We ripped out of the city going south, the sun in the east and the whole day lying in wait. That’s the way you always envision it, anyways. In reality we slept late and rented a car on a whim, an adorable small thing with a rollback roof, and spent thirty minutes navigating out of the city, red lights and green lights all the way through foggy West Portal neighborhoods over to the Great Highway, the Pacific glittering in the distance.
But after that we fucking ripped out of the city. Going south.
Our destination was loose that day. We had Pescadero on the brain, for one reason or another. Didn’t know what was there, just that it was, and that we’d never been. Mostly we were happy to be out of the city, and out of the city in each others company. That was the brunt of it, really. We mostly just liked being together. The activity was more of an afterthought the way that the type of mattress doesn’t matter when you’re exhausted and just need to lay down and pass out. That’s what I remember most about that day: the unadulterated bliss of spending unplanned time together.
Not even an hour out of the city, as we were passing through Half Moon Bay, we slammed by a red, double-decker bus parked off the road, something straight off the streets of Trafalgar Square.
“What… was that?”
It’s one of those moments of awe before action when your brain hasn’t finished processing what it just saw, but the conclusion is already felt, subconsciously. We turned into the next gravel pullout, spinning on a pencil point in our tiny two-seater. Two minutes back north and we were pulling into the parking lot of Cameron’s Inn.
Cameron’s Inn is the kind of campy roadside attraction that you find up and down the coast of California, all along Highway 1. Cheeky painted signs adorn nearly every surface of the inn, inside and out. A board by the entrance reads “Soup of the day is beer”. A large banner over the bar: “There are no strangers, only friends who haven’t met yet”. We sat at the bar, drank PBRs and ate a bean burger. It was barely lunchtime on a Saturday and we all but had the joint to ourselves.
If I’ve learned anything about car trips, or maybe just about living, it’s that the unplanned stops become the most frequently revisited memories.
Back on the road now. It’s a flawless day in northern California: sunny, cloudless, warm enough to keep you cozy and a steady breeze to keep you cool. For all the pining over New England that I do, I truly have come to love the weather on the West Coast. If southern California can claim Endless Summer then up here in the north we have something more like Eternal Spring. This is weather made for driving, and driving we were.
We turn off Highway 1 when the sign points towards Pescadero. This small town is a mile off the coast and screams to your rural sensibilities. Two blocks of a downtown replete with a general store, a handful of thrift and antique shops, and two all-day bar and restaurants.
We lazily explored on foot, quietly padding through an antique shop. She bought a sunhat, the kind with a pattern that reminds me of woven straw and a fabric ribbon tied around it. We walked down the middle of the street and bought cherry sodas to sip on.
There is a quiet simplicity in towns like Pescadero that make me long for another time or perhaps just a simpler way of living. It’s a tugging war, though. The thirst for new experiences and new people will patently not be quenched by small town life. Nor will metropolises allow for summer nights wandering through meadows, assaulted by the sight and sound of lightning bugs and crickets.
Further down Highway 1 was Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a 19th century structure reminiscent of summers spent in Maine or day-trips to beaches in Rhode Island as a kid. The tallest lighthouse on the West Coast. The horizon that afternoon was sheep’s wool white, fading to a powdery blue overhead. We stood on the cliffside scanning the skyline and you could almost imagine spotting a ship in the distance, the captain’s heliograph relaying a cheery hello in passing. We snapped some photos.
“I’ll pretend to wrap my arms around the lighthouse and you take a picture!”
“Ok, steady… hold… a little to your left… now a little toward me… move your arms up… now… just kidding, I was taking a video.”
For a hundred years Pigeon Point guided ships up and down the coast. Today the attached buildings function as a hostel. The light itself goes unlit, but it managed to guide us south on this day.
It was dusk as we bent left on Highway 1 and Santa Cruz lay out before us. As we drove through, the light of the boardwalk caught our eye and drew us in. Imagine our glee as we mounted the old wooden steps toward the boardwalk entrance even as hundreds of others walked against us, leaving. An amusement park of our own, if only for a half hour before close.
We rode the swings first. The gondola second, the creaks and squeaks of the old pulleys moving us from one side of the park to the other, our feet dangling 50 feet above it all. The sun had finished setting but we closed our eyes against the cool ocean breeze and basked in the smell; fried dough and the salty sea.
Sometimes when you forego an activity because you “don’t have very much time”, you’re fooling yourself. Tell me 30 minutes isn’t enough time to enjoy an amusement park and I’ll show you the faces of two adults smiling like idiots, walking down the Santa Cruz boardwalk with a fried Oreo and nowhere else to be. Time is malleable if not obsolete in the face of friendship and new experiences.
The evening winds down with Italian food. We sat outside, enjoying the type of warm summer night that rarely visits San Francisco. It’s 6pm, or maybe 9, but maybe 3am. The mother and her young son nearby are focused so intently on their phones you’d swear they were strangers sitting at the same table. We rolled our eyes and smiled at each other but kept quiet, because there’s nothing quite so blissful as being fully present and absolutely disinterested in distraction.
I drove our car back to the city while we listened to Ira Glass paint a picture with words. I don’t now recall much beyond parking the car, but our brains were tired and our smile lines creased to the day’s maximum. I imagine we no sooner unlocked the door to our apartment than we were immune to the noise and light of the city pulsing around us.
There are days and weekends like this that will be lodged in my memory for time immemorial. They are heartwarming reminders that very little is required to feel alive. A new place and the company of people we love is the oldest and truest recipe for fulfillment.