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Highway One: experiencing a taste of the real USA

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For the final week of my incredible American honeymoon, I drove the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Highway One is probably one of the most famous routes in the world, and it is also one of the most scenic. With the Beach Boys as our soundtrack, my new husband and I took a week to travel the nearly four hundred miles of incredible coastline.

Our Route 66 drive ended in Santa Monica. After weeks in the car, hiring bikes was a great way to explore and burn off some of the huge meals we had consumed on the road.

Image credit: Joe Yates on Unsplash

Santa Monica, just north of Los Angeles and close to Hollywood, has almost year-round sunshine and a laid back atmosphere, making the town popular with A-list celebrities. We managed not to see Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock or the Beckhams, but we may well have cycled past their beachfront mansions.

Sights we did see included a man wearing nothing more than a live snake, a Christmas tree dancing on a surfboard, and teens performing incredible gymnastic feats at Muscle Beach.

Image credit: Charles Thorogood

Venice Beach is very similar to Camden, but with sand and sunshine, fewer punks, and more beach volleyball.

Cycling the boardwalk to Santa Monica pier felt like a film scene. The pier is the place to be seen and we spent a very happy afternoon people-watching and listening to Liliac Band, a rock version of the Von Trapp family band. Managed by their father, who was also their loudest fan, this explained why they all looked scarily alike.

We continued our journey by making our way slowly north to Ventura. The countryside here is lush and green and the area is known as the salad bowl of America. We were concerned to see busloads of Asian workers being dropped off to work in the fields, the modern-day equivalent of the 1930s dust bowl migration. With standard issue straw hats providing some protection from the unrelenting sun, we hoped they were well cared for.

In Monterey City, the area's complicated past with its history of Mexican and Spanish conflict was evident in its buildings. The city, once famous for fishing and canning industry, is now a popular tourist resort with an unmissable aquarium, full with rescued sea life.

Finding myself in the Salinas Valley was another bucket list moment. The Gabilan Mountains, famously mentioned in the opening of John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men, was surprisingly emotional. I have taught the novel to hundreds of students in my years of teaching and I am always moved by the tragic ending. Discovering the statue to Steinbeck’s best friend Edward Ricketts, who was killed on the railway line, was also a sad moment. We placed flowers in the statue's hand in tribute to a man who inspired a great writer.

Image credit: Charles Thorogood

We tried and failed to picnic in Half Moon Bay, mostly chosen because we liked the name. The $16 charge and the looming threat of an angry ranger made it a less than relaxing experience!

Our final Highway One stop was the town of Santa Cruz. The coastal drive is beautiful, with rugged rocks and beautiful caves. At Santa Cruz’s lighthouse, I learnt a great deal about shark attacks in the surfing museum - five a year, and never in a kelp forest.

Here, surfing is a lifestyle, as is testified by the wooden memorial overlooking the bay. Among the names carved on the fence, lay surfer trinkets, bouquets of flowers, religious crosses and old t-shirts, all in tribute to those who have died catching their last wave.

Image credit: Charles Thorogood

After the quiet of the beaches and coves, San Francisco felt crowded and dirty. People were rushed and rude. However, this is a creative and vibrant city where being outrageous is positively encouraged.

On one bus ride, our fellow passengers included a drag queen in full evening attire, a cat on a lead, and a small group of protestors waving banners and protesting Trump.

Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge are obvious tourist destinations, but be prepared for exhausting walks uphill.  

I wore flowers in my hair when we visited Haight-Ashbury in tribute to the Summer of Love. 

Sadly, there was little love to be found on the streets of San Francisco, where the homeless population is large. The disparity between the rich and poor is the greatest we had seen on our month-long journey across the USA.

The USA has a complex history and is packed with breath-taking landscapes, where, if you look closely, you will find all forms of human life represented. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to experience just a little bit of the "real" USA.  

Lead image credit: Joe Yates on Unsplash




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