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Driving California's coast in 10 days

It's a scenic adventure that just begins to cover the high points.

February 01, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

THE CALIFORNIA COASTLINE — Early on the first day of 2009, a gold Toyota Corolla exited Interstate 5 in southern San Diego County and headed west, dodging puddles and "SUBJECT TO FLOODING" signs until it reached Border Field State Park, the coastal reserve where California's coastline begins. That was me, on the brink of something big.

It was a cloudy, soggy Thursday morning. I stepped from the car and set off on foot, following an unhelpful set of signs until my sneakers were caked in runoff gunk from the rain-soaked Tia Juana River Valley. And so my New Year's adventure -- drive California from toe to top, cling to the coast, sleep only in lodgings along the water -- began with a quagmire at Mile Zero.

I could tell you that the next 10 days and 1,136 miles just got worse, that there were twisty little roads over steep cliffs, dense fog, bitter winds, raccoon invasions, bad meals, roadwork delays, gas at $2 a gallon, gas at $3 a gallon, coffee at $4 a cup, the scent of elephant seals, the inconvenience of law-enforcement intervention. It's all true. But you already know this was a sweet trip, because you've probably nibbled at it yourself.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Coastal drive: An article in Sunday's Travel section on driving the California coast incorrectly placed the town of Valley Ford in Marin County. Valley Ford is in southern Sonoma County.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 08, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Coastal drive: An article in the Feb. 1 Travel section on driving the California coast incorrectly placed the town of Valley Ford in Marin County. Valley Ford is in southern Sonoma County.

To consume the California coast in a single gulp, never mind the off-season, never mind the off-year -- is more than a meal. It's a revelation, a rediscovery, a marathon. Or maybe I should just rely on the words of Mike, the 40-year-old Coloradan I found on Day 4 north of Santa Barbara, sitting on a driftwood log in his boxers, still soaked from a spontaneous leap into the Pacific.

"This is as good as it gets," he said. "For two minutes, you don't feel old and fat anymore."

Then I turned away so his beaming girlfriend, also in underwear and up to her neck in the frigid Pacific, could come ashore.

Of course, unless you can spend a month on a trip like this, you have to leave out places. I blew off La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach -- didn't even stop the car in Orange County -- and never considered a theme park (although on my trip, I met a family from Oregon that built its whole three-week California trip around theme parks). I spent no time in Santa Monica or Santa Barbara and only a few minutes in San Francisco -- just long enough to jot down adjectives for the winds raking the Golden Gate Bridge observation point: Bitter. Evil. Nasty. Lacerating. This was at noon.

Anyway, every omission makes room for another discovery. And when you travel off-season, you find more bare beaches, thinner traffic, empty lodgings and a small but select group of fellow travelers. And, especially in this recessionary year, you save a lot.

Also, here's a lovely thing about the rocks, sand, surf, trees, deer, elk, elephant seals, sea lions, coyotes and skunks you run into on a trip like this: Not only do they look good, sound good and smell good (mostly), but they also have no idea that the rest of us are up to our necks in war, debt and doubt. Spend hours in their company and they'll never bring it up. This makes them excellent companions.

You could say my itinerary was half-planned. I would mostly stick to Interstate 5, then California 1 and U.S. 101, skirting the sea. To allow time for bike rides and duck feeding, there would be no 200-mile days, and I would allow myself detours. To allow for recession, the lodgings would average less than $150 a night. For the first three nights, I would have my wife, Mary Frances, and our 4-year-old, Grace, for company. Then they'd ditch me at a rental-car outlet and return to their big-city obligations.

But first, of course, I have to get past the Mexican mud.

Mile 15, Coronado: Ridiculous, meet sublime. With slime clinging to my shoes, I penetrate the perimeter of the Hotel del Coronado, inspect the seasonal ice-skating rink and the wide, sandy beach, then climb on the jetty rocks. No rooms for less than $300. I settle for a $3.75 cup of coffee.

By lunchtime, I've convened with Mary Frances and Grace to eat with friends and to check in at Paradise Point, a kid-friendly resort surrounded by the calm waters of Mission Bay, about 12 miles north of Coronado. We walk the shore, feed ducks and climb the observation tower, which is practically historical by California standards, having risen in the 1960s.

Mile 40, Point Loma, San Diego: A moment of reverence, please, for Juan Cabrillo, the European explorer who landed at Point Loma in September 1542 and claimed the coast for Spain. By many measures, he was a failure: He didn't find gold, didn't find an easy route to Asia, didn't find a passage to the Atlantic and didn't complete his mission. He died three months later.

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