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Ventura Highway

Ventura highway

in the sunshine

Where the days are longer

The nights are stronger

than moonshine

You're gonna go I know

America, Ventura Highway

At some point every Californian takes a trip up the coast. In my lifetime, growing up a So-Cal kid, I'd estimate that -- between family vacations when I was a lad, student politics during my college years, law school up in Sacramento, and a girlfriend from San Jose -- well, I’ve probably gone up and back 37 times. It’s one of those treks that, done right, you can never really tire of. Especially, if you are doing it with loved ones for the first time. A new lover, a spouse, children. The cruise up 101 and then Highway 1 never gets old.

It’s sort of like a rite that one has to experience before they can gain state citizenship. Why? Because one can’t truly understand the rhythms, the prospects, and the capabilities of this great Golden State until they have sampled the spectacular views along the craggy coastline; the lush hues of the ocean, kissed by the ever-changeable, vibrant sky; and the quirky folk and idle pace that define the seaside lifestyle. Taken together, these aspects of the coastal trek -- and particularly from Southern California up to the San Francisco Bay Area -- form one of the United States' essential experiences; a national treasure, decaring uniqueness, demanding encounter.


Of course, there is the inland valley, as well, and that is a very different California – comprised of very different natural and cultural geography; but as stunning as those folkways are, they are less unique than places farther east and south – more reminiscent of peoples and places in the nation's breadbasket. But here -- along the western edge of America -- there is only one of these: the California surf, the California breeze, the California gull, the California coast. Everything else is just a route to expedite the fast dash home; only a substitute to get on to the next thing in life. Not life itself . . . as this coastal passage is.

This route: life's trek, itself.

The trek, itself, is effected on Route 101, whose engineering history can be found here. Those who begin in LA, venture forth on the “Ventura Highway” of America fame, quoted above. It is not quite like how the guitar trio put it (that is, a roadway of the imagination) -- a vein they blithely viewed as exotic, if not quixotic:

cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair

And the days surround your daylight there

Seasons crying no despair

Alligator lizards in the air, in the air

In fact . . . the Ventura Highway of today isn't anything like this. Not, at least, at the start. For, the start -- at least for those embarking from the South -- entails clawing one's way out of the Los Angeles basin. And, depending on the time of day, this can be a grueling ordeal. For me and my gang, venturing forth during evening rush hour, it means nose up against ketchup-red tail lights, throbbing "beware" in the fast-fading, purple-spackled twilight. Getting nowhere. Slower than tolerability.

But there are advantages to starting out at night -- one thing being that one does not have to subject themselves to the tortured viewing of over-developed points west: the tangled trail through Burbank, then Glendale, through the upper reaches of Hollywood, then Woodland Hills, and Hidden Hills, Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Thousand Oaks. Toward the outer reaches, gas stations and Colonel Sanders give way to sage and graded mountainside, tract homes, auto dealerships, trailer parks and strip malls. About the coolest thing is realizing that the tail end of this route through the Los Angeles basin was part of the famed El Camino Real, the dirt path that ran between California's Spanish missions, known also as Camino de las Virgenes. Those missions are a major trip, in itself, and one worth taking, for any visitor wishing to negotiate the expanse of the Golden State, with an eye on history and a definite purpose in mind.

Especially if one likes their history straight up, in the light of day. But, this time round, this part of our tour is best conducted under the cover of night. There is so much more to see tomorrow, to contemplate, further up the road, under the raging rays of the sun.

As Camarillo gives way to Oxnard, so does 101 yield (in name, at least) to Highway 1. Still, in design and spirit it is the original 101. Antiquated, beaten, unpretentious, undaunted. And it will be so for the next 400 miles or more -- every single click up the wending, looping, circuitous coastal tour. So shall it be quaint, dull, glorious, breathtaking -- for the next day and a half's leisurely drive -- all the way into the blustery bowl of San Francisco Bay.

Ventura Highway. A road worth taking. A venture no one should miss embracing.

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