The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of America's most iconic drives. Also knows as Interstate 1 (I-1) it stretches along the California coast for over 650 miles and covers a vast stretch of the western edge, providing an altogether nicer drive than the shorter, functional, but ultimately boring I-5.
Ideally, it is taken slowly on a sunny day and in a sporty convertible, allowing you to appreciate the natural beauty and bathe in the warm rays whilst simultaneously being cooled by the wind. We had none of that. It was grey and humid, we were in a Toyota Corolla, and the air-con was on full blast. That's the beauty of backpacking, folks!
We took a drive up to Malibu Beach, which - in the murky weather - looked like pretty much every beach does in such conditions: drab and miserable. We made the most of it, and not far past it found a massive sand dune that just begged to be climbed. It took a good five minutes to scale it - as you can see from the size of me in front of our car at the base, it was a fair old distance.
We were heading to Santa Barbara, where our friends Wayne and Martine got married. By all accounts, it was a perfect slice of Americana and we were looking forward to experiencing it. It took just under 2 hours to get to the city, and by then the sun was shining and the whole place felt a bit more like California.
Santa Barbara is an interesting place. It effortlessly bridges the gap between "tourist haven" and "upmarket cultural centre" by offering ample instances of both. Art galleries line the streets alongside ice cream parlours. Beachwear shops take their place next to pizza restaurants housed in lighthouses. The city brings in a billion dollars a year in tourist revenue, and it's not difficult to see why. Wouldn't you love this view?
A walk along the pier threw up umpteen choices for food, but I'd already got my heart set on freshly caught shellfish. So without further ado, we planted ourselves on a table outside the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company and I got stuck in to some lobster spaghetti.
It was lovely, but the high winds took some getting used to - we soon understood why there was a huge queue for the inside tables!
Dessert? Well, we were on a pier, so naturally it had to be ice cream. Once again, we made the mistake of ordering a double scoop. In England, a double scoop is two scoops. In America, a double scoop is two portions of whatever a scoop is, which turns out to be about two English scoops. So we ended up with a literal mountain of ice cream perched precariously in a cone.
Sadly, it didn't live up to its impressive appearance and the cone tasted like cardboard, but at least we didn't feel as huge as we would have if we'd finished the whole thing. Still, a digestive walk around town was in order.
We stopped into a hotel/art gallery for a mooch around, but there was no chance of us staying the night in Santa Barbara as even the cheapest digs were more than our entire daily budget. It'd be a nice place to visit for a holiday, but the city makes no pretension of being backpacker-friendly.
We picked up the wheels and drove on. Lake Cachuma was a recommended stop-off point from Wayne, and it was lovely.
We were slightly ahead of schedule as we'd originally planned to stay in Santa Barbara, so we decided to find a hotel in San Luis Obispo instead, a university city an hour and a half north. Paul had spent many a drunken night here when he lived in California and highly recommended it. We found a Ramada at a reasonable price and set out to the centre to see what was around. It was early evening, and we were in luck: we'd arrived on a Thursday, and the weekly Farmers' Market was in full flow.
Umpteen food stalls lined the streets, along with buskers and arts and crafts stands. There was also an animal welfare booth which was offering to pay a dollar to anyone willing to sit and watch a four minute video they'd put together. We were on a budget but not that desperate; I glimpsed some pretty horrific scenes at one of the TVs of animals being slaughtered. I'm under no illusions as to how my meat gets to my plate, but I prefer to leave the act of preparation to those with stronger stomachs. For the man on the street, I think buying ethically is the best way of making a stand against dubious practices. Shock tactics have their place, but in many respects they do more harm to their cause than good.
It made me feel peckish anyway, so following the tried and tested method of picking the stall with the biggest queue, we stopped off at The Rib Line to get some eats.
Were they delicious? Oh my, yes.
Like many "cities" on the west coast, SLO (as it's locally known) had more of a small-town feel and I can imagine it being a fun place to spend a couple of nights with a group of friends. We were focused on getting up north though, not least because we wanted to spend a decent amount of time with Lev and Julie, the couple we'd made friends with in Laos and who were based in Mountain View. With that in mind, and with a CouchSurfing offer on the table from a kind chap in Monterey, we set off early the next morning back onto the I-1.