Goodbye, Best Driver’s Road, Ever; Hello, Bike Trail

Todd Lassa remembers the times he ran the second- and third-gear snake up and down the California coast, and realizes that it may need to change–significantly

Highway 1, the north-south highway in California that runs from Mendocino County in the north to Dana Point in the south, is crumbling into the sea. The road I have traveled countless times over the past three-and-a-half decades just to drive it is a victim of its own popularity, an irony worthy of a Twilight Zone episode.

To quote the February 28 front page of The Washington Post; “California’s shifting weather patterns are presenting new threats to this exotic road as wildfire reaches into places it has never been, leaving raw landscapes and fresh dangers in its burn path.”

For about five years during the Bush 41 era I drove up from Southern California, where I lived at the time, at least once a year.

MX-5 Miata. Ideal for Highway 1 driving. (Image: Mazda)

I had a 1987 Honda CRX, and I quickly learned that it was best to plan a trip from San Luis Obispo to Monterrey/Carmel on Highway 1 just after New Year’s in order to avoid long, slow lines of gawkers in rental Mustang convertibles, Midwest minivans and VW Microbuses full of Dead Heads. Not that I wasn’t a gawker myself, looking west at the Pacific past the cliffs below, while on one of the short straights. Virtually every such drive included a stop for lunch or dinner on the outdoor deck of Nepenthe, in Big Sur, with its aging hippie wait staff, extensive California wine selection, and perfect view of the highway just to the east and the coast to west.

My fin de siècle Highway 1 drive came long before I would wring out a test car on it for a magazine story, in September 1991. I drove all the way up the coast, past Bodega Bay, past the Oregon and Washington borders, past Vancouver, B.C. inland to Prince George and then east to Jasper, Alberta, and back (along inland freeways to make time during the return, sigh). In roughly 18 days, over 5,700 miles, the coastal road in Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian Rockies of Alberta certainly rivaled Big Sur for natural beauty, though no road was more fun than 1.

And now, it is all over. California’s highway department can keep trying to put it back together again, but for what – more CO2-spewing SUVs? No. The next Tesla sports car, or the Corvette E-ray, maybe.

If you happened to read my piece on how bicycle sales in the U.S. had a big year in 2020 – bigger than auto sales, even with inventory shortages, especially for urban/commuter bikes – and put that together with the headline here, you already know where I’m going with this. Highway 1 is ripe for establishing a roads-to-trails movement, like the 60-year-old rails-to-trails movement, in which bicycling and hiking enthusiasts turned old, abandoned railroad beds into gravel or blacktop trails.

Sure, we still need those mass expanses of multi-lane interstate, wide urban and suburban boulevards and two-lane rural blacktops between small towns just to handle current levels of automotive congestion. It won’t be long before those roads and highways are filled with autonomous electric vehicles. As much as I’d like a few more runs between San Simeon and Big Sur in something like a Porsche 718 or Mazda Miata, we are going to have to ban motor vehicles from Highway 1 in order to save it. Forget trying to return with a Miata, or Porsche Boxster or even a Tesla Roadster. My new goal is to get in shape so that I don’t have to resort to an e-bike to cycle up and down the road.

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