Maps were consulted. Calculations were hastily made and limits negotiated. Strictly short-leash action. No truck-stop steak-and-eggs specials at midnight. No out-of-state motel charges to throw the money people at the home office. Just log off, gas up and get as far out there as possible for a single day of top-down, open-road therapy.
It would be about music. About seeing the perfect line through the mountain curve, hitting the straight with the throttle open and discovering -- in that moment of perfect release -- the truest sound of the road. And it would be about finding Other Californias lurking beyond the edges of the ordinary.
Edward Abbey believed the road was an abomination, a scar upon the landscape, worthy of contempt. If the great desert warrior had spent 50 hours a week cooling his boot-heels in a hermetically sealed glass box perhaps he'd have known the road as a friend. A good long drive is a comfort to a troubled mind, a form of meditation that demands little in the way of discipline. The act of negotiating a country road is a dance, a free-form fandango where psyche and geography meet on the double-yellow.
The ideal open-road excursion is an exercise of Zen-like simplicity. It should be utterly pointless, lacking both practical intent and fixed destinations. It should contain two lanes of blacktop, some trees, perhaps a body of water and some examples of innocuous fauna (both three-dimensional and flat). It must be a landscape that can accommodate as many definitions as there are drivers. The music will complement the road in the same way a fine wine enhances a meal. The songs need not literally evoke a sense a place. They must merely amplify the rhythm inherent in the terrain.
A road trip is a celebration of the marginal. Each successive wave of immigrants has treated the Golden State like an empty page waiting to be marked by their aspirations. Only in the margins -- where the traces of past regimes survive -- can one get a sense of depth. We seek out these quiet places where the empire builders have long since come and gone. It's here -- the rusting cattle pen, the mine tailings that run like a chalky scar down the hillside, the weed-choked remains of an orchard -- that Other Californias are revealed in the architecture of abandoned dreams.
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Headed north on the Golden Gate Bridge, the view of southernmost Marin County seems to explode out of the confines of its orange-steel frame as one nears the North Tower. The ridiculously gaudy Rainbow Tunnel reminds freeway drivers that they're hurtling headlong into the land of enchanted appearances. The road to the coast appears within a couple of minutes, at the exit marked "Stinson Beach/Highway 1.''
At the intersection anchored by a whimsically decorated Persian rug store and a surfboard shop, turn left and head west into the hills to the Panoramic Highway. Climbing steadily up Homestead Valley, past the Muir Woods turnoff, one thinks of Van Morrison, the great Irish bard who made his home in these parts for so many years. Did he find his muse in these fog-shrouded hills? Coasting through the turns down to Stinson Beach, the road wet and shiny in the midday sun, one thinks of the railing, ranting, epic poems and footloose Celtic soul. Above Stinson Beach, the road breaks out of the tight canopy of trees and the ocean vista unfolds. The booming, wide-open roar of the Pogues seems an apt corollary to Morrison. Crawl through the boutique-choked burg with its rainbow windsocks and too-cute pastel paint and go north on Highway 1, which runs flat and fast on the edge of the Bolinas Lagoon.
At the end of the lagoon, where a sharp, unmarked left turn marks the entry to the Bolinas Peninsula, thoughts turn to Richard Brautigan, the hippie-Zen- trout-fisher whose spirit still haunts Bolinas. A protective berm of brown rice, hard-headed xenophobia and collective denial has managed to shield this last outpost of the Aquarian Age from the tide of change. But the wall is not holding. Every time a Bolinard greets a day-tripper inching through town with the one-digit salute, that's 15 more seconds off the karmic clock.
Backtracking to Highway 1, through Olema and Pt. Reyes Station, the road gets faster and the mood lightens. (To wit: the moo-ing town clock in Point Reyes Station). After skirting the oyster beds of Tomales Bay, Highway 1 turns inland to Valley Ford and the fog settles into the lowlands, bringing to mind Chris Isaak's brooding ballads. The sound of muffled desperation. Gassing up at the mouth of the Russian River in Jenner ($1.89 a gallon, self-serve) one glances up (and up, and up . . .) from the sinuous highway for the first time in an hour and notices the terrain has turned vertical, a la Big Sur. A knowing half-smile from the doe-eyed teen waif behind the counter lets you know she caught you looking.
Brian Eno and John Cale's ethereal ''Wrong Way Up" disc conjures up images of druids dancing in the coastal mist as you crest out near Fort Ross, the Russian colonial outpost that stands gray and mute near the edge of the bluff. Breaching the outer boundaries of the mythical country Thomas Pynchon called Vineland and stopping at the Salt Point Bar and Grill for oysters and beer, a sense of unease settles in. By the time the mansard roofs and post-mod wooden turrets of Sea Ranch appear on the bluffs, ''Heroes,'' David Bowie's stone- hearted study of Berlin, is playing.
