After a few hours of sleep, I got up the next morning and was on the road by 7:30. I had a long drive ahead of me because I’d made reservations to stay at Jalama County Beach, near Santa Barbara, that evening, then Death Valley the next day, then on to Southern California to visit three friends in three different places that weekend so I could be in Austin the following weekend.
Above: After driving down the East Bay, I hit the coast at Monterey then headed down Highway 1, an area known as Big Sur. Late in the evening, I pulled into one of the few places in California I've never been, Jalama Beach near Lompoc. Why did I go there? Because it's the southwesternmost point of the Lower 48 states. And because I'm the Extreme Geographer!
I usually don’t like making reservations at campgrounds when I take road trips but sometimes it’s unavoidable. On the up side, it’s nice to know you have a place to stay that’s waiting for you, but on the down side, you feel like you’re on a treadmill when you have reservations and can’t take time to serendipitously explore, which is one of the things I really love about road trips. Sometimes though, camping reservations are a necessary evil.
Why was I going to this obscure little place called Jalama Beach (pronounced "ha-LAM-a") down near Santa Barbara? Because, as I’d discovered while doing my trip planning in Qatar a few months earlier, Jalama Beach is the southwesternmost point of the contiguous United States – or more accurately, it’s the closest the public can get to the southwesternmost point of the United States. The southwesternmost point of the contiguous United States is, surprisingly, an unnamed point of land which lies on Vandenberg Air Force Base and thus is off-limits to the public. I knew I’d never get there in my lifetime – nor would virtually anyone else not affiliated with the Air Force – so I decided to visit the southwesternmost point of land that WAS publicly-accessible, which was near this place called Jalama Beach.
Most Americans are surprised to learn that the southwesternmost point of the United States is near Santa Barbara. Most people who look at a map of the U.S. would probably guess that San Diego is the southwesternmost place in America. In fact, if you Google the term “Southwesternmost point of the United States,” one of the top replies is a newspaper article that states unequivocally that San Diego is the southwesternmost point of the United States. That article obviously wasn’t written by a geographer, though (and certainly not by an extreme geographer).
Yes, San Diego is farther south than Jalama Beach, but Jalama Beach is much farther west – and farther west than San Diego is south. So using the methodology that I’ve used to calculate all 16 extreme compass points in the United States, Jalama Beach – or more accurately, the point near there at Vandenberg Air Force base – is much more southwestern than San Diego. In fact, even Monterey, way up the coast, is farther southwest than San Diego. I’ll give San Diego it’s due, though, because it IS the south-southwesternmost point of the United States. In fact, I was looking forward to visiting that exact spot, right on the Mexican/U.S. border on the beach, when I got to San Diego later in the week.
Even though I’d lived in California for 15 years, I’d never heard of Jalama Beach. But while I was in Qatar I’d studied it carefully using Google aerial imagery and a few weeks earlier in Portland, I’d made a reservation for a campsite in the campground there. And not just ANY campsite but the southwesternmost campsite in the campground. Well, actually there was one campsite right next to it that was a bit more towards the southwest but it wasn’t reservable, so I figured I’d reserve the southwesternmost campsite and see if I could switch sites when I got there, because that night I wanted to be the southwesternmost person in the United States. Well, the southwesternmost person who wasn’t on the Air Force base (life as the Extreme Geographer is filled with caveats).
After leaving Spring Lake park near Santa Rosa at 7:30, I drove through the north Bay Area, making my way around to Interstate 680, which runs east of Oakland. I’d thought about taking the alternate route, driving Highway 101 through San Francisco, but I didn’t want any hassles with the automatic tolls they’ve recently installed on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are NO manual toll booths at the Golden Gate Bridge anymore, where you hand over your money to an attendant. Nope, instead it’s all automatic with photo guns. And if you don’t have a special pass, they track you down and mail you an invoice (is this progress?). A couple years ago, I had a bit of a hassle with it, driving an out-of-state rental car through the Golden Gate tolls, and this time I had temporary license plates that I was afraid might not register with the automatic photo guns. Not wanting to be thrown in prison, have my fingernails pulled out, or whatever it is they do if you don't pay the toll, I decided to drive through the East Bay instead. Because I kinda like my fingernails.
Many years ago (back in the Stone Age) I grew up in San Jose in the south bay and as I drove through the San Jose area that morning, I thought about the halcyon years I’d lived here. Silicon Valley has changed a lot since the 1970’s, especially the price of housing (and the amount of silicon), but I still feel very much at home when I drive through the south Bay Area. Just as I still feel at home in all the other places I’ve lived: Riverside, Madison, Gunnison, Tampa, Seattle, Doha – the list goes on and on.
Heading to Big Sur
Big Sur: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Lots of Fat, Smelly Seals
After stopping in Monterey for gas and a big Diet Pepsi, I pulled back onto my friend from yesterday, Highway 1. If you want to drive the entire length of California, there are three routes you can take. Interstate 5, which travels through the middle of the state, is the quick-and-boring way. Highway 101, a bit farther west, is a little slower but a bit more interesting. And Highway 1, which winds along the coast, is definitely the slowest-but-most-interesting route. There are two distinct sections of Highway 1: the section north of San Francisco and the section south of San Francisco. North of San Francisco, Highway 1 -- which I'd driven the day before -- is a lot more twisting and primitive than the route south. If you have an RV, don’t drive the northern part. Heck, even the southern part is questionable for an RV. But if you have a pickup truck like I do or anything smaller, either one is no problem. But no matter what you drive, wrestling with the steering wheel for a day or two on Highway 1 will definitely build up your arm muscles.
