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FOCUS ON SUMMER TRAVEL

The Soul of a State

The coast route, from Mexico's border to the Oregon line, still serves up picture-postcard images that bespeak California.

May 27, 1999|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lester Giacomini has been driving California's coastal route since before most of the state's population was born.

And still, after more than 60 years, the sights along Highway 1 on the Mendocino coast take his breath away.

"Gorgeous," says the retired logging trucker, interrupting a late afternoon poker dice session at the Pirate's Cove Cafe in Point Arena to talk about the coast road. "Every turn is a picture postcard."

Indeed, for most of its 1,111 miles, the coastal route is a world-class roadway, a place of sweeping ocean vistas, towering redwoods and rock-strewn coves, of waterfront mansions and funky geodesic domes, of cattle ranches and prickly fields of artichokes, of art galleries and aquariums, of vast state and national parks and of twists and turns that can terrify the timid.

Route 66 may have been the Mother Road of the Southwest, and Interstates 99 and 5 the freeways through California's agricultural heartland.

But the coast route is the pathway to the soul of the state.

Mission Bay, the cottages of Laguna Beach, the colorful crowds in Venice, the cliffs and coves of the central coast, the sweeping curve of Monterey Bay, Muir Woods, the northern redwood groves, all are images that say "California" as assuredly as does the Golden Gate Bridge.

A little digression here on a critical point: While California's Highway 1 is, indeed, part of the coast route, the coast route is not all Highway 1.

The road didn't exist until the late 1930s. Before then, motorists journeying the length of the state alternated between coastal and inland highways. Much of the rugged coast north of Santa Monica was served by dirt and gravel county roads.

Giacomini remembers taking a helper along as he drove his logging truck down the coast toward San Francisco. The man's job was to jump out every few miles and run ahead of the slow-moving truck to open the gates that spanned the roads to keep cattle from wandering onto the wrong ranches. "That was before the state came through in '36 and took over the roads and oiled 'em," he says. Now, a series of grates embedded in the road surface keep cattle contained and let vehicles go unimpeded.

Even today, the Highway 1 designation applies only to the coastal road from San Clemente to Ventura and from Gaviota State Park above Santa Barbara to the Northern California logging town of Leggett. It is U.S. 101 along the Santa Barbara coast, for a short jog from Pismo Beach to San Luis Obispo and again from Leggett to the Oregon line.

Like its name, the coast route and its surroundings aren't static. The drive has been improved in some places, damaged in others--by nature and by people.

It is now possible, for example, to get through Santa Barbara without succumbing to road rage (except at rush hour) because a freeway project removed the traffic signals on U.S. 101 through town about a decade ago.

But the drive through Malibu and along the central coast is regularly interrupted by one-way detours around California Department of Transportation crews repairing landslide damage and rebuilding weakened bridges.

Despite that El Nino-induced damage, the road remains one of the best-kempt in the state and the asphalt is in remarkably good shape.

The toll of progress is that some things once familiar to coast route users aren't there anymore. A 1922 Automobile Club of Southern California booklet on touring the Pacific Highway, which was an inland route once past southern Orange County, illustrates it it best:

"A vivid contrast to this spectacle [the Mission of San Juan Capistrano] is afforded as the motorist approaches Santa Ana, in miles of brilliant orange and lemon orchards, radiant in green and gold, and bearing their double gifts of fruitage and blossom."

Those neat rows of citrus have largely given way to neat rows of houses, less than radiant in their earth-tone stucco wrappers.

A lot of the route, though, remains largely as it was in 1924 when state politicians decided it would be good to tie the entire California coast together with a single road.

Again from that 1922 Auto Club guide:

"Flanked by mountains to the north, and the measureless tides of old ocean to the south, it is a thoroughfare of Nature's most striking grandeur and unique loveliness."

The writer was rhapsodizing about the coastal road from Ventura to Gaviota Beach, and the 77-year-old description still applies. It could easily be used, as well, to describe hundreds of miles of the coast road today.

To rediscover the route for The Times' own Highway 1 section (which, not coincidentally, marks completion of its first year with this issue), I recently packed a bag, a cooler, a bundle of maps and a navigator-cum-historical advisor--my father, a veteran of scores of Highway 1 runs from the late 1930s to the mid-'50s--and headed down to the Mexican border.

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