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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. I have done this drive a couple of times, and I have to say that you perfectly captured the grandeur and beauty of it. An excellent post as always!

  2. To answer your question about favorite drives. Though I don’t actually drive, my favorite road experiences came travelling about Turkey by bus during the 1980s. The road from Trabzon to Van was particular exhilarating for those who like skating on the outermost orbits of life. Looking down at trucks at the bottom of creeks makes you appreciate living that bit more. The winding coastal road from Antalya heading westwards gets pretty hair-raising in parts too, but the magnificent views are well-worth the anxiety attacks. Then there’s Arctic Norway, and …. well, there are just too many to include.

    • Thanks for sharing some of your road experiences! I find it interesting that so many beautiful roads with stunning scenery are also incredibly “hair-raising” to drive (or be driven) through.

  3. Atreyee and Jesse, Thank you for a most beautiful tribute to one of my favorite places to explore. Fabulous images especially Pigeon Point and Bixby Bridge. Simply magical.

  4. Thank you so much for this delightful post of a land that lives in my heart forevermore. How many times have I travelled along the PCH? Too many to count. Living on the Central Coast of California for almost 20 years brought me so many adventures along this very highway, shared with my children as they grew up and with visiting family from England. Gorgeous photos and narrative. And now I am thoroughy homesick for my second home. Time to return methinks 🙂

  5. I have less reason and logic than you, and a lot less intelligence, but I would love to try and lose myself on this ride of all rides. Your prose is supreme. I long to see that carmine orb sinking on that shoreline. 🙂

  6. My one and only trip on the PCH from LA to SF was incredible…spent a few days at Big Sur and felt as if I was living in a timeless place. Beautiful photos and writing.

    • Thank you. Big Sur was an amazing area and definitely had that timeless quality to it you mention. It was nice to get lost in the fog covered shores and feel like we were the only ones there.

      • I remember sitting on a hillside on morning with my coffee looking out over the sea of fog and clouds, and doe and her fawn broke through and came walking by…pure peace as they walked across the hill and dipped into the valley below. I felt 1,000 miles away from everywhere.

  7. This was one of my favourite drives I’ve ever done. Also the scariest when done at night. Beautiful pictures!

    • Thankfully we didn’t do any night driving on the PCH, but I can only imagine that it would be hair-raising given all those blind turns and steep edges! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Wow. Well-written post. Love the Keruoac quote! Sounds like an amazing drive. I’ve always wanted to go there myself and hope to experience it as you have one day. Great insights. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, indeed Highway 395 is another beautiful road in California, some of which we experienced on our way to Death Valley. The section running through Kings Canyon is especially breath-taking.

  9. I spent a little time Monterey, CA. What an amazing place…..1, 101…..Route 66 (or whatever is left)…it is a list.

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