Travel Diaries: California, the Scenic Route

My 9-week road trip had largely been uneventful, until the end. None of the things I worried about had happened.

My car didn’t break down or run out of gas. I wasn’t stranded in the middle of nowhere at night (or by day). I didn’t have to drive in heavy snow–this was a real concern driving through Utah, Wyoming and Colorado in early May. It snowed in Utah right before I got there and melted during my two-day stopover. It also snowed in Wyoming as I was driving through, but the road crews did an excellent job of keeping the roads passable.

What I hadn’t bargained for, especially at the end of my trip, was that I would have to sleep in my car. A friend was supposed to set me up with nice accommodations near Big Sur so I could rest and recuperate after the 9-week, 12,000-mile journey. But those plans fell through, as plans sometimes do.

I had already had a 3-day itinerary for the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I wanted to take it slow and make the most of exploring that scenic route, especially because I had never taken the PCH from San Francisco. I didn’t have the money for 3 nights of hotel or even motel stays. So I decided to stick with my plan and just spend those 3 nights in my car. I mean, how hard could it be? I was optimistic.

The first day was actually really fun. I started my big tour in San Francisco, spending some time exploring the ritzy seaside town of Tiburon. I took off for Pebble Beach and the 17-mile drive after that. The foggy marine layer moved inland from the sea, making it almost impossible to see the real beauty of the drive. Just so you know, the 17-mile drive is always foggy in summer, so it’s probably better to visit in the cooler seasons.

Driving down the PCH, I was elated that the sea accompanied me with every mile. I stopped when something captured my attention enough for me to want to photograph it. Big Sur, with its massive cliffs dropping off into the ocean on one side, and its dense forests on the other side of the road, was one of the most memorable drives I’ve ever been on.

Over the course of 3 days, I slowly made my way through Santa Cruz, Carmel, Big Sur, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, the Santa Ynez Valley, with its high mountains and wine country, Santa Barbara, and finally back into the Los Angeles area.

I spent the first night at a truck stop and barely got any sleep. 18-wheelers were arriving and leaving throughout the night, and I didn’t get any decent rest. I couldn’t take a shower in the morning because the showers weren’t working, so I settled for a French bath instead–and this proved to be the only kind of shower I could expect to get over the remaining couple of days.

I spent the 2nd night in the parking lot of a mid-priced hotel, hoping that no one would notice me and ask me to drive away. I had to crack my windows just a bit each night so they wouldn’t fog up. Which meant that every little noise woke me up. Besides, the street lights in the parking lot were so bright that it was hard to sleep with all that glare.

The third night was my most peaceful one. I found a tinny tiny park in a residential neighborhood and parked between a couple of cars. It was sufficiently dark and quiet for me to get 6 solid hours of sleep. The first night I had spread my sleeping bag in my back seat and slept in it; however, it was too cramped back there. So for the remaining two nights, I reclined my front passenger seat and used my sleeping bag as a blanket.

Being homeless for three days was quite challenging and eye-opening. It made me appreciate bedtime and morning rituals I’ve always taken for granted. I had to stop drinking liquids early enough in the evening so I wouldn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night wanting to go to the bathroom. There was no bathroom to go to, except at the truck stop. I also had to have my dinner early enough so I could find a relatively clean bathroom to brush my teeth in before bedtime. The germaphobe in me died a thousand deaths over those days. Each morning, I found a restaurant or other facility whose bathroom I could use for my morning ablutions, completing a purchase of some kind to justify my visit.

That trip down the California coast made me appreciate just how hard it is to be homeless, and how resourceful one must be under such circumstances. Although I really enjoyed the scenery and exploring new places by day, I was ready to be done with by the third night. I arrived in Los Angeles bone tired, ready to sleep for days, dreaming of a real bed and a hot bath. It took several months for the exhaustion to wear off, and everything seemed incredibly mundane and anticlimactic for weeks. I kept asking myself, “What now, after such an epic, momentous journey?” There was no way I could go back to the way things used to be. I had changed.

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