Keeping it El Camino Real

In Travels With Myself on July 19, 2013 at 3:12 am

I took El Camino Real from Palo Alto to San Francisco. It is, in fact, one long, wide city street through a lot of small cities and suburbs which are surprising different from one another. Simply crossing the line from one to the next, the street would go from well-kept, clean, busy storefronts to fading paint and disrepair, and empty windows, then back to pretty.
I like driving these kinds of streets. Sometimes traffic can be a bit congested and slow, but as often as not, it moves along at a reasonable town and city pace, giving me time to look around a bit. Along the lead-up to San Francisco, I saw less and less of the Spanish influence, and more of typical small town America: simple storefronts, with signs that tell you what the place is without excess glitz or neon. I also began to see more of the Victorian: three or more floors with window bays from ground to roof, and the gingerbread moldings and multi-colored walls and trim. And there was shift into more Asian influences in the kinds of stores, and the mix of the pedestrians; something which had actually begun to happen at least as soon as I got past Santa Clara and into the San Francisco ex-urban area.
What occupied my thoughts, however, was a certain disinterest I have become aware of in myself to spending time in large cities this trip. I very much enjoyed Irvine, but skipped by L.A. along the shore. I had earlier stayed to the outskirts of Cincinnati, stopped only for a photo-op in Kansas City, stayed well south of Major cities like Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake. And now I found myself driving straight through San Francisco. It was a good drive, but I didn’t feel the need to stop. El Camino turned into San Jose and then Laguna, and because Frisco is laid out in a grid, that took me all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. I passed through residential areas, rich and poor, through business districts and past malls. I went up some of the famous hills and down the other side. Actually, I don’t know which was scarier, coming to stop signs at every cross of a steep incline, or coming to them on the way down. At least going south to north I didn’t have any moments when I was looking down a long hill with nothing but the bay below me.
I will interject here that nothing I have ever seen of pictures or read of descriptions of the Golden Gate Bridge prepared me for the first sight of it on the approach along US 101. It is magical. A rock face jutting up from the bay hid the southern end of the bridge, and the northern end was off in the distance, but the bridge itself hung across the sky, its towers still shrouded in low clouds and mist at ten-thirty in the morning. I don’t know what I expected in crossing it, but it’s so wide, with a separate sidewalk along the edge, that if it weren’t for the climb and descend of the span, it wouldn’t seem like being on a bridge at all; more like an interesting erector set tunnel of some kind. And at the far end, the road climbs through the hills as if the bridge has brought you to some fairy tale land where a castle awaits. Alas, there is no castle.
Finding parking for my nineteen-foot van can be problem on city streets, of course (parking spaces can be a premium item at any time), but I have been able to find enough standard spaces I could pull into so that stopping wasn’t impossible (parking garages are, of course, out of the question because of Taliesin’s height). Maneuvering through city traffic can also be tricky sometimes, but I’ve driven a van this size in Boston before, so that doesn’t really intimidate me. No, I think that it is simply not what I am looking for this trip. I will return to L.A. or San Francisco again someday, but on purpose when I want to spend a good long time there. For now I am more interested in the spaces between the cities.
On the other hand, I have very much enjoyed some small cities along the way. I took a break from the highway at Petaluma today. I bought walked around town, stopping at a music store and to mail a post card, ad had a light lunch of chilled blueberry soup and lemonade at a restaurant called the Wild Goat in a building called Petaluma Mills. I then stopped at a Visitor Information Center in Santa Rosa, where there are statues of Peanuts characters in the parks. I find that I spend more time than I intend in some of these towns and small cities. They are always warm and comfortable, without a lot of hustle (either the hurrying kind or the commercial kind). I smile at people and they smile back, clerks and wait staff seem genuinely happy to be there and to have me stop by. I know that I could find such people and such places in the larger cities, too, but I would have to look for them rather than find them on every corner.
I am learning, I think, that this trip is about going places, not being places. Cities want to hold you for a while, show you the sights, help you have a good time. Small towns are happy to have you just pass through or stay, whatever suits. They aren’t destinations so much as part of the journey.

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