Our own private California

In a van, with no plans, at the speed of looking

(Billy Baker/Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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COSTA MESA - It didn’t happen this way, but I imagine if you had asked me to close my eyes and think of California, I would have thought of much of this. How it came about, though, is unmistakable. I wanted to go looking for California and to do it by making what I deemed to be California choices.

I started with the vehicle: a vintage Volkswagen bus the color of the Pacific that had the Westfalia camper pop-top on the back that was too amazing for words. Then I made the most California decision I could think of: I made no further plans. The van, which I rented from a sweet couple in Costa Mesa, just south of Los Angeles, was due in a week. That was the only definite.

The other members of the expedition were my young family: my lovely wife, Lori, and my son, Charlie, who was about to turn 2 and had recently learned every word. All assembled, we went off to look for California.

It was an early afternoon in July, and the light was the sort they film movies in. We headed north toward Santa Monica on the 405, and immediately Lori and I concluded that this vehicle was quite possibly the greatest thing ever invented, a triumph of design and layout. It had everything, including two full-size beds. Ours was a 1979 model, the last year before the California surfer van got an ugly makeover, and the Germans had the bus well squared away in the nearly three decades it had been on the market. We called ours Hurley because it needed a name and because it looked a lot like the one that character drove on “Lost.’’

The best thing about Hurley, as demonstrated immediately, was that it was the slowest thing on the road. When you cannot pass anyone - and for one whole week of driving, we did not - you experience travel differently.

At Santa Monica, we swooped down slowly on the ramp that leads to Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the great roads of all time. The ocean was close on our left, and we had the general idea we would like to keep it there until San Francisco.

The highway would make that possible a large chunk of the time. The challenge was whether that was possible for a family in a small camper with no reservations in overscheduled America. The bus came with a campground guide filled with reviews that said things like: “Sells out the moment reservations become available in January.’’

Our first night, we pulled into a place in Carpinteria, a campground our guide said was impossible to get into, and were given a spot about 20 yards from the beach. That night I learned that you always ignore the “Campground Full’’ sign.

In the morning, we drove to startlingly perfect Santa Barbara and rode bikes along the beach. For a bit, Charlie stopped to watch little boys in a skate park and declared he was going across the street to buy his own skateboard. Lori, when we passed cows on a hillside overlooking the Pacific just north of the city, declared that if she were a cow, she would like to live there. We were, it was clear, infected with California.

We spent the night on Morro Bay, then in the morning we made a mistake. We took ourselves out of the vibe of our trip on the grounds that we were passing something that was too good to miss. So we went to William Randolph Hearst’s castle - which is certainly a wonder of the ego worth seeing - but it was wrong for us. It involved hours of waiting, gift shops, and a little boy on a hot day who wanted very much to swim in the two most glamorous pools he had ever seen and could not understand why he could not.

Leaving there, getting back in the bus and back on the road, felt cathartic. We were travelers again, and any other extended stops just felt wrong. Besides, the highway had only just started to show off.

From Morro Bay to Carmel, a winding journey of about 120 miles, the Pacific Coast Highway seems impossible. I have always subscribed to the East Coast notion that the country ends on the West Coast, but I now know that not to be true: The Pacific, as we discovered while driving on cliffs above it, is its own beginning, constantly new and raw and unfinished. There is no rational reason that a road needs to exist on the precarious sides of those cliffs, yet it does. Or is Big Sur, the heart of that impossible coast, just a dream?

Hurley made us experience it all very slowly. There is an endless amount to say for that, including the fact that we clogged the road. But a VW bus is all good vibes on Highway 1. When cars would finally pass, they gave us the thumb’s-up, or the peace sign.

As we hit civilization again the following day in Monterey, the vibe dulled. At Pebble Beach, the gated toll road called 17-mile Drive is really many miles on the service roads for condos and a few miles winding through what rich people can do to ruin a beach with golf courses. We hated it. Charlie slept. We headed for San Francisco, spent the night right next to Candlestick Park in one of the world’s great cities, and felt even further depressed.

We wanted to be back alone, this small family in this old bus, out there; we yearned for it. And so after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and posing Hurley for photos with it, we abandoned our plan to spend the day in San Francisco and set out for new territory, east to Yosemite, and immediately the road trip felt alive again.

Yosemite needs and deserves great attention, but it is actually possible to drive through a good chunk of it in a day. We camped just west of the park, then with 36 hours until Hurley was due back in LA, we hustled down into Yosemite Valley, saw the magical Half Dome, then headed up to the Tuolumne Meadows, with its rolling carpet of lush grass squeezed between breathtaking mountains, so I could introduce my wife and my boy to my favorite place in the world. It is now our favorite spot.

We took the Tioga Pass down out of Yosemite at sunset - a road even more incredible and frightening than the Pacific Coast Highway - and popped up Hurley’s roof one last time, all of us together, away from it all. Final nights should be sad and sweet, and this one was.

As we drove Hurley home the following day, through the desert on Interstate 395, another incredible road that sits in an open valley between the eastern edge of the Sierras and the beginning of Death Valley, we felt lucky.

California, for me, has always been more an emotion than a place, a feeling of golden sunshine and new possibilities, a nostalgia for the concept of the West. That is, I know now and I knew then, a fantasy and a delusion, one that exists only in the California of postcards.

But that week, driving in that wonderful bus with my incredible family, we found what we had come looking for: We had the California dream.

Billy Baker can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
Vintage Surfari Wagons
1965 Harbor Boulevard
Several vintage Volkswagen buses, $100-$125 per day, depending on the season.
Yosemite National Park
Skip the throngs in Yosemite Valley queuing up to see Half Dome and El Capitan and head for the Toulumne Meadows, where you can get out and hike away from the crowds.
Where to camp
Morro Bay State Park
Morro Bay State Park Road, Morro Bay
Just off the shoreline with a magnificent view of Morro Rock and great access to a quaint beach community. Hearst Castle is just up the road. Tent campsites $35.
South Lake Tulloch RV Campground & Marina
14448 Tulloch Road
Camping in Yosemite is so competitive that spaces sell for five times their normal value on Craigslist. Why not skip the headache and camp here, an hour outside of the park, with a lake and a family-friendly atmosphere?
Candlestick RV Park
650 Gilman Ave.
San Francisco
Want a place to stay in San Francisco with water views for $69 a night? This concrete jungle, just outside the home of the National Football League 49ers, offers the basics and, most importantly, access.
Where to eat
La Taqueria
2889 Mission St.
San Francisco
If you eat one thing in San Francisco, it should be a Mission-style burrito in the Mission District, complete with mariachi band.
Where not to get gas
There’s an old saying on the Pacific Coast Highway: “Do not get gas in Big Sur.’’ At $5.89 a gallon for premium (which the VW demands), it’s a good rule of thumb. Unfortunately, due to the remote location, the monopoly is unavoidable.