With a turn toward the interior at Sea Ranch, on Annapolis Road, one leaves the Money Coast behind and plunges into the deep woods -- Bill Monroe bluegrass country. Across the Gualala River is the Stewarts Point/Skaggs Springs Road and the true heart of the beast. Thirty-six miles of muddy red banks, fern-choked hollers and swollen creeks before civilization intrudes.
At Dry Creek Road, you're back in the civilized world of Mercedes station wagons and mini-vans, grooving to the locomotive-driving, big-band blues of Amos Milburn all the way into Healdsburg.
Down the main drag, Healdsburg Avenue, across the railroad tracks and onto Westside Road, heading through the vineyards, the footloose reveries of the "Deadicated" tribute disc take over. The Indigo Girls are singing ''Uncle John's Band' as the road dips sharply and suddenly merges with River Road. The Russian River settlements of Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio seem tired and somber. Rolling past the rainbow flags and marquees of the famed gay resorts, one recalls Sylvester's magnificently overblown disco overtures. That sort of explosive energy may never rock these banks again.
At Monte Rio, turn south on Bohemian Highway, through another canopied forest and stop in Occidental for a family-style Italian supper at the Union Hotel, where the spirit of Louie Prima never dies. At Freestone, turn right on Bodega Highway, back into the landscape of foggy dread, and note the schoolhouse from Alfred Hitchcock's ''The Birds.'' Roy Orbison picks up where Chris Isaak left off as you swing back through Valley Ford and race east on Bodega Avenue into Petaluma. As you get on Highway 101 for the long ride home, troll through the dirt lot at Rinehart's Truck Stop, Tom Waits' favorite haunt. Glimpse the outline of a battered black fedora through the steamed-up window and wonder: What promises does the road hold for him?
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At the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, leave the claustrophobic, hunker-down madness of Highway 17 and take Summit Road south. As the music of the Blasters and Neil Young plays, look at the houses along the rolling road and know that these people share a sense of community -- forged by fires, earthquakes and mudslides -- that most of us will never experience. Turn right on the Soquel-San Jose Road and coast through the slalom turns all the way down to Soquel Drive. Head south through Aptos and turn back into the hills on Freedom Boulevard.
The Velvet Underground's amber-light version of "Rock 'n' Roll" is playing as you wind through the eucalyptus groves and orchards along Hames Road and into the crossroads of Corralitos. The pungent taste of a hot link from the Corralitos Sausage Factory overloads your senses as you return to Freedom Boulevard past the orchards and the apple-packing warehouses. Freedom leads to Watsonville, where another vibe takes hold. Off Main Street, on Riverside Drive, the sounds of norteño music and banda boom out of four-room shotgun shacks. This is another California -- the one where Louie Perez, the genius lyricist of Los Lobos, saw the human spirit standing tall in the face of unspeakable adversity.
Take Riverside Drive as it follows the rich black bottomland along the Monterey County line, and turn right on Rogge Lane into Aromas. Turn left on Carr Avenue and thread through the eucalyptus grove, onto Anzar Road, where the keening, Dust Bowl-era folk tales of the Knitters seem to resonate through the harsh landscape. The road goes under Highway 101 and connects with San Juan Highway, which leads into the main drag of San Juan Bautista, past antique stores, Mexican restaurants and a mission well-known to anyone who's seen Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
Highway 156 and the main drag of Hollister are Blasters/Buck Owens country -- gritty, graceless cow country reminiscent of the sun-blasted fields south of Bakersfield. At the south end of Hollister, Highway 25 South hooks in and leads to a landscape that time forgot. After about 10 miles of gentle curves, the road drops into a narrow valley that's been essentially untouched since the Spanish land-grant era. A few cows and the ever-present hawks turning lazy arcs above the road are your only companions until the turnoff that leads to the moonscape of Pinnacles National Monument. Rank and File's larger-than-life "Golden Age" seem to best embody the sheer emptiness of the valley.
Take county road G13 west into King City, as unromantic a small town as you'd ever care to encounter, and think of the angry, trailer-park elegies of the Los Angeles band X as you roll down K.C.'s main drag. The descendants of the Joad family are alive somewhere along this singularly unblessed stretch. Jog up 101 to Greenfield, head west on county road G16 and punch up Neil Young's "Southern Pacific," the modern corollary to Frank Norris' muckraking agricultural epic, "The Octopus."
The two-lane road begins to climb and twist into the hills after crossing the river. Once again, you find yourself in genuine wild territory -- nothing but oak scrublands punctuated occasionally by tin-roofed shacks, wild turkeys and great four-foot beards of Spanish moss hanging over the road. This is the backside of Big Sur. As the road hits the flats and nears Carmel Valley Village, the ranches get smaller, the mailboxes get more frequent, and the steep sides of the valley seem to relax and open up. Past the village, the working ranch houses give way to massive '30s-era Spanish-style estates -- all open beams, wrought-iron trimmings and gracious flagstone walks. The quiet understatement of old money and the easy, fluid pace of the road begs for the Count Basie Orchestra's "Supertrain" album.
