My O.C.: Calm on Coast Highway

The county’s stretch of PCH brings serenity when it’s needed most.
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

On restless days, I grab my keys, back the car out of the garage, and head for some open road—Bolsa Chica to Warner and a burst of fresh ocean air as I make the left turn past the iconic Jack-in-the Box and head south on PCH. 

Driving Orange County’s Pacific Coast Highway, from its northernmost point in Seal Beach, close to where I live, to San Clemente, has always calmed me. The beauty along the coast inspires me to rise above whatever weighed me down. With shades of the cerulean Pacific on one side and unaffordable real estate on the other, PCH has been the setting for some of my greatest escapes.

As a high school student in O.C. during the ’80s, Friday ditch days inevitably had me loading other truant friends into my baby blue VW Bug. In those times before mandatory seat belt laws, gangly arms and legs piled in the car as some sat double and others crouched on the floor. We’d set our sights on another carefree day in the California sun. I’d pass the hat around for gas money. Someone in the front seat searched for Rick Springfield on the radio. The big questions of those days were, how far can a Volkswagen get on $2.85? And Huntington State or City Beach? If there was an open spot on PCH, we parked for free during those golden days before the city put in sidewalks and meters. 

Once I parked my Bug a little too far off the road on PCH and Beach Boulevard. The tires got stuck in the loose, dry sand near one of the oil drills that dotted the shoreline. The wheels spun fruitlessly, kicking up sprays of sand. A couple of surfers in wetsuits saw my predicament, stuck a piece of driftwood under my back tire, and pushed my car to more solid ground. Their rescue was performed so effortlessly that the guys picked up their surfboards, caught the next WALK sign, and settled in the ocean before I could unload my beach bag.

On a 90-degree day in May right before finals, my best friend, Cristina, and I skipped our afternoon classes at the local community college. We followed the siren call of PCH and ended up at Bolsa Chica Beach. We spread out blankets, applied sunscreen, and slipped on our knockoff Ray Bans. Finals in anatomy were the next day. Cristina pulled a lab packet out of her beach bag. I reached into my straw tote for a large glass jar, similar to the ones on the bottom shelves of grocery stores filled with dill pickles. Our recycled jar contained a preserved sheep heart, the one we’d been dissecting all semester. With sheep heart in hand, we quizzed each other for hours while working on our tans. 

“Find the aortic valve.”

“Locate the muscle striations.”

Looking up at the cars whizzing by, I felt sorry for those passengers. Life was so good, and they were missing it. When we checked our sheep heart back into the biology department the next day, no one noticed the crystals of sand embedded in the cardiac muscle.

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Many years later, I was a married mom of two. When my husband, Todd, and I could find a babysitter, we’d make our way to Pacific Coast Highway in search of respite, even if just for a weekend. I’d long since traded my beloved VW for a minivan, with a sunroof at least. We popped it open and let the wind seduce us into thinking we were teenagers again. Sometimes we’d drive aimlessly down PCH, ticking off the cities—Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Laguna Beach—until we found just the right bed-and-breakfast. More often, we’d endure the Friday afternoon traffic to catch a reservation made at a hotel along the coast. When my hubby would complain about all the other cars and the constant red lights, I’d point to the west.

“Shut up and look at the sunset.”

PCH is choked with traffic, especially at sunset. It seemed a small price to me, to have Mother Nature remind me that the world was big, my problems small, and that all would work out in the end. Her advice was free to anyone who cared to travel the coast and gaze upon the horizon.

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Later, when my parents were in their 80s, I drove them to appointments at Hoag hospital in Newport Beach. Going there, we’d take the freeway; but when the doctors visits were finished, we had the luxury of driving home on PCH. My parents loved watching the water as we drove north.

“It reminds me when I was younger and would go to Batangas Beach in the Philippines,” Mom would say. Then Dad would crack a joke about her enticing beachwear, and Mom would reach into the back seat of the van to slap him across the head. Every three months, a visit to the doctor, the same stories about beaches in the Philippines, the same mock slap, laughter, and the same glorious drive on PCH. Driving the coast was like a time machine, and I could see my parents young again.

During the early days of the pandemic, when we were relegated to our homes and yards, my daughter Angela, now in her 30s, and I hopped in her Prius and drove PCH to feel human again. We traveled for more than an hour, noting which beaches were packed with people and which were deserted. Eventually, we stopped in Dana Point at the gazebo on the bluff. We laughed as we pulled down our cloth masks and lapped up the outdoor air like thirsty dogs taking in water. Driving PCH that afternoon restored our sanity. For the first time in weeks, we did something “normal.”  

A few months ago, my father passed away after a brief battle with cancer, on hospice for only three weeks. One day, the shock and loss felt particularly unbearable. Again, I turned to PCH for solace. I grabbed the car keys and backed the car out of the garage, driving Dad’s car, desperate to be close to him. Down Bolsa Chica to Warner and south along the coast. I rolled down all the windows and let the ocean wind take away my breath and hoped it would take my tears as well.  

I don’t remember the traffic or even the sunset from that drive. I know I snapped out of my grief halfway through San Clemente and made the U-turn to come back home. My head remained in a fog until I got to Newport Boulevard, and the familiar turnoff from Hoag hospital appeared.  

The air in the car became thick with memory. I heard the familiar back-and-forth between my parents. 

“The water reminds me of the beaches back in the Philippines.” 

“It reminds me of your sexy bathing suits.”

And for a few more glorious miles along Coast Highway, my dad’s mischievous laugh once again filled the car.