My New Year’s resolution was “to consume the California coast in a single gulp,” said Christopher Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times. Starting off in my Toyota Corolla at the state’s southernmost point in the Tia Juana River Valley, I’d drive up the coastal roads until I reached Oregon. Of course, “unless you can spend a month on a trip like this, you have to leave out places.” My brief itinerary skipped stops in Orange County entirely, and I spent only minutes in San Francisco. But that meant I had the chance to discover a California I’d never known. “When you travel off-season, you find more bare beaches, thinner traffic,” and considerably cheaper hotels. Best of all, the “rocks, sand, surf,” and wildlife know nothing about economic instability or financial crises. “That makes them excellent companions.”
“Mile Zero” was swampy Border Field State Park, in San Diego County. I drove no more than 15 miles before I reached, of all things, an outdoor ice-skating rink near the rocky beach in Coronado. “Ridiculous, meet sublime.” The first morning found me at Mile 177, where I took a brief detour by bicycle along the Santa Monica Bay Trail. By the next morning I had made it to Mile 411, where I climbed Black Hill in Morro Bay State Park to watch the sun rise. I stopped to walk the waterfall trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur (Mile 505), where “the convergence of tumbled rocks, surging sea, and rampaging winds” created a spectacle I could barely tear myself away from.
Mile 741, Marin County. The road rises and falls through hilly farmland and a “scrim of fog.” Mile 883, Westport. I eat a home-cooked breakfast at the Howard Creek Ranch, just north of Fort Bragg. “Mile 911, Leggett: Drive-through tree, $5. No-brainer.” I was also sorely tempted, some 200 miles later, to investigate a 50-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan. The Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City (that’s Mile 1,123) “ought to be the end of California.” Perched stoically on its own island, the 1850s structure beckoned to me. But in fact I had a little farther to go. I hit the gas—and got pulled over by a California highway patrolman in Del Norte County, “about one mile shy of the Oregon border.” I’d only been driving 10 miles over the speed limit, but was nearly giddy with adrenaline. “Really, it’s a wonder no sobriety test was ordered.”