The thing you tend to forget when you're planning a road trip with young kids is that they don't like to leave the places they like. Children are natural-born Buddhists—fervent in their devotion to the here and now. Whatever the next roadside attraction might be, it lacks the deeply persuasive allure of the present one. And besides, once let out of the car, a kid will want to stay out.
Still, there are a few great road trips that can inveigle almost anybody, a few that can instill a lifelong curiosity about what lies beyond the next hairpin turn. The road trip that made me love road trips was on Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, which stretches from Mexico to the town of Leggett in northern California but is perhaps most captivating between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As a kid, I took that 380-mile journey several times in the sixties and seventies, when my parents drove my older brother and sister to college in the Bay Area. Highway 1 was the road to bohemia and liberation, and the trips were like movies, with the Lovin' Spoonful or the Doors on the radio, and the mist-shrouded bluffs of Big Sur beckoning like something out of Tolkien.
Of course, it's not only me. Highway 1 is the sort of road you see in car ads and movies, one that begs to be driven in a red convertible. It has stomach-dropping turns, wide, clean beaches, and cliffs that plunge to the frothing ocean. It cleaves to the edge of the continent in a way that no road on the more developed East Coast does. And just when you're thinking, Enough with the drama already, it offers up acres of soft green farmland—lettuce, strawberries, even the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world, Castroville. No wonder this highway is one of America's unofficial pilgrimage routes—for beatniks, surfers, food groupies chasing the latest fresh taste sensation, and thrill-seekers of all sorts.
L.A. to Santa Barbara
Last summer, when my husband, Art, and I took our East Coast-bred kids on a weeklong Highway 1 road trip from L.A. to San Francisco, I hoped that Ike, six, and Lucy, not quite three, would love it as I had. We decided to start off slowly (and fudge the amount of time they'd actually spend in the car) with a two-night stop in Santa Barbara. The road between L.A. and Santa Barbara—it's called 101 and lies inland—is the least interesting, most mall-ridden and generic part of the route, and we hustled through it. Still, as we got farther from L.A. in our rented van, the lion-colored hills, the oleander bushes, and the signs that read warning: AVOCADO THEFT IS A CRIME reminded me I was home again.
Santa Barbara is one of those lucky places—lucky in its Mediterranean climate, its lemon- and lavender- and sea-scented air, and its location, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and a Nice-like curve of coastline where palm trees lean toward the sea. It was even lucky, in a way, in the earthquake that destroyed the town in 1925, allowing its civic fathers to build a planned city such as you rarely see in the United States, with a profusion of red-tile-roofed Spanish Colonial architecture.
On Stearns Wharf the first evening, we found a funky little novelty confection store, where we bought candy lipstick and Gummi penguins. Ike and Lucy ate them while we looked back at the mountains rising straight and misty blue in the twilight, their foothills stitched with glimmering lights. In a Mexican part of town the next day, we had lunch at a crowded taquería called La Super-Rica—an unprepossessing place painted aqua and white where we devoured wonderful chayote (squash) tamales and tacos made with grilled pork and calabacitas (zucchini).