I lived in LA for five years. While I did, I traveled frequently to the Bay. Sometimes by plane. Sometimes by car. When by car, I always took the 5. Up. Then down. It's an efficient drive. Boring for the three hours that separate Bakersfield from the Pleasanton area. Generally unremarkable. Nothing, I suspected, like cruising along California's Highway 1.
So...you can guess where this story is going.
When I found out that my office would be closed for a couple days following the conclusion of the conference our whole staff was working in San Francisco during the third week of October, I immediately made plans to kick it in LA for the last week of the tenth month.
Since I didn't have any particular agenda or schedule, I figured I'd do what I never did while I had an 818 number for my landline: drive the coast.
Saturday, Oct. 20 was the glorious end of my conference. I celebrated pretty late that night. I remember some Jack Daniels Manhattans. A really pretty Thai girl. A bus where skinny people skated through the aisles handing out cans of Tecate. A statuesque Swedish chick. A handful of drink tickets that I showered on friends and strangers alike. Somewhere in there, I think I ate a whole pizza. Maybe.
Consequently, I was in fantastic shape the next morning when I showed up at the rental spot to scoop my cherry red '08 Grand Prix.
After I said peace to the homie Dom and the lady Mariam following a healthy breakfast surrounded by upright and fully clothed people, I jumped on the freeway and skated toward Highway 1. No traffic on a Sunday afternoon. Clear blue skies around me. Herbie Hancock in the CD player. And a rather mild headache to keep my company. I hit the 1 just shy of 4 pm.
Turns out that was less than a good look.
Highway 1 is not the 5. At all. It curves around on itself as if it wants to swallow its own tail. There are perilously low-lying stretches. And climbs along cliffs that don't know when to peak. Some places measure out at just barely two car widths. And it takes forever to drive it. Especially when you're hung over and extra-sleepy.
It also has some of the most spectacular scenery you'll ever see in your rear view mirror.
There's a place in Carmel where, if the sun hits it just right, the ocean reads denim. Like it's a big pile of blue jeans waiting to be folded. I've never seen anything like it.
I am not entirely sure how I survived the first six hours of the drive. I do know that Marlena Shaw will never sound so sweet again. And I know that I owe the homie Mike at least three beers for driving the last leg of the trip while I was knocked out in the passenger seat.
Mike and I had made arrangements earlier in the week for me to scoop him up near Cambria. Which is about four hours north of LA. And very close to the Hearst Castle.
He gave me directions which seemed easy enough to follow. In the sleepy darkness, though, I ended up getting lost. Fortunately, there was Highway 1, two different roads trailing off the 1 and the Pacific Ocean. Since I sorta knew better than to drive into the sea, I got unlost pretty quickly.
Just as soon as I did, I heard this strange pop while trying to turn onto the correct road. Stopped the car. Jumped out. A hissing sound from the right front of the car cracked the silence.
No sooner did "Sonofabitch" come off my lips than a random truck wearing a surfboard screeched up beside me.
"Are you a friend of Mike's?"
"Yeah. You got a flat?"
Shook my head yes. Watched the goateed stranger grab a flat tire repair kit from his car and go to work. Phone rang.
"Mike? What's up man? I got a flat, but your dude is johnnyonthespot gettin' it fixed."
"Uh, my friend Phil is supposed to be in LA right now."
"Let me call you back, Mike."
I asked the Samaritan surfer which Mike he knew. Turns out there are several people on earth who share that name. Thankfully, he had already fixed the tire on my rental when we figured out that we shared nothing in common but serendipity and facial hair.
I shook his hand firmly. Asked if I could make some gesture of gratitude. He smiled. Pointed me in the direction that I needed to travel. Climbed back into his truck. And disappeared.
I shook my head in disbelief and wondered if this little sidebar could get any stranger.
Mike was staying at a ranch house tucked behind an avocado grove on his friend's 400-acres of farm land. The one road that wound through it looked like someone was still trying to learn cursive. It was dark. Country dark. Where the only lights to guide me were the stars in the sky and my own headlights.
As I crawled along, I noticed some creatures standing in the road ahead of me. I slowed. Squinted my eyes. Double-taked at what appeared to be four striped, little horses. I stopped inches away from them. Headlights yelling on my behalf.
Those aren't striped, little horses. Those are f--kin' zebras!
Zebras, dude. Seriously.
It wasn't the hungover. It wasn't the fatigue. It wasn't any part of my mind playing tricks on me. There were f--kin' zebras in the middle of the road. In California.
I got out the car. They trotted away. Phone rang again.
"Mike, where in the hell are you staying, man?"
He laughed a big, knowing laugh.
30 minutes later, he was behind the wheel of the rental explaining that the there used to be a zoo on the Hearst Estate and that they had set a lot of the animals free some time ago to roam the ample farmland neighboring it.
I shook my head again in disbelief.