At its northern terminus, CA State Route 1, commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway, splits off US 101 in Leggett—a tiny town of massive trees in Mendocino County. By "splits off,” I don't mean "veers gradually away from." There’s no exit ramp curving between expressways. 101 itself narrows to a two-lane Main Street as it heads south through Legget’s redwoods, and the famed PCH begins as a hard right turn off of it—a wagon path that proceeds to climb and wind precipitously through a dense, mountainside forest before depositing motorists, just over 20 miles later, in front of the Pacific’s jewel-toned expanse.
Those 20-odd miles of switchbacks and steepness (I spooked a deer coming around a corner and tailed the poor thing 50 yards down the road before it found a slope gradual enough to escape up) remind me of what makes huge stretches of the Pacific coast both so mind-boggling and so mesmerizing. It’s less the beauty and the bigness of the ocean itself, and more the constant 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 the PCH, 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 thrilling to visit and to drive—the sense that you too are teetering on the edge of it and might go tumbling over at any moment. 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.
This is a slow and often invisible—subterranean—process, of course. It’s not like the highway collapses every day. For the most part, it’s stable, this liminal sliver between land and sea. 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 cliffs and perhaps feel something on the spectrum of aloness and loneliness, solitude and seclusion. Some do this from multimillion-dollar houses perched high up amidst the pines. Others from cars and RV’s, inns and lodges, seaside hamlets and villages.
Where it isn’t stable enough, it’s still worth trying to make it so—trying to shore up the roads and fill in the widening fissures, crumb by crumb. It’s worth putting up signs that say DANGER—STAY BACK—UNSTABLE CLIFFS. It’s worth minding the ones that warn us about sleeper waves—the unpredictably tall ones that can sneak up on unsuspecting beachgoers and wash them out to sea.
There’s time yet to drive over the mountains and through the forests. There’s room enough to pull over and rest.