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Transcending the Pacific Coast Highway

pch-roadI am one with the wheel gripped in my hands. The car and I move fluidly along the sinuous embanked road. Every minute movement of my wrist is responded to by the vehicle’s motion. There is no vehicle—I have acquired four rubber wheels instead of feet, and I float along the California coastline in a transcendental state. I no longer see the Pacific Coast Highway’s (PCH) curves or bending yellow lines or asphalt lanes, it has become me. Hemmed in by the ocean on one side and the rose-gold hills on the other, I am heading on a path that leads to nowhere and everywhere all at once.

pch-coast“I felt sweet, singing bliss,” as Jack Kerouac states, revving my way up the PCH, and like him I want to disengage from myself. I thought this serpentine route running along the Pacific Ocean would help me achieve some sort of zen state where who I was became only an idea. If I could drive long enough and fast enough perhaps my conscious self would vanish and I could meld with the universal emptiness. Identity, however, is difficult to get rid of I discovered, even on as divine a thoroughfare as Route 1.

“I am who I am wherever I travel, and much as I desire to be someone else, cannot assume a different persona.”

I carry my identity with me as inevitably as luggage.

pch-fogThe PCH propagates questions of identity like fog patches. Grappling through the immaculate streets of Corona del Mar or navigating the treacherous stretch near Half Moon Bay, this highway keeps interrogating me, “Who are you?” I do not have an answer. I have always agreed with Walt Whitman that I hold multitudes within me, that who I am is ever-changing, like the restless waves surging and splintering upon the rocky shores of this byway. Yet, coasting from town to town on a thruway that encourages continual motion I also realize that the core of me is more rigid than I perceived. Within me are certain properties which do not seem similar to anybody else’s though I share the same molecular structure, the same foundational protons, neutrons, and electrons as the universe. These same properties also have not changed over time despite the many lands I have seen and the stories I have lived. That look behind my eyes when things are not going well, the way my jaw clenches when I am thinking, the shift in timbre when I am certain of what I say, these are innate pieces of me that have not altered since I could form ideas, and they will not differ on my deathbed. These aspects are interwoven into who I am just as much as my shifting moles, my transmuting goals, and my varying beliefs.

pch-bridgeOver the years the character of the Pacific Coast Highway has permuted as well. Landslides, storms, and humans have created and destroyed parts of the freeway, modifying its course. Yet, in some mysterious manner, the highway continues as itself. Perhaps I am clinging to this illusion because in between driving sessions I am struggling to comprehend philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s ideas of non-individualism. In his cosmological treatise, “Ethics,” Spinoza asserts, “men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.” Watching the miles of tawny boulders and blue water drift by, I wonder if I were to misplace myself, to have all my memories erased, would I then become someone else or would I become no one? What makes us in this world us? What differentiates a single redwood tree from every other redwood tree so that however much it evolves, its immanent nature is recognized? Quantum theorists would argue that everything is merely perception. However, something in me rebels at the idea of being a concept. I need to be separate from the shadow I cast; I desire to be more than an abstraction constructed out of gossamer and conjecture.

pch-shoreWatching the carmine orb slowly sink into the vastness of the Pacific, I cannot believe that my sentient experiences could be phantasm only. Comprehending the tangles of this bohemian road, feeling at one with it yet apart from its essence, learning to adapt to its contours and intuiting its moods, I am finding it impossible to believe that I or the Pacific Coast Highway could be chimerical puppets in a hypothetical framework of strings. Perhaps this is as natural, albeit false, as the true eternal order. I know little of the universe’s performance but am eager to study more. “Be not astonished at new ideas,” Spinoza warns, “for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted.” Understanding, he claims, will make us truly free. However, it is wonder, passion, and love which intertwine with reason and logic to give my life richness, depth, and meaning. Together they create an elaborate tapestry which defines me wherever I go.pch-view


The continually changing California coastline made the Pacific Coast Highway difficult to build and continues to make it a challenge to maintain. Traveling through the Big Sur area from Carmel was especially difficult before the state, with the help of San Quentin prisoners, built six concrete arch bridges during the Great Depression. In recent years, earthquakes and landslides have necessitated rerouting the PCH further inland through the coastal mountain ranges.

What roads have been your favorite driving adventures? What is a road you would like to experience on your next travel?

42 replies »

  1. You asked what roads have been favorite driving adventures. Having driven in 49 states and 9 Canadian provinces, there are too many favorites to cover in a brief comment, so I’ll just mention one that I think relatively few “lower 48” Americans have driven: Rt. 37A in northwest British Columbia. It’s only 41 miles long (from Rt. 37, west to Stewart, BC, which borders Hyder, Alaska), but the scenery is spectacular with glaciers and waterfalls tumbling from mountains on both sides of the road. It’s been 16 years since my trip there, so there has probably been much glacier melting due to global warming since 2001, but no doubt the scenery is still spectacular.

    • Thank you so much Sartenada. I love road trips too, they are a fun way to see the landscape. California and Nevada have some beautiful roads to explore, the Pacific Coast Highway being one of the more crowded. Still it has such stunning scenery on it, it is worth driving.

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