Despite having spent the bulk of our lives as residents of California, my wife Juneko and I had never visited San Diego, the state’s second largest city. In order to correct this oversight, we decided to make it the destination of a summer road trip. We would follow Highway 1 south from Marin County, stopping for a couple of nights in Morro Bay – another town we had never visited – before continuing on to our final destination. After three nights in San Diego, we then would head back north, stopping for a night in Pismo Beach.
The first leg of our journey took us through one of my favorite cities, Santa Cruz – where we stopped for coffee and pastries – and then through the Big Sur region of the California coast. Here, Highway 1 curves along the shoreline, elevated atop cliffs that drop off into the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This is where Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin lived, where the Manson Family lurked for a while, and where members of the Esalon Institute still meditate and frolic in New Age bliss. The views are amazing, but you have to keep your eyes glued to the road in order to avoid plunging to your death.
Near San Simeon – the location of Hearst Castle – we pulled off the road to take a gander at a long stretch of beach that has become a resting place for a colony of elephant seals. Lined up on the sand like slick, leathery logs of driftwood, the seals lay on the shoreline, taking in the sun while ignoring tourists who stand overhead snapping photos. They (the seals, not the tourists) reminded me of our own lazy dog who likes to bask in the heat on the deck at home. Replace our dog’s legs with flippers and he could join this sea-going pack; though he probably wouldn’t last long. I think these seals are much too rough, vulgar and wild for our civilized chihuahua.
We arrived in Morro Bay around 4pm, and after checking into the motel, we walked a few blocks down to the harbor to take in some sights and eat some dinner. The Morro Bay harbor is a working harbor busy with fishermen hauling in their catches. It is home to a Coast Guard station as well as an abandoned power station with three imposing smoke stacks. It also, incongruously, is a protected wildlife sanctuary. The tour book we carried with us takes a subtly disparaging tone toward the place, describing it as “working-class,” but for me, it was actually a refreshing change of pace from tourist locations like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Seattle’s Pike Place. The Morro Bay harbor is small, uncrowded and unpretentious. While I would not recommend the restaurant that we ate at our first night (I was served a weird, tasteless and unpleasantly mushy dish that was a combination of ground up abalone and scallops; something my wife described as “jackalope”), I would recommend spending a day wandering around the docks. As the men clean their equipment, sea lions swim about, lounge on the piers and bark at one another. Meanwhile, rafts of sea otters float on their backs, cleaning their fur, snoozing and eating. It’s really a very cool sight.
The next day, we went back to the harbor and walked to Morro Bay’s landmark: Morro Rock. Sitting on the coastline and jutting about five hundred feet above the water, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug so distinctive that it has been used for centuries by seamen as a navigation marker, and thus has been dubbed “The Gibraltar of California.” In the early 1900’s nearly half of the rock was blasted away to provide material for the construction of Morro Harbor, but in 1963 it was designated a national landmark. Visitors are not allowed to climb the rock, which is a nesting place for peregrine falcons and other sea birds, but you can hike to its base, becoming acquainted with hundreds of overfed ground squirrels that reside there and beg for food.
Morro Rock looms in the background wherever you go in the town of Morro Bay. It is always there, either appearing in the distance or hiding behind trees or buildings, just waiting to be revealed as you change your perspective. One especially good vantage point comes from taking a short hike up to the top of Black Hill in Morro Bay State Park. If the fog has cleared, from the peak of Black Hill you get panoramic views of the shoreline – punctuated by Morro Rock – as well as the town, the harbor, and in the opposite direction, the other volcanic plugs making up the “Nine Sisters” that stretch all the way down to San Luis Obispo. Climb back down the hill, and you can hike along trails that run along the Morro Estuary. Here you can take in bay views while encountering rabbits, birds and some of the most prosperous succulent plants that I have ever seen in my life. At the Bay View Café, located in the State Park, my wife and I ate clam chowder mixed with green chilies, a plate of fried clams and fish and chips. It was all reasonably priced and quite good.
The next morning we hit the road at around 9am, hoping to get past Los Angeles before 3pm. We had been warned after that time the traffic could become an almost impossible impediment. Despite arriving in the LA region well ahead of deadline (1:30 pm), we nevertheless did end up stuck in a traffic jam on Highway 101 that did not come to an end until we passed through Long Beach. There was nothing we could do except sit tight and repeatedly mutter, “Fuck!” as we spent about three hours slowly inching forward in southern California traffic, finally arriving in San Diego at around 6pm.
I had booked a good online deal at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gas Lamp Quarter, not quite understanding the atmosphere of the place. It’s a rock and roll themed hotel catering to party-goers and rowdy college students that is apparently bent on encouraging guests to overindulge in booze and sex. Along with wine and liquor, the rooms are stocked with condoms and lubricants! When we checked in, the concierge informed us that as guests, we were invited to attend their rooftop pool party the following evening. “There will be a DJ and half-priced drinks,” he informed us. Then he asked what kind of music we preferred to have piped into our room. When I said, “Punk,” he shot me a confused look. “That’s the first time anyone has asked for that. Sorry, but we don’t have it. Anything else? Heavy Metal perhaps?” My wife suggested Alternative music, which was a genre that did make sense to our friendly host.
Ironically, when the doors of the elevator opened onto our floor, the first thing we were greeted by was a wall sized photo of punk icons Sid and Nancy! In fact, photos of the Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Blondie appear throughout the property. Given this, I think the management of the Hard Rock Hotel needs to rethink some of their policies. I advise them to treat punk rock as something more than just a historical museum piece. Offer the option to have hardcore punk music piped into the rooms. Get rid of the condoms and lubricants and instead stock the mini bars with Guinness, Pabst Blue Ribbon and hypodermic syringes. Drain the pool and invite guests to use it for skateboarding. Instead of rooftop parties, set up faux dive bars with filthy bathrooms and urinals that won’t flush. This would open up a whole new marketing strategy, I assure you.
