South of the Bay: A Layover in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Point Lobos

Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA: September, 2019

“In your piece on San Francisco, I’d like to be referred to as ‘the Baron Salvatore Luis IV or else you cannot use my likeness” – My brother Mike, after reading the first two installments in this series.

It was checkout time at the hotel and I had a flight to catch, but unfortunately those two events were nearly ten hours apart from one another. The hotel was in The Baron Salvatore Luis IV’s name so when I dropped him off at the airport early on a Sunday morning my home became the rental car, at least until early evening when I would circle back to SFO to enjoy a red eye.

One consideration was to take the BART back into San Francisco as I had plenty of money remaining on my prepaid card. This almost became an issue our penultimate night when the Baron and I were exiting the train near the hotel – I passed through the turnstiles without issue but when he scanned his card the machine noised the audible equivalent of a wrist-smack and told him he had insufficient funds. Impossible, as he was only going into the city one day and we calculated it out perfectly so he tried it again and again, and somehow the automated voice became more agitated with each attempt. We realized together that we had boarded one station further for the return trip than we had detrained earlier in the afternoon, and as such he was now exactly twenty cents shy of being allowed to join me at the hotel.

As it would likely be my last BART trip for the foreseeable future and thirty or so preloaded dollars would go to waste anyway, I glanced around to see if anyone was watching before faking a sneeze and dropping my card on the Baron’s side of the glass saloon doors that were preventing his exit. He picked it up and held it to the scanner, and immediately an even louder alarm began going off, as if the southern suburbs of San Francisco were under siege. He pulled the card away but the din persisted, catching the attention of a disgruntled looking woman in a navy blue uniform. She walked toward us, inchworm-slow and equally expressionless from across the terminal, her pursed lips and set jaw doing a poor job at hiding the kind of interaction we would be on the business end of once she arrived.

Crap. Crap crap. I now knew how teenagers felt after getting caught swiping a pack of gum. It obviously wasn’t the twenty cents we were trying to freeload, but there was a line at the card machine and Mike could have been waiting for who knows how long to put two dimes in the slot and get us out of there. Just then another noise added to the screeching alarm and diverted the attendant’s attention, the source of the clatter a young woman’s foot against the overused card loading kiosk that caused our own demise. Clearly drunk, she continued wailing on the machine and yelling a string of unrelated obscenities, verbs and adjectives I never knew could coexist. She had just upgraded the attack to include her fists when the agitated BART guard stepped in and fairly briskly ushered her away, shaking her head as if this happens with unfortunate frequency. As they passed by us she said to the Baron “You can put more money on your card over there, you know.” And he did. And I have thirty or so dollars on my BART card.

Still, I wanted to get out of the city again, and so in the intermittent hours between checkout and flight, I drove south through Silicon Valley and beyond. The famed tech towns looked drab despite sparkling sun, like an outdoor mall surrounded by hills the color of a Nilla Wafer. Clean and manicured San Jose passed like a distant ship, its spiffy new business parks and glassy midrises frozen and in this Monday-through-Friday city. At last small agricultural towns replaced sprawl and I passed through Gilroy, home of onions, the Mission at San Juan Batista, and Castroville: Artichoke Capital of the World. I reintroduced myself to the sea just past the enormous dunes of Monterrey, after which the landscape became greener and craggy as I ran out of continent.

I pulled into a parking space in Carmel-by-the-Sea which had a two hour limit, an allowance that would simply maim my ample amount of available time whereas I needed it dead. Still, I walked downhill into the storybook town along brick sidewalks and beneath impossibly tangled eucalyptus trees. Most of the buildings look like a Dutch country village yet none are identical to their neighbors. Ivy grows aggressively on exposed sides, threatening awnings but trimmed carefully as to avoid climbing up and colonizing the spaces between the stone shingles. The main street slopes constantly downward toward the sea, steep enough at points that the sidewalk becomes a staircase and basement windows stare at chimneys across the street. It all seemed absurdly fake, like a reconstructed Disney village, but in actuality it may be one of the most “real” planned cities in the country.

Carmel became an artist colony during the era of Dadaism, attracting creatively minded folks from San Francisco, then as now overcrowded. Nearly all homes and businesses were designed by individual residents, inserting their own style into the fabric of the town. Every tree within city limits is protected, leading to some interesting ad hoc solutions like micro-courtyards surrounding a lone torrey pine and buildings with several smooth-barked oaks growing out of the tops like a treehouse that had succumbed to gravity. Artist collective inns and Bohemian bed and breakfasts line the main street, in front of which refreshed looking guests sat with rough looking paperbacks, coffee-clawed and sans care, near cat sized dogs dozing idly beneath the table.

Now prohibitively expensive even by the standards of Northern California, quirky Carmel is a closed-off community, though friendly provided your stay is weeklong or shorter. Other oddities include the fact that there are no addresses on any buildings, forcing everyone to make a daily trek to the post office to get their unrequested envelopes, and that it is illegal to wear high heels.

