“A journey is a person in itself. No two are alike. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” –John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
I awoke on Saturday morning with no butterflies. I was calm, prepared as I could be for our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) – and I knew being prepared meant accepting the unknowns. Who knew if our toddler son would pitch a fit in the backseat after seven hours in the car? I wouldn’t worry about it unless or until it happened. Who knew if I would get carsick along the winding, ragged coast? I stuffed a Ziplock baggie full of ginger chews and vitamin B suckers (a pregnant woman’s friend), threw the baggie in the backpack, decided not to worry about it.
So many unknowns. The getaway could be daunting, if I let it.
At the same time, weren’t the unknowns part of what made this trip so enticing? Seeing and experiencing new things?
We headed out, flying down the 91 freeway and taking detours toward Route 1 – anything to avoid the almost-always traffic-jammed I-5 through LA. The sailing was smooth. We hit the PCH just south of Malibu, and began the long and crooked jaunt up the Pacific Coast.
We talked about stereotypes, how the ritzy reputation of Malibu didn’t exactly line up with the scrimpy wood-and-metal apartments that lined the PCH and overlooked the ocean. We laughed at road signs – a fish restaurant advertising “Fried Nemo” for lunch, an ocean kayak rental company named Sea for Yourself. Will, our son, pointed out boats and airplanes from his throne in the backseat.
We planned to make it to Hearst Castle, the former grounds of wealthy newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, in time for a late afternoon tour.
We didn’t get there in time.
We were too busy taking it slow up the coast, pausing when the moments seemed right, catching a leisurely lunch at the Summerland Beach Café. At the castle’s visitor’s center, upon learning that the last tour of the day had already taken place, we shrugged, gave the Little Man another penny to toss into a glistening fountain. Then, we crossed the highway and moseyed along a pier that offered perhaps one of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the castle anywhere. Young lovers made out on the white sand below us. My husband and I giggled – it could have been us 10 years ago (or even now, sans toddler in tow …).
Another three miles up the road, we stopped at the Elephant Seal viewing area, and no kidding, enormous blobs of elephant seals – cackling, growling mammals – covered the stretch of beach. We laughed at their noises. Couldn’t help it. A volunteer patrolled the walkway to answer questions. We lingered with her, asking questions every few minutes. Will laughed with us and held onto the hood of his windbreaker tight.
Further up the road was the place we would stay that first night – The Ragged Point Inn. We checked into the quaint room with a king-sized bed and private balcony that overlooked the ocean. We grabbed a bachelor-like cheap dinner at the mini mart (breakfast burritos, soup, Chef Boyardee), and arrived back at the room in time to watch the sun set over the ocean.
“The sun looks like it’s just burning a hole in the ground,” my husband remarked as the last neon orange rays sank below the horizon. Flower petals on the lawn below us were the only remnants of a wedding that had taken place on the property earlier that day. We all slept together on the king-sized bed, our son scrunched between us in hot and contented sleep.
The next morning, I awoke renewed and excited. I lay in the big bed thinking about life stories and how everyone’s experience on this globe is so different. What was the story of the Ragged Point Inn? The couple who was married here less than 24 hours ago? When was the Summerland Beach Café opened? And somewhere, knit into all of that, we certainly had our own story to tell – a Wyoming girl and an Indiana boy making their living as foreigners in California for a short time, now high up on the Pacific Coast experiencing the state in all its blazing glory.
I could go on about all of the trip’s highlights: the awe-striking beauty and mystery of the Big Sur, waterfalls that plummet to the ocean, bunches of migrant workers still hard at fruit and vegetable picking in Steinbeck’s own town of Salinas.
But I really don’t mean for this to be a travelogue. Here, I suppose, is my point:
Before we left, I had a long conversation with my mom about how I don’t enjoy or simply focus on “the journey” enough. I am too wrapped up in accomplishment, in achieving an end result to often appreciate the small blessed moments along the way.
As I look back on our own trip, I can’t help but view it through the lens of that old cliché: Life is not about the destination; it’s about the journey. We never made it to Hearst Castle. But we saw gaggles of elephant seals splayed out for yards and yards along the beach. We didn’t explore much of Monterey Bay or make it to their world-class aquarium. But we saw some of the most breathtaking views of our lives from high up on the craggy ledge of the Pacific Coast. We didn’t dip our feet in the ocean, but we felt the cold spray of forest waterfalls on our faces – the result of stopping at roadside pullouts and exploring dirt ribbons of trail.
I returned home feeling rejuvenated and, I will admit, a teensy bit proud of myself. Finally, I felt like I had given the journey – and not just the destination – the attention it was worth. Moment by moment up that long jagged highway, and even flying back down the Interstate toward home, I knew I was truly living.
“I like to sit in coffee shops and pass for a native,” Garrison Keilor, the radio personality behind A Prairie Home Companion recently said in an interview with the New York Times. “And so I’ve missed out on the Louvre, the Acropolis, the Roman catacombs, the Lincoln Memorial, because I didn’t want to be taken for a tourist … You set out lumbering down medieval streets, wander impulsively and let yourself get lost and stop for lunch and wander further. When you’re tired of being lost, you hail a cab. That’s a day well spent.”
How will you spend YOUR day?