It’s sometime after lunch when we pull off to the side of the road for what must be our fifth stop at least since setting out that morning. Gravel bumps under our tires as we crunch to a halt, the highway turnout dropping off into rugged cliffside next to our passenger side doors. We step out into the crisp March sunlight and make our way over to the makeshift vegetable stand: two folding tables under a wide umbrella — a familiar and welcome sight. This casual setup off the side of the PCH just north of Santa Cruz is the only place I know of where you can get five avocados for 99 cents, and it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of what I love about Highway 1.
California’s Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH for short), is a winding route that hugs the coastline from Mendocino County down to Orange County. It is, in my opinion, the ultimate way to traverse the state north to south or vice versa. The many road trips I’ve taken up and down this route, whether just hopping down to Carmel or going all the way to LA, have fed my enduring love for it.
There is something remarkably freeing about choosing the PCH over other, more direct interstate freeways. Although you might occasionally find yourself behind slow-moving cars on segments of the single-lane road, especially as people ahead slow down to admire the surreal, postcard beauty of the Bixby Creek Bridge or McWay Falls, the delay is well worth it. After all, what other highway inspires you to swerve to the edge and climb out of your car so can you gawk at the expansive Pacific Ocean beating against rocks far below? On what other highway can you do this ten times in one day without feeling even a whisper of monotony?
The PCH has taken me many places from my home in San Francisco, and, cliché though it may be, these travels have always been more focused on the drive itself than the final destination. You don’t take Highway 1 because you’re in a rush to get somewhere; you take Highway 1 because you want to spend time with the route itself. It’s thanks to this active choice to take the long way that I’ve been able to savor time in new places and revisit old favorites. It’s memories of spontaneity like running through waist-high grass on coastal bluffs near San Luis Obispo and climbing down steep cliffs in Big Sur that lead me to say, PCH, I love you.
I love the way you make me feel. Small, grounded, liberated. I love the sights you’ve presented to me that have demonstrated the awe-provoking power and elegance of the natural world. I love you because you show me why I love the people I choose to travel with.
On a trip taken on you I looked over at the boy driving me in his beaten up stick-shift and first knew real romantic love. It was on another trip that my perspective shifted, as I caught glimpses of my parent’s personal histories and was reminded of the passions they’ve had and the lives they’ve lived outside of just being my parents.
This Valentine’s Day, while convenience stores around the world make a small fortune selling boxed chocolates and hallmark cards, I’ll be thinking of you, PCH, and the love that I’ll always have for taking the long way.
Contact Cecilia Atkins at catkins ‘at’ stanford.edu.