Tag Archives: Pacific Highway

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.

San Francisco Bay area sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The long view

On the morning I did this sketch, I was supposed to be sitting in a darkened lecture hall, listening to a bunch of scholars talk about art. But I just couldn’t do it. On a day like that, it seemed criminal to pass up such a beautiful place. So I jumped in the car and drove in the opposite direction—in the same time it would have taken me to get to the auditorium, I had reached the top of the world.

Posting this sketch has me remembering that I do this a lot. I have a long history of throwing the itinerary out the window and going off on my own to explore instead. And I gotta say: every single time, without fail, it’s been precisely the right choice to make.

Mission Santa Cruz sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Model mission

This is the sixteenth 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.

After the splendor of Carmel and San Juan Bautista, I have to admit that Mission Santa Cruz (or La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz if you want to use its full name) felt like a bit of a letdown. If you didn’t know the story (and I didn’t until I got there), it’d be easy to just breeze into town, see a tidy little church in a neighborhood square, shrug and move on.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The original mission was the twelfth founded along El Camino Real, and never one of the large ones. It was first built in 1791 on the flood plain of the San Lorenzo river, but within months it was destroyed by flood waters. Not eager to repeat all of that, the padres rebuilt the mission on the hill overlooking the original site, but that too was destroyed in an 1857 earthquake.

Mission Santa Cruz sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So all that’s left of the original mission on the hill is one long quadrangle wall; and in the sketch above you can see the steeple of the Victorian-era Holy Cross Church they built on the rest of the original site.

Mission Santa Cruz sketch by Chandler O'Leary

What stands in for the mission now is a 1930s replica—but what’s odd is that it’s a scale replica. I suppose with the addition of the Victorian church across the square, there wouldn’t have been room (or in the 30s, I suspect, the funds) to build a full-scale copy of Mission Santa Cruz. It’s easy to give the replica structure a miss, but I think the fact that it’s built to half scale makes it something of a curiosity. What’s also curious is that the new structure exists thanks to a sole benefactress, one Gladys Sullivan Doyle. She single-handedly funded the construction, on the condition that she be buried on site upon her death.

So strolling through the back garden of the replica mission felt like being on a film set—or inside a human-scale puzzle. It felt odd to try to piece together the story of the place, and finding both real historical remnants and false clues presented like red herrings.

Of course, in the end my stupid brain had the last word, and dashed any further serious inquiry by replaying that Monty Python line in my head: “It’s only a model.”

Covered bridge sketch by Chandler O'Leary

New England transplant

You wouldn’t normally think of the Pacific Northwest as covered bridge country, but we do have a few here. Southern Oregon is home to a real beauty, and the last covered bridge still standing along old Highway 99. Of course, the rainy Northwest weather and towering conifers gave it away, but otherwise, the place made me feel like I was standing in a Vermont mountain glen.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission Control

This is the fourteenth 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 had some technical difficulties with the site this week, so Mission Monday couldn’t happen on Monday—but everything’s back up and running now, and anyway, isn’t better when Monday turns out to be Friday anyway? So let’s get back to it!

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel Mission for short) is the exact opposite of its nearest neighbor, La Soledad. It’s in the center of town, rather than way out in the country. The structure is mostly original, instead of a rebuilt replica. The complex is ornate and unusual, in contrast to the simple, almost stereotypical style of La Soledad. And while La Soledad is nearly forgotten all the way out there in the valley, Carmel is bustling with tourists and well-to-do townsfolk—there’s no danger of this beloved mission falling into disrepair.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In fact, the buildings are in fine fettle. This is one of the missions I’ve visited before, and when I was here two years ago, the façade was covered in scaffolding and tarps. So while the weather was brighter that first day, I’m glad I got to see it again without any distracting construction equipment around.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Carmel Mission has an interesting history, and a special place among its 20 siblings. It was the favorite of Blessed Junípero Serra, the priest who founded the first nine of the Alta California missions. He made Carmel the headquarters and seat of power of the entire chain, and directed operations for all the missions from this site until his death in 1784 (he’s even buried beneath the chapel floor). And in recent years Carmel has been made a basilica, giving it special status (and therefore protection) among the Catholic Church’s properties.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Like most of the missions, Carmel has seen many modifications over the years, and spent time in serious disrepair—but great pains have been taken to restore it to its original glory. As a result, it’s considered the most architecturally authentic of the missions. Later additions like steep rooflines and Victorian details have been removed, so what you see now is as close to the original as possible.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I love how Carmel perfectly marries different architectural styles into one lovely whole. There are the more “traditional” mission elements like tile rooftops and adobe colonnades—

