California Highway 1 is pretty much the epitome of what it means to travel on the edge. Planted and paved in a narrow space between the surging Pacific Ocean and the cliffs of the stubborn continent, it is literally and figuratively, the edge. And you can drive on it.
Having spent restful night tucked in a cove behind Montana de Oro itself, amidst fir and Eucalyptus that hissed in the ocean wind, I awoke to ride the “1” north. The plan was to make it San Francisco and then turn inland for two days in Napa to re-charge, wash some clothes and see an old friend. Plans on the edge, as I know by now, rarely survive in tact. It turns out that Highway 1 is very nearly washed away between basically Hearst Castle around San Simeon and just south of Monterey. I drive to the spot of the closure where, by happy accident, I get to see a colony of Elephant Seals before turning back to find a route inland around the damage. Among their many charms, Elephant Seals spend most of March and early April lying on the beach blowing snot out of their noses and shedding all their hair. The molted hair and skin leaves a piquant odor in the air and provides an all you can eat buffet for the noisy seagulls. There are several hundred seals flopped up on the beach itching and snorting. The males grow to 5,000 pounds and are 16 feet long. The females are a svelt 1,800 pounds and 12 feet long. Not even including the juveniles you can begin to get a sense for the amount of hair and skin we are talking about. Educational, yes, and an interesting thing to check off the bucket list, but at this time of year at least, unpleasant.
So as it turns out, the rugged western edge is a fragile thing. A continent unmotivated to cede its ground and a sea determined to take it away. Add in a year of record rains, a good portion of which having hit the ground wants very badly to run to the sea and the edge is getting it from both sides. The combination has proved too much this year and the mudslides and road collapses have forced an alteration to my plans. I weave my way back over the coastal range and find suitable route north as far as necessary to rejoin Highway 1. The same rains that have washed out the highway on the edge have fueled a spectacular outbreak of fertility on the eastern side of the coastal range. The broad green valley, already known for its vegetable production is chock-a-block with new growth and every grower and farmhand is wearing a smile. I think about the early settlers here as I drive along. Some saw the coastal range and thought, just one more time we will see what’s on the other side. Others saw the fertile valley on the eastern side and, after weeks in the desert, said this is where we will settle. And there they did, ultimately producing the bulk of an entire nation’s fruit and vegetables. The other group crossed one more range only to damn near fall into the sea. But there they settled also, hanging towns in the narrow gaps in the cliffs and exercising all manner of engineering to cantilever and prop up what soon became centers of fishing and financial and technological industries. With the ocean as a backdrop and no plows to push, the western edge became the more popular and the required development pushed further still the boundaries of what one can and can’t do to a terrain to establish a home. Periodically, we are reminded when we pushed too far — and the land simply takes it back. Whether through a shifting of the ground itself, or the sloughing off of hillsides under the weight of heavy rains.
Such is the beauty of this rugged edge that, regardless of the risks and penalties, we simply call in the big machines and start again. California will re-open the lost sections of the Highway 1, edging them a bit closer into the cliffs, supporting them a bit more strongly with engineeried devices. And one day, the land will take those back too. Man decided the northern and most of the southern edge of our country, but nature created the western one. And it’s not inclined to have its choices altered. And so the struggle continues out here on the edge.