Roadside Magic

May 2011

It was a Super Bowl Sunday in the late ’90s. I had driven with my son, then about 7, to San Francisco for the weekend, and we decided to take the scenic route home along Highway 1 through Big Sur, assuming there’d be less traffic because of the game. That decision led to what I still consider my Ultimate California Road Trip Moment.

We were cruising along the Central Coast about seven miles north of San Simeon when we saw a couple of cars pulled off on the berm, on the ocean side. Their occupants had wandered over to a small bluff overlooking the Pacific beaches, and they were intently watching … something. So—what the heck?—we stopped. I was 7 once, too.

The surreal scene that unfolded about 10 feet below us was like something on the National Geographic Channel. On the beach lay hundreds of blubbery gray lumps. They looked like garden slugs that had escaped their shells, if you can imagine garden slugs that weigh as much as a Ford Explorer. Some were barking like dogs. Some were fighting. Some were engaged in behaviors that required uncomfortable explanation, and I can only hope the lusty images the lad witnessed that day have not scarred him. What has been seen cannot be unseen.

We had—by sheer accident and our unhurried schedule—stumbled across the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. The colony, which spends eight to 10 months a year in the open ocean, has been wallowing up at that spot a few months a year since 1990 to mate, have pups, and rest.

Today, the party has grown to about 15,000 animals. Even though it’s still free to anyone who happens by, the bluffs have been civilized with wooden walkways and safety railings, mostly to keep the curious and idiotic from disturbing the seals. There’s even a parking lot. But the day we stumbled across that untamed scene remains one of the most magical moments of my life in California.

No one should be surprised that it happened on a road trip. In master-planned Orange County, we sometimes forget that only a fraction of the magnificent California landscape is covered by freeways, and not all of the rivers have concrete bottoms. So with spring upon us, this month we’re suggesting five memorable journeys and urging you all to get outta town, because that’s where magic often happens.

Martin J. Smith

Illustration by John Ueland

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