California Amid Redwoods and Literary Giants

Text: Jeff Buchanan • Photography: Alfonse Palaima

After years of traipsing the globe, putting various motorcycles on gloriously winding roads and mountain passes from South Africa to Tuscany and Morocco to Mississippi, I find myself returning again and again to the Central Coast of California, specifically Carmel and Big Sur. This part of the world is my own personal refuge from the frantic swim of life, when events conspire to exhaust the spirit, and the soul is in need of repair. Aside from its exquisite gifts as a motorcycle destination, offering up stellar combinations of scenery and engaging roads, this coastal region has proven a haven for notable writers. The Central Coast was home to three authors who couldn’t have been more different in terms of craft and lifestyle: Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers. All three men shared a deep love for this part of the world, taking inspiration from its natural beauty and relative isolation, with each finding their own enclave along the Central Coast. Miller chose Big Sur, Jeffers, Carmel, and Steinbeck identified with the Salinas Valley and Monterey.

The 90 miles of coast road between San Simeon and Carmel, the heart of the Central Coast, is unquestionably one of the most beautiful rides in the world. The lack of development, due to the steep mountain ridges, has left this stretch of coastline relatively untouched, save for Hwy 1, which snakes along the undulating landscape, with tall pines and jagged cliffs towering above on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other. 

Ironically, it was unskilled convict labor from San Quentin prison that blasted and gouged the twisting turns of Hwy 1 out of the dramatic cliffs to connect opposing ends of the Central Coast. Begun in 1921, this daunting employment paid inmates 35 cents a day and earned them a reduction in their sentences. Sixteen years later, on June 17, 1937, the road was officially opened. I’ve often wondered who the first motorcyclist was that made the trip once the road was completed. I stumped the Big Sur Historical Society with this inquiry. They had no idea. Just think, somewhere out there a motorcyclist unwittingly became the first to traverse the coast road, riding into history without knowing it.

Traveling north on Hwy 1, San Simeon, with Hearst Castle prominently standing sentinel, marks the real start of the “motorcyclists’ Central Coast.” For the next 60 miles it’s a virtual smorgasbord of twists and turns, and each one seems to reveal a more dramatic view than the last to savor. This stretch of coastline, abundantly blessed with natural beauty, is also famous for dense layers of low-lying morning clouds of Pacific mist that push in along the ragged coast and cloak the steep heights and redwoods in thick layers of fog. In spring and summer months, the sun traditionally burns off the fog by late morning, exposing great, sweeping views of the Pacific. The absence of cross traffic and lack of cell service removes two of the major annoyances from our existence as motorcyclists, and one enters into a kind of mechanical poetry, sublimely weaving together the endless turns in a syncopation of throttle, clutch, gearshifts and braking. This is the part of the world Henry Miller called “the face of Earth as the creator intended it to look” in his novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2018 back issue.