On the Road: Driving through Dreams in California

On the Road: Driving through Dreams in California

This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia

any traveller lands in California, we’ve already visited
the state a hundred times in our imagination. Most of us first
travel here via the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and
Quentin Tarantino, or daydream it up listening to music by Crosby,
Stills, Nash & Young, The Beach Boys and Stevie Nicks.

We might stitch together the photographs of Ansel Adams,
Dorothea Lange and Catherine Opie to create a visual tapestry all
our own, or perhaps conjure up the Golden State by borrowing the
words of John Steinbeck, Joan Didion and Jack Kerouac. This makes a
road trip here the most whimsical of quests, (re)visiting places
that occupy space in our minds to make real the California of our

As a hopelessly romantic Irish teenager obsessed with Golden Age
cinema, 1950s Beat literature, 1960s counterculture movements and
1970s rock (okay, and 1980s blockbusters), I’ve adored California
from afar my whole life. For the past three years I’ve had the
freedom to travel and work here every winter, throwing myself
gratefully into her warm arms when the weather starts to viciously
sabotage my moods back in London.
However, I know it’s possible to misunderstand this evocative state
– to miss its magic – which is why I’ve returned to retrace my own
fantasy made real, a California of ramshackle roadhouses,
characterful motels, quirky small towns and people who dare to
dream big.


It’s a thrill to land in San
, meet the photographer Kate (another California
fangirl who has relocated to the state) and immediately check in to
the Phoenix Hotel, a suitably dreamy, pop culture-rich locale in
the Tenderloin district. This joyously rebooted 1956 motel, which
counts Debbie Harry, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young and David Bowie as
former guests, possesses the sort of louche rock’n’roll spirit I’ve
adored since my teens. I’m utterly star-struck by its retro neons,
original pool and 1970s-style lounge bar. A night in San Francisco
makes for a soft landing in California, eating cheap
Mexican food
in the Mission District, drinking potent cocktails
at Pagan Idol, a retro tiki bar, and finally raiding the legendary
Rainbow Grocery co-op for organic car snacks before crashing,
grateful and jet-lagged, into bed.

After a brief pilgrimage to the City Lights bookstore and
Vesuvio Café, beloved by Beat Generation big hitters including
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we drive
north towards Point Reyes, a huge expanse of protected coastline in
northern California’s Marin
. San Francisco might be one of the most financially
high-powered and culturally heavyweight cities on the planet, but
hop on a bike and you’ll be powering along pristine shores in 20

An hour along the road and we’re surrounded by gently undulating
farmland that reminds me of Cornwall or my native Northern Ireland.
Nick’s Cove is our heavenly base
for the night, a 1930s roadhouse and cluster of cottages perched on
the edge of Tomales Bay. One of my travel rules is this: where I
find water, I jump into it, unhesitatingly and ideally accompanied
by a cocktail. The night before I had sipped a beer during a dip in
the Phoenix’s 1950s pool, but today I jump o the pier into the
freezing sea before thawing out in front of a coal-burning stove in
the boathouse. We sip bloody marys and knock back our welcome
oysters, the warmest way to be greeted I’ve ever come across.

The next morning we drive to Point Reyes Station, the tiny and
charming main hub of Tomales Bay. We piece together a picnic at
Cowgirl Creamery farm shop, one of the region’s best-loved artisan
cheesemakers which has a cult following in San Francisco, before
setting off on a brisk and breezy walk along Chimney Rock Trail
through Point Reyes National Seashore Park. Populated only by
grazing sheep in the fields and lolloping elephant seals on the
sand below, we feel a lifetime away from the 21st century.

This region of California resembles a souped-up,
colour-saturated vision of the Scottish Highlands in the 1950s, an
observation echoed in local place names such as Inverness and
McDonald. It hits me that California has always reminded people of
other places, even from the times of the very first settlers. Long
before the lm industry pushed it into the world’s collective
imagination, visitors would gaze at California’s landscapes and be
assailed by memories of the homelands they’d left behind.
Nostalgia, of course, is rose-tinted revisionism, and perhaps the
reason California has been its subject for generations is because
she offers a perfected, petite-proportioned smorgasbord of other
landscapes that can be found in disparate corners of the globe.

