by Hank Leukart
May 12, 2009
The highway of life transition
A travel guide to three Pacific Coast Highway road trips over seven years.
Crater Lake, in the Cascade Mountains in Southern Oregon, lies in a collapsed volcanic basin. (view all Crater Lake, Oregon photos)
EATTLE, Washington — Seven years ago, in 2002, my then-girlfriend and I decided it was time for us to live together in my Seattle apartment, and we took a Pacific Coast Highway road trip to move her lipstick red Saab from San Diego to Seattle.
Four years later, in 2006, I decided to leave my career in Seattle, and I asked my brother Brian, his girlfriend Beatrice, and my best friend Brad to join me on a road trip in my silver BMW to Los Angeles on Pacific Coast Highway.
Three years later, in 2009 (last week), my friend Erin decided to leave her job in Seattle, and I agreed to help her drive her purple Toyota on PCH to her new life in Southern California.
Pacific Coast Highway — actually a combination of US Route 101, California’s Highway 1, and Mexico Route 1 — takes travelers on a dramatic journey from the top of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California, traveling through diverse terrain, from temperate rain forest to arid desert.
But PCH is unique not because it simply facilitates North American latitudinal travel — lots of speedy highways through boring countryside make that possible. PCH is special because the people driving it aren’t there just to change locations; the road is too slow for that. PCH is the kind of highway people take when they need an unhurried transition to a new life.
In 2002, even as my girlfriend and I insisted that we were completely ready to leave San Diego, her always concerned parents insisted upon loading our car with additional healthy snacks and guidebooks. We humored them by excitedly chomping on carrot sticks as we prepared for a separation both symbolic and literal. After some emotional goodbyes, we set out toward the motion sickness-inducing stretch of PCH through Big Sur, California’s most beautiful section of coastline. Slowly but surely, we navigated the twists and turns of our first long road trip together, stopping at viewpoints to flirt while overlooking the ocean.
Meanwhile, in 2006, Brian, Brad, Beatrice, and I gathered on my Seattle condo’s deck for one last look at the Space Needle and a quick breakfast of chai and blueberry coffee cake. Terrified to leave an almost-perfect life that I loved just to try something new, I was thankful that my friends were there to take the trip with me. When I walked out of my home and locked the door behind me for the last time, I had an urge to simply make a quick run to the grocery store and then return home. Fortunately, my friends ushered me into the car, and with the strong feeling of having left something important behind, I drove with them out of the city.
After a quick stop at famous Powell’s Books in Portland, the four of us took a detour inland away from PCH to visit Crater Lake, Oregon, one of the purest and bluest mountain lakes in the world. We hiked on a ridge high above the crater, and though Beatrice repeatedly insisted she had seen bluer lakes in South America, Brian, Brad and I were floored by the overwhelming azure hue of the US’s deepest lake. Too high above the water to throw buzz-killing Beatrice into the crater, we stared into the sapphire abyss, hypnotized. Though the soothing vista helped calm anxieties about my future, I couldn’t help but think of the collapsed Mount Mazama volcano that lay just beneath the blue water, still sporadically discharging molten lava.
Eventually, we hiked back down, and after staying overnight at a tiny motel in Prospect, Oregon, we ate blueberry pancakes under stuffed bears and deer nailed to the walls of the rustic Prospect Cafe and Trophy Room (imagine the synergy!). We inspected the Oregon Keno game cards on our table, and we weren’t sure if our inability to understand them was due to our being too stupid or too smart. Seattle already felt far away.
Meanwhile, in 2009, I flew from my home in Los Angeles to Seattle to meet Erin and begin our road trip. After a bittersweet visit with my old friends and coworkers, I watched Erin say teary goodbyes to her best Seattle friends, as I had done with my friends only three years before.
