July 12, 2009

A day on CA1 : A day of madness


There were some ambiguity on the July 4th weekend on whether Qualcomm is giving the Friday as holiday or the Monday. I hate confusion. So I took both days off. That decision gifted me with one complete day to make the return trip from Sunnyvale to San Diego. Almost every long weekend I visited Sunnyvale to see my friends Samik and Anish. Each time I traveled on the rather uninteresting I5 highway in order to make it within eight hours. Also each time I traveled at night to save a day. Driving alone at night for eight hours is not the easiest of the things I have done, but repeatedly I had to prove myself that I could do it. But this time I had one complete day to make the return trip. I chose my long desired route - the beautiful California 1 coastal highway!

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Over the weekend I finished a fascinating trip of northern California with my four friends - Samik, Ananya, Anish and Shalini. We visited the beautiful coastal town called Mendocino, enjoyed World's Largest Salmon BBQ festival (Yummy!) etc etc.. But that story later..

Monday morning, when Ananya and Samik left for office (I was staying with them), I was doing my packing. Packing is a very important part of any trip. It is never waste of time to put some extra thinking behind what all things will be required to be easily accessible during the trip versus the things I will need later. Also, it is important to keep some stuffs for emergency conditions. These are more important for me since a lot of time I travel alone. I kept my still camera, video camera separate. Filled a big bottle with water. Stole some biscuits from Ananya's stock. Made sure my first-aid kit is packed. Dumped the bigger bag in the trunk and the hand bag on the passenger seat for easy access and started my Honda Accord. It was a very modest start to what was otherwise going to be a remarkable day!

I was running low on gas. So first I went to the nearest gas station and did tank full. Then I started on the historic El Camino Real (In English it means the Royal Road). This road goes through the heart of this Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Mountain View area. On and off, this road is visible in various parts of California. I heard this is a very old and long road. Now it exists only in parts as you go from north to south of the state. I heard stories that in days when there were no cars, people used to walk from southern California to San Francisco over this road. In between there were churches built to shelter traveling people. Those churches were named after saints. Like San Diego, Santa Ana, San Jose etc. They are big cities now. Not sure whether the stories are true, but I love to believe.

After some left-right turns in no time I was on highway 17, on the way to Santa Cruz. Highway 17 was built in 1940, few years after the depression. I found it to be a very scenic highway with lots of sudden speed changes and surprising sharp turns. It was fun to drive on. But no wonder this highway accounts for large number of accidents and fatalities every year. With a careful driving session, I reached Santa Cruz by 9:30 morning. Santa Cruz is the place where highway 17 meets CA1. It was easy to find the exit to CA1 south. I was excited. First time in my life I was driving on my dream road. California 1.

The initial impression did not quite go with the reputation. This road is supposed to be one of the most scenic and adventurous highways of the World! But at Santa Cruz it was just like any other state highway, busy and little unruly. I took an exit to Santa Cruz town and finished my breakfast.

Around 10 am I started the second phase of my journey. I was already dreaming of the road twisting on the hills with pacific on one side. But I knew I had to wait for some more time. For about half an hour I drove through very usual and plain American terrains. CA1 runs couple of miles away from the sea in this area. First time it kissed the pacific at Moss Landing where I saw a yacht yard with couple of small sail boats and catamarans parked. Recently I discovered a hidden interest in myself for sailing and my heart beats when I see these boats.


A few minutes later I was driving by the sea side. Just before entering the beautiful Monterey town I saw the exit to highway 218. I was not going to take it. Not this time. But this goes to the famous Laguna Seca tracks where MotoGP happens every year. I am planning to visit next year MotoGP. I also have a desire of riding my motorcycle on this track, sometime!

Monterey is a beautiful beautiful town by the sea. Looked to be a perfect vacation place for spending some days doing water adventures. From top of a hill, from the highway, I saw thousands of people enjoying boat riding, yachting, sailing in the Monterey bay. The saturated blue color of the bay vanished in the horizon. I pulled my car out of the road and enjoyed this beauty for few minutes. I could not afford more.

Few miles after Monterey, I was driving right beside the sea. CA1 has already taken the form it is famous for.

The Pacific Coastal Highway

On my right hand side, the dark blue color of the Pacific waters softly melted with the light blue sky. Creating a very vague horizon line. On my left there was this mountainous elevation covered with dark green grass. The grass bed was spotted with bright yellow color unknown flowers, giving it the look of an enormous Kashmiri Pashmina. The road itself was at some height from the ocean level. That meant I had a very far reaching horizon line and a large section of my visual canvas was colored with blue.