As you turn on Highway 1 to make the return trip home, punch up Yo Lo Tengo's gossamer version of Brian Wilson's "Farmer's Daughter" and glance over at the rows of new crops flying by like a riffled deck of cards. Further up the coast, in the unplowed corners of the coastal hollows, standing above the flood plain on cement blocks, you may see some weather-beaten shacks painted the color of dried blood. You might see the kids, still in their Sunday best, dangling their legs off the tailgates of the farm trucks. For some fellow travelers in this Golden State, the road to a desk job in a glass box is one they can only hope their children's children might someday see.
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Headed into Palo Alto from Highway 101, University Avenue curves gently, revealing more stately houses and manicured lawns with every oak-studded block until you round the final bend and catch sight of downtown. Turn up Claude Bolling's pastoral theme to "California Suite" and cruise slowly up University. Note the number of computer stores, croissanteries and tony boutiques. Note the number of street people outside said establishments. Draw your own hasty conclusions and forge ahead, under the train tracks, over El Camino Real and through the sandstone gates of Stanford University. Turn right at the light on Arboretum Road -- watch out for those rollerbladers -- and go past the Stanford Shopping Center to Sand Hill Road. Just after the creek, you'll jog right a block and find Perry Avenue, formerly Perry Lane.
Swap the Bolling for some early Grateful Dead. In the early '60s this one-block stretch of bungalows was ground zero for the psychedelic explosion, an academic ghetto that was home to the likes of Larry McMurtry, Neal Cassady and the Supreme Proctor of the Acid Tests, Ken Kesey. Return to Sand Hill and head west to Alpine Road, which skirts the backside of Stanford and ducks under 280.
It's a quick, uneventful ride through Ladera to the Alpine Inn, the oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in the state. The bikers, Stanford jocks and day-trippers who jam the old house and beer garden on Sunday afternoons are a tame lot compared to the loggers who founded the place in the 1850s. Still, roadhouse boogie such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds goes with this territory like peanuts go with beer.
At the town center of Portola Valley, turn right on Portola Road and stick to the valley floor until you see the turnoff for Mountain Home Road. Bumping along the one-laner into Woodside, you may want to reach again for that Bolling tape. Thread your way through the throngs of bicyclists who clog Woodside's main intersection on weekends and go straight across Woodside Road to Canada Road.
The road -- the old two-lane highway to San Francisco, actually -- shadows Interstate 280 for a ways, and then ducks down to the bottom of the watershed bordering Edgewood County Park. (The serpentine grasslands of the park harbor some of the most intensely color fields of wildflowers in the region.) Past the Filoli Estate, the dragstrip-straight road leads to the Pulgas Water Temple, where Oliver Stone shot the night-concert sequence from "The Doors."
Hang a U-turn and double back on Canada to Olive Hill Lane. Make a left on Albion Avenue and a right on Manuela Avenue. At one time or another, members of deposed dynasties from the Marcos clan to the Russian royal family have found refuge in these hills.
From Manuela, take Kings Mountain Road up the hill, pausing at the 1854-vintage Woodside Store to cue up the acoustic blues of Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo before resuming the long, twisting climb to Skyline Boulevard. Pause at the top before dropping down Tunitas Creek Road and reflect on the fact this is Neil Young country. When the fabled songwriter needs to focus his powers, he drives these roads, often at the helm of a vintage sedan the size of a small battleship.
Tunitas Creek, one of the narrowest and most unforgiving back roads in the region, eventually meets Highway 1 at the coast. Before turning south onto the highway, remember Jack Nitzsche, the producer/arranger who went from building Phil Spector's Wall of Sound to playing piano for Crazy Horse. Nitzsche, who also called the ridge to the east home for a spell, had one minor hit of his own -- "The Lonely Surfer," a lovely accompaniment to the harshly beautiful vistas one finds near San Gregorio Beach. The Ventures, whose cascading guitar sound was inspired by crashing of waves, are also an informed choice.
At Gazos Creek Road, turn away from the coast and follow the narrow lane to Cloverdale Road. In short order, Cloverdale will bring you to Pescadero Creek Road. Put in a romantic selection such as the Replacements and consider jogging left about a quarter-mile into the farm town of Pescadero for the quintessential coastside supper: cream of artichoke soup, steamed mussels and cold Dungeness crab at Duarte's Tavern.
Take Pescadero Creek Road farther inland to Highway 84. About five minutes past the town of La Honda, look for Old La Honda Road on the right. The primordial track has changed little since the days of stagecoaches. Before crossing Skyline and winding down the eastern slope to reconnect with Portola Road, consider Don Gaspar de Portola. In 1769, on a similar ridge a few miles to the north at Upper Crystal Springs, he and his party became the first non-Indians to gaze upon the San Francisco Bay. Little could he know that someday this blessed slate -- not quite blank when he found it -- would be etched and re-etched with so many successive layers of yearning and conquest that the road itself would sing of memory.