Lox is a sixteen-pound, twelve-year-old Shih Tzu who lives with my girlfriend and me.
We celebrated his recent birthday with a party in the park. Lox enjoyed an afternoon among friends, both human and canine. The dogs chased balls and hounded doggy ice cream, but I could see that something was nipping at Lox. Once Delilah the Doberman stopped playing with him, he still seemed distracted. I asked Lox what was wrong.
"I've been thinking about my mortality lately," he answered, "I'm 84-years old and nearing the end of my life. There's so much I've yet to do. I've never seen the world. Hell, I've barely even seen California. I want to know if there was something more to it all. I want to know if there is more to life than West Hollywood."
Lox snapped his attention. There was a squirrel (or, perhaps, a small dog) he didn't recognize on the other side of the green. It troubled him for a few moments. Eventually, he recollected his thoughts and continued, "I've been working on a bucket list of sorts, some things I'd like to do with my final years. I want to do at least one of them this month, in celebration of another seven years. I want to see the Big Sur with you and Cristina."
Coincidentally, Cristina and I had never been to Big Sur and always wanted to go. We agreed that the trip was a win for everyone and packed our bags. We planned a trip from Los Angeles to Berkeley, CA, and back so that our black and white Shih Tzu, Lox, could see the Big Sur before he dies.
Los Angeles to Berkeley via Big Sur
We left on a Wednesday morning in August, before nine. The 101 and 170 were packed, but traffic thinned by the time we reached the 5. We drove north for an hour over gold and green hills. "The southern California landscape, at times, resembles a pastel wool blanket draped over a sleeping giant," said Lox. He sniffed the air and warned of smoke ahead, half an hour before we saw it. The mountains disappeared behind the clouds.
We drove behind a smokescreen for another hour. Cristina pulled over at one of those Love's Trucker Stations near the Lost Hills. The fuel was overpriced but more reasonable than gas on the coast. Plus, Lox needed to stretch his legs, all five inches of them.
The California state highways from the 5 to the PCH were as lonely as they were direct. The smaller state highways were two-lane roads cutting a grayish line through the glowing desert. Smoky mountains lurked all around us. The temperature soon reached over 100. The heat was getting to Lox, who whined. We had outfitted the back of Cristina's Subaru with Lox's favorite blankets and a doggy bed. But even in his relative luxury, the car ride made him uncomfortable. As if this whole thing wasn't his idea.
We reached our first checkpoint four and a half hours after leaving LA. It was a roadside resort, restaurant, and rest stop called Ragged Point. Lox was the first to see why. At the park's main viewpoint, he saw gray cliffs full of, well, ragged points stretching as far north as his eyes could see, which is only about fifty yards at best. It was a gorgeous stop, one that lasted longer than we planned. It's a pastoral oasis on the shoulder of a busy highway. If you walk towards the vista for thirty seconds, the din of traffic disappears. Surrounded by leafy grass, we felt momentarily transported to the Swiss countryside. Flowers of red and blue and purple and orange danced in the sun while gardeners happily gardened nearby, all at the foot of a giant green mountain. There was a sculpture that looked like a polished wooden donut but far more refined. It's called "The Portal to the Big Sur" and looking through results in a spectacular view. Ragged Point's views earned the Lox Paw Print of Approval.
The location was awe-inspiring, but the customer service was appalling.
Ragged Point has two dining options and a coffee shop. One restaurant is waiter service, and the other is a roadside burger hut. We had two short hikes planned for the day, so we preferred the brevity of a burger joint. I ordered a veggie burger, Cristina a turkey sandwich, and Lox a cheeseburger. My veggie burger was surprisingly tasty. No doubt it was just a Sysco frozen veggie patty that they threw in the fryer for the correct amount of time, but still - they did it for the correct amount of time. Cristina's sandwich was dry and disappointing, not to mention overpriced. The lady didn't even bring out Lox's cheeseburger. She was an older woman with a hunched back and growling tone. She didn't so much look you in the eye as glare at you from behind her Covered California face mask. We had to repeat every part of the order, always to a sigh. Lox watched her treat every customer with the utmost hostility while we waited for our sandwiches. Family after family arrived at her kiosk with polite intentions. Invariably, they left cursing beneath their breath.
We had a similar experience at the coffee shop. Lox won't drink caffeine in the afternoons, but Cristina and I aren't so religious. The cafe and the burger joint must share an underground kitchen where both employees go to moan about the tourists and spit in our various concessions.
The baristo was an older man, similarly rounded and unfriendly. He appeared to be working against time rather than with it. Our long line waned like a slow drip. Just like with the lady at the burger joint, customer after customer left regretting the transaction before they even got their orders. Finally, it was our turn.
"What can I get ya?"
"Just a cafe macchiato for me," Cristina answered.
"Okay... $5.08." He answered. I jumped in,
"Oh, and for me..."
"Hold on, hold on," he said, audibly annoyed, "She said 'just.' Now I have to go back..."
He mumbled off a list of things he had to do to fix the order, which was short but sounded demanding. Cristina answered his accusation in turn.
"Oh. I was saying 'just' just for me."
"Yeah. But you still said 'just.' It's an absolute."
He reminded me of a bridge troll. Engaging with trolls only lures you into their traps, so I passed on the bait.
"Her macchiato and an espresso for me. Please."
With a hearty Ragged Point sigh, he rang us up. The amount of time we waited made me wonder if he wasn't picking the beans himself. It took ages. Lox had time to read a sign on the troll's window. According to management, there was to be "NO SPLITING" of the milkshakes. And that's just not a word.
