Driving 101

Learning to Drive on California’s Coastline

A lot of people say they will, but a lot of people never do. It’s true though: seeing the world is good for you. (Browsing EarthPics on your commute doesn’t count.) Last year my girlfriend and I took a long-anticipated road trip south on the Californian coastline, learning a few lessons along the way about leaving things behind and taking it easy.

Laying back in Monterey.

Before we picked up our van, we worried and half-joked about the comforts we would forsake along the way. We shouldn’t have. One thing you become accustomed to quickly — mostly out of necessity — is how little you need to be comfortable on the road. A palatial private bathroom might have been more than welcome as we braved some of the more unforgiving public facilities, but it only takes a few paranoid days without a real wash to convince yourself that they probably can’t smell you from across the street.

A connection to the outside world is another habit to be jettisoned on the drive through most of Big Sur. Don’t fret. About an hour into the drive you realise that you’re cruising along one of the most coveted coastlines in the world and, actually, you wouldn’t share it with Instagram even if you did have phone signal. It looks better without the filter anyway.

And you know, when dinner is only a peanut butter sandwich washed down with a cold beer, it’ll be hard to feel hungry when you’re gazing at the Pacific Ocean and contemplating the road ahead.

Sleeping on Nacimiento Fergusson Road.

Other modern luxuries we left behind more deliberately, like a sat-nav device. Mostly an economic decision based on highly mathematical calculations (not buying a sat-nav = more money for fun stuff), this initially seemed like an error as we hurled our wayward bus around the streets of San Francisco like Steve McQueen.

Yet that decision presented some moments of accidental genius. If you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway, all you need to know is whether the ocean is on your left or your right to know where you’re headed. We had spent the weeks leading up to our road trip entrenched in forums figuring out how to make the most of the journey, overnight stops had — for the most part — been noted, and by virtue of necessity you pass all of the popular tourist spots as you make your way south. The lack of a sat-nav, however, can sometimes lead you to ask for directions, and direction-givers sometimes have excellent recommendations. Palo Colorado Road, for example, was an oddly serene tributary of Highway 1 that we hadn’t seen mentioned in any guide book — a labyrinthine route so thick with trees that you forget you’re on the edge of a continent. Later, Nacimiento Fergusson Road provided a sublime camping spot on the recommendation of a Ranger, even if the drive was a little precipitous in the dark.

Palo Colorado Road.

Road tripping becomes meditative after a certain mileage. The thing with getting anywhere in England or any other place with more than ten houses every hundred yards is that it’s so easy to get caught up in reaching the destination as early as physically possible. Overtaking. Speeding. Road rage. All are part of the highway code if you’re the one behind the wheel and you have somewhere you need to be. In Big Sur, where you’ve already thrown away your plans and you’ve got country music on the radio, you’re suddenly afforded the chance to see every new detail announce itself around every new corner.

When you’re taking it easy, the impulse to plan every detail of your day dissipates with every stop. Composing the perfect shot of Bixby bridge can take a while. Two hours on Pfeiffer Beach can become three or four. Sometimes, just for the pleasure of the drive, you can head aimlessly in no particular direction. In the opposite direction, if you so wish. It’s all good. So leave as much as you can behind you, but make sure to take your time. These are the truths of the road trip. You only need two seats, a steering wheel and forward momentum.