I kept descending toward the thundering Pacific, seemingly getting no closer and dreading the return trip with each block walked westward. The dry canopy became thicker and I seemed to enter the residential area before arriving at a miniature park with wooden stairs dropping down to sea level. The water, on this day at least, was not at all for swimming, as two meter swells violently slammed into the deceptively wide beach, a cacophonous pink noise when combined with the more constant wind. Families in jeans sat in flappy tents, shielded on five sides and on the beach only by technicality, while young beatniks who looked to have arrived from Eisenhower’s second term rather than Monterrey wrote feverishly in spiral notebooks. Several Patagonia advertisements with legs unsuccessfully threw Frisbees to dogs, the wind forcing the four-leggers to double back and run in circles. Further away from the sea was quieter and I ate a granola bar and watched the movement of the greatest ocean from a pleasant sandy alcove.

Eventually, I went to find something more filling and began windowshopping menus. Carmel has to have the most five star restaurants per capita in the United States, and I was nearly tempted by a thirty-two dollar croque monsieur at a Michelin-rated breakfast and lunch café but decided my second day tee shirt with an amoeba holding a sign that said California was probably less welcome than my azure credit card and went elsewhere.

In a sports bar, the Browns played the Ravens on TV and the barstools were occupied with Baker Mayfield jerseys, a Cleveland colony in the Pacific Time Zone drinking their way through a game that began at ten in the morning local. There were no open stools or tables and exactly zero other people standing as if the town knew how to fill a bar and then stop, so after watching less than a quarter with a couple who grew up on the other side of Cleveland as me, I again walked out in search of sustenance. I ended up in the other sports bar, this one nearly empty, watching the Chiefs play somebody while I had a Beyond Burger. I soon realized, like the Chiefs’ opponent, that my time was nearly up.

“How serious are they about the two hour parking limits?” I asked the bartender. All parking in Carmel is free but you have to move your car regularly.

She said “Hmm. You could risk it, the enforcer could be on the other side of town but I wouldn’t. They use an app that tells them exactly how long every car has been parked so she’ll get an alert and start heading that way.”

I didn’t know how this could possibly be, but in a place where there is illegal footwear I took no risk. I moved my car up a space and then came back and finished my meal. The server trusted that I would return to pay for my food which says a lot about the town, and I wished I had more than a day to get to know it. Still, I had no desire to keep playing musical spaces so I continued southward to find another place to idle away a California afternoon.

Point Lobos protrudes from the continent just south of Carmel and is the uppermost section of the high-cliffed and ribbon-like stretch of the central coast known as Big Sur. The end of Northern California was marked by a flashing highway sign welcoming me to the Big Sur region and warning against the lack of amenities for the next fifty or so miles. I paid eight dollars to drive into the Natural Reserve though I later learned that many park at a nearby beach and walk a mile to enter for free, and pulled in next to an actual chartreuse VW Microbus with its back hatch ajar at a place called Whaler’s Cove.

A trail ascended quickly from the lot and followed around the peninsula so that the sea would always be to my right. Cypress trees, the boughs of which were nearly horizontal, hung off of the cliffs near the Pacific, while some sort of pine, bare from the waist down, stairstepped up the hills on the inland side, draped in moss and holding up massive durian-shaped cones like a lawn jockey’s lantern. The deep cerulean of the water crashed over boulders and into a row of coves where it turned the color of a shaken bottle of blue Gatorade or an Icelandic hot springs, salty foam reaching halfway up the rocks. Thousands of birds waddled over offshore islands steering clear of the splash zone. The first part of the trail faced Carmel and I could see the beach where I relaxed a few hours prior.

Near the point of Point Lobos, an island of sea lions arfed and bellowed, hopping around a steep sided island. These had more room to roam than their cousins at Fisherman’s Wharf so there was less jostling and more sedentary activities like fin-to-head scratching and general flopping about. A young couple told me they saw whales beyond Sea Lion Island but I looked out onto the choppy horizon for at least fifteen minutes and saw nothing break the water except a resurfacing gull. An infographic thumbtacked to a maintenance shack called Seasons in the Sanctuary detailed the times of the year where certain sea-dwelling megafauna would be visible. I was too early for most but the humpback whale should have presented itself in September if I had waited long enough. The four seasons in the bay were called Upwelling, Transition, Oceanic, and Davidson. The calendar currently showed Oceanic, but I didn’t understand what this meant until later when I learned the names were in reference to the dominant current. If I come back to whale watch in the middle of Davidson I would have a better chance of spotting a blowhole blast or a majestic cetacean.

Instead of completing the circle, I decided to backtrack and walk to the car the way I came as I still had an excess of time and was really enjoying Point Lobos. I kept my eyes on the water more often on the return trip but alas saw no whale and gave up after nearly tripping over a cypress root.

My short trip to Northern California was over, but I felt a strange familiarity with the place. I could walk around San Francisco without a map or find the right exit off of the 101 with a powerless phone, which is not something I could say about places in which I’ve spent much more time. It could be the natural coastal boundary allowing a constant mental westing or the seamless way the neighborhoods blend into each other. Even more likely though, my Bay Area mental map had filled in so quickly because I was actually looking around. I had no itinerary and for the most part only used my phone to take photos, my head was always up, and brain fog lifted like its infamous atmospheric counterpart. I returned the car to the SFO rental desk and had a beer and a sandwich at tiny terminal A, sleepy but awake, red eye ready.

The September 2019 Norcal Trilogy:

Redwoods and Sonoma

San Francisco

Carmel-by-the-Sea and Point Lobos <- You are here

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