After Salvation Mountain, the next (and most gruelling) leg of our US road trip took us to Santa Barbara. I can’t remember how long we drove for, but I remember arriving at 9pm, in the dark. Driving across the top of LA took hours and we crawled along at a snail’s pace the whole way. We took rest in My Vegan Restaurant for some delicious orange “chicken” and re-fuelled on craft beer and fries when we arrived in one of the only places still serving food late.
Honestly, I had one of the strangest Airbnb experiences of my life in Santa Barbara. Accommodation is expensive but we found somewhere affordable – a shed that had been converted into a cosy, well decorated double room and bathroom. We shared the bathroom with the other guests on the property which gave James the giggles because the walls were thin and you could hear.. errr.. everything. Despite being home, the owner explicitly requested no contact with guests which was bizarre and made us feel unwelcome, like intruders into someone else’s space. When arriving I pulled into a drive at the wrong side of the house, and was verbally abused by a neighbour who was unsympathetic to my explanation that I had simply used the wrong drive by mistake. In my hurry to back out, I scratched up the rental car which made me feel anxious and frazzled for the rest of the night. This is the less glamorous side of a road trip, but all travel has its challenges! I was lucky to be with James, who is always able to lift my spirits.
My favourite part of Santa Barbara were the husky dogs that hung out on the patio (see photo above!) but we set off up the coast early in the morning, so I’m sure my experience has unfairly tarnished what could be a beautiful and welcoming town. The charmingly retro Pismo Beach was our next stop and my fretfulness washed away with the sea breeze. I was obsessed with the surfer dudes, long and wind-worn pier, pastel coloured wooden shop fronts and displays of old fashion candy. It is everything you could want from a sea side town.
Not wanting to miss Big Sur at sunset, we couldn’t linger at Pismo Beach. This highway – Route 101 – is not the quickest way to Northern California, but is by far the most beautiful. The single-lane road snakes around cliffs that tower above the Pacific Ocean. We took much advantage of the lookout spots and laybys, taking in the views and allowing the cars behind me to race on by whilst I took my sweet time. We meandered around each turn, James’ feet on the dashboard, listening to the Low Anthem as we peered down into the coves below. The sun takes hours to set, bathing the landscape with an increasing intensity of golden light. As the sun met the ocean, we found a secluded spot to savour a beer (a soda for me…) and watch the horizon set on fire. The coast at Big Sur is spectacular but I noticed, as a native Brit who grew up with the right to roam, how much of it is privately owned land. I relished the view from the car, but was itching to scramble down the cliffs and dip my toes in the water, put off by high fences and angry “private property” signs.
Our next destination was this beautiful cabin to just past the crest of Big Sur, close to Carmel and deep into the Redwood Forest. A lot of accommodation in America cautions that there are steps up to the house!! so I didn’t think much of the warnings of an uphill climb to the cabin. In fact, we had to fill a backpack with essentials, leave most of the luggage in the car and hike a long and steep trail to our little hut in the woods. Consequently, it felt incredibly secluded. If you sat out on the balcony at night, you could hear animals moving about the forest, rustling leaves and snapping twigs, without being able to see where they were! I was convinced I was going to be eaten by a bear. There was total darkness at night and we showered in the open air. We were woken by the sunshine streaming through the canopy at dawn and enjoyed our breakfast on the rocking chairs outside – a truly magical experience! I made friends, as usual, with the animals down the hill outside our Airbnb hosts’ cottage.
We spent a full day on the Carmel / Big Sur coast seeing all the sights. The waterfall above is McWay falls in Julia Pfeiffer State Burns National Park. The forest fires were still raging at the time we visited, so tourists were limited to the coastal area of the park. We chatted to a ranger who explained that the fire was set off by an illegal campfire and, tragically, a fireman had died fighting the flames. All the houses in the area had big “thank you firemen!” signs on the driveways. It must be terrifying knowing that your house is so vulnerable to the forces of nature. We also visited the Bixby Bridge and battled gale force winds at Pfeiffer Beach to see the purple sands, one of the few beaches in the area that the public are allowed to step foot on. James scrambled down the coast by the side of the Bixby Bridge and I heard a small child exclaim “look Mom, there’s an old man down there!” which made me chuckle. I felt like she had observed his soul, my old man of the sea.
I’ve been thinking of my US friends recently, given the terrible things happening in American politics. I find it difficult to read the news because everything seems to be going wrong, but the women’s marches over the world have given me hope for the future. I know America wasn’t a perfect place under Obama, but Trump is the worst downgrade possible. I am thinking of you.