California Coast Redux

I was driving around the West Coast aimlessly in February of 2011. It was chillier than I hoped it would be, but I bundled up. I’d been thinking about California’s Highway 1 longingly ever since I drove down it in 2007 and I’d been hoping to replay the visuals I’d stored with such care in my quick-draw, long-term memory. I didn’t get far along Highway 1 before I was asked to turn back – the roads were flooding from the pooling of the incessant rain. When I was driving around the coastal roads of Oregon and California in 2007, I was driving south toward the launching city for my summer tour and sleeping in my van. In retrospect, I think I was trying to recreate that experience in 2011.

%Gallery-187004%I hadn’t booked any hotel rooms and wasn’t planning on it. I told my husband we could just sleep in the Chevy HHR we’d rented. So I bought some $15 throws at a Walgreens in San Francisco and we drove without destination. When we got too tired of our wandering, we pulled over and put the seats down in the back. Sleeping was difficult. It was much colder in February than it had been in June of 2007. I had a mattress on a lofted bed in the van back then. I had sheets, comforters, and pillows. And yet here I was, four years older with none of those things. My husband and I shivered through the night a few times before deciding that we should find alternative accommodations for my birthday, which was one day away.

We booked two nights at a place called Vichy Springs Resort that boasted naturally carbonated warm springs. Vichy springs is located in Ukiah, California, which now seems like a sleepy dream of a town. The naturally carbonated and warm springs are relatively rare. Vichy Springs is purportedly one of only two locations that offers both in North America. The place is 157 years old and calls 700 acres of land home. The springs were used by the Native American Pomo tribes for thousands of years. Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant all once spent time in the Vichy waters.

We drove the winding roads from the Pacific inland toward Ukiah, stopping every so often to photograph the mountains in the distance. It was night by the time we arrived and far too cold to even consider being outdoors with a swimsuit on, no matter how warm the springs. I was a year older by morning and sitting in warm spring water for the first time in my life. I volleyed between the pool and the baths, where the carbonated water from the faucets came straight from underground. My husband gifted me a massage and I dozed off in peace as the knots from sleeping on folded car seats for days were kneaded away. We left refreshed and early the next morning for Sacramento, from where we would return the car and find our flight back to Austin. As I was looking out of the window of the plane as it ascended over the lush hills of California, I wondered why I would have expected an old plot to unfold before old scenery when in fact, the scene had changed and so had I.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward and Ben Britz]

Highway 1 in photos

My first drive down Highway 1, properly called State Route 1, was during the summer of 2007. My two best friends and I constructed a loft bed in our van and we took off driving down the coast… from the tip of Oregon and, eventually, down to San Diego. Images from the trip, in my mind and in my photo albums, have regularly sent me into a west coast reverie. Now that my most recent birthday is fresh under my belt, I think I spent the celebratory weekend well: driving up Highway 1 this time.

I didn’t get to go far, but the picturesque drive is one for the savoring, no matter how short. So I savored what I could get. My first attempt at driving up the Highway 1 was cut short because of flooding. When I approached the highway the second time, I nervously drove my uninsured rented car through a foot or two of moving water and I crossed my fingers, hoping that’d be the last of the flooding. And, for the most part, it was. And then I spent a day driving up the coast, trying to keep my eyes on the road.
For the sixth day in a row, incessant rain had been predicted. But the sun came instead of the rain that day and photographer Ben Britz and I drove. And we stopped to take photos. And we continued driving and stopping until the sun went down. Here are some of the photos from the trip.


Photos by Ben Britz

Holiday trip? Consider rail travel

Unlike Europe and Japan, the United States isn’t known for its high-tech, efficient rail travel. Which is a shame because, as I recently discovered, taking Amtrak is sometimes a better way to travel this big country of ours, and generally speaking, it has a lower carbon footprint per passenger than driving or flying.

You definitely need to have time to spare for long distance trips, although with the epic waits at some airport security checks, you may well come out ahead on shorter routes. Amtrak offers a lot of promotions and deals on its website, and children two to 15 ride half-price. The train can also be more fun for kids, and help save the sanity of parents who dread the airport schlep and subsequent whine-fest.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I’d sometimes take the train from Berkeley to my brother’s place in Truckee, in North Lake Tahoe. Given that it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive in perfect weather, assuming you leave at the crack of dawn to avoid traffic, the five-hour rail journey isn’t a bad idea for a winter trip. Note: Depending upon route, make sure your trip doesn’t have a connection by bus, which can considerably lengthen your trip and detract from your comfort. That said, I’ve ridden Amtrak’s motorcoaches in the past and found them pretty nice. They’re a far cry from the filthy, stinking, hell-on-wheels that is Greyhound, and at least there are increasingly excellent options on the East Coast for short-distance bus travel.

