An Incredible Journey Through California in a Terrible Car is a Mixed Bag of Emotions
If the trip had ended up being a complete disaster, we would have considered its beginning a paragon of foreshadowing. Summer in Southern California this year had been unusually mild, with a thick marine layer that kept Los Angeles and its surrounding areas under a grey haze for much of June. It was then that our road trip to San Francisco by way of Cambria and Monterey was scheduled, and our route via Pacific Coast Highway was rendered much less jaw-dropping with the muted colors of the ocean and its overlooking cliffs. Also less than impressive was our choice of automotive transport. My stepfather made the reservations for a CUV at our local rental agency, a vehicle type that I normally find appalling, but we would be covering more than 1,000 miles over the course of a week and we needed enough room for four traveling cases, a cooler, and assorted bags of snacks. Costs of the rental and gasoline were heavily weighted, and we decided on a smaller vehicle. The trouble really began when we stepped into the agency’s parking lot and discovered…a Nissan Rogue.
The realization of certain failure can force a multitude of emotions to materialize in a person, and nobody knows for sure how they will act when they recognize how hopelessly screwed they are. I found out that day that my coping mechanism first triggers abject horror at the moment of comprehension, followed quickly by amused incredulity. The emphasis on thrift in the realm of family excursions had finally bit us in the ass. Here was a crossover completely incompetent in its ability to trek across California loaded to the gills with luggage and occupants. The meager I-4 routed power through all four wheels, but I knew that it would be tough sailing when we crossed over from San Francisco to Reno and then drove south through Mammoth along Route 395. We had taken the trip from Los Angeles to Reno a year and a half before, traveling in an equally deplorable Mitsubishi Endeavour, although that tank was at least pulled by a V6. Our impotent Rogue and its four hopeless cylinders would be useless in the mountainous regions and during the 10 minutes of mild offroad action we saw in Lone Pine, California.
But first, the trip had to start. We began heading toward Santa Barbara after cramming into the crossover, stopping in Ventura to visit my grandfather’s brother. After devouring a Double IPA and pulled pork sandwich soaked with orange marmalade at the Santa Barbara Brewing Company, we settled in at the sleepy oceanside burg of Cambria for the night. Cambria was chosen not only for the view of the Pacific (which would have been stunning except for the aforementioned cloud cover), but also its proximity to San Simeon. We would visit the tourist beacon of Hearst Castle before journeying to Monterey by way of Big Sur.
A couple years ago, I had the fortune of traveling to Chicago for a much needed vacation; a friend of my grandfather picked my girlfriend and me up from O’Hare and transported us to the downtown area. On the way, our host voiced his displeasure of Southern California and its complete lack of foliage. I knew what he meant: the first thing I noticed before landing in the Windy City was the sprawling woods surrounding the airport. I was reminded of this conversation when we passed through the substantial forest in Big Sur. We stopped for gas alongside an Audi R8 V10 convertible, and I stared with envy at the big, beautiful white supercar likely on its way to some fantastic destination. We stopped for lunch nearby, and I understood the mystique of the place that has captivated and inspired far greater minds than mine. We should have stayed there longer to detoxify from not only the cramped cell of the Rogue but also, in a larger sense, from living in such a crowded but detached area like Los Angeles. We pressed on, however, to that night’s destination of Monterey.
Spending the day in Monterey made me realize why that town and nearby Pebble Beach is the perfect backdrop for the Concours d’Elegance held every summer. The fog we had noticed throughout the drive so far was actually the typical summer climate in Monterey, and the limited sunshine mixed with the low chance of rain meant this particular piece of coastline was temperate all year round. No glaring light to blind gawkers from staring at excessively waxed European classics, and no rain to ruin precious, hundred year-old seats and switchgear.
The next day began the last section of the California leg of the trip, and we kicked things off right with a brown ale and inspired Burger of the Week courtesy of Cannery Row Brewing Company that boasted jalapenos, sweet potato fries, and giant chunks of bacon. We followed Highway 1 all the way into San Francisco, completing our coastal excursion. We stayed in the city by the sea for two days, doing touristy things like visiting Alcatraz Island and bumming around Fisherman’s Wharf.
The reason for taking this trip to Frisco was more than just an urge to leave town for a week. It was a trip we intended to take some months before to visit my mother’s future alma mater, but was delayed by the sudden death of my grandmother and then my grandfather shortly thereafter. They had honeymooned in the city, retiring at the end of each day to the famous St. Francis Hotel (now owned by the Westin hotel chain). As we rescheduled our trip, it was clear that we should have a drink at a bar inside the hotel the way my grandfather would have undoubtedly done all those years ago. After swordfish at McCormick and Kuleto’s overlooking the bay, we migrated to the St. Francis for a nightcap. Mission accomplished.
By this time, we had traveled roughly 500 miles over the course of three driving days. The next item on our itinerary was a 220 mile drive to Reno, but the prize at the end would be worth it. One restaurant and one item on their menu in particular made those miles fly by. It made the slog through the San Francisco morning rush hour and multiple stops near the Donner Pass worth the marathon. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is worth writing about, considering the general beauty of the Sierras that felled the westward-bound travelers over 150 years ago. Our persistence was rewarded when we made a beeline to Great Basin Brewing Company for their signature dish: a mac and cheese pizza. I was watching my calories last time I ate this culinary masterpiece, so I went the full monty and ordered the crust stuffed with cheese and jalapenos. It can make a believer out of an atheist. One more landmark was on the “Must Visit” list, but it would have to wait until the following day.
The National Automobile Museum in Reno was built to house casino magnate Bill Harrah’s unbelievable horde of historical, luxury, and sports cars. It is one of the most impressive collections I have ever seen, with highlights including a 1955 Ferrari 625 Formula 1 racer, a Mercedes 500 K Special Roadster, Duesenberg Model J, and a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with copper sheetmetal. A common thread throughout this trip was the inability to fully commit to any one thing due to the time constraints we set for ourselves, and the one hour spent at the museum was far too short a time to appreciate the turn-of-the-century steam and electric cars, Stutz Bearcat, and other rarities. I had to tear myself away to complete the penultimate leg of our journey, which concluded at the ski resort town of Mammoth.
We stopped along the way for a drink at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, located at the hilltop town of Virginia City. Formed on top of the Comstock Lode, a substantial deposit of silver ore that sparked a silver rush in California, Virginia City is actually a beacon for tourists thanks in no small part to its association with Samuel Clemens (who first used the pen name of Mark Twain during his stint as a newspaper reporter in the area). After finishing our somewhat authentic whiskey shots, we trekked south to finish our second to last day on the road at Mammoth Lakes, relatively deserted during the off season. Steaks at the Chart House superbly rounded out what we deemed to be the last true day of vacation.
As we returned home, I reminisced about the 1,000 mile journey that we were winding down. The trip had taken us through the most scenic views that California and Nevada could muster, and I enjoyed it all despite being confined to an uninspiring crossover with barely enough legroom to sit. A tour like we had mapped deserves a car as much made for carving up Pacific Coast Highway as it is effortlessly climbing the Sierras. Something without a roof, so the occupants can reconnect with nature after a life in the great grey expanse of the suburbs.
The driver of the Audi R8 seemed to have it all figured out.