Monday 11 December 2017

California: The road to Mendocino

On the Pacific-hugging drive north from Carmel to San Francisco and counties beyond, Sara Wheeler found that Highway One tells a story as evocative as a Steinbeck novel

California's Big Sur
California's Big Sur

Sara Wheeler

'California," a failed writer once said, "is America, only more so." No novelist has conjured up the ambiguity of the Californian dream more effectively than John Steinbeck, and, on a road trip up the California coast, I made a pilgrimage to the Steinbeck home in Salinas, 90 miles from San Francisco.

The handsome Victorian buildings still standing on Main Street feature in many of his short stories, and the adjacent ranch country furnishes the backdrop to his novella 'Of Mice and Men'.

Steinbeck's lettuce fields are still there, alongside miles of artichokes -- 95pc of America's artichokes grow around nearby Castroville. They are so vital to Castroville that each year the town elects an Artichoke Queen. The first was crowned in 1948; her name was Marilyn Monroe.

Back on the road, the hills beyond Santa Cruz drew close to the coast, spliced with overgrown gulches and saltwater tidal creeks.

The sun had burned off the clouds, the wind had subsided and the ocean glittered an intense blue.

Not long after Davenport, the blink of Pigeon Point Lighthouse glanced off the water to the north. On this, among the foggiest coastlines in the world, clippers regularly foundered. The wreck rate rocketed during the gold rush.

Everyone knows stories of the desperado 49ers camped out among the mountain creeks, but it turns out that the Californian gold rush was also a significant maritime event. The railroad did not yet exist, and speculators poured in on ocean-going vessels, ramping up both shipping traffic and wrecks.

In 1853, Carrier Pigeon, five months out from Boston on her maiden voyage, sank on the rocks off Whale Point. All hands made it safely to shore. Overnight, locals rechristened the spot Pigeon Point.

Faced with mounting disasters, the Californian authorities erected 59 lighthouses up and down the coast. At 115ft, Pigeon Point, built in 1872, is the second tallest as well as the oldest still functioning.

The tower flashes every 10 seconds, just as it did when the 3.6-ton Fresnel lens was lit by a lamp fuelled by lard oil.

It is a wonderful headland, one of the best. One morning, a grey whale fluked beyond the lighthouse. Its spume dissolved into the dawn air, its polished back sank and the sun beamed rays of light on the beach. Eleven thousand years ago, Quiroshe hunters pursued grey whales in sealskin craft (the whales migrate between the Arctic and Baja California). Quiroshe were the first Americans.

Millennia came and went, and Portuguese shore whalers from the Azores settled around Pigeon Point. In 1862 they opened a whaling station and trading centre, which ran until there were hardly any whales left. The Portuguese became farmers, and in Pescadero their descendants mark the fiestas of the Azores year. Pescadero is a two-street, frame-house hamlet lying between the Pacific and old Redwood forest.

My road trip followed the fabled Highway One, the coastal über-route that shadows the Pacific from the canyons of Orange County to the grasslands of the Mendocino coast. Over that 660-mile oceanic unfurling, Highway One tells its own version of the California story.

At the wheel of a Toyota, I joined Highway One at Carmel-by-the-Sea, usually known as Carmel and familiar to Europeans as the former mayoral seat of Clint Eastwood. Carmel is an exclusive enclave of wide streets that fall precipitously to the ocean, of art galleries full of terrible art and of tricksy shops such as Jane Austen at Home, an emporium flogging faux-English furniture ("New in: Cath Kidston!").

An early-morning run along the fabulous white-sand beach yielded four men pounding along behind jogging buggies with wide sand tyres. At the back of the beach, live oaks whispered in the wind.

In these southern reaches, Highway One reveals the manicured exclusivity of screen satraps and technology titans. Nowhere is this truer than on 17-Mile Drive, a scenic loop north of Carmel with dramatic views over Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz mountains, as well as hundreds of acres of wild lupine, painted sea cup and buttery posies of Menzies' wallflower.

Monterey cypresses love the bare granite headlands of this stretch of coast, and the prevailing north-westerlies have twisted them into shapes that one-time resident Robert Louis Stevenson called "ghosts fleeing before the wind".

