This will be the last entry from the Writing About Place archives. This piece was written in December 2012 about a trip I took to see the ocean in 2002.
Pacific Highway One
I was well past twenty years old and had never seen the ocean. Growing up in Minnesota, in the heart of the Midwest, I had traveled some, but never to see the ocean. I had been to North and South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and even Texas. Not to the gulf coast of Texas, but Texas nonetheless. But, I had yet to see the ocean, and the ocean was something that I very much wanted to see. One day, I got it in my head that it was time, and started planning. I would drive, alone, from Minnesota to Virginia, and see the mighty Atlantic Ocean in all of its fury. Then, I would turn around and head west. Drive straight through from one coast to the other, just stopping to eat and sleep. That would be how I would first see the ocean.
At least, that’s the way I had planned it. My mother was worried that driving such a distance by myself wouldn’t be safe, and there wasn’t anyone I could talk into coming with me. I really had wanted to do this on my own, a rite of passage of sorts on the road to find my independence. I probably would have gone ahead by myself, but then Mom offered to bankroll the trip and come along, with the conditions that we stop to visit my uncle and only visit one ocean. I had the best intentions of saving money, but it always ended up slipping through my fingers. Short on cash, I begrudgingly agreed.
We had driven into California on interstate 40, which merged into I-15, and then we finally reached I-10, also known as the San Bernadino Freeway. The widest freeway I had previously driven was a total of eight lanes wide; this one was ten, and it was all stop and go. It was a Saturday afternoon. Where was everyone going? They couldn’t all be headed to the beach, could they? When we finally arrived, I changed into my swimming attire, and headed out onto the sand.
The ocean was both like and unlike what I was expecting. Having grown up in Minnesota, visiting the north shore of Lake Superior was not an uncommon event for me, and since the size of that lake made it impossible to see all the way across it, I figured that an even bigger body of water would have a likewise infinite expanse to it. The major difference here was that not only did the water go on forever, but the shore seemed to reach endlessly in both directions as well. Then there were the waves. Superior sometimes had waves, but they were nothing like this. Never ending rows upon rows of relentless water crashing upon the sand. And then the smell hit me. It was like a warm, dry day suddenly turned hot and humid, only all of the moisture in the air carried the aroma of wet salt along with it.
I swam in the ocean that day, carrying myself out as far as I could walk, and then diving into the waves. Once I was past the whitecaps, I thought it would get easier, but then it seemed as if there wasn’t any progress at all. I was fighting against the ocean, and only the ocean could win. It was relentless. It never tired. It was just there, not caring that I was trying to fight it. It would conquer me without even trying, and I was in awe of it. I played in the surf for a while longer. Some folks had boogie boards, and I thought that those might be fun, but they would have to wait. This was just my first taste of the ocean, and it was time to press on.
Another difference between the ocean and any lake I had ever swam in was once again the salt. Usually, after a swim, I feel clean and refreshed. After being in the ocean, I was coated with a salty film, and completely worn out from fighting the waves. Fortunately, there were showers available to rinse off the muck. There was a line of people waiting to use the showers, but it moved quickly and before I knew it, I was taking my turn at rinsing the film of salt that the sea had left behind.
As we left the beach behind and started driving north up California State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, I rested my aching muscles and looked out once again at the endless blue sea meeting the ever blue sky out upon the distant horizon. There were still a couple of hours of daylight left, and we wanted to find a hotel north of Los Angeles, so we began to look for vacancy signs as we were driving along. Unfortunately, there was some kind of exposition being held, and there wasn’t anything open for miles.
We drove on and tried a few places. There was one hotel that had a single room. My mother would have taken the bed, and they offered to throw up a cot for me to sleep on, but it was a smoking room, and Mom wanted to try and find someplace else.
“We should have taken it,” I said. “There might not be anywhere else, and it’s getting late.”
“I know,” Mom said. “But there still might be somewhere a little further from town.” So we drove until it was dark, and then we drove some more, but that was the only open room we had found. We finally ended up finding a dark corner in a parking lot, setting the seats back, and trying to get a few hours of sleep in the car.
I woke up in the car, already driving down the road. It was still dark.
“Why are we driving?” I asked.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Mom replied. “So I figured we might as well get going.”
“Maybe we should stop and eat,” I suggested. “We can’t see anything in the dark anyway.”
We drove around until we found an IHOP. International House of Pancakes. I’d never heard of them before, but Mom said they were a famous chain. I ordered the raspberry pancakes because I like raspberries, and why would you order anything but pancakes at the International House of Pancakes. While the raspberries were good and tart, the pancakes weren’t anything to write home about; I probably should have gotten them plain with maple syrup.
It was light out by the time we were finished, so once we left the restaurant, we got back on good old Pacific Highway One and started driving north again. We drove for a little while, and before too long, we saw what looked like a giant rock coming up out of the ocean. It was Morro Rock, and we were at Morro Bay, in San Luis Obispo county.
“This place looks nice,” I said. “Maybe we should stop here.”
“Stop for the night?” Mom asked. “It’s hardly noon.”
“I know, but then I could sit and enjoy the ocean, and you could take a nap.”
“I suppose,” she said. “Are there any hotels nearby?”
“Yeah,” I said. “They still might all be filled up, but we can give it a try.” We found a nearby hotel, and Mom went in to enquire about a room.
“Don’t pay more than eighty dollars.” I said, as she got out of the car, knowing that she would ignore me. She returned a few minutes later with a key.