From Point Reyes we drive north to the tiny, fiercely
independent town of Bolinas, which to Kate’s eye looks like a

Wes Anderson
set – an observation bolstered by the rumour that
locals routinely tear down road signs directing tourists into

To me Marin County is eerily idyllic, like the opening scenes of
a horror movie right before everything gets gory. Such cinematic
comparisons are commonplace because we really do share California
with the movies. So much of its scenery winds up as a theatrical
backdrop on the silver screen that the entire state has a familiar
face, the original A-list actor.


In the towns of Monterey and Carmel I’m reminded just how much
we share California with writers, too. As a lover of Steinbeck, I’m
doomed to wander around Cannery Row with goosebumps, seeing his
characters lurking in the shadows among the tacky saltwater ta y
vendors and plastic tat shops. However it’s Big Sur, an
extravagantly beautiful stretch of coastline a few miles south,
that really captures my heart.

After a rainy hike among the redwoods we duck into Big Sur
Bakery for soup and superlative coffee. We also do a few
last-minute Googles and emails because we’re about to go under to
the wifi and phone signal-free zone of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. A
1930s roadhouse turned not-for-pro t hotel, today Deetjen’s is one
of the most charming and idiosyncratic inns on the planet, a
ramshackle collection of cottages and bedrooms plus a rustic
restaurant that serves top-notch seafood by night and the best
breakfasts in Big Sur by morning. The rain is pounding so we
gratefully curl up in front of the fire and luxuriously sink into
our 24-hour digital detox, allowing Deetjen’s to work its magic on
our road-weary souls.

If some places in California remind me of the past, Big Sur does
something different: it reminds me of the future I want to have.
The place reshuffles my priorities and reminds me of the sheer joy
I get from awe-inspiring trees, dramatic waves, a friendly
community, quirky accommodation and a killer huevos rancheros.
Today Big Sur has a reputation as a moneyed refuge for retired
artists, architects, writers and musicians, where Hollywood
A-listers honeymoon in $700-a-night lodges like the Post Ranch Inn
and Ventana, but the barefoot bohemian vibe and community spirit
still prevail. I write this with confidence because we put the Big
Sur community to the test when we manage to get our car stuck in a
creek. After asking some of the local residents for help we
eventually get towed out by a founding member of – no word of a lie
– The Beach Boys.


It’s heartbreaking to leave my future home so soon, but the
Madonna Inn in the cheery city of San Luis Obispo is always worth
hitting the road for. This pink palace of a 1950s motor lodge is
the hotel I’ve stayed at the most in the world. It’s my fourth time
here, an outrageous fact for a London-based travel journalist who
should really be staying at new hotels as often as possible.

However, I can’t help it – I love this place. My first night in
California was spent here and sinking into the hot tub immediately
immerses me in the Californian spirit as well as bubbling water.
I’ve never seen another hotel so perfectly primed for pleasure.
What sort of zombie could resist the 110 kitsch and individually
decorated rooms, the steakhouse with its pink banquettes and
swing-dance club on Monday nights, the jalapeño margaritas from
the poolside bar, the Barbie-pink tennis courts, or the cupcake
bakery? People have always dared to dream big in California – that
was the whole point of emigrating here. Driving from place to place
we’re journeying through the dreams of thousands of Californians,
both dead and alive. And the Madonna Inn is one of the state’s most
skilfully rendered daydreams.

We drive off in the pursuit of pleasure, sipping wine at hip
wineries Rabble and Chronic in Paso Robles before spending the
night at the recently revamped Skyview motel in the quirky town of
Los Alamos. With cult bakeries like Bob’s Well Bread Bakery and
historic drinking dens like the 1880 Union Saloon, this is prime
minibreak material for in-the-know food and wine-loving Los

An hour beyond Los Alamos lies the surprisingly seductive town
of Ojai, nestled in a fertile valley striped with orange orchards
and avocado groves. Ojai is now as famous for its hippy vibe and
artsy community as it is for its farmland and fresh produce, an
idyllic haven where good living comes easy to those who reside
there. We check into the stylish Ojai Rancho Inn and then explore
the town on Rancho-issued bikes, dipping into the swish interiors
of vintage stores like In The Field, Summer Camp and Sam Roberts.
In the last I make my lone purchase of the trip, an embroidered
1940s buckskin jacket that the owner, John Dennis, tells me was
stitched on an early sewing machine by Native Americans. We spend
an hour talking to John about how he shapes his handmade hats in
the creek and sun-dries them, as well as his love of museum-grade
vintage pieces, my new jacket being one of them. We tear ourselves
away just in time to catch Ojai’s famous “pink moment”, when the
setting sun taints the surrounding mountains fuchsia, before
tucking into vegan Mexican food at Farmer and the Cook.

