Sur to Malibu, PART I: What’s Big Sur?

Touring the beautiful coast of California
Published August 22, 2009
PART I: What's Big Sur? PART II: Malibu canyons

I’ve lived in California for most of my life, but Big Sur might as well have been in Greece. In my twenty years of local residence, California’s central coast remained a mystery. Is Big Sur a city? A region? A frame of mind? I intended to discover en route to a group ride arranged by my future mother-in-law in the Santa Monica mountain canyons surrounding Malibu, more than four hundred miles south of home in San Francisco.

In the days leading up to the trip, I still hadn’t pinned down a route. I knew for certain only that I wanted to ride through Big Sur. On the way down or the ride home? Unsure. All the way on Highway 1 or just a quick grazing of the coast? Who knows. The route I really wanted would take more than ten hours, tracing Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo, and I feared a time paucity panic reminiscent of the first day of my Seattle trip. US 101 would usher me to my destination in half the time and seemed the logical option.

August 7, 2009

Logic is overrated. With all the providence of a hormone-gorged adolescent on prom night, I picked the long way.

In an insincere display of prudence, I took inland freeway south until Santa Cruz. To bridge my path to the coast, I had to take Highway 17. The 17 is a bit nutty, which suits its destination. For a freeway, it’s crazy twisty, narrow and teeth-gritting quick. And traffic isn’t light. Around one sweeping right-hander at 55 mph, brake lights bulged red as cars squeezed left past a stalled big rig in the right lane. Fortunately that was the last of 17’s drama. As Highway 1 came into view, the sky opened, wide and blue, sun still rubbing its eyes open in the early morning.

Between Santa Cruz and Monterey, CA-1 bears a modest and sedate line through sprawling farm lands. Countless produce stands dot the road side and advertise enticing prices for fruits and veggies that shame grocery store impostors. If only my saddlebags had room to spare. And refrigeration.

Curiously, it wasn’t until Monterey that I caught my first clear view of the ocean. Just a skip further south and I was in Carmel, which from the highway doesn’t impress with poshness the way its obnoxiously uppity full name suggests. Signs insist it’s Carmel-by-the-Sea, which I hope to never hear uttered aloud. Still, I dared pull over for gas and coffee in the Highlands and fired off a couple of text messages to my treasured fiance, just to brag about my vacation while she was trapped at work.

I got back to Highway 1, still not sure what constitutes Big Sur. But just a few minutes south of the Carmel Highlands, I got a clue. In an instant, the coast transforms. Hillsides steeply plummet into the brilliantly blue sea with innumerable craggy islands too small to stand on giving the effect of a sprawling global landscape miniaturized and condensed, presented as God might see the world.

Views wax more and more epic, the sheer cliff faces appearing as barriers to Rivendell, with tastefully sculpted, arched bridges spanning rocky divides and completing the Lord of the Rings motif. The road’s bends form a stage for riding heroics; weaving in and out of the hillside, cutting inland before sharply winging back toward the bony cliffs, Highway 1 through Big Sur is choice tarmac.

A shame it draws so many tourists. I don’t mind sharing, but the road was often hogged by long lines of inconsiderate lallygaggers. I don’t demand slow drivers pull over the moment they see me itching to get by, but bypassing a series of perfectly suitable turnouts is infuriating. “Don’t make me be rude,” I thought out loud in my helmet, “Don’t make me act uncivilized.” Another ignored turnout? Sorry clown, enjoy my high beam. I’m usually quite prudent in my passes, always waiting for legal opportunities, but double yellow painted lines lose their meaning when painfully slow Tour America Winnebagos stubbornly disgrace roads like that.

Hours flipped by like a Hollywood montage dubbed in Spanish (I tend to sing and think to myself in Spanish when I ride long distance). Before I’d tired of the world-in-a-bowl scenery of the Big Sur coastline–as if I could–Highway 1 dumped me onto the southern end of US 101. I spent seven hours riding to San Luis Obispo, a distance saner routes could cover in three. But there’s no doubt the Big Sur excursion merited the time suck.

Another three hours of US 101 separated me from my destination, so I hustled. There’s nothing unpleasant about the freeway, but without the distractions of Tolkien vistas and RV circumnavigation, time dragged. Fuel neared empty as I approached Santa Barbara, and I wanted to make a stop in the fair city to see if it’s as beautiful inside as its veneer. But I rolled into town at the peak of rush hour traffic, which clogs the city of 100,000’s only major asphalt artery. Instead of stopping to enjoy a minute of the stunning seaside city, I spent the next half hour splitting narrow halls between crawling cages, my eyes furiously scanning motor body language five seconds ahead.

Lane splitting is mentally exhausting after just a couple of minutes, so I was properly frazzled by the time I reached Ventura. I exited the freeway and gave the bike its last drink of gasoline before reeling in the last miles of the 101 freeway.