Still, I’d never done an overnight on Amtrak, mainly because I hate to take 17 hours to travel somewhere that’s a two-hour flight away. But on a recent trip from Chicago to Washington DC, the train was running $85/o/w for a coach seat. At the time, even with the additional cost of a sleeper, it was cheaper than airfare, so I went for it.

The only part of the Midwest I’d visited prior to Chicago was Wisconsin, so the train also provided a great way for me to see a new part of the country. And it would be relaxing…a mini-vacation, if you will, where I could escape traffic and the electronic leashes of Blackberry and computer (Amtrak’s AcelaExpress commuter trains are currently the only ones equipped with Wifi).

The Capitol Limited route took me from Chicago’s bustling downtown Union Station, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Getting a ticket is as simple as booking online, which I recommend doing in advance if possible, although you can also purchase them at the station from an agent or kiosk, and over the phone or your mobile device. Long distance routes have various sleeping options, ranging from one-to-two person roomettes to bedroom suites that accomodate four adults. For future reference, I suggest you book at least a month ahead on the more popular routes, to ensure you get a sleeper. I selected a 3’x6″ x 6’x6″ “Superliner Roomette ($128 additional fee, including meals).” The Superliner is a double-decker; the roomette a private cabin with sliding doors and curtains, windows spanning the length of the compartment, climate control, a garment rack, fold-down table, and two very comfortable reclining seats that fold into upper and lower berths. Unlike the single-level Viewliner car roomettes, there is no sink or toilet.

Compared to the airport, the train is a stress-free snap. Arrive at station, print out ticket, go to private waiting room, check bag, read, eat free snacks. When it’s time to board, you’re led to the correct platform, and you climb aboard. Tip: If you’ve got a lot of luggage or a really heavy bag, get some assistance. Trains are a lot longer than you’d think, and my back was giving me the metaphorical finger by the time I staggered to my car, lugging my corpse-size duffel.

The friendly conductor showed me to my cozy roomette on the second floor. There was a clean bathroom just steps away, as well as a coffee/water/juice station (included with fare). The shower was downstairs; I was expecting the worst, but it was clean, the water hot and plentiful.

The sightseer lounge cars have huge windows and tables, so I spent the first couple of hours watching the sun set over Indiana. FYI, some routes, like the West’s Coast’s Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and Amtrak Cascades, and the California Zephyr in the Rockies, are justly famous for their scenery. Amtrak also provides a stop-by-stop guide for its routes, so you can learn the historical and cultural significance of each.

As for dinner, I’m pretty sure I harbor a repressed childhood trauma from an airline chicken breast, because while I think nothing of eating dog, goat testicles, or witchetty grubs (or, probably, human flesh), I can’t deal with meals produced for mass transit. So I bypassed the dining car, because it just smelled unappetizing, and the plates of food didn’t look much better. Instead, I brought my own travel picnic with me. To do otherwise in a city with dining and grocery options as fantastic as Chicago’s would be a shame..

What I really love about Amtrak is the fact that it lets me enjoy transit for transit’s sake, which is something I don’t often experience domestically (probably because I’m always flying or driving). Like riding the bus in foreign countries (my favorite way to travel, and inevitably a fascinating cultural immersion), the train allowed me to just zone out. I had the time and privacy to read, doze, think, daydream, and watch the world go by. At 9pm, the conductor came to turn down my bed. I slid between the sheets, and watched the starry Midwestern night slip by. The rhythm of the rails lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, I sipped my coffee and marveled at the brilliant fall foliage in Maryland and West Virginia. I arrived at DC’s centrally-located Union Station feeling far more relaxed (and free of neck-kinks) than any flight has ever left me. Thanks, Amtrak. rriving

Photo of the Day (6/11/07)

Sorry, couldn’t help myself: I took this a couple of days ago on the California coastline, below Big Sur, off Hwy 1. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful stretches of road–and coastline–in the world.