I should type (yes, I know, I know) that this is the third entry of the day. If anyone feels particularly motivated to read what I thought of my experiences in Los Angeles, those musings can be found in the two prior postings: sorry!
After enjoying a wonderful week with Ben, Courtney and my new-found friends in Los Angeles, I began to feel the traveller's itch, that sensation between discomfort and excitement: I was eager to move on to new adventures, fresh landscapes. I contacted a friend whom I had met in Ecuador, hopeful that we could plan a road-trip up the Californian coastline as far as San Francisco, a journey that we had mentioned upon occasion while relaxing around the equator. Alas, this potential adventure fell through and so I found myself in need of alternative transportation north. Such a situation at first appeared rather daunting: I have remarked to and heard it remarked to me by many Americans that the state of long distance public transportation in the US is quite dire. The most obvious suggestions are to travel by plane or to settle down for a gruelling road-trip in a private automobile. I had not the money, nor the inclination, for a flight over so short a distance; one of my principle aims in covering this section of the American west was always to travel the famous route one highway up the coast, a journey that constantly features highly in any compilation of scenic drives, worldwide.
While musing over my predicament with Ben, he suggested that I search the internet for a car headed north within the next few days and attempt to hitch a lift. This activity is known as a "ride-share" and there is even a nationwide website serving the US and Canada that includes a sub-section of this very practice. The website is called, quite simply, 'Craig's List' and here I found a thriving online community, an enormous hub of interaction, offering everything from job-listings to the aforementioned ride-share scheme. There were numerous posts advertizing rides from LA to San Francisco: it seemed that this was a very popular journey. The only problem was that none seemed to be offering the route that I desired so desperately to take: everyone favoured the faster, soulless path up a monstrous, concrete, inland interstate highway. After some time spent trawling through the various postings, I came, finally, to a post that seemed perfect: a student was advertizing a ride north up route one, following the coast and stopping at whatsoever scenic destinations his passengers wished to see, as well as local micro-breweries. It seemed that the chap was an avid beer drinker, although further correspondence assured me that he had no intention of drinking himself into a dangerous stupor, merely that he wanted to buy some bottles for enjoyment in a safer situation. I was aware of the popularity of such micro-breweries in the US, particularly on the west coast, and was keen to observe some such locations, especially considering the mirrored decline apparent in Britain at the same time.
I sent an e-mail to the driver who had posted this fabulous itinerary and eagerly I awaited his reply. Anticipation turned to disappointment when the response came back, all four words of it: 'car full - good luck'. Cursing my (rare) misfortune, I spent the rest of the afternoon looking - but not really looking - at alternatives on 'Craig's List': as so often seems to happen in human mentalities, I realized too late, when it was gone, just what it was that I desired. I maintained this sour mood of despondency until later that evening, when a second message arrived in my inbox from the poster. It seemed that one passenger had pulled out and so there was space to accommodate me after all. Emboldened by my deliberations that afternoon and now sure of my need, I snapped up the offer and so it was that I found myself standing outside Ben and Courtney's apartment early the next morning, my body and my bags catching the mellow sunlight of an infantile day. I had said my goodbyes to the gang the previous evening, under no illusion that any of them would crawl from their lairs at so early an hour to see me off in person.
Waiting for the car to arrive, my thoughts drifted from imaginings of San Francisco to a starker, more urgent reality: I was soon to meet someone for the first time and was then due to spend the whole day with this someone, in the close confines of a car. I had never indulged in a practice anything like this before: certainly, I have never hitch-hiked. Naturally, questions began to mass in my mind: would he like he, or I him? was such a practice safe? Prior correspondence had told me that the car would be filled with other passengers as well: I felt that this gave some sense of added security. In the end, I need not have worried: the driver, Ahsan, was an affable chap; friendly and happy to converse or to hold a silence (it was a long day, after all). The two other passengers were travellers from Belgium - Antwerp of all places, a city I once saw when visiting my aunt and her partner there. They were quiet initially but, they too soon became more open and conversation flowed easily.
