Trail of Dreams
The invitation was to a party on the Santa Monica pier in honor of Route 66. When the day came, I wanted to go. Every year the party was a good one, and I knew that this one, like the others, would properly revere America’s holiest of highways. One of my favorite bands, the Insect Surfers, was playing. I could visit a 1962 Thunderbird convertible, my favorite car. And, of course, what’s a pier party without food on a stick? But I broke with tradition and headed north, past the party. I confess, I had another date. It was a date with my other lover, the one that takes over where Route 66 runs out of steam. I refer to the Pacific Coast Highway. I telepathically sent my regrets and headed down the California Incline, which, as inclines go, is surely as good as they get.
It was not easy to make this choice. Like many Americans, I have not only gotten a few kicks on Route 66, but also have had a life-long attachment to it. John Steinbeck understood this relationship well. In “Grapes of Wrath” he wrote, “Sixty-six is the path of the people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from a thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership.... They come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. Sixty-six is the mother road, the road of flight.”
I knew I was going home when I took my first road trip west across Route 66 in college. At the time, my actual address as on Fifth Avenue in New York City. At first, I felt a little thrill when I wrote the return address on letters back to my point of origin in Ohio. But after a while, the reality of that particular thoroughfare fueled only my surface dreams. Like Calamity Jane, Johnny Carson, the Doors and a host of others who populated my fantasies, I belonged on the far side of the Rockies, and Route 66 carried me there. For the last 15 years I have lived at its end. And there the love affair has come to completion. Although I do not officially make my home on the Pacific Coast Highway, it is where I can be found whenever I feel the need to drive. Remember Maria, the tragic Joan Didion heroine of “Play It As It Lays”? She took to the freeways to forget why she was here, and later, after the narcosis of driving had set in, “she slept and did not dream.” I guess that makes me the anti-Maria. Because sometimes I forget why I came here, and when that happens, I take advantage of the national birthright and hit the road, to imagine myself all over again, to remember.
The 45-degree angle (at least that’s what it feels like) of the California incline is a quick tease of things to come. An easy glide below the rocky palisades of Santa Monica, a pedal-to-the-metal merge with traffic, a lane change like an eel, and I’m part of a sea-level airstream that breathes life into the land’s end that Route 66 filled up and abandoned.
The PCH loves me like Route 66 never could. It provides escape from what was supposed to have been the last flight. And it does so in the most generous of ways. On one side, it protects me: The mountains are a barrier against the world to the east, the world of obligations, rules and Wolf Blitzer, the world that makes me forget why I live in California. “Don’t worry, baby,” it says, “They can’t get here from there.” But just to hedge its bets, PCH offers Plan B: complete freedom. It’s not threatened if I stop for a drink of water, take to the sea — that’s why it’s built right next to it. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” it says. “I would never want you to feel trapped. After all, this is California. Pull over. Ride a wave. Read a book. I’m not going anywhere. Well, actually, I’m going up and down the coast, and back again. But, basically, I’ll be right here.”
I’m in the far left lane and starting to breathe easy now, slower. I can see the horizon, but just barely. I’m not really out of the woods until I pass Gladstone’s and the imprisoned crusteaceans — not my idea of the Holy Land. So long, frat-house drink specials, I think as the eatery fades into the past and out of my rearview mirror, and that’s when I really start to feel good. I’m slipping into lightness now, and the exhilarating wrinkle of American time-space where creation myths are formed. Elvis cruised this very path, or so the storytellers have said, on his way to the Self-Realization Fellowship (and, boy, did he realize himself!). James Dean cruised it on his way to immortality. Marilyn cruised it on her way to trysts that may or may not have happened with one or both of the Kennedy brothers at Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica pad... would these icons have lived forever had the Pacific Coast Highway not run through their lives, not carried them away from and back to themselves?
I begin to remember myself, and I conjure my past. I have had my own share of affairs on this roadway of romance; they have begun here, ended here, and they have been my most memorable, especially the one that involved secret meetings at a certain lifeguard tower in Laguna Beach. It was with a gypsy, a gypsy of the water. He traveled the globe, following the light and the waves, returning in the spring like the swallows at San Juan Capistrano. The PCH was about as far inland as he ever went while in California, able to flourish most successfully at water’s edge. This section of the PCH — south from Long Beach through Counties Orange and northern San Diego — differs in a subtle way from the blacktop that runs through Malibu: I have never had a celebrity sighting as I traverse these lanes, nor do I feel as if I am anywhere near the fame factory. Otherwise the feelings I have when the asphalt carries me through Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Corona del Mar, Laguna, then down to San Clemente are as when I travel to points north: embraced on either side by the most sensitive of terrain, of lovers, and at the same time a participant in a civics lesson that life is good, today is the first day of the rest of my life, and not only that but I am having a nice day.
Of course there are gypsies up and down the PCH, and now I’m at Surfrider Beach, across from the retreat of Father Juniper Serra, one of SoCal’s non-baseball-playing Padres. He thought the Chumash Indians should wear more clothes, and is probably spinning in his crypt as his old sanctuary swarms with those who ride the waves of the ancient Chumash fishing grounds. They’re right here, at the edge of land and sea, in the state between mammal and fish, putting on wetsuits as they turn amphibian. The sun flashes across their bellies as they hoist up the neoprene, and I get a quick, distilled image of California Faulkner-style, like the old man of the long sentence did when a flash of a girl’s panties under her dress up in a tree revealed to him all of Yoknapatawpa County — right here, right now, at the PCH, waiting. Here is proof that California is not, or is, depending on your point of view, some wild idea cooked up by real estate agents. Then the surfers zip up and paddle out for waves, and I ride my wave for the next station of the cross: “Malibu,” the sign says, “27 miles of scenic beauty,” and right away I think of the litany of what’s next — Paradise Cove, Zuma Beach, El Matador, La Piedra, El Pescador, Point Mugu — and I am lost again in the arms of the PCH. To see it is one thing. To drive it, another. To see it and drive it — my mother didn’t know prophetic she was when she said, “Now you’re cooking with gas.”
Even before it was paved, Pacific Coast Highway was the favored route of searchers. The California Indians who were part of the first migrations from the north and east traveled this path for hundreds of years; then came the Spanish, then the gringos, and their desire to make the path last forever. But the air and sea along this coast are also part of the path; whales ply the north-south lanes in the waters immediately parallel, presenting themselves for a viewing each spring, and butterflies mark the skies, stopping every fall at Broad Beach.
A while ago, a portion of pavement in Nevada was renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway because it is the location of numerous UFO sightings. California has the Ronald Reagan Freeway and Gerald Ford Drive. A study reports that Americans have become commemoration-crazy, no doubt a result of a perpetual attempt to patch together our ever-changing narrative. It seems to me that it’s time to set aside a portion of the PCH. Let’s call it the Trail of Dreams, and let’s have a party. I’ll bring the food on a stick; you bring the band. And if the Coast Highway is ever washed away by the winter rains, at least we’ll know what was once there, at least we’ll be able to dream and remember.
Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Aug. 9, 1998.