It is truly an inexplicable beauty. One has to be there to feel it. I am adding few photos here to do little justice to what I saw.

I drove miles after miles savoring this god's gift. It was becoming hard to keep eyes focused on the sharp turns of CA1. But that was part of the fun too. From the other side, motorcycle gangs were passing by me very frequently. Hundreds of motorcyclists take this route every day. This is one of the best routes to ride Motorcycle in America. The unique fact is, generally when you talk of best motorcycle routes, you talk of one or two hour long roads. But CA1 is a whole day long route, which makes it one of its kind, among the best. I started missing my motorcycle!

Big Sur and Big Lunch

It was about 12, noon. The road left the coastal line and entered the redwood forest. On both sides of the road there were those giant redwood trees. They are the tallest trees of the world. Sometime it is hard to see the top of these trees. They just vanish in the sky. My tiny car was running over the thin road beneath these giants. I reached Big Sur.

At this point I realized I was hungry. I could not locate too many establishments beside road in Big Sur. Finally I reached a place which looked good from outside and was quite crowded. It was called the The River Inn. It was really beside a small wild creek. They had a restaurant whose patio extended till the river bed. On the river they had put couple of chairs half dipped in river stream where people were enjoying relaxed time with beer while their legs where getting massaged by the smooth flowing cold water. They also had a lovely swimming pool beside the river, most of which was occupied by bikini clad ladies and kids. I wanted to spent some time on the river side, but my stomach took me to the restaurant. I selected their outdoor seating and a table with a view. When I finished my King Salmon Sandwich I had already spent an hour in the restaurant. I came out of the patio and looked around to enjoy one of those river chairs. But to my surprise, I discovered that this was a place where even fishes were swimming in pairs. So much so that I started thinking that my presense was breaking the law of nature. It was time to start again.

Afternoon Nap and the Honk

I crossed those forests full of giant ghostly redwood trees. Passed by numerous state parks. On and off meeting the ocean on one side. I was focusing on the road....on the break paddle....on the on coming traffic....and then....I saw a red light shining brighter and brighter on my eyes. My thoughts went to my childhood. My college days.. friends.. close ones.. people I lost, I will never get back.. The journey of life became together with the journey of road.. which could have ended right there without the honk!

It was a desperate honk. I opened my eyes and saw that I have crossed the yellow line and was almost facing a truck from the other side. A cold shiver ran through my spine. I was hallucinating! I thanked all the gods of the world and the truck driver and pulled my car off to a shoulder. I put the car seat back, emergency lights on, closed my eyes and slept like a baby.

When I opened my eyes, it took me some time to remember my current situation. I never woke up like this before. Right on the lap of Pacific. When I analyzed how I did what I did, I found it was the after lunch metabolism that drained all my energy and almost took me to sleep while I was driving! I have to be careful and planned on this. But that said, it felt good. Many people travels on CA1, but how many of them really enjoyed an afternoon nap on the road?

By Hearst Castle

I lost almost an hour in the sleep. I had to hurry. The sleep worked well though and I was feeling fresh. I pressed on the accelerator and started making the miles faster. Hours after hours passed. I kept on driving on this beautiful road thinking this should never end, crossing so many beautiful sea side resorts and parks. So many small sea side towns came and passed. When I was passing by San Simeon, I saw a sign board giving direction to the Hearst Castle. My watch did not allow me, but otherwise I would have loved to visit the castle. Anyway, for those who have seen the 1941 movie Citizen Kane, the movie, which is considered as one of the best piece of work in the history of world cinema, was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. This was his castle till 1947. I just passed by the sign board.

The Elephant Seals

I just happened to note them on the road side. They were lying on the ground. Hundreds in number. They were giants. Each one around 6 to 8 feet tall. I never saw this big seals in such huge numbers. I stopped my car, took my camera and went close to them. While walking towards the water I noticed a squirrel running behind me. I offered him some left over biscuit I had in my pocket and he took it by standing on his two legs. He even nodded at me to say thank you. Amazing! In the water I found some pairs of seals playing with each other. But the seals on the ground were enjoying the sun in a very lazy manner. They were using their fins to put as much sand as possible on their body. Other than that they were barely showing any body movements. I enjoyed the view of these wonderful creatures for some time. I also made a small video. You can see if you are interested.

Home Sweet Home

Few hours passed and I felt that time was approaching when the road is going to say good bye to pacific and going to hide inside the American mainlands. That happened right after I crossed the beautiful Morro Bay. Morro Bay looked to be a very interesting place too and I will visit it again some time. But after that CA1 became an ordinary American highway passing through local towns. When I reached Santa Maria, sun was already falling. I regretted that I did not see the sunset while I was driving beside the Pacific. But then I had to leave something for next time.

