travelogue: Pacifica, Monterey, Big Sur

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.” 
– John Steinbeck in Cannery Row

(pre-scriptum: this is a collection of vague and pointless notes that I took while I was driving through coastal California in early September after my first few days in San Francisco. These notes have now been edited, rephrased and rethought by yours truly into a somewhat non-cohesive and kind of incoherent text that clearly lacks some sort of connecting tissue – I seem to be having some issues with that for a couple of my current projects. For that, I apologize – it is not my best post by far. Enjoy the randomness and complexity of my mind at play, as well as my struggles with dealing with archives of my own thoughts – I am definitely not very good at keeping diaries!

Also, this is a picture heavy entry simply because I had a hard time choosing which photos to share, so I just decided to go ahead and share a lot of them!)

My first official road trip in the US started as soon as we left San Francisco after 5 intense days in the city and decided to drive down towards Monterey and beyond towards Big Sur. Inspired by one of my favourite American authors that my parents introduced me to in my early adolescence – John Steinbeck, who else? -, we decided to go down the Pacific Coast Highway 1, better known as the Pacifica. This highway goes down all of the California coast – it starts in Mendocino and ends in Orange County (“The OC”, anyone?) in the Los Angeles Area. Even though we only traveled a very, very short 240km part in total (and yes, this is not that much in the American distance scale) that goes down from the San Francisco Bay and stretches along this beautiful path that crosses through a variety of landscapes – seaside open roads, strawberry plantations and vast yellow fields that I felt I had come to know and love from the films that populated my childhood. Driving down California, I found myself wanting to go further and further down, towards Los Angeles, San Diego, across the border and roam towards South America, that beautiful continent that I dream of exploring as well, and towards the end of land (if we can call it so).

The pleasure and freedom of the open road. If only I actually had the courage to actually be the one getting behind the wheel!

One of the beautiful things about this state, if not the most beautiful one, is the incredible variety of natural beauty that you can come across. There is something enchanting about the coast, especially a coast that you had never seen before. I grew up California dreamin’, being the odd one out, never really belonging anywhere and constantly dreaming of the day I would be able to get out of my small, insignificant corner in the world and see just everything I couldn’t from my bedroom window. Now I’m California livin’ – well, almost, trying to, at least – and wondering whether films actually do justice to the real experience.

But I guess that’s just one other thing about the United States – a country so vast and with such a varied landscape can’t really fit into anyone’s imagination, no matter how much we try.

A (partial) portrait of my mother and I driving through the Pacifica
A seaside stretch of the highway as we entered Santa Cruz county

We arrived to Monterey late in the afternoon, around 5PM or so. In the meantime, we stopped in several little (and not so little) towns with names that I knew I had heard of before: Salinas (where Steinbeck was born and where some of his books are set in), Capitola, Santa Cruz. Never stopping for long, enthralled by the road and the feeling of freedom, wanting to always go further and further and anxious about the moment where I would have to settle down and focus on school (once again) and becoming a filmmaker and having to stay put and still at the same place, I would make short stops along to wait to catch my breath, daydream about the Pacific coast and think about how all these small little coast towns could, in a way, be anywhere in the world.

Along the way I took photos, perhaps even more than the ones I took in San Francisco, having taken control the camera for most of the trip with relatively satisfying results. Though photography is something I have never been particularly good at,  – as any other visual arts in general, which may leave you wondering: why does she even want to be a filmmaker? – I have been trying hard to improve at it through the course of these last two months with somewhat significant results. Hopefully, I will have some more photos to share with you soon enough.

A coastal view in Capitola in a not-so-sunny California afternoon

Monterey is a small bay town with a character of its own, like one you could find somewhere else – one of those towns that you feel like you have seen a million times before and that does not make it any less of a surprise (or better yet, a relief, maybe, as traveling for hours on end down a coast you had never set foot in before can be exhausting, and there is always something comforting about finding things you feel you already know from somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is far away). Cannery Row (of which I have no photos – must have been the only time throughout the trip when I decided to leave the camera at the house and roam freely without it), a former fishing and canning almost industrial pier/complex, has now been taken over by the tourism industry as restaurants, bars and souvenir shops have taken over an area that used to be occupied only by the canning industries and fishermen. Admitting to a shameful case of nostalgia for a glorified past I had only known about from books (admiring something that, in most cases, never really existed to begin with – don’t things always look and sound better with that well-known nostalgia veil that turns everything marvellous even when it was far from it?), this was the moment I decided not to go back and get a camera. I guess I wanted you to imagine the way Steinbeck describes it on that paragraph that starts off this post – as this beautiful chaos of noise, colours, characters and rhythm, a dream, a memory, which is what Monterey Bay now feels like to me almost two months after I have visited it.

The Monterey harbour nearing “the magic hour”

Right before it was time to turn back and drive back north towards Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley and the home to Stanford University, my current institution where I am pursuing an MFA, we decided to go down just a little bit further towards that symbol of the California coast that everyone knows and everyone loves – Big Sur. Just what is Big Sur, exactly? Not a specific point on a map, but this whole region that stretches down from Carmel and across  that incorporates a part of the Pacifica in it. Driving by the sea and into the woods, crossing a State Park, we ended up having to turn back due to a closed road, blocked due to landslides that happened in January. We turned back.

Of Big Sur there is very little to say, so I would rather just show. There are no words that can substitute the experience one can have of it – quite literally feeling like we are at the edge of the earth, so far away from home and everything that you have always known (the perfect metaphor for my whole experience here?), and yet unable to step back and remove myself from it. Hypnotized by the beauty of some of our worst fears, of falling into nothingness and not having anyone to catch us, we still stay. We still risk it.

That is what, somehow, Big Sur really means to me.

Driving through the woods that compose part of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
A breathtaking view nearing the end of our road trip, or the other beautiful cliché that is Big Sur

This ended up being a mostly visual post than an actual written one, as back in those days of traveling I was hesitating between feeling  and overwhelmed with the new journey that I was about to embark on. Little did I know that it was one of the most difficult challenges I would ever have to face.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?, you wonder. Well, who knows. More on that in the next entry!

– Inês.

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