(Touring) Stateside: California's Central Coast
California's Central Coast
It's the day before Christmas Eve here in California, which is sort of like Christmas Eve itself Down Under. Boxing Day isn't recognised in the US, so the two-day holiday includes Christmas Eve day, making this the last working day before the Christmas break. I'm taking two weeks' vacation and started it last Friday night.
Saturday morning I set off on a road trip with a friend at the wheel, down Highway 101 through the Salinas Valley and across HIghway 46 to the small seaside town of Cambria for the night. Next morning we went on a tour of Hearst Castle and on up the Coast Highway (No. 1) to Monterey. There we visited the aquarium, then came on back to the Bay Area.
You may have seen the area around Cambria and Highway 46 on the news yesterday because a 6.5 earthquake hit in the vicinity and some old brick buildings collapsed in a nearby town, killing two people. At the time of the quake, we were watching an a/v show about jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but the quake was felt even there, a couple of hundred miles from the epicentre.
**You who are on the road**
I'm so used to train trips that I don't know what to tell you about road trips that's useful if you're visiting! But one thing that surprised me was that there are no service areas off the motorway like you find in the UK, for example, where you can pull over for fuel, food and a rest stop. The area that 101 goes through is highly populated for the most part, so you have to take an exit and go into a town or city. Now I know why gas stations have their logo on such high poles - how the hell else would you find them?
We stopped at a Denny's for breakfast in one such place on 101, which takes you from San Francisco down through San Jose, Gilroy (the Garlic Capital of the World), and across the fertile plain surrounding the Salinas River. Before getting to the plains, however, the countryside is rolling hills - now pasture, but once forests of live oak.
"Live oak" is the species name, but it may soon need to be changed. All the remaining live oaks - an evergreen with spiky leaves, almost like a small holly leaf - were dead, their brown leaves still on the branches. The disease is called Sudden Oak Death and is highly contagious. A parasite lays its eggs in the tubes that the tree uses to bring water up from the roots and the tree just dehydrates right there in the ground.
**Mission San Miguel Archangel**
I got to see such a tree close up in the cemetery attached to the Mission at San Miguel, which is just before the 46 turnoff for the coast. More than 2,000 Indians are buried in unmarked graves there, but their names are recorded in the mission's book of burials. The cemetery is next to the church, which still holds services. Above the altar is a painting of the All-Seeing Eye of God, beneath which all the formal stuff happens, and halfway along one wall is a painting of the Virgin, beneath which all the heartfelt stuff happens, like prayers for the sick and troubled.
The missions between San Diego in the south and Solano in the north of California came about because the Spanish were worried about the Russian fur-trappers and whalers coming down from the north in the 1760s. As my trusty encyclopedia says: "The California missions, restored with varying regard for historical accuracy, still remain - beautiful and complex emblems of a once-dominant Spanish presence."
The missions weren't much of a success and in 1833 Mexico secularised them and gave the attached land to former army personnel. Vast ranches were created, and it was to a combination of this Spanish elite, Mexican soldiers, and a dwindling native population that the westward-bound pioneers arrived in the days before California claimed statehood. The land on which Hearst Castle stands was part of one such ranch.
In 1865, George Hearst - who'd made his first mining fortune by discovering the Comstock silver lode - bought 400,000 acres of ranchland, later inherited by his only son, media mogul William Randolph Hearst, in 1919. Up on La Cuesta Encantada - The Enchanted Hill (R) - Hearst and the architect and civil engineer Julia Morgan created an ever-changing homage to what he'd seen first as a ten-year-old boy, travelling with his mother, Phoebe, who'd been a teacher and became a benefactress of the University of California.
William Randolph realised that his heirs weren't interested in keeping up the spirit of the place, so to speak, so the castle and its attendant buildings was offered to the university, but they figured it would be more of a burden than a boon, in terms of the cost of its upkeep. It is now the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, the one state park in California that pays its own way from admission fees alone.
