slices out of the water’s surface and the spume from their blow holes forming their pod parade’s sun-glistened flags.

    But Big Sur: oh, there’s the breathtaker. On a couple of nights there the sky to the south illuminated in a violent bright sci-fi comic-book-cover green from missiles launched from Point Mugu, adding a surreality to the mystique of clifftop darkness above the murmur of breakers far below. But most nights there were, well, they were beneath the dense bright band of the Milky Way, so let me say that the only word that comes to mind is . . . holy, in that sense of “reached out and touched the face of God.”

    Morning drives were like pages turning, each curve inland of the road plunging into the cliffs’ deep draws veiled nigh opaquely in dense fog, and the next curve southwestward bursting you into brilliant sunlight above the churning sparkle of the surging sea. Stop awhile, clamber down onto the sands girdling the mouth of the Little Sur River, and find a comfy perch atop one of the massive weatherbeaten, river-felled tree trunks, and just suck in lungful after lungful of the clean sea wind – and who cares about what your hair looks like!

    Midday’s sun turned the vista into an odd calm so beguiling that I once, northbound, nearly ran my ragtop’s left front wheel over the verge of a clifftop curve and out into yawning space beyond. That’s when I tore the mellow Moody Blues 8-track from the player and replaced it with Jimi Hendrix, just to create a counterpoint, or a counter-force, to Big Sur’s entrancing meridian calm.

    Afternoon at Big Sur turned the sea into the descending sun’s silver mirror so bright that you could not long gaze at, or even over – toward the sky above the horizon, the reflection’s vast, overwhelming brightness. I still have two Instamatic snapshots of shipmates standing there, but you can’t see them because the direct and sea-reflected sunlight behind them are so bright that those guys bodies are swallowed so much by that brilliance that they look like wraiths hovering between two ethereal dimensions.

    Sunsets? None more awesome – in the true, not the degraded, sense of that word – than sunsets at Big Sur. The phrase “You haven’t live until . . . ” comes to mind.

    Those, I’m afraid, are mere fragments of the glories of Highway One. You did, I hope, enjoy reading of them, and I hope you will go there, motor there, stop there, and try to take in the colossal gulps of inexpressible gorgeousness which will over and under, and all the way through to your soul, whelm you.

  • Anonymous July 13, 2020, 4:02 PM

    I used to like the comment section of Zman’s blog but lately it seems to have devolved into an esoteric pissing match. Is that why he did away with the comment voting?

  • Skorpion July 13, 2020, 5:21 PM

    Beautiful writing, Gerard. Your passage about shell-hunting on the Bahamian beach reminded me of this song:

    https://youtu.be/ydaYbUQnM_Q

  • Vanderleun July 13, 2020, 6:07 PM

    Thank you skorpion. That song works.

  • Terry July 13, 2020, 8:47 PM

    What a great thread! Thank you all!

    Brings back wonderful memories of my drives with girl friends and later my wife and then later my second wife of drives along Highway 1. Absolutely the most beautiful, spectacular scenery and fantastic beaches I could ever imagine. And, at that time, (mid sixties to mid seventies) very little traffic or people whatsoever.

    The best sports car road I ever found anywhere in the western USA. I cannot imagine what Hwy 1 would be like now with the insanity that is called California. I am afraid Hotel California no longer exists.

    Watching the sun set from a beach towel with my favorite girl was a touch of heaven. There was a fantastic secluded beach near Bolinas that brings back memories that now seem too awesome to be real.

    Hwy 1 has alluring beauty on both sides of the road. The Pacific ocean to the west and coastal mountains to the east side.

    Just WOW. Life is great. I now live in central eastern Idaho. At the base of the Continental Divide. Another WOW.

  • Fuel Filter July 14, 2020, 6:43 AM

    I’ve taken that trip many times and it never got old. But never more.

    Go outta CA ‘bout four years ago fleeing the Leftist madness for AZ. never looked back ‘cept for trips like that. Especially after a few days in the Napa Valley.

    All gone now…

  • James ONeil July 14, 2020, 9:40 AM

    Good on yer Gerard!

    Makes me, almost, wanna head down from up here on top the world and visit old haunts in the lower forty eight; Key West, Delray Beach, NYC’s lower east side, Huntington Gardens, the Upper Peninsula, etc., etc., etc., -but realizing all those places, as I knew them, are long gone.

    So I’ll just sit back, have a sip , and enjoy the memories.

  • DeAnn July 15, 2020, 5:26 AM

    Yes- so many errands one becomes aware of, neglected, unnoticed in the blur of a faster pace.
    The stillness hangs around my shoulders, flowing easily down my back like a cape. Lol, it’s not fashionable, but it’s perfect for all my occasions.