Nutrient-rich waters that well up from the depths of Carmel Canyon nurture undersea kelp forests and marine life that in turn fatten brown pelicans, cormorants, white-tailed kites and the loons that skitter over the shoreline when the sunlight dies.

But 17-Mile Drive, much touted by the tourist board, is spoiled by mansions of startling vulgarity, mostly painted hacienda yellow and servicing the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links (the 2010 US Open championship was held there).

Up to Monterey, once the capital of Spanish California (the first explorer named it after Spanish viceroy Count Monterrey), where Hispanic character lives on in the Mexican-American population as well as the architecture, from the Golden State Theatre downtown to the 18th-century San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo mission.

Following the bay out of town and across the Salinas river estuary, the highway rolls on to Santa Cruz and the beach where a pair of Hawaiian princes stood on the first American surfboards.

Like Monterey, homely Santa Cruz has none of the urban glamour of LA. The boardwalk, the municipal wharf and especially the funfair have changed little since the 1950s, an era that represents, I think, California's best -- at least in contrast with the bankruptcy of the current administration and the sclerotic effects of its constitution.

At the end of the wharf, I got a cone of calamari and chips at Stagnaro's ("founded 1937") and wolfed it down listening to California sea lions barking on the pier.

The San Francisco Bay area marks the middle of Highway One, as well as a shift in the route's character. Directly over the Golden Gate Bridge, north of the city and west of the cordillera, the road coils around Sausalito through Marin County, a landscape of art galleries, coffee shops and joggers -- pure 1980s California.

The eucalyptus were shedding and their smell infused the car. But then, after a thin spreading of low-rise, poorer settlements, all evidence of humanity vanished and Point Reyes National Seashore blazed away across Drakes Bay.

Here's the seismic nature of the Californian landscape: rolls and rolls of once-liquid rock. My map revealed that this small region is called the San Andreas Fault Zone.

Californian surf performed for 100 miles without a single surfer -- the water is too cold and the current too powerful. Besides, the northern Californian Pacific is studded with a particular kind of pinnacled rocky extrusion 100 feet or two offshore. Inland, cattle and sheep spread themselves over the northern chaparral.

Later in the morning, villages appeared in the lee of Signal Ridge, tiny communities farming land that's watered by the rivers that pour off the coastal ranges.

Around Gualala Point, a collarless golden retriever wandered out into the highway. He was far from home, so I loaded him into the back seat (he quickly relocated to the front seat) and drove him to the Anchor Bay General Store. A friendly cashier tied him up outside and promised to search for his owner.

I went on my way, aiming for Russian Gulch by nightfall, watching hawks fly low over the calla lilies.

Ten minutes later, I switched on the radio and heard the presenter appealing for the dog's owner to come forward -- with a peroration on the follies of not collaring your pet. These are small, close communities, many in flight from the urban agglomerations of other Californias.

Like all the best road trips, this one is not difficult -- you just follow green triangles marked "California 1". On my last day, I bought blueberries and Alaskan salmon in the Westport General Store and ate them by the disused railway of a logging mill. A pair of black oystercatchers hopped on and off the rotted lumber, their long red beaks jabbing the soft wooden grooves.

From the 1850s, immigrants built private railways up and down this coast to ferry timber on the first leg of its journey to foreign markets. Many of the loggers were Swedish, some were Lithuanian.

California remains the most culturally diverse state in the nation as it always was, on account of its indigenous cultures. In this northern coastal zone alone, Tolowa, Yurok and Wiyot hunted and fished, as did Mattole, Kato, Yuki, Pomo and coastal Miwok.

In the morning mists, one might see the ghostly outlines of their craft, spectral recriminations of what we did.

The northern half of Highway One is a lonely road. I passed two cars one day. Here is California as it really is, without the imprint of the Spaniard, the whaler, the gold digger or any of the 100 other incoming groups that have formed the character of the Golden State.

Yet this surf-beaten coast was what the pioneers saw first -- the landscape that launched the Californian dream.

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