To amuse my friends caught in the big Eastern blizzard, I thought I'd recall some of my favorite scenic drives. I spend most of my days, sitting in one place, writing. But I also like to sit in one place and move, i.e., driving.
Driving is the curse of living in southern California: too much time spent in our cars because of too many other people in cars. But on an open road, it's different. Sometimes I just love the feeling of driving down some spectacular road, in some exotic place, with the right music blasting, on a beautiful day. Here are five of my favorites driving experiences:
THE DALMATIAN COAST -- In the late 1970s, when there was still such a thing as Yugoslavia, the Tiny Goddess and I took a drive down the Dalmatian Coast. This beautiful region, which comprises a good portion of the eastern coast of Adriatic Sea, is now part of Croatia. Years later, that week-long drive still summons up feelings of excitement and wonder in me.
Our route began in Trieste, Italy, for just one night. (But one night in Trieste was enough to spark thoughts of the time that James Joyce there, which is where he met Italo Svevo, author of The Confessions of Zeno. But that's another story altogether.) We took a rickety train across the border into Yugoslavia, to the drab port city of Rijeka, where we picked up our rental car. It was a yellow Volkswagen hatchback, I remember that. And I also remember that after the second day, it lost its reverse gear. But fortunately, we were going in only one direction: south.
Once out of the city, we found the coast highway and began the long drive that would ultimately end in Dubrovnik, "the Jewel of the Adriatic," four hundred miles away. The two-lane coastal highway, sometimes hundreds of feet above the blue Adriatic, wasn't very wide and didn't have many fences to keep drivers from swerving off into a steep drop to certain death in the sea below. But it was really fun to drive, in that scary, theme-park-ride way. Hairpin turns, switchback turns, blind turns – every type of curve you can imagine was employed to fit the highway around the steep, indented coastline. Fortunately, there wasn't a lot of traffic in 1978. Back then, there didn't seem to be a whole lot of tourism there, except for packs of German tourists in trailer camps.
Though our main aim was work our way down the coast, we did take one inland excursion to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. This park, the largest in Croatia and one of the first natural areas to be named the UNESCO World Heritage register, is simply one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Plitvice is most famous for its sixteen lakes of cascading water, its many waterfalls, and its absurdly lovely turquoise water. It was well worth the detour inland, but soon it was back to the Adriatic coast.
For the rest of the drive south, we enjoyed the most glorious views of the Adriatic and the more than 1,000 islands off the coast. Zadar ... Sibenik ... Trogir ... Split ... Korcula ... even the names of the places we visited were cool. We had meals of grilled fish (the day's catch, from the water right in front of our eyes), salad, and white wine, almost every night. We still say that the trout from the restaurant at Plitvice Lakes was the best trout we've ever tasted.
We enjoyed a concert at Diocletian's Palace in Split. We walked the old quarters of the towns at night. We were usually the only Americans. We tried out our few words of Serbo-Croatian: 'Dobar dan' and 'racun molim,' which mean "good day" and "check, please." I'm sure I had a Berlitz phrasebook that asked, "Where are the bathrooms?" The person I was addressing would invariably repeat my phrase, smile, and then direct me appropriately.
Our final destination was Dubrovnik, one of the best-preserved medieval walled cities in the world (recently restored after the horrible damage that occurred during the Bosnian War from 1992 and 1995.), It is one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the whole Mediterranean, and an absolute knockout of a place. That's where we left our Volkswagen for good; we didn't need it in the city. But it was that drive down the coast – the views, the sunshine, the sense of exploration, the danger of the ever-present edge– that I remember most.
THE RING OF KERRY -- It's no secret to anyone who knows me or has read much of my stuff to know that that I am a Hibernophile. In other words, I love many things that are Irish: the literature, the music, etc. (Hibernia is the ancient name of Ireland, just as Scotland was Caledonia, Wales was Cambia, and England was Britannia.) I spent the first semester of my senior year of college, living in Dublin. It was a formative experience for me in many ways. During that semester, I hitchhiked all over Ireland. The country of Ireland is about as big as the state of Maine, so it's pretty easy for an American, used to long distances, to move around.
For whatever reasons life presented, I never went back to Ireland until 2008, when I returned with the Tiny Goddess for a two-week-plus vacation. (This was at the peak of prosperity for the "Celtic Tiger," before the worldwide financial collapse, and country just glowed with wealth and good times.) We spent the first few days in Dublin, but soon we got out on the road for the main part of the vacation: seeing the rest of Ireland.
The main driving issue in Ireland is, of course, they drive on the left side of the road. I had driven on the left once before, during a week in Jamaica, but it was still a strange change for an American driver. It took constant vigilance and the ever-helpful assistance of the Tiny Navigator – to make WIDE right turns, and CLOSE left turns – and to be sure that I didn't run into anything or kill anybody (pace Matthew Broderick).
And another thing: they don't have automatic transmission cars in Ireland. I knew how to drive a stick, but I hadn't done it in many years. So not only did I have to drive on the left, I had to shift with my left arm, too, while clutching with my right leg. Over and over and over and over again.
Except for the newest highways, the roads in Ireland are very narrow. I mean EXTREMELY narrow. On my very first day of driving, in the town of Rathdrum in County Wicklow, I smashed the driver's side mirror into something – I still don't know what -- almost knocking it completely off. (I wanted to run away immediately as several kindly Irish people rushed to help me. I put the mirror back on, and it was all eventually OK.)