“They had one room because a reservation didn’t show up,” she said. “It was ninety dollars.”
“Well, that’s not too bad,” I replied. “And we are within walking distance of the ocean.”
“That’s what I thought too.” Mom paused a moment. “They said it was a non-smoking room, but that someone had smoked in it. They washed all the bedding, but there still might be an odor.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Even if it’s not perfect, it will be nice to stop and rest for most of the day.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She still sounded skeptical about the situation.
We carried our bags into the room, and lo and behold, it was the nicest room we had stayed in throughout our entire trip. Despite a faint smell of smoke, the room really was very nice. They even had a coin-op laundry down the hall, so I decided to head into town for some detergent, and told Mom she should take a nap.
There was a Target store in town, and it seemed strange to be wandering around a Target in California. It was exactly the same as it would have been in Minneapolis. I bought the laundry soap and headed back to the room. Mom was sleeping, so I started my laundry and walked down to the beach. I sat there for a couple of hours reading, and then went back to the room to find Mom awake and watching television.
“The ocean’s right outside and you’re watching television?” I asked.
“I was just waiting for you to come back,” she said. We then walked back down to the beach together.
We sat and read. I remember that Mom looked so happy then. The cares of last night and this morning washed away with a few hours sleep and the constant roar of the ocean upon the sand. The beach here was different than in Los Angeles. Lots of jagged rocks stuck out of the sand on the beach and in the water. Their rough surface was in stark contrast to the smooth feeling of the sand. I looked out again toward the horizon, amazed at how blue the ocean was, with the white caps of falling water that reached the shore with every wave.
We ate pizza that night. I could probably eat pizza every night, but there were so many different places to eat.
“You have to have an In-N-Out burger before we go home,” Mom suggested.
“When we get to San Francisco,” I said. “Tonight, it’s pizza.”
This was our last full day on the coast. Tomorrow we had to start driving home. There was a flyer at the hotel for Hearst Castle. It isn’t a real castle of course, but a giant mansion that was built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst. When we got to the castle grounds, there were options for three tours. I wanted to see the swimming pools and the library. All three tours included the swimming pools, but only one of them featured the libraries. It wasn’t the main tour, but we only had time for one, so that’s the one that we went on. The grounds were magnificent. Hearst Castle is five miles away from the ocean’s shore, but it sits high on a hilltop, and boasts palm trees and beautiful ocean views.
The outdoor pool was alive with marble statuary and impressive looking structures, including what looked like a miniature Parthenon. The main library was very impressive, with the room being fully furnished, including decorative rugs, and even a wood carved tile ceiling. The bookshelves all had locking glass cabinet doors that, according to the tour guide, Hearst added after one of his guests pocketed a rare first edition for his bedtime reading material. The second library featured a large meeting table, and a desk at which Hearst conducted his daily business.
Another area that the tour featured was Hearst’s personal bedroom. It was surrounded by windows, open to the elements, and featured quite the view. The indoor pool, in its own building, was underneath the tennis courts. It boasted more statuary and, excepting the entry area, was ten feet deep all around. What joy it would have been to wake up to that view of the ocean from Hearst’s private bedroom every morning, a view of freedom, and then spend time swimming laps in that pool. If only I were a famously rich media mogul.
After our visit to the castle, we headed north once again. We stopped to see a large group of elephant seals warming themselves on the sand. There were a couple that looked like they were fighting. I shot a few photos of them. Unfortunately, I didn’t really capture the effect of their movement, and the images just show the seals raising their heads up above their gargantuan bodies and throwing sand around the beach. Further up the coast, we ran into a lighthouse. We stopped to take a closer look, and found out that the lighthouse was also a hostel. I was tempted to find out if they had any room, dreaming of falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing upon the shore, but we pressed on, stopping one more time that day to watch the sun set over the Pacific.
There were clouds in the sky that evening, and the sun backlit the sky with a brilliant yellow that filled the horizon. Then, just for a moment, the sun came below the clouds, painting the sky red before it quickly sank into the ocean. We wouldn’t leave the coast until tomorrow. We would drive across the golden gate bridge in the morning fog, and have our obligatory In-N-Out burger. We would then drive back to Minnesota, across the mountains, and the great plains. But for me, that sunset marked my goodbye to the Pacific Ocean.
It had been three days of beauty and reverie, with a bit of real life thrown in for good measure. This wasn’t the first trip that I had taken with my mother, and it wouldn’t be the last. We eventually made our way to Virginia to meet the Atlantic Ocean. Driving south and then west again to Key West, Florida. Riding a boat even further west to the Dry Tortugas National Park. A small island out between the Gulf of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve even spent a couple of Thanksgivings on the Gulf Coast in Texas, a tradition in my brother-in-law’s family, where I finally got to try out one of those boogie boards; they are fun. But there was something powerfully serene about the Pacific. With a quiet strength, its waves endlessly struck the wild coast of California. I miss it, and still dream of its beauty.
Maybe I dream about the ocean because it reminds me of my search for independence. Looking for a balance in the relationship that I have with my parents has never been easy. When I was still a child, I thought that once I became an adult, I would no longer rely on my parents for anything. But in many ways, I lean on my parents more now than I ever did back then. In the ocean, I can still almost see the lost dreams of my youth, just beyond the endless horizon, waiting for me with every crash of water upon the sand.