Tag Archives: Highway 101

Landslide sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The long detour

I spent nearly all of April breaking in my new car with a 6500-mile road trip up and down the West Coast. I’ve done many similar trips in the past, but this one had a completely different feel to it. And that’s because the severe drought—which for more than seven years had parched California and gifted me with suspiciously perfect weather and unusually good road conditions—was over.

This year, California had just come out of one of its wettest winters on record. All that rain after such a long drought had brutal effects on hillsides and roadbeds all over the state. I quickly became accustomed to seeing signs like this one everywhere I went—to the point where I lost count of the number of detours, patched pavement, and in-progress landslides along my route. Over and over again I either had to make adjustments to my plans (I had to cut the Big Sur Coast out entirely, since Highway One has been closed there since February), or else take extra time to pick my way over some truly scary patches of pavement.

Landslide sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The state of affairs was so unpredictable that I got in the habit of checking road conditions on my phone a day or two ahead of each day’s planned route. On one cursory inspection, I stopped dead, my eyes widening at what I saw: Highway 101, my route through the redwoods, which happens to be the only route through the redwoods, was closed. Completely closed. No detour, the warning said.

No detour.

By this time I was familiar with the Norcal Coast—I knew that it’s pretty darn audacious of Highway 101 even to be there, what with the mountains that squeeze right up to the rugged, rain-soaked coastline. I remember driving through there in the past, marveling at the engineering required to put a road there in the first place, and being thankful that nothing had blocked my way and left me up the proverbial creek—yet I never actually looked at a map to see what kind of workaround a closure would require. Well I was about to find out.

Luckily, this little monkey wrench couldn’t have happened on a better day. This happened to be the shortest day of the trip, with just over 100 miles between hotels. And I only had one real plan for the day: to explore the Lost Coast, that rugged swath of coastline traversed only by primitive roads, where tourists feared to tread.

Nevermind—a massive rockslide just north of Leggett put paid to that plan. I still needed to get to Ferndale, though, if I wanted to honor my reservation that night and make it to the next leg of the trip. And since there was “no detour,” I scoured my maps to see just what that would mean.

Landslide detour map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Uh, yeah. This is what it means. It means crossing back east over the mountains on State Route 20, then a trek up through nearly the entire length of the Sacramento Valley (that little Highway 99 jog was just a break to save my sanity), then back over the mountains to 101 again on State Route 36. There are no east-west highways between 20 and 36, either. This was my route, the new plan. I added up the mileage of what I’d have to do the next day: nearly 400 miles.

I set an early alarm, asked the universe to refrain from any more surprises, and went to bed.

Landslide detour sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The next day was was both beautiful and harrowing. I got to see a broad swath of the state I’d never experienced before. And I also got hit with some home truths about this modern life we all take for granted—how easy it would be for nature to knock it all right out. As I wound my way over mountain pass after mountain pass, the roads got scarier and scarier. There were places where it was obvious the hillsides were trying their best to slough off their ribbon of road—and I just hoped the mountains wouldn’t win the fight on that particular day. The very worst came near the very end, a ten-mile stretch of obviously temporary, hastily repaired state highway. The pavement was so precarious, so narrow, that they didn’t bother with a yellow stripe. And at least half of the curves were completely blind, making it necessary to do that horn-honking oh-god-oh-god-here-I-come ritual before each one.

Landslide detour sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love mountain driving. I love curvy roads. And I love unexpected adventures. And my desire for it all is darn near insatiable. But by about the ninth hour of tortuous highway and the almost total lack of towns, services or cell signal, I’d all but lost interest in the adventure of it all. I just wanted to get there in one piece.

Lost Coast road sketch by Chandler O'Leary

When I finally did, I ended up a stone’s throw from the other end of that Lost Coast road that had been the original plan. I’d been to this spot before, and had always found that Capetown-Petrolia sign enticing and mysterious—what lay down that road, beyond that dark wall of trees?

This time, though, at the sight of all the warning signs they’d erected here (Chains required! No motorhomes! No services!), I just started laughing. Because after the day I’d just had, I could not have cared less. My curiosity had gone on strike—and in its place was a powerful desire to crawl right into bed.

 

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Prehistoric Gardens dinosaurs sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Jurassic forest

Speaking of incongruous dinosaurs, if you ever find yourself traveling up Highway 101 along the Oregon coast, you might be surprised to see a brachiosaurus head poking up through the trees. Just like the Columbia River Gorge, the Oregon rainforest isn’t a place you’ll ever find actual dinosaur fossils. Still, there’s something about the misty hillsides and impossibly tall trees that make it easy to imagine yourself standing in a primordial place.

Mission San Juan Bautista sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If these walls could talk

This is the fifteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

San Juan Bautista was the first mission I ever visited, more than two years ago now. It’s the one that inspired me to see all 21 of them, and even though I now have plenty to compare it to, it’s still one of my very favorites.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

San Juan Bautista is one of the more famous missions, thanks to its role as a film location for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And judging by the changes it’s undergone, and the hidden details it holds, it might have the most stories to share. But it’s certainly not the oldest mission by any stretch—in fact, it was the fifteenth founded in Alta California, built well after Blessed Saint (as of this year) Junipero Serra’s death.