The drive was memorable indeed, a fantastic road-trip, a great day out. The breweries at which we stopped to visit were all interesting: I broadened my beer-related palate with some quaffable offerings and the frequent breaks were welcome to us all. My favourite pit-stop saw us call at a micro-brewery that doubled-up as a small, dignified restaurant. We arrived in the early afternoon, sunlight streaming through shaded boughs, upon a stonework bridge spanning a tranquil little creek. Adjacent to bridge and water was our destination and we took a table jutting out above the waterway, nestled among the dappled greenery. Table and chairs were a lovely, natural wood, the cutlery reassuringly heavy. A candle and improvised holder stood proudly upon our eating surface, extinguished in the face of such strident sunlight, mercifully prevented from glowering upon us the worst of its power by the protection of so many mighty trees. Briefly, I wondered when the last time had been that the candle was aflame, whether a young lover had played idly with the dripping wax, captivated by the flickering life burning it from above. The location was enchanted; the food and drink, delicious. The brewery-cum-restaurant exists in a small town, a little inland from the coast. The settlement was quiet, sleepy almost and yet, the atmosphere, the ambiance, it seemed so contented. My soul is glad to know such places and we journeyed on our bellies full, our spirits light.
The best of the trip was yet to come. Our brewery visits concluded, we headed back to the coast and route one. The sun had begun its downward trajectory by the time we were running alongside the ocean swell once more. The road opened out ahead of us, bending, contorting, snaking its way over hill, down dale, round gigantic cliff-faces, lapped at frequently by the cold, boisterous waters. Sometimes fences crowded in upon the opposite side, my side; sometimes pastureland lay beyond, sometimes dark, brooding trees, their shafts occasionally straight, other times as warped as the road upon which we travelled. We drove now with larger periods of silence, the girls sleeping contentedly in the back seats. Day turned to dusk and still we drove on.
The sun was dipping down perilously close to the watery horizon by the time we finally came upon Big Sur, a small coastal community that has been immortalized in the writings of beat poet Jack Kerouac. The scenery around this small outpost is reputed to be some of the finest anywhere on the North American western coast and it had been a wish of everyone in the car that we arrive here while daylight still shone. The girls awoke, as if on cue, and we pulled over to watch the sun set in earnest. The car park was located some fifty meters above the shore, occupying a narrow crest of land jutting out from the cliff. At its back stood a gentler slope, rising upward away from a small coppice. The views up and down the coast were incredible, the road occasionally made visible where a motoring car had already switched on its headlights. The sun sank lower into the surf, which hissed and spat at the shoreline, the scene engrossing and relaxing at the same time to one stood high above, impervious to such brute natural force. The coastline, the towering cliffs above, the vast ocean before us, all opened up at this calm before the storm of darkness. The vistas were breath-taking indeed, the sights and sounds and smells providing a balm for the mind, for the very senses themselves. In this time, when the day turns to night and the Earth is readying itself for the transition, I have often observed how a tranquil peace seems to fall upon the land, a restful repose that adds beauty and lustre to an already magnificent, awe-inspiring reel.
The glowing rays of the dying sun spread out along the coast, lighting upon a gathering body of mist to the south, in the direction from whence we had come. This mist lent a mysticism to the scene, to the whole experience; mist soon to be extinguished by the darkness of night, already threatened by the tell-tale deep blue that crept down the mountainside from above. The mysticism would continue beyond the light of the day, night bringing with it a renewed sense of excitement, the scene illuminated now by the flickering light of man-made machines. The sun departing now in earnest, we climbed back aboard our transport and made for that renewed excitement, for that tangible, fleeting, youthful mysticism wrapped within the shadows. The day had been long for everyone and San Francisco still lay some hours further to the north. I remained awake for the entire journey, inspired by the sights I witnessed and, towards the end, by the ever-exhilarating feel of driving through the night. Also, I enjoyed the company of our driver, Ahsan, and empathized with the dismay that can be brought by driving a car at night, exhaustion not far beyond the next bend, every passenger sound asleep.
We arrived in the downtown district of Palo Alto ("tall tree") at a little after ten o'clock that evening: the journey had at this point lasted a little over thirteen hours. Ahsan and the Belgian girls were due to continue on to the East Bay area of Oakland: I was grateful indeed that they had been happy to take this small detour to drop me and my things at my friend Abra's door. A joyful, street-side reunion concluded, I followed Abra to a small, handsome apartment, met some friends she has made during her time studying at Stanford and collapsed wearily into a chair to engage in food and conversation in equal measure. Beyond the tree-lined avenues outside, beyond the darkness crowding in at the window, San Francisco lay waiting to be discovered.
Best wishes to all!