Get your kicks on Highway 101, and Big Sur Sadness

God ain’t told no one to kill their son’s on Highway 101, No one ever mistook it for any of its more glamorous cousins. It has no crossroads for any opportunistic devil to ply his trades, only T junctions that lead you either to either fall into the pacific ocean, or to head inland towards whatever trouble lays to the east. The 101 runs from just north of Los Angeles around Santa Barbara, and goes right up the pacific coast line, through Oregon and terminates at almost the Canadian border in Washington state. Much of it is in disrepair. It runs 1540 miles and 5 years of my life, on and off.

No, I didn’t pick a sexy road, a famous road. There have been no songs made about it as far as I know, and it attracts a few tourists to its various little towns in the summer, but is not a huge vacation destination. Its more or less ignored that Big Sur was the subject of a 1962 novel by Kerouac, and that he spent time there in the cabin of his friend (and fellow beat) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, intertwining the lives of Neal Cassady, Ginsburg and a revolving casts of beats, wives and freaks from the wild coast of Big Sur to the dirt and trouble of San Francisco. Maybe no one cares so much about these bohemians and their exploits nowadays. I remain entranced. I am as devoted to Kerouac and Ginsburg as I am to Patti Smith and Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Cotten.

We found the weather too hot, and saw no opportunities to find a place to spend any extended stretch of time inland. Billy pointed us towards the coast, towards Santa Barbara and the 101. I often think if our exact route could be traced in blue going east and red going west, the spaghetti mess of our meanderings would make some wonder if we had lost our minds. We were whip ‘o the wills, tumbleweeds, wild horses with the lash of fear driving us onwards running away from the danger that carried itself over telephone wires and email enquiries. Mr. Charming was getting insistent. I had not turned up at his sister’s place, nor had I got on the plane back to Tokyo. I told him we were safe, that I had left him and I wanted a divorce. I kept emails open to keep on reassuring him we were fine. I sent him careful non location identifying photos of the kids. I repeated I had left him due to his abuse and I wanted a divorce. He told me in no uncertain terms that he would never ever divorce me. “Paltry-chan, Ill never divorce you. The only way out of the marriage is to the family graveyard in Chiba.” The only way out was in a box. We kept on going. I resolved he would never see me again, or the kids. We were free. No more living on tenterhooks, no more abuse, no more pain, no more beatings, no more worrying if he was going to kill us all. No more walking the streets at 3am with two kids because it was too dangerous to go home. It was over.

We headed west until we had no more west just ocean, and turned north on the 101. We were usually lost at this point in time. My new position as copilot and navigator was stressful to say the least. I got us lost in Los Angeles, lost in Castilac, lost getting to the coast. To be fair on myself American road sign makers have only a tenuous grip on geography. Their signs are too early, or too late, ambiguous or just plain wrong, and always confusing. To get onto the 101 from that point there is a slip road, you have to slip off to the left. An unusual move at the best of times. You pull onto black top road and head on up a two lane road. It sometimes widens at this point to two lanes either way. Sometimes narrows to just cliff face and two lanes and ocean drop. There are no guard rails, the overhang threatens to push large RV’s and semis off into the sea which crashes onto the rocks below, whipping itself into peaks and frenzies, tidal pools and currents. The road itself is in poor repair. After we travelled it Big Sur got cut off entirely when the 101 in the area collapsed in 2017, along with a bridge, cutting the residents off from the outside world, and destroying any hope of tourism. It was mended, and keeps on crumbling, most recently this month when a large v shaped section dissolved into the sea, flattening trees and alarmingly sending rocks and detritus tumbling. No one was hurt, as far as I can see, which is a miracle all in itself. The road is the only alternative to an alternate route which adds a couple of hundred miles onto what should be a 46 mile trip, but at least not totally cutting off the town from the outside world. Burn scars and global warming rains do not help the stability of Highway 101, it is treacherous driving sections of it at the best of times, but with the risk of collapse, there are parts I always feel unwilling to take a chance on. The old world is falling away, dissolving, I guess travelers don’t have the right to be trying to keep on visiting it.

The bridges in the area look positively dangerous, and I have never been fond of bridges, not bridges over water, troubled or otherwise, not bridges over land, not little ones, or large ones, long and suspended or small and stout legged. No, I am not fond of bridges. The Bixby bridge made my heart leap. This is not my kind of excitement.

The weather cools almost immediately as you take this highway, it can be burning hot on inland routes, but cool and breezy next to the gigantic air conditioner which is the pacific ocean. The sea can be breathtakingly beautiful. It is the same kind of untamed as any dry land vast expanse. Dangerously isolated, haunted, ghost ships creaking on the waves, smugglers hiding barrels in the coves and by the small wooden jetties of calmer inlets.

The steel Bixby Bridge loomed ahead. I would really rather not, but there is no way but onwards, and looked over at Billy and he set jaw and steely eyes, both hands on the wheel, hunched forwards, peering through the windscreen, glancing in the rear view mirror and occasionally shouting at drifting cyclists wrecklessly meandering into our path as they toured the coast sight seeing. We were not tourists. We were never tourists, though I was more interested in enjoying the journey than bitching about it, like Billy was apt to do. It was our life. Even here, at the start, this was our life. Fish jumped under the bridge as birds of prey soared high above. My heart felt at home.

I was excited to go to Big Sur, and tried to recount the novel in a jumble of words and images, animatedly trying to whip up interest from grown men and small children. “You know, Billy, Neal Cassady was a bit like you, he was infamous for doing a lot of speed and he sure could rap. The dead bus Pranksters called him Speed Limit.” Billy’s serious face cracked into a smile. “Speed Limit. I like that. Speed Limit,” he chewed it over digesting the words. “He was Kerouac’s muse, his brother. His crush, I think. He had words. He could talk. He could talk but didn’t write. Ginsburg was obsessed by him.”

Big Sur appeared suddenly on the road, it’s city sign faded and cracked, the roads narrowed. We needed gas.

Billy decided that it was a tourist trap and would not let me look around. He would not let me walk through antique shops, or stop for ice cream. He wanted out of there. My heart broke. I was in Big Sur and I was forbidden to explore. I wanted to get out and look. Kerouac, man. I didn’t ask for much, but his sullen face and refusal to meet my gaze told me it was not worth pushing. We filled up with gas, I had to listen to Billy complain and bitch about tourism and hipsters and the rich. I tuned out. Big Sur disappeared behind us in the dust and haze of early June. I thought I saw the ghost of Neal Cassady shake his head sadly and wave to me, as he turned his canvas jacketed shoulders, and pulled up his collar round his chin. I waved back. He understood. Some men just don’t, some just don’t get it.

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