Mission San Juan Bautista sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The last time I visited here, it was far too early in the morning for the buildings to be open. So this time, I was eager to get inside the place. I could go on about how lovely the interior was, though with the exception of the triple-wide nave, it wasn’t so different than any of the other mission churches. The part that really slayed me, though, were the tiny animal paw prints in the tile floor! I almost missed them entirely—I dropped my pen, and when I bent to pick it up, I saw one. Apparently the tiles had been outside curing in the sun when some small dog or other had run across them. Rather than throwing out the “ruined” tiles, they just used them anyway. Such an enchanting little detail.

Mission San Juan Bautista sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other real treat was seeing the interior courtyard garden. The plants and layout were similar to any other mission, but I loved that all the doors and windows were painted turquoise. It felt like stepping through a California doorway and emerging into a hidden pocket of Santa Fe.

Over the course of two visits, I’ve racked up a sizeable pile of sketches of San Juan Bautista. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t feel like I’m finished exploring. I have a feeling I’ll be back, and that you haven’t seen the last of this place here.

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Lonely outpost

This is the thirteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

The “Soledad” in Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad means “solitude.” And boy howdy, is that ever accurate.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The third of three missions located in the Salinas Valley, La Soledad is also the most remote. It’s not as far off of modern Highway 101 as Mission San Antonio, but it’s the farthest from civilization.

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In fact, even though there’s almost nothing left of the original complex (thanks to the caprice of the Salinas River)…

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…you really get a sense for how self-sufficient the missions had to be when they were founded.

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

That’s because the mission is located smack in the middle of a bunch of vegetable fields. Quite literally. There’s no fanfare about the place—there’s barely even any waymarking to find it. It’s a bit of a shock, actually, after seeing mission after mission in town centers or near tourist traps.

But that’s the best part of the place: being able to stand in the shade and look out at a landscape right out of a Steinbeck novel.

 

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Village sanctuary

This is the eleventh installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

I’m not entirely certain why, but this place also makes the list of my favorite missions. Mission San Migue Arcángel doesn’t exactly have a lot of bells and whistles (well, it does have bells…), so it’s yet another mission that gets overlooked by the hordes of tourists. But I dunno—I just really, really liked it here.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Miguel sits on the edge of a tiny town of the same name (are you sensing a pattern here?)—from the grounds you can look out across the Salinas Valley to the San Andreas Fault. And you can hear the birds, and the breeze, and not a whole lot else. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

It also helps that the place comes with a crazy tale of pirates and buried treasure (click the image above to embiggen and read the story). Forget Zorro—at San Miguel, the truth is stranger than fiction.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Perhaps best of all, I loved being able to make a return visit. I first came here almost precisely two years earlier, on the trip that first gave me the idea to visit all 21 missions. On both trips I had to visit multiple missions on the same day—which made it hard to sketch everything I’d have liked.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Coming back a second time gave me the chance to delve a little deeper, and discover details that had escaped my notice the first time.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Or to zoom in and redraw something from a different angle—

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—or in a different format.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

On both visits, I was awfully sad to have to pack up and hit the road again. But at least I have proof that I can and will return someday.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The jewel of SLO

This is the tenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

Unlike last week, where we were smack in the middle of the California countryside, this week’s mission is right in the center of it all.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the origin and focal point for the town that takes its name, is another of the painstakingly well-cared-for missions in the chain.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And that’s because like Santa Barbara, the town of San Luis Obispo is a tidy, picturesque, wealthy community. So while the mission itself might not be as exciting as La Purisima or San Juan Capistrano (though Mission San Luis Obispo was involved in a brief skirmish during the Mexican-American war, so there!) ,it’s so beautifully situated and restored that it just draws you in (no pun intended).

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sketch by Chandler O'Leary

There’s not a whole lot here anymore that’s original—at least on the surface. But I think they did a great job of merging a period aesthetic with modern touches. I only managed this one sketch of the interior, but if you’re ever there, prepare to spend some time inside the church itself. They took such care with approximating the hand-painted decor that the finished result is breathtaking.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Actually, I’m glad the place isn’t quite as action-packed as La Purisima. Since I did the two on the same day, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the time I pulled into SLO. But as soon as I stepped foot inside the mission, the place did its job as a retreat and sanctuary. Suddenly it was easy to pull out the old sketchbook again, and start letting the images flow.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Rural retreat

This is the ninth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

Mission La Purisima Concepción was probably the one for which I did the least amount of research—the mission I knew the least about. I’m so glad I showed up there without doing my homework first, because it ended up being both a complete surprise and my very favorite mission.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

La Purisima is unique in a couple of ways: in the first place, it’s one of only two in the chain that have been deconsecrated. Now that it’s no longer an active church, it’s now operated as a California state park.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other unique thing is that La Purisima is the only mission in the chain to still include the entire mission complex. Most of the missions are down to just the church and gardens, but this one still encompasses the adjacent monastery, workshops, cemetery, and remnants of the mission village.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Much of what’s there today was reconstructed by the CCC in the 1930s (like most of the missions, it was badly damaged in a long-ago earthquake), and currently maintained by the state park system.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I think I arrived not long after a recent restoration, because the place was in fine fettle.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Best of all, I had almost the whole place to myself—which, combined with its remote location, made it feel like I’d stumbled upon a bit of hidden treasure.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I could have stayed there all day, basking in sunshine, birdsong and the sweet spring breeze.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

But what really bowled me over was that gorgeous pink stucco.

Mission La Purisima sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Instead of a historic shell, inhabited only by ghosts, that pink made the place feel very much alive.