I returned to my car and enjoyed another 15 minutes of Irving while heading toward Pasadena, where I'd be spending the night. Then I remembered how close I was to the town of Altadena and Nuccio's Nursery, one of my favorite haunts. The Nuccio family has been growing camellias since 1935 and produced many of the first camellia hybrids developed in the United States. As I wandered through the nursery, I recognized Queen Bee, which resembles an old-fashioned powder puff, the type 1940's movie stars used in their dressing rooms.
The next morning, I drove a few miles south to San Marino and the Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens. Henry Huntington, a New Yorker transplanted to California—and heir to his uncle's Southern Pacific Railroad Co.—purchased the San Marino Ranch in 1903, realizing that the nearby San Gabriel Mountains would add immeasurably to his property's allure. Together with his first overseer, a young German landscaper named William Hertrich, he began to transform the ranch into a grand garden.
Huntington and Hertrich wanted to showcase the desert's diverse botanical specimens, and I soon realized why. When the Puya bromeliad begins to unfurl its petals, birds are drawn irresistibly to its teal blue, chartreuse, and purple blossoms. I marveled at the gentle berms studded with various sizes of golden barrel cacti and interspersed with natural fountains of aloes, pincushion cacti, and succulents.
The Huntington gift store is among the best, particularly for its book selection—I was delighted to see they had both volumes of my work—and I couldn't help browsing its shelves before going into Pasadena to shop. The recently opened Anthropologie sells furniture and found objects from around the world; I admired the 1930's French garden chairs and huge cast-iron birdbaths that had just arrived. I spent a good half-hour trying to figure out how I could fit one of the latter into my car.
I continued my spending spree at Botanik, just down the road in Summerland, which has one of the state's top selections of plants and garden ornaments. Cast-iron stepping stones in the shape of lily pads caught my eye, as did the large handmade pots painted with moss spores; once planted, moss grows decoratively on the pot's exterior.
After driving up 101 from Pasadena, I arrived at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Not all botanical gardens are created equal. Many try to do too much—rose gardens on top of water gardens next to hothouses—but the one in Santa Barbara narrows its focus splendidly with a collection of more than 1,000 native species, some of which are in bloom or bear fruit much of the year, including Arctostaphylos, Ribes, and penstemon. There's a spectacular display of wildflowers—buttercups, bush sunflowers, carpets of orange and yellow California poppies—in its meadow.
Leaving Santa Barbara, I began the five-hour drive north to San Francisco with not only John Irving to keep me company but also spellbinding views of mountains, ocean whitecaps, and, finally, massive redwoods. On the way, I stopped in Woodside, 30 miles south, to see Filoli, another example of man's passion for gardens. Filoli is the former estate of William Bowers Bourn II, who owned the largest producing gold mine in California (its name comes from Bourn's personal creed: Fight for a just cause, love your fellow man, and live a good life). Spring is undoubtedly the best time to visit: The Sunken Garden bursts with 70,000 tulips, the Daffodil Field is covered with 200,000 blossoms, and the Woodland Garden is filled with pink and lavender rhododendrons and azaleas. The spot I love the most is the Chartres Garden, which has spring flowering annuals planted in patterns inspired by the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, in France.
After leaving Filoli, I returned to the road and made my way to San Francisco; I very much wanted to see the newly reopened Conservatory of Flowers. The oldest public conservatory in North America, its 12,000-square-foot Victorian greenhouse, dating to 1879, contains colorful orchid collections and a lowland tropical garden, but my favorite area is the one that houses the Nymphaeaceae, or water lilies. One of the stars here is Victoria amazonica, an enormous water lily with leaves that can grow to six feet wide. I loved the juxtaposition of natural and man-made, gigantic flowers inside a fanciful structure of glass and metal.
As I began the return drive down the coast, I thought back on each garden. I saw the vistas around Filoli and how cleverly Bourn had, in the American tradition, incorporated his surroundings into his beloved garden. I remembered how Huntington and Hertrich merged landscaping and horticulture, how they used native plants so effectively in their desert garden, how the native live oaks at Descanso complemented the camellia collection. I thought about how passionately the original California gardeners loved their plants at all seasons and in all cycles of growth, and how carefully the gardeners of today work to preserve their visions of paradise.
I also thought about that birdbath. In went another Irving tape. If I raced south, I could make it to Pasadena before the shop closed.
19 Colorado MILES 150. DRIVING TIME One day. Allow an entire day for this scenic trek through Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park (970/586-1206; www.nps.gov/romo), where you'll find flower-strewn meadows and weather-ravaged peaks. From I-25 at Loveland, Colorado, follow U.S. 34 west (it's called Trail Ridge Road in the park), passing through alpine tundra. Bring sunscreen and a jacket—some peaks along the route top 12,000 feet. Beginning at Granby, U.S. 40 east traces the back side of the mountain range, linking up with I-70 at Empire.
20 Indiana MILES 150. DRIVING TIME Two days. The architecture is what surprises amid the rural landscape of these back routes through Indiana. Take I-65 south from Indianapolis to Columbus (800/468-6564; www.columbus.in.us), a small city with a huge trove of Modernist buildings—a 1954 bank by Eero Saarinen and an I. M. Pei-designed library are among the 21 architecturally significant structures. Meander along sleepy local roads—46 west, 135 south, and 56 west—to West Baden Springs. Stay overnight at the nearby French Lick Springs Resort & Spa (800/457-4042; www.frenchlick.com; doubles from $126), built in 1902. The following day, take U.S. 150 east to Louisville, Kentucky.