We spent the night in Flagstaff, AZ after leaving the Grand Canyon. At a shopping center across from our motel we bought a couple of things — I was overjoyed to have an eraser once again — and ate at the Crown Railroad Restaurant, a small place with pretty good food and very good prices. A little electric train, built in 19th-century diamond smokestack style, ran on a track around the top of the room as we ate.
This was the first time in five nights that our lodgings had a TV, but we couldn’t get it to work, so we went to sleep with no more idea than before of what was happening in the world. We had chosen this motel largely for its distance from the railroad tracks, and were rewarded by not hearing a single diesel horn during the night. (Steve and others had warned me that locomotive horns can be a major annoyance during a night in Flagstaff, which has many trains and many grade crossings, but few motels that are far enough away from them.)
Across the Green Mojave
The next morning we made pretty good time on I-40 across the rest of Arizona, and got to Needles, California, just across the state line, in time to look for lunch. We didn’t see anything inspiring at first, but when we were almost back on the interstate, we came to the California Kitchen, vibrant with the spirit of the late fifties or early sixties, where we got good sandwiches.
The Mojave desert begins just after Needles. We found it greener than we expected, perhaps a temporary effect of springtime. Smallish mountain ranges rose on either side of the highway, nice to look at, but not really photographable by the likes of us, so we just looked and drove on by. The morning temperature in Flagstaff (at 7,000 feet) had been 65° when we left. It got up to 88° in the desert, but that didn’t seem especially hot for May. When we reached the motel in Hesperia at 4:30, it was about 75° and there was a nice breeze. We were pleased to find that this room had a working TV so that we could get an update on the news.
Victorville is the next town of any size along I-15 after Barstow. When planning our trip I had failed to find a motel in Barstow that was any distance from the railroad tracks — which came straight from Flagstaff, so we figured there would be just as many trains going through at night — and we decided to drive another 35 miles to avoid the possibility of an all-night diesel horn concert. Hesperia is immediately south of Victorville, and our motel was about a block inside it. We ate dinner at Los Toritos, a pleasant, traditional Mexican restaurant with muy folklorico music playing in the background.
This was the end of our fourth week on the road. We had covered a bit more than 380 miles this day, and the odometer read 17,018 — a total of 5,027 miles so far.
Hitting the Left Coast
We started early (for us) at about 8:30 and drove east from Victorville through what remained of the desert. We saw a good many Joshua trees, including quite a few that looked mature. This was a big difference from the day before: in the “Mojave proper” all we had been able to see were babies, even though (according to Peter Farb’s The Face of North America) this plant is the signature of the Mojave Desert. As we got to the end of the desert and approached the mountains between us and the coast, we could see a lot of haze — most likely smog — drifting like clouds northwards from the direction of Los Angeles.
Lacking a major highway that didn’t angle south toward L.A., we picked our way westward from one small road to the next. There were a few mixups, but none very time-consuming. By the time we reached Ventura and merged onto the Ventura Freeway (US-101) north, it was clear that we’d allowed more time than we needed for this leg of the trip: it wasn’t even noon yet, and Lompoc, where we had a motel reservation, was only a short way ahead.
101 led past Santa Barbara, however, so we detoured into the city and drove along the beachfront to find lunch, soaking in the “well-tended garden” ambience that gives Santa Barbara a ritzy look in the style of the 1920s or 30s. We wound up at a little beachside restaurant near the marina. There we ate sandwiches and excellent fries at an outside table while watching the gulls, the few people on the beach, and of course the oil platforms offshore. The channel islands were dimly visible through haze or fog out on the water, but where we were sitting there was plenty of sun (and thankfully plenty of shade because of the beach umbrella over our table), and the air was nicely cool and breezy — which probably explained the paucity of sunbathers. Given the location, we didn’t expect lunch to be cheap, nor was it, but it was a delightful escape from driving and exactly what we wanted at the moment.
Back on the freeway, we continued north. Just before the turnoff for Lompoc, we stopped at a rest area where I found a vending machine selling the California-printed edition of the New York Times for a mere 50¢, even though the price of $1.00 is clearly printed on the front page.
We had considered using some of our extra time to drive farther north on 101 — which the AAA map had lined with “beauty dots” — and then backtrack to Lompoc. (We had also thought about trying to change our reservations to someplace farther north, but it was now too late to cancel the Lompoc reservation, and most other towns along the highway were more expensive anyhow.) Now that we had the Times to help us while away the time at the motel, however, we decided to take the first exit for Lompoc, as originally planned, and it turned out to be a beautiful drive — 20 miles of rolling California hills, gold-tan under dark green live oak trees, and nary a billboard nor a commercial establishment anywhere in sight. It's hard to imagine that 101, even with the blessing of the AAA, could have been prettier.
By midafternoon, we were in our motel in Lompoc and fully occupied with the news and the crossword puzzle. This happy state lasted until it was time for an early dinner, which we ate at a seafood place named “The Jetty.” The food was not quite an occasion for dancing in the streets, but it was good, the service was fast and friendly, and the price was reasonable. That evening we burned our sixth set of CDs, getting our Grand Canyon pictures put away before our long drive up the coast on the next day.