After Santa Maria I took the Highway 154 route. It was a small stretch of mountain road with lot of enjoyable vistas. I joined Highway 101 at Santa Barbara. After that it was a not so mentionable journey to San Diego. Home sweet home! When I went to bed I was still driving beside the sea.

March 24, 2008

Adventures in US (Part 1) : The arrival

Prafulla was trembling like a miserable old lady. I could almost feel the lines that were going through his mind.. "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna". His eyes were blinking very fast, and I am sure, so was his heart. There was no reason for me to be worried from Praful's situation, except that he was driving the car on 101 highway, first time, and I was the backseat passenger. I was holding my breath. My hands were over my eyes and every few minutes I was making a small opening between my fingers to peep out on the road. Only to get scared and close it again.

About an hour back the world appeared to be a very safe place. My flight dropped me, safely, in SFO airport at sharp 6 pm. First time I landed in United States of America. First time I landed in a foreign land to be more specific. Everything appeared surprisingly easy. An Indian helped me to make a phone call to my dear friend Prafulla who immediately confirmed me from Sunnyvale that he will reach the airport in half an hour to pick me up. I successfully passed the exit interview and came out of the airport with an I94 stamping on my passport. Climate was cold and windy. Few minutes later Prafulla arrived with his big welcome smile and buddy Chetan. We happily started towards Praful's car which was parked in the airport parking area. Adventure started..

First we got confused with the elevators. We took the wrong one and landed in the basement. It took us few trial-and-errors to take the right elevator and arrive at the correct floor where Praful's Honda Civic was parked. It was here that I came to know about few not-so-encouraging facts of our trip home.

  • This trip, which was going to be my first highway experience in US, was also going be the first highway experience of my friend Prafulla, and as a driver.
  • Chetan was the only one having valid driving license among three of us, but he wont take the driving seat.
  • Prafulla appeared four times for the California driving license test only to fail each time.
  • If we were caught by "mama", red handed, my two friends will pay heavy fine and I would be deported back to my home country, not very respectfully.
I am a kind of optimistic guy so even the above facts could not move me much. I hoped a smooth and comfortable journey and relied on Prafulla's smartness to handle the situation.

No parking area ever looked so complex. There were multiple exits going to multiple directions from each floor with complicated description written on top of every exit about where it takes to. Again trial-and-error. To my surprise, and fear, I noticed that two cars were actually following us. They depended on us to take them out of this maze. Prafulla got some more people to rely on his smartness. Poor Praful! I can't write the words the drivers of those cars would have uttered for him, after they found that we guided them back to the same floor after making few rounds, up and down, in the building. It took us around half and hour to solve the puzzle and come out under the starry sky.

Hah! Finally we were on road. I felt relaxed, but not for long. In few minutes the hand-held GPS device on Chetan's hand took us to the 101 highway.

I never experience an adrenaline rush like this before. A huge highway with 7.. 8.. 9.. god knows how many lanes. Each lane carrying extremely fast moving cars, each one running for their life. I saw our meter showing 80 miles/hr. My Indian mind calculated it to be around 128 km/hr. Oops! My heart started beating faster. Speed of the cars surrounding us also added to my uneasiness. Specially the ones overtaking us making it look as if we were driving at 10 miles/hr. The only question that was circulating in my mind was.. "What iff..?" I repeatedly tried to imagine the situation after some "What iff..?", and every time I ended up with results more than escape velocity of earth.

Things didn't improve when my driver friend confidently announced his correct feelings about the situation.. "Mujhe dar lag raha hai yaar!". I clearly remember, my heart stopped for few seconds. I remember Chetan trying to console and encourage Prafulla for about fifteen minutes.. but none of his words entered my heart. All his words grew wings and were flying over my mind, I was already in a dream world.. beyond comprehension.

I woke up with a sudden scream from Chetan, "Breaaaak!". Praful did correctly. And our car just missed hugging another car coming from the right lane, by few inches. Apparently, the car did not show indicators while changing lane. Whose fault was it? How does it matter. There could have been no one alive from either car to tell that anyway. Thus, we narrowly escaped one "What iff?".

Somehow, the sudden incident worked in a very positive way on Praful. Taking few minutes from his driving, Praful patiently elaborated the genealogical ancestral chart of the rival driver's family with unmentionable words and he got unanimous support from his passengers. Once done, he appeared relaxed. He appeared bold. He slowed down his speed. I too felt better.

Soon after, the GPS indicated the approaching home. Home, never felt so safe.