I know those who follow this blog probably do so because they are interested in my posts on Ireland. Well I recently had a holiday in the States so I have a few other stories to tell. So I will get back to Ireland but in the meantime I will talk a bit about my visits to San Francisco and then later New York.
I had just spent some time discovering San Francisco. My plan was to drive south from there to Los Angeles on Highway 1. Legendary names like Monterey, Big Sur and San Simeon were on the itinerary and I had given myself three days. What I wasn’t really aware of was that this actually wasn’t now possible due to a landslide and storm damage near Big Sur last year and consequent closing of the iconic bridge there amid worries as to its stability. But as I headed off I didn’t know this.
Leaving San Francisco shrouded in its usual summer fog was not exactly what I would have hoped for but you don’t need crystal clear blue skies to enjoy this place.
The geologist in me wanted to find the San Andreas Fault. This was my first challenge. The city behind, I followed Freeway 280 and Highway 35 as they traced the line of the Fault. The fault itself though lay to the west of the highway and was defined by a linear river and lake system known as Crystal Springs and San Andreas Lake. So there wasn’t a lot to see.
There were a couple of spots where the rocks in the road cuttings showed strong evidence of shearing and slickensides and where extreme measures were taken to support the crumbling rock in road cuttings. I assume these are due to splay faulting from the San Andreas.
I looked for a spot where I could cross the fault line on the way to Highway 1 But at the probable location there was nothing to see from the massive bridge over the lake.
I didn’t realise the fault line was so inland. Next time I will do more research. Oh well. I headed back to Highway 1 through the rugged hills of the Miramontes Ridge to the coast at Half Moon Bay. Nowhere to stop and take photos on the way!
Half Moon Bay is a pretty spot where you can partake of gourmet food, taste olive oil, visit boutiques or craft shops if that’s your wont. Or do as I did and have an organic salad and listen to some accoustic music in the garden of San Benito Cafe. That was a pleasant surprise.
Now I was really on Highway 1 so I headed south. I took every opportunity to get off the freeway onto the coast and there were plenty of places to stop and walk down the cliffs to deserted beaches. At San Gregorio Beach, at Pescadero Beach and then the lighthuse at Pigeon Point Bluffs. And one of the best windsurfing and sail boarding locations in California at Waddell Creek.
On the way there were rugged cliffs, and jagged coasts, banks of fog rolling in with blue sky behind, a lighthouse silhouetted in the mist, pods of pelicans, marsh and bogland with a congregation of egrets, a phallanx of wind surfers and sail boarders taking advantage of a favourable breeze, hardy flora, solitary birds of prey and all the time the Pacific Ocean on my right.
I had intended to visit the boardwalk at Santa Cruz but the crowds and the chaos turned me off. After all it was just a collection of carousels and rides though the fact it had been there since 1907 was of interest to me. So I continued on and finished the day in fading light in a classic American motel in the town of Marina, just north of Monterey.
The next day I wanted to take the 17 mile Drive around Pebble Beach south of Monterey. Renowned for its wildlife and for its scenic beauty I was a tad surprised when I was asked to pay $10 but the fine print on the ticket says I could have my money back if I played a round of golf. Yeah sure. Read on.
Once you drive in the gate the first image you have is of the lush greens of a luxury course where it meets the Pacific Ocean. There are indeed eight golf courses on the peninsula. Including two that are regularly rated in the top 10 in the world. Pebble Beach which is open to the public and costs $525 a round (but you get your $10 back) and Cypress Point (which is NOT open to the public and is the most exclusive in the world with only 250 members!). Non members just cannot play there and members include zillionaires such as Bill Gates but shamefully if your rich but black you can’t be a member.
Many of the courses hug the coast and reach inland to the marshes and forests. Indeed there are greens and tees located within the beachside rocks dunes and cliffs. Huge granite boulders and cypress pines are a feature. Challenging would be one word to describe many of the holes. The famous Par 3 hole 16 at Cypress Point requires a 230 yard drive over the swirling ocean to reach the tee.
A glance down to the shore reveals a young seal seemingly unperturbed about being alone. Just basking. Lines of pelicans soar overhead making their way north and the rocks are covered with cormorants and gulls including the elegant California Gull with the red dot on the beak and the distinctive grey plumage of the Heermann’s Gull (The head turns white when they are breeding.
Look hard and you will see the perfectly camouflaged Californian Squirrel. This is a ground squirrel unlike his tree based cousin perhaps more familiar to those on the east coast or London for that matter. Darting about in and around the rocks and then standing up like a prairie dog. Motionless. Certainly they are cute but they are still considered a pest as they were in 1918 when children were enlisted to poison the rodents which were then apparently threatening the war effort against the Germans (see the squirrel army dressed in Kaiser -type hats in the poster below).
I mentioned spotting a seal. Well nothing really prepares you for Bird Rock Island. I could hear the barking before I saw them. It lies just off the coast about half way around the drive. It is literally covered with sea lions and seals. The sea lions are spread all over the rocks hanging precariously, with some occupying the summit. Their climbing skills are remarkable. The rock is shared with cormorants and gulls and the surrounding water is their playground. The barking is incessant as is the cavorting. Beats Sea World.
