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Guess Who and the Ghost Road


Malibu Creek State Park

I'm not sure where Big Sur begins and ends. My guess would be from Monterey to Morrow Bay. It may be one of those places not subject to ordinary measurement, like the road to Katmandu. But while you are there it is a delightful drive you will not want to end.

Don't get me wrong. Hwy 1 is a real road. It's narrow and twisty and potholed in places, a whiteknuckle nightmare if you happen to meet an elderly RVer with his eyes on the ocean. And you will.

But that's just it. The ocean is RIGHT THERE, over a hundred miles of sand and rocks and sunsets, thundering waves and flying spray. This is not a languid lake grown large. This is the old man himself, and you better behave.

My God. It's just gorgeous.

I spent the nights in turnouts. There a number of state parks along the way, but they don't seem to have been built for trailers. You will see innumerable signs that say "Do not enter if the combined length of trailer and tow vehicle is more than 5 feet". I may be a little off, but its something like that. And they mean it.

Doesn't matter. Wide and airy turnouts are plentiful. Traffic dies down at night. Just lower the roadside blinds and turn your soul to the ocean. Let the breeze blow right through you.

This is what you did all that driving for.

Cell phone service is spotty when you're not in Kansas anymore. But somewhere along the road the thing started working, and I got through to Guess Who, one of the regulars on the newsgroup. We agreed to meet for a late lunch at a taco stand in Atascadero. Of course I didn't know exactly where I was, and as it turned out I was many hours from Atascadero.

Hwy 1 is not a road for making time, and it's a crime to try. But there's another appointment I have made. For the 16th, in LA, to pick up a check being sent from a retirement account, and try to sweet talk my stepson and his bride into having kids. Can't be late for that.

Gotta go, gotta go.

I passed by a pile of bodies, and just had to at least slow down. They were sea lions, or else some sort of large seals. I'm a creature of the middle continent, what do I know? Well, I do know they were plumb tuckered out. Perhaps a hundred of them lay in hills and drifts along a sandy cove, entirely alive but oblivious to the people who stopped and took their pictures.

I would have liked to find out more, but hey, I'm late for an appointment in Atascadero.

I passed by many a likely turnout, but pressed on. Then there was San Simeon, off to the left. Nope, no time for that.

Why do I make appointments? Do you have to wear a leisure suit to finally accept your leisure?

San Simeon.

I had an eerie experience there, the only time I took the tour. I think it was around 1976. Early spring.

I was driving up the coast road from LA for the first time, and literally blundered onto the Castle around 2 in the afternoon. I knew nothing about it. Hadn't even heard of it.

I paid for one of the tours, and wandered around a good bit on my own, getting thoroughly marinated in the ambiance and history, the swimming pool, the tennis courts, the gardens, the guest residences, studying the old photographs, etc. I didn't get away until they chased me out of there, just before dark.

Fingers of fog were creeping up the valley from the sea as I descended. A huge orange sun was setting there, dimly, on the other side, at the edge of the world.

I headed on north through the thickening soup, and the first station I came to on the AM radio in my geriatric Chevy was some kind of an oldies station that specialized in big band music. Mood music. Perfect.

I rolled down the window and sang along. It may have gone something like this:

"It's funny, how you loved me,
Then forgot so suddenly...
It's funny, to everyone but me.

How can I do, what my head tells me to,
When my heart tells me how much I care?
It's funny, to everyone but me."

Sometimes I actually sing pretty good, but only when no one is listening.

Maybe 5, 10 miles up the coast, an old car poured smoothly toward me out of the fog. An apparition. It was right out of the '20s. It had those big bleary yellow headlamps sitting above the fenders. And a tall narrow grill. And it was in amazing condition.

Swooooosh. Rickety tick. Moving right on along. "Alllll Riiiiight," I thought, "This is really cool."

Artie Shaw followed Benny Goodman followed Harry James on the radio. It was great, just rolling down that smoothly winding road at 30 miles an hour, elbow out the window, listening to old songs in the gathering dark. You could hear the ocean even when you couldn't see it. And off on the right, the pale light of a rather witchy three-quarter moon began to glow through the fog along the cliffs.

Another old car came into view. I couldn't see it well enough to get the make. Some old thing, but running pretty darn good, just floating up and down the humps on that narrow road.

It didn't slow down when I did, but I still got a good look in passing. A Chevy, I think. From the '30s. Some guy in a hat. I waved, but he went on by like I wasn't there.

"Man. This is getting better and better."

Then there was another. And another. And another. A whole string of them spread out along the road, one after the other, all of a certain age, gliding by on my left like a long dream in the fog.

And all, I swear, in showroom shape.

Right about then I felt a strong impulse to change the station on the radio. You know, just to check. But half way there my hand got kind of heavy, and fell back on my knee. I couldn't quite make myself do it.

It was too perfect. The bubble would burst. I really didn't want to know. Not just yet.

But then, a few minutes later, here came three more of those creepy cars. Okay. That's enough. Feeling a little silly on the one hand, and not a little nervous on the other, I reached out and spun quickly up the dial until I reached a rock station.

There. A little more static than I'd like, but definitely not big band. Whew. I never was so glad to hear Buddy Holly.

Wait a minute. Buddy Holly?

I never did figure out what was going on that night along that lonely stretch of California coast, but I didn't see any more of those old cars. It was a long way, but when I finally made it to the next town, I stopped and got out and had a cup of coffee and talked to the waitress for a while.

It was 1976 again.

And now it's 2003, and there's the cutoff for Atascadero.

Don Lampson, aka Guess Who?, probably had been waiting a couple of hours. But we quickly got past that and into a pile of tacos. He's a retired prison guard, and in his youth something of an apprentice lumberjack. We swapped lies, damn lies, exaggerations and maybe even a couple of potential legends.

We didn't go all the way, though. We never got into statistics.

He offered me his driveway for a camping spot, for a few days. I was severely tempted. I'd like to hear him play the guitar. But nooooo, gotta go, gotta go, gotta go. Gotta get down to LA. Gotta get that check, meet the family, tote that barge, lift that bale.

What the hell am I doing?

Bob, who is supposed to be retired.

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