Take a long drive with me on California One,
And the road a-winding goes from Golden Gate to roaring cliff-side,
And the light is softly low as our hearts become sweetly untied,
Beneath the sun of California One ...
The Decemberists, 'California One', 2002
The weekly round trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles was the shortest and simplest trip that the Tortoise did. We left San Francisco on Friday night, drive down highway 1 to Santa Cruz, then over to 101, arriving in LA on Saturday morning after predawn stops in Ventura and Santa Barbara. Two days and one night the bus was parked on Venice Beach. Then we'd do it in reverse, leaving LA on Sunday evening and arriving back in San Francisco early Monday morning before 8 am and in time for work.
With such a short time on the bus you didn't really get to know anyone, and often you wouldn't want to; the LA run seemed to attract the oddball Americans combined with eager European tourists (depending on the season). Spending a whole day at the beach in Venice had some redeeming qualities to it, and it was an easy jaunt, so I didn't mind driving it.
It wasn't until one of the other drivers taught me how to make the trip into something special that I really enjoyed it at least the very end.
The Golden Hour
After driving all night up highway 101 we arrived in Santa Cruz in the pre-dawn darkness of Monday morning sometime after 5 am. Parking by the Santa Cruz Transit Center we'd line up with all the commuters to get coffee from the kiosk in the middle of the outdoor bus station. It was industrial strength drip coffee, the kind where you would feel the hair growing out of your scalp after you drank it. Really good coffee was a treat, so I made sure to let the passengers know that this coffee was worth lining up for in the dark.
One of my co-drivers educated me on the way to make the whole experience really nice: while you're getting coffee, find a passenger who doesn't drink coffee and give them $30 and a shopping list, then send them off to wait for the bagel shop around the corner to open. Our scheduled departure was 6 am, but that's when the shop opened. With everyone on the bus and engine running we'd wait for the last person to come running around the corner, gingerly holding a brown paper bag with steam coming out of it. They would jump aboard the bus and we'd be off.
A Moveable Feast
The bagels were right out of the oven, so the bag was literally too hot to handle, and the tubs of spread piled in with them were melting from the heat. We'd lay the food out at one of the tables in the middle of the bus and everyone would dig in while the driver would follow the signs out of Santa Cruz toward California Highway 1 north.
The drive on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Pacifica is one of the most beautiful and famous drives in America, which everyone has seen in countless car commercials and movies. Now make the journey with the sun rising over the hills to illuminate the endless Pacific Ocean on your left, wooded hills on your right, and with an unexpectedly delicious coffee and breakfast in front of you, and a strange mix of bedfellows around you. It was unexpected bliss.
The passengers seemed to enjoy this trip in something of a state of bewildered awe. I had learned not to announce the breakfast before it happened simply let the gift appear before sleepy travelers. Having just woken up aboard a bus they now found themselves enlivened in all their senses. I observed that there was a reverential silence from people during this section of the drive. There was something intimate about waking up with people and having breakfast together. There was a feeling of deep humanity about those mornings, but when you did not know the people around you it was difficult to meet in these circumstances and make small talk, so you were left with the desire to share it with them, but on a level that was deeper than verbal. They did not know the words to access this place with this group of strangers, but were all very familiar with being in that place, and so you could only be together in this golden hour, which gave it a sense of being primal, free, and outside of the normal flow of time.
The countryside along Highway 1 at this point always reminded me of Ireland, with rocky hills covered in a carpet of impossibly green grass rolling gently down to a rough ocean beneath a deep blue sky punctuated with towering white clouds. The scene was breathtaking and the mood environment felt like some strange alternate reality. I had a tape of Celtic Harp music by Alan Stivell that I played during the drive which always took me back to my trip to Ireland 5 years before, as well as accentuating the other-worldly quality for everyone else.
The softly rolling hills along the beach continued to the town of Pacifica. There the highway curved suddenly away from the beach and into a residential neighborhood in anticipation of the impending urban sprawl that marked the beginning of 'The Bay Area'. As suddenly as this portal swept us up into its arms it dropped us back in the reality that we had left the day before. From Pacifica to San Francisco was a descent into the urban sprawl around a big city.
The magic of the moment had departed, real life had returned, and everyone went back to who they were before, but I could not help noticing a wistful twinkle of something shared with some of those people as the trip ended. All I can compare it to is the flicker of smile that crosses your face when you run into an old lover in a group situation you shared something intimate, but it was a long way away from where you are now. Speaking of it does not seem right, but neither does ignoring it, and so a small nod and a fleeting smile says "I remember" and you go your way, walking off into the San Francisco morning.