California Coast, 2012
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When you take a photo of something that’s huge you run the risk of the photograph not doing justice to the magnitude of what’s being shown. The photo above is a good example.
This photo was taken just south of Big Sur, California, along one of the most thrilling stretches of road I’ve ever been on. We were fortunate to have been given a low, European sports sedan with really good handling capability instead of the convertible I’d asked for. I didn’t know that when we picked the car up from the rental agency. But I sure appreciated it on this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
The PCH between San Simeon and Monterey is a roller coaster of a road. They call it a “highway,” but using that term conjures up something straighter, faster and, well, safer than the PCH. One moment you’re at sea level watching waves that have had nothing to stop them since they formed somewhere out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean crash onto the beach. A few minutes later you’ve climbed to a point as much as a thousand feet (equal to a 100-story building) above the beach. To ascend and descend, there’s little straight road. Instead, there’s a series of dizzying switchbacks and blind curve on cliffs with nothing more than a low railing to prevent you from flying off the road and into the hereafter.
For a guy who spends most of his life within twenty feet of sea level, this is thrilling stuff, every bit as majestic as the Amalfi Coast drive overlooking the Mediterranean and arguably more dramatic, if for no other reason than that the two-laner along the Amalfi Coast seems to pretty much stay in place while on the PCH there are constant reminders—mostly temporary stretches of gravel—that the California coast is dynamic and that parts of this road feel no obligation to stay put.
This is where the issue of scale comes in. The people who designed and built the Pacific Coast Highway were incredibly ambitious and brave. Much of the highway had to be carved out of stone that might be millions of years old, but has no commitment to staying in the same place from decade to decade. The designers were considerate, too, in creating periodic spots where motorists can stop, catch their breath and take in a view.
I say, “catch your breath,” because driving this stretch of road is an all-consuming task. There are no more than a few seconds here and there to take in a view. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the road for the aforementioned switchbacks and blind curves. Even with a sturdy little European sports sedan with excellent handling, by the time we got to Monterey I felt like I’d had a full upper body workout.
We took advantage of several of those scenic overlooks, though. I know I keep using the word “thrilling” a lot. But that’s the best way to describe the feeling I got when I’d step a few feet from the car to a cliff six hundred feet above the ocean. In most of these spots there are no guardrails to either mar the view or hold you back. Taking pictures can involve complicated gymnastics in which one hand, and your traveling companion, anchors you to a tree while the other hand holds the camera out over the escarpment. The heck with looking through the viewfinder! You just want to make sure you can return to standing on two feet.
So the bottom line here is that 1) I had no idea how high we were when I took this picture and 2) I don’t think it even begins to tell you how high up I felt like I was when I took it.
The usual remedy when dealing with views of such magnitude is to put something familiar in the picture that gives you a sense of scale. In this case, even the trees in the foreground that look like shrubs were sixty or more feet high.