At its northern terminus, California State Route 1, commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway, splits off US 101 in Leggett, a tiny town of massive trees. By “splits off,” I mean that the two roads meet at a T-Intersection without traffic lights and that 101—elsewhere a major expressway—narrows to a two-lane Main Street as it passes Leggett’s general store, post office, and gas station. The PCH starts out even narrower: a wagon path, really, that climbs and winds through a dense, mountainside forest before depositing motorists, just over 20 miles later, in front of the Pacific’s jewel-toned expanse.
People don’t usually picture this brief inland stretch of switchbacks and steepness when they think of the PCH. But to me, it typifies what’s actually so mesmerizing and distinctive about huge stretches of the Pacific coast. It’s less the size and beauty of the sea, and more the hyper-awareness of where you are in relation to it. Which is to say, pinned by it against a wall of wilderness, rising sheer from the water’s edge. Driving down Highway 1, you can’t stop thinking (at least I can’t) that you’re watching a continent end and an ocean begin, which is impressive, but also astonishing, because it feels like you shouldn’t be able to register a transition of that scale and magnitude with the naked eye. It’s like ages ago the land was galloping westward—cresting upwards, even, in preparation for some skyward vault—before suddenly tripping into the water and remaining face-down in it ever since.
That’s another reason the Pacific coast is so enthralling—the faint promise of precariousness, the beginnings of an awe-inspiring vertigo. I’m writing this in late February, 2021. A month ago, a 150-foot long section of the PCH nestled against the cliffs of Big Sur slid into the ocean on the back of a landslide—itself the result of heavy rainfall on earth eroded by wildfires. A week later, a crack appeared in the southbound lane of 101 two miles south of Yachats, Oregon, where the asphalt is built not on bedrock, but fill. A drill rig was dispatched to begin repairs, but it and its operator fell down the cliff face a few days after that, when half of the retaining wall collapsed. Somehow, the operator survived.
I hadn’t been keeping up with any of this by the time I started driving down the coast on February 20. So I fetched up against the roadblock at Cape Perpetua and spent the following day backtracking north to Waldport, east to I-5, and south to Eugene (an almost 150 mile-long detour), before finally reemerging on the coast in Florence—only 20 miles south of the collapsed wall
Sloughed off from one side, battered from the other, the Pacific coast is eating itself, chunk-wise, like a piece of cake.
Except for when it isn’t, this process is gradual and imperceptible. On the days the shoreline doesn’t crumble into the ocean, it’s more or less stable. Stable enough for us to go creeping up and down it, hauling our camp trailers and our construction rigs, our dollars and our dirt. Stable enough for us to huddle on the windswept bluffs, watching the sun go down and hoping that property values do the opposite. Stable enough for us to build a highway on a hillside and a city on a marsh. Stable enough to play and invest and hope and dream.
Where it isn’t stable enough, we are still trying to make it so—trying to shore up what we’ve built and fill in the widening fissures, crumb by crumb. We put up signs that say DANGER—STAY BACK—UNSTABLE CLIFFS. We mind the ones that warn about sneaker waves—the unpredictably big ones that can wash unsuspecting beachgoers out to sea. We bicker and worry about the future, or else avoid thinking about it entirely.
We say to ourselves: There’s time yet to drive over the mountains and through the forests. There’s room enough to pull over and rest.