On Tuesday I got to spend more time with an old friend of mine: the California 1. Contrarily to what one could assume (or at least to what I assumed), the State Route 1 does not run along the whole coast of the Golden State: it stretches for 656 miles from Leggett, in Mendocino County, to Dana Point, in Orange County. Last August I drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco mostly on the California 1 (California 1, Part 1 and Part 2). I think I can say that by now I’ve purposefully driven at least two thirds of this wonderful route.
Biographical flashback starts here. Feel free to skip.
Truth to be told, this was not my first time traveling this leg of the California 1. It was actually the vindication of a family feud: more than twenty years ago, before Google Maps, before Tom Tom, and before the AAA Tour Guide device bolted on the dashboard of rental cars (commonly referred to as “the b*tch in the back”), we drove from San Francisco to Bodega Bay with my family, as we made our way north to Florence, OR. It was one of our summer road-trips to the USA, dotted with visits to family and friends. I don’t remember if my parents felt like a change from the freeways, or if someone in San Francisco recommended the alternative scenic route. The thing is, on that day the summer fog really went to town on the California 1. It was not even a romantic gloom: it was a milky barricade turning anything beyond fifty yards from the windshield into pure guesswork. After more than three hours hardly ever exceeding twenty-five miles an hour, we made it to Bodega Bay. The village looked very Hitchcock-like, from what we could see. At that point we took the unanimous decision to forsake the scenic route and head back to the 101 North. Well, my parents took that decision, I don’t think my sister and I got a vote.
In fewer words, this was my second time traveling that leg of the California 1, but it was my first time seeing any part of it. And trust me, there’s such a lot of world to see down there.
End of biographical flashback. You may carry on from here.
A word to the wise: on the California 1, gas stations are few, expensive, and scattered a dozen miles one from the other. I have the bad habit of spreading my tank real thin and I often flirt with the possibility of getting stranded on the roadside (I often wonder how much the CHP charges for the mythical gallon of fuel mentioned in the DMV textbook). The fuel level low warning lit up ten minutes before Bodega Bay. No sweat. Little did I know that the only gas station in the village was temporarily under inspection. I called them. They said it would be operational in one hour. I had lunch at the Boat House. Best fish and chips in a long while. The fish, perfectly battered, was sizzling when they served it. I ate it with coffee (no drinking and driving) and I headed back to the pump but it was still inaccessible. I asked the workers how long they were going to be and they answered it would be at least one more hour, provided they did not find anything faulty. I sighed. The closest gas station was fifteen minutes North on the 1, on a village called Jenner that sat both on the Russian River and on the Pacific Ocean. I could easily make it, but if the station in Jenner happened to be closed, I would have had less than 30 miles left on my tank.
When you’re short on gas, the Rapture itself could unfold in front of your eyes, but all you’re looking at are the miles to empty on the dashboard. Like suspense much? I don’t. Let’s cut to the chase. The “C” Store was open. Gas was quite expensive, so I made the arguable decision of filling the tank up to three quarters. Don’t ask me why. It felt wise at the time. And no, this is not the prelude to another empty tank story. Just a fact. Now, my tank was kind of full, my stomach was full too, I was ready to enjoy the road and fill my cameras’ hungry eyes.
Jenner was gorgeous. I am actually glad my empty tank took me a few miles North, or I might have turned back in Bodega Bay as planned.
Jenner sits at the estuary of the Russian river. Toponyms such as Russian River and the nearby town of Sebastopol are interesting reminders of the history of the Golden State, as it was once upon a time claimed by the Spaniards, the French, the Americans and also Russian settlers and traders. Apparently, sir Francis Drake himself had some business on the shores of Northern California – and that’s why some streets are named after him.
The California 1 tried to lure me further North, but I had a mental rendezvous with the Golden Gate Bridge at golden hour, so I bid good bye to the northbound road and started to make my way South.
The breathtaking beaches and the big rocks braving the waves are already reminiscent of what the coast looks like till further North, in Oregon, on an equally mythical road, the 101. Just on the other side of the road, large farms and ruins of even larger farms bring to mind the agricultural vocation of the Golden State.