A visit to the castle is an expedition. You drive up to a carpark by the visitors centre, where you can buy or pick up previously ordered tickets for your choice of four different tours. As first-time visitors we got tickets for the recommended Experience Tour, and waited till our bus was ready to fill up and take us into the hills to the castle's 1760 foot elevation, where our tour guides were waiting. There is one tour guide to do the talking, and another to escort you to a restroom should you need one and to bring up the rear so that tour groups don't get mixed up together. There are also plenty of security guards.
Forget all you've heard about William Randolph Hearst, our guide said. He wasn't eccentric and he cared deeply about ordinary people, despite the immense wealth he inherited and the influence his media empire wielded. In the dining room, for example, the guide took care to explain that the blueware table setting - common in most homes in the US at the time - and the tomato sauce bottles on the table aren't a joke. WR had them there so guests like the newspaper boys who sold the most papers felt at home and relaxed. Hearst wanted to hear what people had to say, not impress them into silence.
He didn't sit at the head of the table, but in the middle, and the long table was narrow so everyone could speak as easily to those opposite as to those beside them. The picture that emerges from the tour guide and from the National Geographic film about Hearst's life when we got back to the visitor centre is of a fun-loving kid who never quite grew up, and had wealth aplenty to allow him to thumb his nose at the stuffy East Coast Establishment. Would the Rockefellers have employed a woman architect, the tour guide asked?
One of the reasons Hearst employed Julia Morgan was that she was also a civil engineer so was able to supervise the building of Hearst Castle out of steel-reinforced concrete to withstand earthquakes. Had we visited exactly 24 hours later, we would have been in one of the tour parties that was evacuated yesterday. That earthquake was centred less than ten miles from the castle, which sustained no damage.
This is one of the great road trips in the US because it hugs the Pacific coastline and the views are spectacular. Just past Hearst Castle we stopped at bluffs up above a beach where elephant seals were basking in the winter sun. This is the time of year the females give birth, but we saw only one youngster. A couple of males got it in their heads to drag themselves into some other male's territory causing a bit of head-rearing and barking, but mostly they were all just lying around scratching and throwing sand on their backs to stay cool. (World leaders, please take note!)
There are a lot of state parks and a few national parks along this coastal highway, and for the most part it is a long way between towns. Some of it is the Big Sur coast, a name olde hippies will recognise, along with that of the Esalen Institute, which is still going strong selling expensive courses in brainwave alteration for spiritual progress and the like. Most of the settlements are inhabited by artists and writers, so you can do your wallet some serious damage if you venture out of the car to stretch your legs and look in a gift shop.
As you get further north the coastal flora starts to include - you guessed it - Monterey pines, but the iconic tree of the city of Monterey itself is a lone cypress. The Monterey Cyress occurs naturally only in a small area, from Cypress Point to Point Lobos. Monterey is most famous, though, for its aquarium and for being the setting of John Steinbeck's book, Cannery Row.
We arrived in the city just after sunset and went to the aquarium first thing in the morning. It is a very popular place for families with young kids, not just because the exhbibits are so wondrous but because there are special hands-on and play areas that are themed to do with the aquarium's collections. We happened to be there at feeding time in the kelp forest, but if you miss that it's no big deal unless you especially like to see fish swarming.
There's also a neat little place where you can look at the sea otters swim underwater and at the same time see on a TV monitor what they're doing up on the rocks beside their pool if they're up there instead. The sea otter rehabilitation program is one of the great disaster stories of marine mammal rescue. They become so patterned on humans that if they're released back into the wild they don't behave appropriately, so now they're often as not put down as rehabilitated.
But the aquarium is dedicated to making people aware of the wonders of the sea and the value of using, for example, sustainable fishing practices. It even publishes a little card you can take with you when you go out dining to help you choose menu items that aren't being overfished or caught using methods like trawling the sea floor. I particularly liked that the audio-visual presentation we saw was given by a real human being, so you could ask questions.
The aquarium is down on Cannery Row, which is now so touristicated that John Steinbeck, I'm sure, would turn in his grave. But heck, would I have gone there if it wasn't?
Merry Christmas, everyone, and may Peace on Earth be somehow trawled from the deep doodie we humans find ourselves in!