The next morning we hike Shelf Road in the sunshine, joining the
freelance brigade at the sleek new joint Beacon Coffee Company and
rummaging through rare photography books at Barts Books before
finally forcing ourselves back on the road for our three-hour drive
into the snow-capped mountains and town of Idyllwild. On the
recommendation of Bo and Kevin Carney, the owners of the hip Silver
Lake boutique Mohawk General Store who have a holiday home here, we
head to the adorably old-school Restaurant Gastrognome for steak
before checking out a couple of local breweries and then hitting
the hay in our cute 1970s-style Airbnb A-frame.

This quirky, crafty mountain town has always been a camping
destination in the summer months, but in recent times it’s become a
year-round haven for LA’s creative community too – we find
ourselves queueing for hot cacao at El Buen Cacao alongside film
directors and fashion designers. During a coffee tasting with Chris
at the local roastery Black Mountain Coffee he tells us about his
favourite hikes and breweries in the area, sparking a pilgrimage to
Mountain Mike where leather expert Mike “reads” my new jacket,
admiring the craftsmanship. “I’d say this is Appalachian, and look,
you can see exactly where the bullet entered the hide,” he says as
if he’s reading a book. A leather craftsman for over 40 years, Mike
can look at a hide and ascertain how fast the deer was running,
whether it was going uphill or downhill, and where the hunter was
firing from. Stories are found everywhere, even in vintage
, if we can find the right people to read them for


A friend of mine who lives in Palm Springs has pointed us
towards a retro roadhouse called The Sugarloaf situated between
Idyllwild and Palm Springs, where the owner Gabbi greets us with
the words, “Of course you’re having lunch with us. Seriously, we’ve
got a five-star-chef in a two-star-location!” They serve up the
best barbecued brisket and burgers we’ve ever tasted. Gabbi and
chef Wesley are long-time friends who’ve made it big in the
restaurant and hotel scene in LA and NYC, and now feel they’ve
earned a little fun – this year they’re hosting Coachella parties
and having gigs out the back. Kate and I have driven into a big,
thrilling dream by pulling up here.

From the snow-capped peaks and sub-zero temperatures we drive
into the sun-baked desert to our penultimate stop,
Joshua Tree
. We’re staying at the Pioneertown Motel, a simple
and friendly motel (literally) out of a Wild West film set. The
entire 1880s-style Mane Street (see what they did there?) of
Pioneertown was built by Hollywood investors in 1946 to provide a
permanent set for more than 50 Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s.
Pioneertown also has the bonus of being mere staggering distance
from Pappy & Harriet’s, one of my favourite bars and gig venues
on the planet. Everyone from Robert Plant to Paul McCartney and
Queens of the Stone Age have played impromptu sets right here.

Eating barbecued ribs and dancing to the Sunday Band is the best
way to round off a day spent hiking in the national park, sifting
through 1970s copies of High Times in vintage stores, lusting over
just about everything in boutiques like Shop on the Mesa and
feasting on blackened chicken at chic new arrival La Copine.
has a special place in my heart. This other-worldly,
sparse desert landscape has been the backdrop to so many people’s
visions and I can understand how musicians, writers and artists
find inspiration on this spectacular oversized blank canvas, where
you can build a ranch and realise your fantasies.


Another one of my travel rules: always wrap up a road trip in
style. With this in mind we ease ourselves gently into Los
city life at the lush Los Feliz hotel the Covell,
sinking gratefully into our plush beds and vast baths after days of
slightly more spartan living in the mountains and the desert. Our
final supper is just a few steps down the road at Kismet, where we
devour Middle Eastern small dishes yet still manage to think about
which HomeState breakfast tacos to order from room service in the
morning. It’s a treat to be back in a city I love, but I’m already
feeling nostalgic for Deetjen’s, for the Madonna Inn, for the faces
of John Dennis from Ojai and Mountain Mike in Idyllwild. As Kerouac
observed back in the 1950s, a road trip is a story happening in
real time. And I’ve never found a better setting and cast of
characters for my story than California.

The Lowdown

For more information on planning your own Californian road trip
go to: visitcalifornia.com/road-trips

This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia

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