Just nearby was a ‘venue’ of vultures resting on the shore (trust me; It’s a ‘kettle’ if they’re flying and a ‘wake’ if they’re eating!). At first in my naïveté I thought they were Condors. But good old Google and no they are Turkey Vultures or that very American appellation Turkey Buzzards. They are impressive birds and beautiful in flight. They do have a bad rap though because of course they are carrion eaters and hey, they are not exactly pretty. The featherless head is said to enable them to burrow into carcasses more easily.
Just off the coast of Bird Rock lies Carmel Canyon an offshoot of the 10,000 ft deep Monterey Canyon. During summer cold water wells up from the Canyon and this brings nutrients and feed and is responsible for the rich marine life. The area was declared a sanctuary in 1992. This time of the year there is also a variety of coastal flora. Some familiar some not. There is what we call ‘pigface’ a perfectly adapted succulent which actually comes from South Africa and heaps of others I have no idea the names of.
But in truth the most distinctive vegetation is the Monterey Cypress. They occur in forests or as single or groups. They are native to the peninsula but have been cultivated widely around the world. Often bare of leaves except for a canopy they can have twisted trunks and branches or even grow horizontally as they cope with the harsh conditions.
But the area is synonymous with one particular tree. The Lone Cypress. It is located between the Pebble Beach and Cypress Point Golf courses and sits exposed to the elements on a granite outcrop as it has for maybe 250 years. Held up now by wires. it is seen as a symbol of rugged individualism and struggle. It is much photographed but on this day my efforts fall way short, due to fog and haze.
My final stop was at Cypress Point. The actual point not the golf course. Of course it is covered with pines but of interest here were some sea otters. Unfortunately I only caught occasional glimpses as there were a bit reclusive. And really hard to photograph but they are recognisable.
The Peninsula is a place where conflicting needs seem to coexist. Luxury homes sit beside extraordinary natural beauty, impressive wildlife and millions of visitors. Golf and bird watchers inhabit the same space. It all seemed to be pretty well managed.
I spent much of the day here but it was time to move on. Big Sur was my next destination but I needed gas (as they say over here). The helpful man at the gas station told me that I was wasting my time as the road had been closed over a year. So Plan B. Leave the coast, head inland through Carmel Valley across the hills, and join HIghway 101. Just keep that in mind if you want to drive Highway 1. You can’t.
Heading inland I took local roads. It was a very different landscape. The fog soon lifted. to reveal steep hills, sometimes forested sometimes bare and sometimes covered with yellow grasses.
Carmel Valley itself is a wine growing area and lies in a wide flood plain surrounded by a mountain range. I can’t comment on the wine but the view was special
The second night was spent in King City, A not very remarkable motel in a not very remarkable place. That left just a short (?) few hours drive left to Los Angeles for the next day.
I stuck to the inland road so my dream of completing Highway 1 was not to be. But this was my first dose of real US Freeway traffic. There was one section near Santa Barbara where it took nearly two hours to travel 10 miles There seems to be an inverse rule that the wider the freeway and the more lanes, the slower it will be. Still the cd was blaring out Irish tunes and this is the American Dream isn’t it. The road trip? Crawling along the Freeway.
Ahh no; really there was a lot to see.
The Salinas River Valley is home to the very large San Ardo’s Oilfield. The Miocene sands here are rich in oil bearing sediments and oil wells with ‘nodding donkey’ pumps are as far as the eye can see. It is surprising how the simple beam pump used in the mining industry for centuries is still in use as the main method of extraction.
It’s not generally thought of as a pretty sight but for the geologist in me it’s like looking through a window into a decaying technology extracting a dying product. Already in many parts of California the acres of nodding donkeys have been replaced by acres of solar panels and windmills.
The drive along Highway 101 takes you in large part through the earliest settled parts of California. The original settlers (ie invaders) were the Spanish and they set up a string of Missions between 1769 and 1833. They were set up by the Fransiscans to evangelise the native Americans. There were 21 of these Missions and they formed the basis of the colony of New Spain known as Alta California and part of the Spanish Empire. They heavily disrupted native Californian life by forcing them to live in settlements, introduced ranching, fruits, vegetables, horses and technology but left a lasting legacy in terms of modern California with the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco developing around missions.
Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821 and took Alta California with it and in 1849 ceded it to the United States as a result of losing the Mexican war. Ironic actually as gold was discovered in California that same year.
I visited one of these missions at San Miguel. Built in 1797 close to a Salinas Indian village the aim was to convert these natives to Christianity. It is still largely in original condition and though not run now as a mission is used for regular church services. You can tour through the building which includes many notable featurs such as a collonade of 12 arches all different sizes and shapes, a plaza with a fountain, a courtyard, an alley through the buildings to allow sheep to enter, original furnishings and art work, a beautifully decorated church and an adjoioning cemetery with the interred remains of 2,250 native Americans.
These buildings are held in high regard and their preservation a priority as they are a treasured part of Californian history.
The missions were accessed by a road known as the El Camino Real (The Royal Road) going from San Diego to north of San Francisco. Much of it was just a goat track but in places it was marked by carved crosses in trees. As you would imagine most haven’t survived but one was discovered near San Miguel and is on display here. Today Highway 101 pretty much follows the old route and it is marked by bells on poles. Tradition has it however that the padres spread mustard seed along the route creating a golden highway helping the pilgrims to find their way.
So I’d certainly recommend the journey. Check whether Highway 1 is open and be prepared to travel other routes. Get off the freeways and take your time. It’s always rewarding. But that’s the great thing about travel. There’s always something else to discover somewhere else. It just might not be what you expect.