California 1 from Monterey to Morro Bay is a chain of exhilarating seascapes and wooded mountains.
It was not crowded, but schools of bicyclists were out, and we encountered a club of classic MG owners going north in their polished little gems. There must have been 30 of them, strung out in groups of two or three.
It must be peculiarly Southern Californian to find camaraderie and common dedication in a particular make of car.
Morro Bay was not as crowded as Monterey had been on Saturday night. We found a motel with a view of the bay and Morro Rock, which almost incredibly has escaped the greedy schemes of cement and gravel operators and remains whole, a miniature Rock of Gibraltar.
Years ago three giant chimneys were erected on the bayfront by some power company; they were the kind of eyesore that would make an environmentalist tear his hair out; but oddly they have become a landmark, an accepted part of the scenery, almost as evocative of Morro Bay as the rock itself. Amazing, what we can adjust to.
When I signed the register the motel owner said, "What do you do in Los Angeles?"
I told her.
She said, "Hey, I know you! I read about you in this morning's San Francisco Examiner. Cyra McFadden's column!"
She went out and brought back her copy of the Sunday Examiner-Chronicle. "Here, you can have it."
Cyra McFadden had sat next to me at the dinner dance in San Francisco's M. H. de Young Museum in honor of Herb Caen's 50th anniversary with the Chronicle.
Like all columnists, she evidently works all the time. Her entire Sunday column was about me. I didn't realize I had revealed so much about myself.
"What I like best about his columns in the Los Angeles Times," she said, "is their unabashed boosterism: The man loves L.A. In San Francisco, this would be grounds for having Smith put away, someplace where he couldn't hurt himself.
"As a phrase floating around this newsroom has it, we'd think he was 'one taco short of a full combination plate.'
"To Los Angelenos, Smith is the whole enchilada. He understands their uniqueness. His anthem is 'Amazing Smaze.' OK, the air sometimes turns the color of refried beans (end of overextended metaphor), the freeways back up as far as Bakersfield and the Hollywood hills burn up--again. It's an exciting city anyway, and a sybarite's paradise. The rest of us knock it. Smith claims, only because life is so pleasant there, we're jealous. . . ."
McFadden admitted that San Franciscans are incorrigibly prejudiced against Los Angeles:
"Somewhere in San Francisco's city charter, it's written that one can't claim legal residence here and like L.A. We're supposed to think of it as a non-city, 'a collection of suburbs.' We joke about its architecture--the hot dog stands shaped like hot dogs, the houses built like castles or tacky French chateaux. We think of the whole population as grotesquely tan, clanking with jewelry and empty-headed, their brains baked out on the beach. . . ."
But she recalls that she not long ago had to work in Los Angeles for six months, and despite the smog, the absurdities of architecture, the "fettuccini" freeways--"despite the odds, I came to see Los Angeles from Jack Smith's amused, affectionate point of view."
She quoted me to show a recurrent worry of mine:
"Now and then it begins to look as if Los Angeles has lost its gift for doing the preposterous. . . . Architecture takes a turn toward art. The voters reject a demagogue. A landmark is spared. . . . At times like these I have a feeling of uneasiness. . . . What if we were suddenly as sensible as Toledo?"
I think the woman may be beginning to understand us.
Morro Bay has not become as tawdry as Monterey in its inevitable drift toward a tourist trap. It has its share of schlock souvenir shops and fish restaurants, but its wharf is still a working wharf: Real fishing boats are drawn up against it, resting from their labors, and beautiful, as all working boats are, in their flaking, rusted ugliness.
We had a glass of wine that evening in a waterfront bar and watched the sky turn from brass to tea green as the sun went down beyond the rock.
That night my wife was reading "Rhine Maidens," Carolyn See's novel about a Brentwood woman whose difficult mother lives in Coalinga. "Listen to this," she said.
She read: "Just before you take the turnoff to Coalinga there is this terrible pen of cattle, halfway up the middle of the very worst part of California. It's not a farm at all. It's just stuck in the middle of the desert, thousands of cows and steers being fattened by hormones, waiting to be sold and die. . . ."
She was describing the feedlot we had passed on our way north over Interstate 5. I don't agree that the San Joaquin Valley is a desert or the "worst part of California"; but I was gratified that Carolyn See had been as appalled by the feedlot as we had.
In the morning we drove home over U.S. 101 past miles of foothill pastureland dotted by cows and live oaks, weathered barns, and clean small cities like Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and Ventura. It remains an unspoiled highway.
When we came down from Woodland Hills and leveled out into the San Fernando Valley we could see the smog.
"The air is different," my wife said, remembering San Francisco.
"It is," I agreed.
But my heart was singing "Amazing Smaze."