The Madonna Inn isn't the only kitsch landmark in these parts. In the otherwise cute and tidy downtown of San Luis Obispo, you can visit Bubblegum Alley, a narrow passageway where, for reasons lost in the mists of time, local students and others have been sticking chewed gum ever since the early sixties. The walls are encrusted with a thick impasto of multicolored wads that give off an overpowering odor of tutti-frutti, Dubble Bubble, and peppermint. It's extravagantly icky—a school custodian's nightmare—so, naturally, kids love it. As for us adults, Art said he thought S.L.O. would be a great town to lie low in for a while, like an only-sorta-bad character from a Ross MacDonald novel—it's just out of the way enough, with a Spanish-style mission plaza, cool vintage shops, and a cluster of promising-looking bars and cafés whose back decks jut over the creek that winds through town. We liked the Big Sky Café, which serves earnest, neo-hippie California cuisine under a ceiling painted a star-spattered indigo. Art and I had mahimahi with tomato-ginger salsa; the kids ate macaroni and cheese in a surprisingly natural shade of yellow, and got crayons in little metal pails.
At this point on the route, a lot of people make their way to Hearst Castle, one of America's great monuments to the dream of buying lineage—in Hearst's case, piece by piece, bric-by-brac from Europe. There are tours geared to families, plus a treasure hunt for kids up to 12 at the visitors' center, with prizes for winners, but we felt our children were too young. We headed instead for the anti-Hearst Castle, a sort of folk art installation that is now a California Historical Landmark in the pretty beach town of Cambria. Nit Wit Ridge is a house of junk, or, if you prefer, found objects—beach glass, pebbles, abalone shells, beer cans, old appliances—made by a fellow named Art Beal, a.k.a. Der Tinkerpaw. On a tour of the house we learned that Beal was a half-Klamath Indian who'd been a long-distance swimmer, a vaudeville performer, and a trash collector. For a while, he worked construction at Hearst Castle, and some of the fixtures and a bathtub here were scavenged from Old Man Hearst's Shangri-la. Beal dedicated himself to building an entirely recycled house: he started in 1928 and didn't stop adding to it for the next 50 years.
Beyond Cambria, we wound our way past fields of cabbages, artichokes, and tomatoes. It felt especially good to be on the road. A lone egret stood by the highway. Gauzy scarves of fog wrapped themselves around the tawny hills. The fog was so beguiling that we didn't really mind it obscuring our glimpses of the coast. Besides, we had a bagful of olallieberry muffins from Linn's Main Bin in Cambria. Olallieberries are a local treat—part blackberry, part European raspberry—and the muffins were still warm. And before we got to Big Sur, our fourth day's destination, there were the elephant seals to look for.
The best place to see northern elephant seals—huge, comically magnificent animals that live only in the waters off Alaska and California—is at a reserve called Año Nuevo, 50 miles south of San Francisco. The best time to see them is mid-December to March, when the males battle on the beach for access to the females and also when pups are born (gestation is about a year). We'd heard that there was a turnout a little north of San Simeon, though, where you could view a colony that had recently established itself. You can hear them long before you see them. Elephant seals are noisy, and the noises they make are symphonically varied, from bleating and barking to snorting and yodeling. The noses on the males are lumpy, pendulous proboscises that make them look a bit like W. C. Fields. We watched for a long time while they undulated over the sand like giant squishy toys.
Hang on to That Cliff
"That jagged country which nothing but a falling meteor will ever plow" is how the poet Robinson Jeffers described this place. Henry Miller called it "the face of the earth as the creator intended it to look." Big Sur is by far the most dramatic stretch of coastline on the route—90 miles of switchbacking road that skirts sheer cliffs lording it over a fierce blue sea, redwood groves as grand and hushed as Gothic cathedrals, blond headlands scattered with wildflowers. Big Sur has a secluded, half-secret feel to it. They didn't get electricity here until the 1950's, but that didn't prevent writers like Jeffers and Miller, and lots of lesser bohemians with a fondness for hot tubs and geodesic domes, from making their homes here. The Esalen Institute, the mother of all New Age retreats, is in Big Sur. For a while in the late sixties, Esalen attracted an eclectic assortment of questers, from Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda to Joan Baez and the Beatles (Ringo and George). Today you can stay there, or if you're not a guest, visit the hot springs between 1 and 5 a.m., when they are open to the public.
We gave that option a skip, deciding to explore gorgeous Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We walked the high trail that leads to a view of McWay Falls, a long, narrow band of water that plunges directly to the bell-shaped cove. The ocean is wild at this point—churning furiously, gleaming here and there with a pale, mentholated blue. You can't get to the beach itself, and there's something dreamlike, and frustrating in a dreamlike way, about its elusiveness.