Wandering the West – Part 8: Wrapping up with the Central California Coast

The day got off to a headache free, but late, start as my motivation for getting up and out ran smack into my motivation to not end the trip. While I had no technical reason to mandate that it was the last day of the trip, I was hoping to avoid holiday traffic by wrapping the trip up prior to the weekend and I was well within driving range for that to occur. As a result, there was a fair amount of time wasting before I eventually found myself back in the van and hitting the road again. A check of traffic showed that the Bay Area commute traffic was already well underway and building, so I opted to take surface streets out of the city as far as I could until I found myself back at the place I had turned back from the night before.

Although the day had started off relatively warm and sunny at the hotel, by the time I reached highway 1 I was back under the marine layer, this time also mixed with a fog heavy enough that for the first time in the entire trip I needed to use my wipers. The only set goal for the day was to get to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and the drive there was a generally enjoyable cruise along the shrouded coast. Conditions were not overly suited to photography, most of the accessible beaches had day-use fees, and, I had to admit, I had seen enough incredible coastal vistas already in better conditions, so I was much more in travel mode than sightseeing mode.

Once in Monterrey I had the good fortune to find a parking spot just down the street from the aquarium, probably in no small part helped by being there at 9:45 on a Thursday morning. Despite a $50 entrance fee and a surprisingly large number of overly excited and vocal children, the aquarium visit ended up being the high point of the day. I found the exhibits on the history of the building and the local fishery to be well done and nearly as interesting as the much more highly acclaimed marine life exhibits. After a couple of well spent hours I decided it was time to move on and explore the area around the aquarium. Unfortunately that area felt too much like a mix of tourist trap and shopping center to want to explore much more, so after a few minutes of strolling I was back in the van and starting the push toward home.

The chosen route was to follow highway 1 south until either reaching San Luis Obispo (the furthest north I had previously driven on highway 1 from the south) or hitting the time when I needed to leave to get back by sunset. There are indeed some spectacularly scenic sections of coast off that section of highway 1, but between some of the heaviest traffic and worst driving I had encountered on the trip it was nearly impossible to give it the attention it deserved. A particularly grievous case took nearly an hour and a half to go 30 miles, much of that spent in a crawling bumper to bumper parade of cars behind a driver who seemed to be cruising in 1’st gear and oblivious to the numerous turnouts and signs requiring slow vehicles to use them. At one point I counted over 30 vehicles in the train, and I was unable to see to the end. In theory it is of course possible to pull off yourself, enjoy the view, and then hopefully the situation will have resolved itself…. but it could just as easily end up that someone even worse goes past in the interim and you find yourself no better off than you started. Had this been the way that traffic progressed all the way down the coast I’m pretty sure I would have probably given up the first day and run home on I-5.

It was at least mildly interesting to observe the dynamics of the (usually) rolling traffic jams. Regardless of how slow the lead vehicle was going or how many vehicles were backed up, if the following vehicle maintained a normal following distance the lead vehicle never seemed to get the hint to pull over. If on the other hand the following vehicle was a bit more aggressive with less following distance and maybe adding in some headlight flashes or bluffs at passing, the slow vehicle usually pulled over relatively quickly and let the traffic pass. It seemed to me that there is a relative comfort level between the first two vehicles of a line at play rather than any absolute values of speed or scenery.

Due to the slow pace of traffic making for a very unenjoyable drive with almost no opportunity to appreciate the scenery, I ended up opting to leave highway 1 a bit earlier than planned and took highway 46 east. The turnoff from highway 1 was a great relief to leave a crawling line of traffic and see an open road ahead of me climbing in a lazy winding path into golden hills. About halfway up the first hill, though, the illusion was broken. A heavily loaded dump truck pulling a backhoe on a trailer, which wasn’t even able to make 20 mph on the climb on a posted 55 mph road, was positioned at the head of a long line of backed up traffic. Again there were turnouts available, most of which were more than large enough for the truck and trailer, yet again the driver ignored them, and for nearly 18 miles the truck slowly led a parade of frustrated vehicles all the way into Paso Robles.

From that point on the trip was essentially over and it was a case of steering home across the central valley and the Mojave. The climb up the Tehachapi mountains was the only other traffic issue of the day, as several times semis would pull out to pass other semis and block the rest of the traffic. It somehow seemed a fitting end to the last somewhat scenic section of the day’s drive to have it also turned into a traffic jam. I am sure that for those who don’t live in the desert the hours spent driving across the Mojave could be of interest, but I see that every day and it’s simply visual background noise.

At 3013 miles from leaving I shut down the van back in the garage. I averaged 26.2 mpg on the trip, which given the amount of time spent driving in sub-optimal conditions for fuel economy felt better than I had expected.

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