It was ALL great driving throughout Ireland. Every inch of it was beautiful, but the most famous drive we took certainly was the Ring of Kerry in the west of Ireland. The Ring is a circular route, of about 120 miles, around a peninsula of some of the loveliest land and most dramatic oceans views you could imagine. It's usually clogged with gigantic tourist buses – I have absolutely no idea how they handle the narrow roads and precarious curves – but we were there in late September, when most of the tourists and their buses were gone.
There are picturesque towns – Killarney, Kenmare, Sneem, Ballinskelligs – and notable sites – Muckross Lake, "the Ladies' View" so admired by Queen Victoria -- along the way. But the main thing was just driving and looking. Driving and looking. Sometimes we would stop to enjoy a view or visit an ancient fort or find some hidden beach or eat some soda bread. But mainly I remember the driving and the unforgettable views.
When I got back home from this great driving vacation, my right leg was so sore – from shifting, gas to clutch, clutch to gas, a zillion times -- that I had to get acupuncture. Really.
PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY (from San Francisco to Los Angeles) -- This is the real famous one, the one on every "Top Ten Drives in the World" list. I've done it five times, and it's an unbelievably beautiful experience. And like most of the drives I'm mentioning here, this drive should definitely be done in a CONVERTIBLE.
(I drive a convertible. Since I moved to southern California in 1989, I've owned a convertible. I consider it one of the best reasons to live in SoCal, that you can sensibly drive a convertible, virtually all year round. A convertible brings you closer to nature and the beautiful southern California climate. With the top down, I don't drive places, I ride places. I hate to tell my friends back East, but I had my top down yesterday, it was so beautiful.)
The drive down PCH brings you into contact with some of the most glorious scenery on the planet. Monterey ... Carmel ... Big Sur ... Santa Barbara. Each place is eye-popping in its own right. There are literally dozens of points to stop and look out at the scenery along the way. Some of the views are gasp-inducingly beautiful.
Big Sur is probably my favorite. As Henry Miller wrote in his wonderful BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMOUS BOSCH, "Big Sur is what God had in mind when he invented Nature."
ROUTE 7 in western Massachusetts in the fall – When the Tiny Goddess and I lived back East, we went to western Massachusetts almost every fall to see the changing autumn leaves, shop for antiques, and hike in the Berkshires.
Route 7 is the main north-south road in the Berkshires through the towns of Sheffield, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and Lenox. We would weave in and out of Route 7, winding through the little roads, drinking in the colors of autumn, looking for antique stores or anything else that caught our eye. New England in the fall is as wild and beautiful as colors get in Nature: reds, oranges, yellows – huge swaths of them, for mile after mile. You can't believe the palette: hues strong enough to challenge the maddest Fauvist.
We stayed at different inns. The Egremont Inn was one of them. I forget the names of the others, but I remember the experiences. And we hiked different trails: up Panther Mountain, up Slide Mountain. I remember one Columbus Day when we hiked up a mountain into actual snow flurries – in October. That's a distant memory.
Right next to me is a brass table lamp, a constant reminder of the "antiquing" part of all those trips, between leaf excursions.
But again, it's the driving around – in this case, at sometimes less than twenty-five miles an hour, enraging the locals I'm sure – drinking in the scenery that I remember.
ANGELES CREST HIGHWAY – This might be my favorite scenic drive because it's the one that's closest to my home. I live about two minutes away from the southern edge of the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. From my backyard, I can see the front row of mountains that extend for miles to the north, covering more than 1,000 square miles. Our particular mountain is called Mt. Lukens (5,075 ft.), which is actually the highest elevation in Los Angeles County. Someone has pitched a white tent, right at the peak. My house is in the foothills below, at about 1750 ft.
In August of 2009, the Station Fire, the largest fire in the history of Los Angeles, which burned more than one-fourth of the Angeles National Forest, was visible from our backyard. On one fantastic Nathaniel West-y night, we actually swam in our pool and watch the fire burn, hurling huge plumes of flame into the night sky. (The wind was blowing in the other direction, or I wouldn't have been so sanguine.) We eventually had to evacuate our house, taking four carloads of stuff away, but nothing was lost. We were back within twenty-four hours, watching the firefighters in the distance with our binoculars and cheering the helicopters, dropping flame-retardant on the nearby hillsides.
The foliage, such as it is, is returning slowly to the burnt area, and five years later, it is returning to its beautiful, original, back-country look. Every couple of months, when I think of it, I drive up into the Crest. It takes only a few minutes out of my way, and the whole trip takes me maybe fifteen minutes total, but quite suddenly, I'm in complete wilderness. Pristine national forest. Just the road, cut into the edge of virgin mountain land, and pure Nature.
This is coyote, cactus, and chaparral country, with the pine forests on the higher peaks. There is a forest ranger station, and except for a very few grandfathered-in houses, deep in the woods, but it's mostly empty of all humanity. So it's really nice for a miniscule vacation, right in the middle of a normal day.
So once or twice a year, I'll just drive for a couple of minutes, a couple of miles, (with my top down, of course) into the wild. I get out at one of the early overlook points and gaze down into the city of Pasadena in the distance. Or if I go further up, I can see downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean and Catalina, and, in the far distance, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and beyond.
I'll take a couple of minutes, drink in the scenery, the absolute quiet, the nothing-to-do-with-civilization of it. And then I remember all the things I have to do and drive home.