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April 22nd, 2012

The Great California Road Trip

I'm a native and lifelong Californian with a serious affection for my native state. California fascinates me - historically, demographically, naturally, architecturally. It's bigger than some countries, and yet contains so many cultures and so many different landscapes.

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Today I returned home to Los Angeles from visiting my dad and stepmother in Santa Clara, near San Jose (about an hour south of San Francisco). Last week I'd driven up via the long and interminably dull stretch of the 5 freeway, which places a premium on speed over scenery, but I opted to return down the slower but far more visually interesting Highway 101, the historic El Camino Real, which takes a traveler past Monterey and through Salinas (John Steinbeck country), through small farming towns and lovely verdant hills, and on through San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara before turning inland and heading through the SoCal metrosprawl's outer fringes and into the heart of my home.

As I traveled the 101 today, I occasionally snapped a photo with my digital camera out the window. If these photos seem slightly blurry, my apologies - but that's bound to happen when a picture is snapped from a moving vehicle traveling at 75 miles per hour.

Just south of San Jose, the first of the farm country sets in: Gilroy, where the fields you can glimpse in this photo are probably planted with the area's famed garlic crops:


A little farther on, houses have become even scarcer, and grapes and orchards replace the lower crops, as we enter the Monterey wine country:


Although my heart will always belong to Southern California, there's no denying the simple beauty of the green hills of the northern part of the state, studded with the occasional spreading tree:


The weather was just right for driving with the windows down, and the panoply of smells was amazing: Tangy sage, the briny sea, the rich odor of fertilizer...and one of my favorite scents, eucalyptus. I've driven through this eucalyptus grove just outside Monterey before, and I'm always fascinated by it. Why is it there? Who planted it? Of course I could google this and undoubtedly find the answer, but I'd rather imagine my own, thank you.


As I came down from the hills and rounded a curve heading toward the Monterey shore, the weather began to change. I could see the low overcast waiting for me just ahead:


Past Monterey, the 101 heads inland again, and the gray skies reverted to their former blue. At one point, the rolling farmlands off to the east of the freeway were suddenly replaced by a surreal landscape of literally hundreds of oil derricks, most looking old and rusted, but still toiling away to bring the precious stuff to the surface. Oil? Out here in the middle of farmland?!


Near San Luis Obispo - about the halfway point of my trip - I passed the famed Madonna Inn, an architectural oddity I must stop at one day. If you don't know about the Madonna Inn, check out the crazy rooms at this joint. Hmmm...the Caveman? The Tack Room? I love the idea that in the middle of California is this decorator's ode to America the Melting Pot.


And then there are the not-famous curiosities to be glimpsed along the way. Is this a turreted castle nestled in among the hillside brush to the east of the freeway?

Past San Luis Obispo and her delightful architectural specimens, the road once again heads out to the shoreline as it approaches Santa Barbara. The overcast reappeared, but this time it was low-lying enough to shroud the hills ahead:


After Santa Barbara, the 101 continues to hug the coastline for a few more miles before turning inland at Ventura. And because this marks the gateway to the L.A. sprawl, the traffic abruptly stopped and it took me over an hour to make the final forty miles...but what the hell, it was traffic in L.A.

It felt like home to me.