In the first installment of a new series about travel gone wrong, Travel & Outdoors Reporter Crystal Paul describes a treacherous, rain-soaked solo drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
This is the first in a series, Bad Travelers, in which we share our most disastrous travel experiences. Share yours by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweeting @NWTravelers with the hashtag #BadTravelers.
A bad beginning
This is how it was supposed to go: I’d head out first thing Friday morning, sun shining, windows down, music blasting. I’d make my first stop in Astoria for breakfast and a critical look at the first permanent U.S. settlement on the West Coast. From there, I’d make my way to U.S. Route 101, the awe-inspiring Pacific Coast Highway. Everything that followed would look like a montage from a quirky road-trip film. Cue summery pop song with underlying message of female empowerment. Insert hair-in-the-wind good times. Sprinkle in a couple of adorably klutzy moments, and Instagram-worthy adventures at Cannon Beach, Heceta Head, and the Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford.
None of that happened. Instead, it rained. And rained. And rained some more. Heavily. Through three states.
My thick, curly hair is generally somewhat resistant to flowing in the wind anyway, but with the heavy rain, any part of it that might have flowed became a giant ball of frizz. My only klutzy moment involved hot coffee and a not-very-adorable fight with a stubborn cup holder. Everywhere I’d planned to stop was closed or irrelevant under miserable gray skies. And the whole trip was delayed an hour when I had make a detour to pick up a USB cord for my phone’s car charger.
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Instead of a rom-com, I found myself in the middle of what can only be described as an obnoxious one-star Yelp review of the Pacific Coast Highway: I wish I could give zero stars! It rained the WHOLE TIME.
But with 16 hours of driving left, I was over-caffeinated and optimistic enough to think that the rain would let up, and things would turn around.
How I learned to travel
As Route 101 narrowed and the speed limit decreased, a group of high-school students casually traversed the highway on their way back from lunch at a gas station, clearly the only walkable option for these kids. As I drove into the town center at Cannon Beach, I was charmed by a sign in a window advertising the sand-castle competition.
When I spotted a cute little cafe, I was certain my everything-turns-around moment had arrived. Instead, I waited inside the tiny, fairly empty Cannon Beach Cafe while two servers actively ignored me for 10 minutes. Finally, one of them asked, “Are you waiting to be seated?” Once I was seated, another conspicuously long interval passed before the server came over. But it was all too baffling to be angry about, and the food was good.
Back on the road, the endless onslaught of rain and wind combined in a shushing white noise that was starting to make me feel a little crazy. So I popped out of my car at a few vistas to snap photos, and pulled over at Depoe Bay for an espresso refill and a bite of toast at Toasted, a cafe specializing in toast. The dark waves crashed against the jagged rocks along the coastline, and reminded me of one of my first big road trips from mountainous Colorado all the way to the ocean coves of Maine.
My family moved a lot, and when we did, we drove.
We’d pack all of our belongings and our two cats into a brown Chevy Blazer named Betty, and traverse swaths of the continental United States in my mother’s endless quest to find somewhere in the world where her problems couldn’t follow her. Along the way, we’d sleep at a combination of rest stops and motels, and for breakfast, we’d eat terrible gas-station doughnuts that tasted like plastic, with small cartons of milk. We’d take long detours chasing signs for the Barbed Wire Museum or the world’s biggest pot of coffee.
I never recognized the luxury hotels, carefully curated itineraries, and sunny, smiling, Instagram-ready photos in travel magazines. For me, travel was all freedom, new places, and, well, winging it. For my mother, I’m sure there was a little more desperation. But for me, it was how I learned to travel, and how I learned to love traveling — in the back of a crowded Chevy Blazer, with no real plan and just enough money to maybe get us where we were going.
I was doing this trip all wrong.
Abandon all hope
I drove to Prehistoric Gardens, knowing it was closed, and enjoyed a tableau of a life-size, goofy-faced T. rex looming over a construction worker who had pulled into the parking lot at the same time. At a rest stop, I sat in the rain on a lonely little bench not quite far enough from the restrooms, and took in the sunset. It was all the more beautiful for the cloak of fog and the dark gray ocean that made it only a sliver of orange and pink.
