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California VI: The Underground Man

March 12, 2009

After my brief burst of confidence two days back, yesterday we hit the terrifying part of Route 1 — something that can’t be caught by this photo, I know.

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Eyes on the road; hands (sweaty hands) at 10 and 2 on the wheel; heart pounding on the steeper turns…. That was most of my nearly three-hour drive along the 90-mile stretch from Monterey to San Simeon. I drove, letting Dad enjoy the scenery, but I would’ve felt better if we’d had a reliable rental car. Instead, this is what we were driving:

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OK, so I’m just joking about that. In fact, the picture above shows Dad and me at the National Steinbeck Center — a really, really impressive museum that invites visitors to interact with Steinbeck’s world and his writings and that got me to think I need to go back and read some works I’ve unfortunately missed before (particularly East of Eden, one of Tara’s favorites).

Still, even in a more modern car, Route 1 gave us quite a ride….

Today, we’re touring Hearst Castle and then driving further down the coast toward Los Angeles. Along the way, we’ll be passing through Santa Barbara, which was the basis for the fictional city of Santa Teresa in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels. And from that comes today’s literary excerpt. The following passage is from one of my favorites among Macdonald’s books, The Underground Man, in which a deadly fire threatens the town:

654600323It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the beach was littered with bodies. It was like a warning vision of the future, when every square foot of the world would be populated.  I found a place to sit in the sand beside a youth with a guitar who lay propped against a girl’s stomach. I could smell her sun-tan oil, and I felt as if everybody but me was paired off like the animals in the ark.

I got up and looked around me. Under the stratum of smoke which lay over the city, the air was harshly clear. The low sun was like a spinning yellow frisbee which I could almost reach out and catch.

The thrusting masts of the marina looked dark and calcined against the light in the west. I took off my shoes and socks and carried them along the beach in that direction.

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