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—and then there’s the stone cathedral, with the more unusual Moorish influence (like that of Mission San Gabriel) of its ovoid dome and that spectacular star window.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

But what I love best is the interior. The ceiling of the nave is arched, but not in the way a Gothic (pointed arch) or Romanesque (semicircular arch) nave would be. The shape here is a specific type called a catenary—the precise curve formed by a chain held with both ends up and its length hanging between them. Catenary arches aren’t found as commonly as other types (though since they perfectly balance the opposing forces of tension and compression, maybe they should be), but if you’ve ever seen the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, you’ve seen a catenary before.

(If you haven’t guessed, I’m a sucker for simple, mathematical perfection found in very old and unlikely places.)

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The rest of the interior is a rabbit warren of brightly painted side chapels, living quarters and historical dioramas (warning: if dolls creep you out, you might want to skip this bit).

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And when you wander back outside, you can breathe in the sea air and the fragrance of citrus and bougainvillea.

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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.

Pea Soup Andersen's sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Soup’s on

Now this is more like it. Solvang might have seemed a little too much like a polished Disneyland for my taste, but in the next town over was something much more my speed.

Pea Soup Andersen's sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Though its name has changed slightly over the years, Pea Soup Andersen’s has been a Santa Ynez Valley institution for over 90 years. And while I’m not sure their famous split-pea soup is quite as home-cooked as it may have been in 1924 (it tastes fairly processed, I’m sad to say), there’s something comforting and homey about sitting down to hot soup after a long day of travel.

Pea Soup Andersen's sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And the decor! This is the kind of low-brow charm I was hoping for in Solvang. Every inch of the place is Danish-ized to the hilt (but in a far less polished way than in Solvang), and there’s a heckuva gift shop that’s worthy of the best roadside attractions.

Pea Soup Andersen's sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And there’s one other thing Andersen’s has that Solvang doesn’t: killer neon.

(They had me at the neon.)

Mission Santa Inés sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mixed-metaphor mission

This is the eighth 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.

For most of the missions along El Camino Real, the mission itself is the main feature (and tourist draw) for each mission town along the way. That’s especially true for places like San Juan Capistrano, where the mission provided not only the origin of the town, but also the model for all architecture and tourist themes to follow.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

That may once have been the case for Mission Santa Inés as well, but you’d never know it these days. That’s because the mission is located in the town of Solvang—a tourist draw all by itself, and a town inspired by a completely different aesthetic than that of the Spanish mission (as you’ll see in the next post—I don’t want any spoilers to detract from the, er, mission of this one).

Mission Santa Inés sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, if you knew nothing of Solvang itself—or if you happened to approach the mission from the east, and hadn’t yet seen any sign of the town’s dominant architecture—you’d think Santa Inés were the best and only reason to visit. It certainly makes for an incredibly picturesque vista, perched above its namesake valley as it is.

Mission Santa Inés sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Solvang is famous in its own right, however, so it’s more likely you’d be there to see the town itself—and then you’d be surprised to discover there’s also a Spanish mission there.

Mission Santa Inés sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, while the mission feels a little out of place in Solvang, the whole area is a bit of a mish-mash of cultural influences. Even the mission itself was founded by Spanish colonists, named for an Italian saint represented by a Latin pun, established to convert local Indian tribes, adorned with a garden laid out in a Celtic cross pattern, and today an active center for the local Mexican-American community. It’s all just one big mixed metaphor now… and all the more endearing for it.