Most roads are designed as the quickest route between two points, cutting as close to a straight path as geography will allow. The Pacific Coast Highway makes no such efforts, preferring to stick close to its curvy namesake. In fact, it winds around so much with the odd-shaped bays of Malibu that, if you time it right, you can actually see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean.
But this makes perfect sense for the PCH, as those who drive it, for the most part, do so not to save time, but to enjoy it.
In Los Angeles, this conscientious drive, for most, is a choice. Or, as we say here in these parts, it’s mindful. People who drive up the coast from Santa Monica go specifically to be on the road. Because when you live in L.A., the idea that you live in one of the best parts of the world can get lost in the day-to-day routine. The PCH is a drivable mindset where, no matter what else is going on with you — no matter how longing the city makes you feel, difficult it is to feel defined here, or accomplished or part of the whole — you can head west, throw the window down, feel the ocean breeze, and declare confidently that nothing could be better.
My own relationship with the stretch of PCH from Santa Monica up to Ventura dates back to the ’70s — maybe earlier if you count the fact that my parents met there. But this was also the road to my grandparents. The road I took when I left home for college. The road that my first child and I escaped to on weekends. The road I took after my mother died.
If you begin it properly, you enter from atop the cliff in Santa Monica — though you can certainly do it from the freeway, too, passing through a harrowing, right-leaning tunnel that opens up at the Santa Monica Pier. But I prefer to drop in, surf style, from the California Incline.
The walking bridge you pass under here creates a dramatic archway offering a proper entrance to the highway. There are a few more bridges along the way to open road, and each one scrapes off another layer of whatever it was that might have been troubling you.
Suddenly, there you are, humming along with the windows down. It comes rushing in, the air, with its large mix of salt, but also in it the wind-spun mix of beach, crab shells, fresh towels and coconut oil. Gasoline, beer and sandy magazines. In my old car, maybe a tinge of worn out bushings and half a plastic Coke bottle, drizzled with motor oil. All of this hangs in the air with the particles of the Los Angeles coast, featuring notes from my favorite songs, movie clippings and book passages.
There are certain elements of this stretch of land that seem almost basic to its composition. A kind of L.A. PCH DNA. There will be a massive rock. There will be a van and guaranteed a person will be changing out of, or into, a wetsuit. There will be a place that serves fish. A seaside home that will have you projecting your own life into it.
What would that be like?
I think I would enjoy it.
The drive is not short, like life is not short when you’re living it well — and you’ll eventually be glad to find a place to turn off and explore before driving on. Carved into the coastline, some fairytale beach where you can walk around and just be. Where will you be? Big Rock? Latigo? El Matador? There’s actually a beach called Heavens.
They say it’s the journey not the destination. And when they say that, the best possible version of that journey would be this drive. Because for one stretch of land, perhaps only for this stretch of land — it’s both. A place you would fight your whole life to end up endlessly driving on.
I could think of worse definitions of Heaven.