I headed south out of Monterey on Highway 1 down the coast on a glorious afternoon. This area, known as Big Sur, is one of the most scenic areas of California, with rugged coastal views at almost every bend in the road. My first stop was the Bixby Bridge, about 20 miles south of Monterey. When I was a kid, I always thought this was one of the most beautiful bridges on the West Coast but then about 15 years ago, I learned that my great-uncle, Henry Swang, helped build the bridge back in 1932. And then I learned that afterwards, in the mid-1930s, he worked on the Golden Gate Bridge. Every time I drive down Highway 1, I stop at the Bixby Bridge and pay homage to my great-uncle Henry, who died many years before I was born. I only have one picture of him, when he was a small boy.
Continuing down Highway 1 on that glorious afternoon, I pulled off at one of my favorite stops in Big Sur, the Garrapata State Park day-use area beach. Or I should say, I tried to pull off -- but a few large trucks, some traffic cones, and a burly traffic cop blocked the parking area. So I drove about 200 yards down the highway and pulled off, then walked back to the beach. From all the activity, it was obvious that something was happening here. I walked down the trail towards the beach and asked an official-looking guy wearing an orange vest what was going on. “They’ll be shooting an HBO TV show here in about a half hour,” he replied. “It’s called ‘Big Little Lies.” I asked him who was in it, and he rolled off a list of names like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and some younger actors who I’d never heard of. No one else, other than the crew, was around, so I poked around the bluff above the beach for a few minutes and got some shots, then took off, not wanting to wait 30 minutes even if it was to see my good friend Nicole (or “Nicky” as she insists I call her). Reese and I get along pretty well, too, though she can be a little clingy. But being the Extreme Geographer, duty called and Jalama Beach beckoned.
Above: Here's my trip down California's Highway 1, from Big Sur to the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon. (1:28)
Interestingly, just a couple miles down the highway, I passed a large grassy meadow that was being used as the staging area for the production. There were dozens of semi-truck trailers and other structures in the temporary encampment, plus I’m sure some luxurious accommodations for my friends Nicky and Reese (OK, I don’t really know them). It was like a mini-city, and all for this HBO show.
A few hours later, after twisting and turning my way down the beautiful central California coast, I drove into the pleasant college town of San Luis Obispo, then I got back on Highway 101 and continued south until I reached a place well known to surfers called Gaviota, where Highway 101 hits the Pacific Ocean.
Despite my love of technology and maps, I don’t like to use GPS when I travel; instead I prefer to rely on my memory and ability to navigate. GPS is great if you’re lost, but I think it erodes your inherent navigational skills. Besides I’m a guy and thus I hate asking for directions – or relying on a device to tell me where to turn. This is probably one time when I should’ve used GPS, however. I pulled off Highway 101 at Gaviota State Beach (a few times actually – it’s a long story), thinking the little road past it would get me to Jalama Beach. Wrong. Instead, a mile down the narrow, bumpy rutted road, I encountered a fence, some buildings, and a manned gate. I told the guard that I was trying to get to Jalama Beach and he told me to turn around, get back on 101 northbound, take the Highway 1 exit, then look for the turnoff to Jalama. So I did.
Back on Highway 1, I found the signed turnoff for Jalama. I was a little concerned because, according to the sign, Jalama Beach was 14 miles down this narrow, twisting road and the sun was starting to disappear (a constant theme of this road trip so far – scrambling in the evening to find a campsite). According to my map, this was a dead-end highway that stopped at the coast, at Jalama Beach campground. As it turned out, though, it was lucky that I wasted a half-hour at Gaviota looking for this beach because by the time I approached Jalama, I saw one of the most beautiful sunset vistas I’ve ever seen in my life. It was absolutely glorious and I disobeyed all the signs on the side of the road that said, “No Parking” and parked my truck, smack dab in the middle of the desolate highway, got out and took several pictures.
Ten minutes later, and just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, I pulled into the campground, which was about half-full, and found the campsite that I’d reserved a few weeks earlier in the southwestern corner of the park. Unfortunately, a camper-van was parked in the spot next to me, the southwesternmost campsite in the U.S. Normally I sleep in the back of my truck, but wanting to be the southwesternmost person in America that night, I set up my tent at the far end of my campsite, which according to my calculations, was about 2 feet more southwest than my camper-van neighbors. OK, without even knowing you, I can tell that you're chuckling over the extents I'll go to be the extreme geographer. To be honest, I was chuckling a bit, too.
After smugly setting up my tent, I cooked up some dinner (bratwurst, what else?) I’d read online that the winds at Jalama can really kick up in the evening and, boy, they weren’t kidding. A constant 20-mph breeze was blowing in from the ocean with occasional stronger gusts that carried away my towels, plates, toothbrush and everything else that wasn’t nailed down. It even blew out both of my candle lanterns, which had never happened in all my years of camping, and at times resembled something out of "The Wizard of Oz," with cows and Margaret Hamilton and Auntie Em flying through the sky.
Later that night, under the light of full moon, I crawled into my flapping tent and put in my earplugs to drown out the noise outside. As I drifted off to sleep, I was content in the knowledge that for that evening, I was closer to the southwesternmost point of the United States than anyone else in America. With all the caveats mentioned above, of course.
Big Sur to Jalama Beach