Of course, I hadn’t connected the dots that the combination of fog, excessive rural darkness, and the winding, narrow, slick Pacific Coast Highway roads makes for a journey resembling a cheap ’90s horror film. Still, I made it out in one piece — one very slow-moving, hunched over the steering wheel, almost-hit-some-mutant-oversized-raccoon piece — and immediately checked into the first hotel I saw, an America’s Best Value Inn in Crescent City.
Don’t knock the cheap hotels, friends. It was clean and cozy and got the job done. I eyed the vending machine at check-in, debating between much-needed sleep and filling the cave of hunger in my stomach carved by too much espresso and not enough food. I opted for rest. Once the weird burning smell from the room’s heater went away, I was lulled to sleep by its gentle growl.
The next morning’s cold bagel, O.J. and bruised banana was the kind of bad breakfast you need when you’re on the road and running on six hours of sleep and gas-station coffee. This time, I returned to the road having abandoned all expectations of a magical turning point that would lead me into the inspired, learning-lesson kind of trouble.
Oh, and it had stopped raining.
After selecting a playlist of Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Stromae, and the “Black Panther” soundtrack as background music for the next 10 hours, I emerged from the morning gloom into a cloudless blue sky and the gleaming ocean views I’d been promised. I made my first stop at the roadside memorial of colorful spinners and flowers placed there in remembrance of the Hart family, from Woodland, Wash. Taking the scenic route through the gigantic redwoods of the Avenue of the Giants, I got a (less gaudy) taste of what I’d missed out on at Prehistoric Gardens.
By the time I reached Fort Bragg, the sun was glaring down like it was angry at having been upstaged by clouds for a whole day. Glass Beach was busy with tourists ignoring the ocean views in favor of hunting for bits of old garbage transformed into shiny sea glass. In the parking lot, with the beach as his backdrop, Brian “Coolwhip” Garza strummed a guitar and sang from a folding chair in front of his truck.
Garza propped his guitar on his truck and told me the story of how he’d inherited it from a friend who passed away. It was made by Steve Helgeson, he told me, showing off its beautiful design and estimating its worth somewhere in the high thousands. Garza lives out of his truck but refuses to sell his guitar because of its sentimental value. He told me he’d be on the radio in Seattle in a few days, then returned to his singing.
If this were “Eat, Pray, Love,” he would have said something cheesy in the cadence of wisdom like, “The road is yours if only you’re open to it,” “Follow the road, sister … Just follow the road.” Maybe over some light strumming.
Instead, I was left with my own wisdom, which guided me to the nearest Safeway for a $3 deli sandwich and then back onto the road, windows down, the radio scanning through the many Christian rock stations. Four hours later, I felt that “Welcome home” rush of warmth when the Oakland Tribune tower came into view.
And then, a mile away from my exit, with the blazing sun high in the sky, traffic came to screeching halt.
How you should do it instead:
Check the weather.
If you have the luxury of time, plan at least four days for the trip. Five hours of driving is plenty for one day, and this allows you to actually stop at cool little tourist spots.
Pack your lunch. Or take your food to-go. You take the Pacific Coast Highway for the views, but you’ll risk fatal injury if you take your eyes off the winding road. There are plenty of great spots to stop, have a bite to eat, and get a good look. If you stop at Cannon Beach, grab a Beach Lunch Box from Cannon Beach Cafe and head to the water.
Stop somewhere before Depoe Bay. The lodging options take a turn after this point.
Start your day early. This ain’t New York City. A lot of little towns and highway attractions along the way close early.
Be prepared to slow down. You’ll have to slow down every hour or two when you’re passing through towns, sometimes going from 65 mph all the way down to 30. Remember: People live here.
Make fewer plans. But do look up what you might want to do along the way. Take your sweet time, and stop when things look interesting.
Take the scenic route through the Avenue of the Giants. Always take the scenic route.