When she finished, I wanted to take a look at the condo I still owned that I had left so reluctantly in 2006. I felt strangely surprised when my key unlocked the front door, and inside, I found everything eerily unchanged since the day I left. My photography lined the walls, my furniture filled the apartment, and the condo’s view of the city was as impressive as it was the day my friends and I had our final, lingering breakfast on the deck. The condo let me time travel to my old life. When Erin and I finally walked back out and I locked the front door, I again felt reluctant to leave. I half-hoped we were only taking a quick trip to the grocery store.
This time, though, I had to play the role of the encouraging friend designated to keep the trip on track. As we drove south toward Los Angeles, Erin looked back and said goodbye to her life in Seattle. Then, I too said goodbye, for the second time.
In the second essay in this three-part series, I travel over sand dunes and on a remote logging road on the way to a new life.
How to Take a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
- One of the most picturesque cities in the United States, Seattle is best seen from a kayak on Lake Union or Lake Washington and from the top of the Space Needle. Nearby Mount Rainier National Park offers beautiful hiking below the massive peak of Rainier.
- Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park have stunning beach hiking, temperate rain forests, and glacier-capped mountains. If you have time, do the three-day backpacking trip from Ozette to Rialto Beach.
- While passing through Portland, Oregon, visit famous Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world. You can also visit the beautiful and fragrant Portland Rose Garden and the Pittock Mansion, situated 1,000 feet above the city’s skyline.
- Crater Lake, though not on Pacific Coast Highway, is the deepest lake in the US and one of the bluest lakes in the world. Stay overnight in Prospect, Oregon and grab breakfast at the Prospect Cafe and Trophy Room.
- In the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in southern Oregon, you can stop and gaze at the dunes, go hiking, or even rent a dune buggy from Spinreel.
- Quaint beach towns Reedsport, Coos Bay, Bandon, Gold Beach, and Brookings dot the southern Oregon coast. Be sure to stop in a couple to enjoy beaches and local cuisine, such as the excellent seafood at Wild Rose Bistro in Bandon and the tasty pancakes at Mattie’s Pancake House in Brookings.
- In northern California, Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park provide lots of opportunity for hiking trips and seeing gorgeous, old-growth Redwood trees. If you only plan on driving through, it’s worth a detour on the remarkable Avenue of the Giants to see the trees from the comfort of your car. It’s here that you can drive through the base of a Redwood tree.
- Between these two parks in California’s Humboldt Country sits charming Eureka, a city that played a role in the California Gold Rush and lumber industry. It’s worth a stop at Carson Mansion in Eureka, a quintessential example of Queen Anne Style Architecture.
- San Francisco is a city too large to appreciate during a short road trip, but if you have some time, go see the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Union Square. The Dim Sum at Cold Mountain in Chinatown is notably authentic and tasty. Charming Palo Alto, home of Stanford, is also a fun stop. If you visit, don’t miss the pie at the Palo Alto Creamery.
- Visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to check out the oldest seaside amusement park on the West Coast and tons of hippie college students. There’s always a long line at Tacos Moreno, but the tacos are tasty and bona fide Mexican.
- See classic costal scenery with cypress trees in Monterey and on the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Peach.
- Big Sur is home to California’s most beautiful coastline. If you can handle the hairpin turns, the drive on Highway 1 through this area is a must. There is ample opportunity for excellent beach and forest hiking in Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Take a three-hour tour of the Point Sur Light Station for the engrossing view. If you want to stay overnight, the Big Sur Lodge has reasonably priced, isolated rooms with hiking, whale watching, and bird watching opportunities.
- San Simeon marks the south end of Big Sur, and it has plenty of viewpoints worth checking out. The San Simeon Pier on William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach is worth a photo. The Experience Tour at Hearst Castle will let you see the beautiful estate, though some tour guides are better than others.
- Take the beautiful drive on PCH through Malibu, and visit a beach there, such as Zuma Beach near Pepperdine University, which is a great place to sit and read or take a swim. The tuna melt at The Beachcomber on Malibu Pier is one of the best in Los Angeles and the restaurant is romantic to boot.