Above the Pacific on Route 1
The motel’s continental breakfast was fine, but they provided a laughably insufficient space to eat it in: a small room with six tiny circular tables and about 12 chairs. All were occupied when we arrived, and more people came in every minute. We found a seat only because two people who had finished their food got embarrassed and left with coffee still in hand. When we got to the same point we did as they had done.
Getting back to our room much sooner than we expected enabled Dorothea to answer a phone call from her friend Liz Maury, who said that she would meet us for lunch the next day in Merced. In our original plan for the trip, we were going to meet Liz — whose home is in Fresno — for dinner at the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park. As things turned out, however, her daughter, a member of the diplomatic corps currently stationed in Leipzig, was due to give birth not long before we came, and Liz needed to be there to provide motherly and grandmotherly support to Eleanore and the rest of her family. Liz had just now returned from Germany, and bravely allowed that she might be up to driving as far as Merced to meet us.
We followed California Rte 1 north from Lompoc over a few more miles of beautiful countryside (behind which lurked Vandenberg Air Force Base), and rejoined the coast and US-101 at Pismo Beach, where we stopped to buy gas at breathtaking California prices. The freeway wasn’t too frantic on a Saturday morning, and before long it swung inland to San Luis Obispo, where we followed Rte 1 when it diverged and headed back toward the coast. After Morro Beach we were on the two-lane part of the highway — one lane each way — that hugs the steep coast, winding around hills above the sea. We stopped in a couple of places to take pictures, including one beach where a crowd of harbor seals were enjoying the life of leisure, but most of the time we just grokked. Passing San Simeon, we caught a glimpse of W. R. Hearst’s mountaintop castle, but we knew there wasn’t time for a visit.
Between San Simeon and Big Sur, we acted on a tip from Liz and stopped for lunch at the Lucia Lodge. This was a delight — we sat on a narrow balcony looking far down at the blue sea, and above our heads, stuck into an outside corner of the porch roof, hung the round nest of a pair of cliff swallows. The waiter (who seemed quite caught up in the event) told us that they were tending a clutch of eggs inside. The nest, about the size of a grapefruit, was constructed of little mudballs. The female swallow stuck her head out of the semicircular entrance hole and watched us vigilantly whenever she was inside, which was most of the time we were sitting there.
The food was good — and as pricey as you’d expect in such a seller’s market, restaurants being quite scarce along this road. I had a cheeseburger and Dorothea a BLT; we both had fries, and in addition I drank a Dr. Pepper. The bill was somewhere between $20 and $30 (not a single sandwich on the menu going for less than $10.95), but the experience was worth it.
At about three, we got to the Point Lobos State Reserve just south of the Monterey Peninsula. Liz had suggested that we’d find more interesting scenery there than on the famous 17-mile drive through Carmel, and (though we didn’t make the comparison) we're sure she was right. Point Lobos is a beautiful place, where we spent an hour and a half wandering the seaside trails, looking at rocks, beaches, sea, wildflowers, cypress trees, harbor seals, cormorants, etc., and photographing all of the above. (Also, in the background of some pictures, we caught a few of the tony mansions overlooking the water from Carmel Highlands, in which community the reserve is located.)
We ignored the rest of the Carmel-Monterey area and headed straight for San Juan Bautista, where, at 5:45 or so, we ate an early dinner at a restaurant named Jardines de San Juan. We found the town crowded with people and seats inside the restaurant at a premium, but they offered us a table on the porch, where thanks to the lingering sunlight, an overhead heat lamp, and very efficient service we dined in comfort, surrounded by pots of flowers and cacti and attended by foraging grackles, while a magnificent rooster strutted with great dignity in the middle distance. While we were waiting for dinner, Dorothea snapped a picture of me seated in what appears to be solitary splendor at our table.
She pronounced her chicken enchilada excellent, and I had some of their chile verde, a dish quite different from the New Mexico version. It’s pork cooked in a mild green tomatillo sauce — delicious, as were the rice, refried beans, salsa, Dos Equis (I had just one), and especially the three corn tortillas that filled the role of bread.
Easterners like us tend to assume that tortillas have to be filled with something, but they don’t. Many Easterners also seem to prefer wheat (“flour”) tortillas to corn ones, which I think is a shame. The taste of those corn tortillas is what I think of as the essence of Mexican food. This has been true ever since, as a child, I first encountered that taste in (God help us) a can of Hormel tamales.
I ordered flan for dessert. Dorothea (a flan buff) abstained, but she tasted mine and said it was the best on the trip so far. Dinner cost only a few dollars more than lunch.
After dinner we went on to our motel in Gilroy. This was the first time we’d eaten before checking in, but Liz had advised us that Gilroy (despite calling itself the Garlic Capital of the World) has few notable eateries and that San Juan Bautista would be a better place to try. Since we came to San Juan first, we ate when we got there.
Although I had found Jardines de San Juan on the Web, we wouldn’t have been looking in that town at all except for Liz. So she deserves the credit for the three highlights of the day: Lucia Lodge, Point Lobos, and San Juan Bautista. That said, the rest of the day was pretty damn good too.
This section last updated 12-13-2004