Back to Bodega Bay. Cinephiles know the place because of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie The Birds, set in Bodega Bay. The movie was based a short story by British novelist Daphne du Maurier (who also authored Jamaica Inn and Rebecca), also set in Bodega Bay. There are indeed many birds in Bodega Bay: seagulls, cormorans, egrets, but also red tailed hawks and many, many vultures. I was actually a little surprised by this: every time I pulled over to take a photograph, a vulture hovered by my car. Fun, but eerie too. To birds, Bodega Bay looks a little like this.
Bodega Bay is delightful, and certainly worth a longer stay, but the narrow and busy coastline did not offer many interesting vantage points, especially as I had to cope with the low winter Sun causing an unforgiving reflection in the still waters of the lagoon. Time to move on, eyes on the road and mind on the time.
The first wonder on the California 1 heading South is Tomales Bay, a fjord-like inlet separating the land from Point Reyes, speckled with gorgeous houses, wetlands, and seafood shacks.
Further down, the road winds by whimsical groves of oaks, pines, and eucalyptus. I barely encountered any traffic, which increased the impression of driving through an enchanted land. Cellphone connection is at best spotty, but Mark Knopfler’s album Sailing to Philadelphia was saved on my drive, and was a perfect companion for the road.
More road, more water. The California 1 gently leads you to the Bolinas Lagoon, enclosed by Stinton Beach. The day was clear, and far in the distance I could already spy the North-Western heights of San Francisco and the enigmatic triple peak of the Sutro Tower.
Past Stinton Beach, the California 1 climbs along the Mt. Tamalpais State Park. The lookouts give you a stunning view on the road you’ve just driven, or that you might be about to drive.
At this point, the road soars, and dips, and turns left and right in a never-ending ribbon across the Muir Woods (reservation required to visit). Viewpoints and turnouts (no parking any time) abound, but you want to be mindful of cyclists and slower traffic. Also, the elevated part of the California 1 presented me with so many turnarounds that, even if I was driving I got a little car-sick myself: I was quite looking forward to be done with this portion and reach the Golden Gate.
A couple miles on the 101-S lead you to the Alexander Ave. exit, to pursue the panoramic loop for the Golden Gate. My cousin, who lives in San Francisco, recommended Battery Spencer as the best point of view, and it sure did not disappoint. On my way there, I could not keep myself from pulling over at most viewpoints. Taking photos of the Golden Gate Bridge is pretty much like eating nachos: you can never stop – always another one and then you’re done. And another one. And another one.
Battery Spencer was reassuringly busy, but not crowded. Not only you get amazing views on the Golden Gate Bridge, but also on the City itself.
And then of course, the Bridge itself. Soaked in the golden light as the winter sunset slowly approached.
As much as I consider myself one of the greatest fans of “this other Eden… demi-paradise… this precious stone… set in the silver sea of this earth, this ground… this Los Angeles” [L.A. Story], I must admit we have nothing like this. The bridges of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, are monumental. They are gigantic. Immanuel Kant would call them sublime, in the romantic understanding of the word: they transcend our senses, our capacity to apprehend them and size them. Those bridges make me very proud about human beings and about the challenges we can face and conquer. As a person who lived in Paris for three years, the bridges of San Francisco put me in an Eiffel Tower state of mind.
All good things must have an end: my wonderful drive on the California 1 from Jenner to San Francisco had ended, and it had surpassed my wildest expectations, time to get back in the Mustang and drive back to the hotel.
Oh, before we wrap it all up, how about a little gear talk for those who are interested?
I used three cameras for this drive. All details and long shots were taken with the Fujifilm X-T3 and the XF 100-400mm lens. All the shots from within the car were taken with the Fujifilm X100V – which is still my desert island camera. Oh, of course, the view of Bodega Bay was a drone shot.
All the other landscape and wide shots were taken with the new 50 megapixel medium format by Fujifilm, the GFX 50s II, paired with the lens that it was sold with, the GF 35-70. The quality that this camera delivers, together with the cropping power, is just mind blowing. Look at the detail you can preserve while cropping.
I also had an another, faster lens, the GF 80mm f1.7, but for the landscapes I encountered on the California 1 the new GF 35-70mm was just perfect. Lightweight enough to explore some trails with it and not feel weighed down, versatile, and yet able to deliver an incredible image quality. I expected nothing less from Fuji, but when I bought the GFX kit I knew I was going to add at least one “more premium” lens, which I did, and yet I had no idea how much I would actually enjoy this 35-70…
All the images you see in this blog are available as fine art prints, simple or framed, canvases and other supports. Needless to say that the medium format images yield prints that are just out of this world.