My husband and I decided to take a leisurely route on our drive home from Sacramento a few weeks ago. On our trip north, we took Highway 5, which runs up the middle of the state – it’s the best choice for getting from here to there in a single day, but there’s not much to see along the way. For our return trip, we opted to take Highway 1, which has to be one of the most beautiful highways in the country, if not the world.
I’ve traveled on this road many times; on family vacations, riding along with my parents and older brother when they delivered him to the University of California, Santa Cruz where he went to college, and then again when I attended UCSC, and a handful other trips over the years. Each time, I have been transfixed by the breathtaking beauty along California’s rugged coastline. As I got older and became more aware of these things, I marveled at the level of planning, engineering, and construction expertise that must have gone into creating this ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline.
This time, because we began our journey in Sacramento, we had to negotiate a number of freeways before we were able to connect up with Highway 1 in the city of Santa Cruz. From Santa Cruz, our journey took us south through Capitola, Castroville (the “artichoke capital of the world”!), Monterey, and Carmel, before we began the approximately 90 miles of highway that winds along the coastal area known as Big Sur.
It is difficult to capture in words how stunning the scenery is along this route. To the north, the highway passes through a lush pine forest, then, as it winds south, the road turns toward the coast, offering views of the turquoise blue Pacific Ocean meeting a rocky shore that rises abruptly to become the Santa Lucia mountain range. Because we were traveling south, our lane was on the outside, close to the edge of the cliffs. Great for taking in the views, but a bit harrowing as we wended our way along the curvy road. Fortunately, there are many turnouts provided along the way so travelers can stop for a closer look and to take pictures.
Up until the 1930s, this part of California’s coastline was relatively inaccessible. In 1921, state and federal funds were appropriated for the ambitious project of constructing a road from Carmel to San Simeon. San Quentin Prison provided much of the unskilled labor, paying the prisoners a whopping 35 cents a day, and the promise of reduced sentences. Because of the area’s topography, 33 bridges had to be constructed, including the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened in June of 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, it was redesignated as Highway 1, and, in 1965, became the first State Scenic Highway.
Several areas along the route are prone to landslides and the road has to be shut down from time-to-time to clear the path. Fortunately, I have never experienced one of these slides in progress – I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to have rocks and boulders suddenly rain down on my car and the road in front of me.
In one area where a large number of landslides have occurred, the California Department of Transportation is completing an ambitious project designed to protect both travelers and the fragile coastline. At Pitkins Curve, they have realigned the road by constructing a bridge that juts out from the side of the cliffs, thereby allowing future landslides to pass under the bridge and not fall onto the road. They are also building a “rock shed,” which is I can only describe as an exterior tunnel. The theory is that rocks and boulders will fall onto the roof of the shed, rather than on the cars and cyclists on the road.
The original construction of the highway (even with the poorly paid convict laborers) was extremely expensive and could have only been done with tax dollars. I am so grateful that, back in the early part of last century, the federal government and the citizens of California wisely saw the value of such an ambitious project.
I can’t say that I enjoy paying taxes, and I certainly disagree with a lot of things my tax dollars fund. I also understand that there is a lot of waste and a certain amount of fraud in the system. It’s not perfect, but I do know that it takes a lot of money to keep all of the moving parts of this great country operating smoothly. When I travel on roads built long ago because the government and voters at that time thought it was important to dream big and create a legacy for future generations, I realize that the decisions we make today will reflect the values we hold.
In our current climate of tax resistance and reduction in government spending regardless of the societal cost, I wonder if we would have the vision and commitment to the common good to fund a project like Highway 1 today.