California's Central Coast: A Road to Almost Nowhere

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On their drive south through California, the Andersons pass rolling hills, farmer's fields, a town with a historic Robin Hood-like figure, and enough oil wells to make you think you're in Texas.

Photography by the authors

If Carmel—By-The-Sea bewitches with its sense of determined propriety and self-proclaimed elegance, its neighbor Monterey, a few miles to the north, beckons with a good ol’ boy 1950s-style self-effacement. This was always a working place, Cannery Row. In those days one wonders how snooty Pebble Beach, its next-door neighbor, felt about all that.

The town’s now-famous aquarium began in a former sardine cannery — a brave venture when David Packard funded it in 1984 with daughter Julie’s encouragement (she was a marine biologist).

Next day is time to head back home. We park at the bay’s edge to soak our feet in the ocean and photograph a couple on the Monterey beach, then head south, this time on California Highway 101.

Look around! You’d think you’d moved to Iowa or been blown, like Dorothy, around Kansas ­— but this is California, the other end of slick urban places like San Francisco or Los Angeles. This is the vast, flat California farmland where your road looks like it’s going almost nowhere.

You pass through wide swaths of agricultural land; it’s been said that because of the sun and quality of the soil, if you could provide only water, a walking stick plunged into the earth would grow into a tree. The road runs languidly parallel to Interstate 5, as stark and boring an interstate as you’d ever find.

We pick up Highway 198, which crosses the rolling hills and farmer’s fields of the Central Valley and brings us past little Mexican-like cafés and groups of scattered oil wells to Coalinga, a town on the San Andreas Fault.

Coalinga’s history includes the opening of California’s first new mental health hospital in 50 years — a 1,500-bed facility to house sexually violent predators! That it’s not there to help the victims is no surprise in California, a flawed state that budgeted $1 billion more for prisons in 2012 than for higher education.

The history of Coalinga includes a terrible earthquake in 1983 that leveled the town and a Gold rush episode that happened in 1853 when a posse killed the “Mexican Robin Hood bandit,” Joaquin Murrieta. Pulp novels were written about him and he may have become the source of the famous fictional character called Zorro, but the truth is obscure.

Our destination tonight lies between Coalinga and Interstate 5 like an oasis in the desert: Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant. The restaurant is well known to those who regularly drive Interstate 5 and stop at this break halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There’s sometimes a pronounced animal smell wafting over the interstate here. We asked locals once “Is that the smell of cow manure?” and they replied, “No it’s the smell of money!” Harris Ranch is very successful.

Not all its clientele comes by car. Some of its patrons fly in their own airplanes to the ranch’s private 2,800-foot-long runway as if they were Texas oilmen. Harris began simply enough in the 1930s as a cattle ranch but has grown to an upscale inn now with 153 rooms, a 25-meter Olympic-style pool, a gentrified country store and a celebrated restaurant with several dining rooms.

In this somewhat remote spot, Harris Ranch has everything except competition; but who could compete with so successful and comfortable a package?

The Ranch provides a folksy, friendly ambiance for what have been called “its avid beef eaters.” It has the same customers it had 10 years ago.

“It’s a generational thing,” Stephanie Papagni-LaPlante, the director of sales, tells us. “Parents bring their kids here as if they’re coming to Grandma’s house and, in time, their kids bring their kids.”

There’s not much happening in Coalinga; guests in the Harris Ranch have to find their fun on the ranch. One of the attractions is the award-winning art of cowboy photographer Don Schimmel. His work reminds us of old style Western movies.

This could be the Old West — as you approach the ranch you pass a scattering of oil wells spread all over the bleak landscape. Maybe we are in Texas after all.

It’s now a straight run south to Los Angeles. Your road runs past Six Flags, the J. Paul Getty Museum and Universal Studios. If the kids have been very patient you are very close to the original Disneyland.

Furthermore, you have plenty of connecting interstates that would take you west into Hollywood and also south if you hanker to show that even non-Los Angelinos have the moxie to catch a wave.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.