Highway 101, the old Spanish El Camino Real, cuts through a grove of eucalyptus in the hills that separate San Juan Bautista from Monterey Bay. As a child the dappled shadows of those tall trees and the green medicinal odor of their scaly leaves marked a sort of mystical boundary, a division between everything that was vaguely home (the greater San Francisco Bay Area) and the particular away which meant we were going to visit my maternal grandparents near San Luis Obispo, another 150 miles south. My grandparents are gone now, but I still like to visit San Luis Obispo once a year.
As it descends to the alluvial plain where the Salinas Valley empties into Monterey Bay, the highway winds through a patchwork of changing landscapes. Artichoke fields flank the road in the fog belt near the bay, where the weather is mild year round. But south of the city of Salinas the summer sun tyrannizes. Between the wooded scarp topped by Mt Toro and Palo Escrito to the west and the rocky Gabilan range to the east the July heat licks up from the scorched floor of the Salinas Valley like flames in a gas oven.
Grant Street in Chualar
This is where Steinbeck’s Okies came to work in the 1930s. Today’s Okies are the mostly Mexican farm laborers who fan out in teams across the irrigated fields and steer harvesters and tractors through djinn-like columns of whirling dust. We made a brief stop in the valley town of Chualar, situated halfway between Salinas and the charmingly-named Soledad (‘Solitude’). Chualar is a migrant worker town with a bit of an Old West feeling, a hint of bleak doom. The Union Pacific rail line runs west of downtown. The heat is breathless. There are few trees, a few run-down houses, a handful of liquor stores. There are no pedestrians. Everyone keeps indoors. Late-80s-model cars cruise the streets and stop to disgorge a half dozen sweaty laborers in ‘Santa Muerte’ T-shirts who vanish into windowless saloons. Vultures sail the updrafts overhead.
South of King City, the valley begins to lift and though the heat is still relentless the rolling hills make it somehow bearable. Treeless white and yellow ridges fill in the uninhabited regions to west and east but near San Ardo there are vineyards planted for miles along the highway. It’s easy to imagine you’re passing through some pastoral corner of Palestine or Lebanon.
Vineyards near San Ardo
Continuing south the hills grow higher and cover themselves with scrub oak and chaparral. East of the highway are dozens of pumpjacks (also known as ‘nodding donkeys’ or ‘grasshopper pumps’), sucking oil out of the wells that still produce it. This is the part of central California where Daniel Plainview in Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (and There Will Be Blood) made his fortune. The oil men of central and southern California today are enjoying a counter-recessional boom thanks to rising crude prices. From Coyote Hills southward to the Los Angeles basin, a scan of the region on Google Maps will turn up isolated grids of pumpjacks all through the Coast Ranges.
Near the headwaters of the Salinas River and the southern end of Monterey County is Camp Roberts, an abandoned army base that reaches into the hills toward Nacimiento Lake and San Antonio Reservoir. A pair of retired howitzers frames the old ‘Camp Roberts’ sign on a hilltop. To the west of the highway are blocks of empty barracks, review halls, storefronts, a post office and a church, all intact but broadcasting neglect in their shattered windows and the steel-blue paint that peels off in hand-breadths and collects on the gravel.
Ridge near Camp Roberts
South of Camp Roberts is Mission San Miguel Arcangel, which is under repair for structural damage suffered in a 2003 temblor. The sanctuary and portions of the grounds are off-limits. But the arcade, cemetery and perimeter wall are unrestored and give off an antique 18th-century air. After the Mexican government seized control of Alta California and secularized the missions, Governor Pio Pico sold Mission San Miguel to an American named William Reed, who lived there with his wife and children for several years before they were all murdered on the grounds. In 1859, nine years after California’s admission to the Union, President Buchanan gave Mission San Miguel back to the Catholic Church.
Interior of Mission San Miguel, ca. 1934
The landscape freshens up considerably as Highway 101 passes the communities of Paso Robles and Atascadero and climbs into Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Lucia Mountains, redolent of deer and wild boar and mountain lion. Then at Cuesta Pass the mountains are stripped bare again and the highway makes a steep, snaking descent to Los Osos Valley. At the base of the grade is San Luis Obispo, spread out beneath Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak, two dacite volcanic plugs in a string of nine that extend twelve miles to Morro Bay, the southern terminus of Big Sur.
Mission San Luis Obispo was founded in 1772 by Junipero Serra and the city that’s grown up around it retains much of the historic charm on offer in places like Santa Barbara, but on a smaller scale and with less pretense. It’s also a university town and so is thick with students and the coffeehouses, restaurants and bars they support. We were lucky enough to be there on market day when several blocks of Higuera Street are converted to an open air farmer’s market cum carnival and performance space. My children were particularly interested in the massive barbeque pits, the Air Force Reserve brass band, a scruffy fellow riding a bike mounted with deer antlers, and a group of students at one particular street corner advertising free hugs.
Market day on Higuera Street
From San Luis Obispo we made a day trip to Pismo Beach (my son kept quoting old Bugs Bunny cartoons: ‘Pismo beach and all the clams we can eat!’). There we spent several hours hunting dragons through the dunes and collecting sand dollars on the shore. That evening at the hotel I had the pleasure of smoking my pipe to the hooting of owls under the stars. The next day I spent an undisturbed hour at Phoenix Books on Monterey Street, where I purchased paperback copies of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Cynthia Ozick’s The Cannibal Galaxy. San Luis Obispo used to have an even better bookshop, Leon’s, on Higuera Street. It was an awful loss to me personally to find Leon’s gone a couple years back. But Phoenix has only improved since then. And it’s consoling to see that the old Leon’s sign -permanently affixed to the façade of its building- still lights up after sunset.
The old Leon’s Books sign
Ah, books. Ah, roadtrips too.