That night, we ate some terrible tacos at one of the numerous restaurants on 6th Street near the hotel and then spent a few hours sipping drinks and people watching from the front porch of an Irish pub. The Gas Lamp district is a bustling location, crowded with people of varied ages drinking and socializing late into the night. There are a lot of college kids, but also older folks and service members from the nearby Navy and Marine Corps bases. Tough looking, thirty-something men with shaven heads, baseball caps and tattooed arms saunter along next to softer looking, long-haired twenty-something young men dressed in kakis and collared shirts. The young women are dressed up in fancy dresses or dressed down in cut-off shorts and skimpy tops. Tattooed flesh is abundantly on display. Mixed in among the youngsters are middle-aged folks that might be the parents of college students. There is also a heavy law enforcement presence, which might be one of the reasons why the situation on the street did not feel like it was going to spin out of control despite all of the youth, hormones and booze. When I was a teenager, I would have hated this place. Now that I’m fifty four, it was actually quite relaxing to hang out until well past midnight, detached, watching the people pass by.
The next morning we ate breakfast at The Hob Nob Hill Restaurant, a place featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The food was fine, but not outstanding. It was the atmosphere of the place that was the real attraction, with its 1950’s style décor and upholstered booths. Afterwards we drove through Balboa Park and went to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This is the largest zoo I have ever visited (also the most expensive!), covering over one hundred acres and housing more than 3,500 animals including capibaras, elephants, gorillas, and orangutans –and that’s not counting all of the bald, tattooed tough guys who wander the grounds drinking beer with their tattooed wives and tattooed children in tow. We spent about four and a half hours meandering along the paths, throughout the aviaries, and past the enclosures before getting on the “Skyfari” gondola that offers a bird’s eye view of the park from about one hundred feet above the ground.
After leaving the zoo, we ate dinner at another Guy Fieri endorsed restaurant called the Crest Café. I had a vegetarian sandwich that was very tasty and my wife had breakfast tacos, which she said were OK. Afterwards we walked around the Hillcrest neighborhood; a place that felt like a small Haight Ashbury, teeming with a wide and varied assortment of alternative-type people. Taang! Records is located here, and we spent some time browsing through their vinyl, which includes $300 copies of old punk records and $5 CD reissues of old Oi! Classics. The walls of the store are covered with records by bands from the old days: The Mentors, Slaughter and the Dogs, Cock Sparrer, GG Allin. There are posters, cassette tapes, old children’s record players, buttons, patches and all sorts of other punk ephemera for sale. If you are in San Diego, you must visit this place.
For our final day in San Diego, we drove to Coronado Island and visited the Hotel Del Coronado, a national historic landmark that was built in 1888. The hotel is a Victorian style building with red turrets that sit atop its white washed walls. The dark, hardwood interior of the lobby makes you feel as if you are in a cave when you first enter from the front steps, but once you exit the main building toward the rear, sunlight pours out over the lawns, the landscaping and the beach. There is a walkway lined with overpriced bars and food stands stretching along the shore next to the sand. The Hotel Del Coronado has appeared in movies such as Some Like It Hot and My Blue Heaven, and in television shows such as Ghost Story and Baywatch. Rooms at the hotel range from around $300 a night to over $1,000 a night. For that price you could buy some vintage punk vinyl.
We crossed back over Coronado Bridge for a final visit to Balboa Park, ranked as one of the best parks in the world by the Project for Public Spaces. Balboa Park covers fourteen hundred acres of land, and is home to a variety of museums in addition to the San Diego Zoo. We wandered through the lush grounds of the park for a couple of hours, looking at the Spanish inspired architecture and pausing next to the reflecting pools, before eating some excellent seafood tacos at Oscars Mexican Seafood and then heading back to our hotel for the evening.
The next morning we drove north on Highway 101, thankfully avoiding the awful traffic that delayed us when we were southbound, and headed toward our final overnight destination: Pismo Beach. Our stay here was not during the peak season, so the town was relatively quiet and peaceful. We were told by a shop owner that in July, things get pretty crowded and crazy, so I’m glad we visited when we did. The town is located right on the beach, which features waves for surfers and a long pier for those of us who just want to gaze at the ocean. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck intended to vacation here in the cartoon Ali Baba Bunny, but they made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.
If they ever do make it to Pismo, they would enjoy the food at Cracked Crab, on Price Street. I’m still thinking about the deep fried brussel sprouts, a dish that is probably one of the best things I have ever tasted. The chioppino was also incredible, brimming with crab legs, mussels, clams, and shrimp. I felt like one of the otters that we saw in Morro Bay as I dug through the shellfish and stuffed my belly. Juneko had a crab sandwich that was also delicious.
After dinner, Juneko and I walked out into the darkness and onto the city pier, reminiscing about our thirty three years together. We talked about death, love and hope. Engulfed by the evening gloom, listening to the lapping of the ocean waves on the wooden pilings, the two of us gazed out at the black waters stretching out toward the horizon. The sea was virtually indistinguishable from the night sky, making it seem as if we were suspended in the midst of a shadow. Thin lines of white foam formed on the surface of the black water below, outlining waves that moved toward the shore, breaking and disappearing into nothing. Again and again, the same cycle of wave after wave erupted out of the watery void, repeating endlessly. Currents that led nowhere, accomplishing nothing, moved this way and that.
“We’re kinda like that,” I thought.