We were as soon back on the PCH, aka California Highway 1, as we were back off it. Lox loves waterfalls and planned to see the finest falls Big Sur had to offer. Our first cascade was Salmon Creek Falls, ten minutes up the road from Ragged Point. It was a two-minute hike from the shoulder of a hairpin highway turn to the creek. Finding the falls requires an adventurous spirit. Lox sent me as a lookout after an out-of-breath couple told us they couldn't "find the big one." You had to do some light boulder hopping to get there, but finding the big one was worth it.
We passed Lox, hand-in-hand, over some of the more difficult rocks, annoying him greatly. You had to traverse a small but fast-moving creek over seven carefully laid logs to get the best views of the falls. Lox protested, but we decided it was too dangerous for him. Cristina and I took turns crossing the bridge for pictures while the other kept Lox company. The 120-foot falls were refreshing if anything. They crashed into a pool deep enough to swim in, but Cristina and I both decided against it.
I was soon driving again with Cristina and Lox in the passenger seat. Most guides will tell you to see Big Sur from north to south because the sights are better and so you can pull over at the vistas more easily. This advice is half true. The views are more spectacular from north to south. But pulling over is just as easy.
Still, we saved most of the vista points for the drive back down the following day. We did stop at the Bixby Bridge, though. It is as humongous as it is well-photographed. I'd seen it before in GTA V and have piloted many an aircraft through it. The real deal was exceedingly larger and more inspiring, but the viewpoints are crawling with tourists. There was a group on the beach so far below us that they all looked, quite genuinely, like ants. I saw them waving frantically towards us, hoping to get someone's attention. I waved back, and I think we shared a moment. At least, I hope so. If they were sending out an SOS signal, my friendly wave might come as a disappointment.
It took less than three hours to reach Berkeley from Bixby Bridge.
There was some traffic near San Martin, but we skipped over most of it in the HOV lane. The San Franciscan skyline at sunset is stunning. It's ominous and looks as permanently fixed as a mountain or the stars behind it.
We found a pet-friendly La Quinta Inn and arrived around seven. Lox was thrilled to be back on solid ground. Check-in was straightforward, the room was easy to access, and the bed was even bigger than our own. Lox sniffed at the boldly patterned carpet and said it reminded him of his favorite thing in the world - trash.
Cristina found a restaurant fifteen minutes away in Oakland called Burma Superstar. It's a popular Burmese kitchen on Telegraph Avenue, a street that I've heard is hip. (Just kidding, no one has ever said that to me.) Lox didn't like how loud the busy street was, so we picked him up when the flurry of activity made him cower. Burma Superstar had dog-friendly outdoor seating, and dining indoors required proof of vaccination. We met my brother and his date on the patio around eight and enjoyed an excellent dinner. The garlic noodles with tofu were spectacular, as was the tea leaf salad and mango shrimp. Lox laid down under our seats, only rousing when nearby dogs barked.
Burma Superstar closed at nine, and we were back in La Quinta's bed soon after. Lox had stops planned for the following day, so a night full of sleep was essential.
Berkeley to San Simeon via Big Sur
Lox woke us with kisses around eight. Cristina cleaned up while I found my way to the lobby for coffees and continental breakfasts to-go in brown paper bags. COVID has made everything more difficult, from using gas station restrooms to getting a hearty continental breakfast. My sack breakfast had an almond Danish, apple juice, and a banana. (Cristina's was the same, except her Danish was berry.) Lox watched from the high hotel bed as we stuffed our faces and bags. Soon Lox, too, was fed, and walked, and pooped. We loaded up the Subaru and hit the road, stopping by the lobby for one more free coffee on the way out.
Our first stop was by Forrest's Music Rentals. They had rented Cristina an oboe before the pandemic, but she never practiced it (for that, I am truly grateful). Now she'd had the overdue oboe for over two years. The prodigal woodwind was returned while Lox and I browsed the radio in the car.
Cristina had to show me the Berkely Bowl. It's different than the Hollywood Bowl because one is a concert venue, and the other is a bulk grocery store. Bulk grocery stores always remind me of Portland. A lot about the Berkeley-Oakland area reminded me of Portland, from its cooler temperature to its colorful Victorian homes and modern restaurants. We bought breakfast at the Bowl and gawked at the price of mushrooms. The going rate for chanterelles these days is outrageous, something like eighty a pound. That's more expensive than the ones that make you trip. Chantrelles are delicious, but few things are that good.
It was a two-hour drive to the next stop, cutting through San Jose. For the second time in two days, I passed through San Jose and didn't even notice it. I don't know what this says about the city, other than that San Jose is much less conspicuous than San Francisco.
Cristina drove; Lox laid on my lap. We stopped just south of Monterey in Carmel-By-The-Sea for lunch and were surprised to find it resembled more of a small mountain town than a beach city. Carmel is a small town so rich and exclusive that Clint Eastwood was briefly the town mayor in the eighties. We found free two-hour parking behind a line of luxury vehicles. Cristina eyed a place called La Bicyclette that had a pan-European menu with French doors. Lox was just happy for a break from the road raddled Subaru, even if it wasn't quite the Big Sur.
La Bicyclette was steeply overpriced. We decided to explore our options, perusing local menus and appreciating Carmel's many fine art galleries and day spas. Shade was plenty, which Lox loved. He also liked the feel of the brick sidewalk beneath his paws. We eventually settled at Forge in the Forest, a cozy tavern with silverware wrapped in dark linens and waiters wearing all black. They sat us on the patio near the hostess station. Everyone who noticed Lox under the table said hello, a kindness he quickly reciprocated.
I ordered a veggie burrito and truffle fries. Cristina had the tuna salad sandwich with garlic fries, plus a French onion soup. Everything we ordered was delectable, especially the soup and garlic fries. We shared a Newcastle in the shade while Lox sat attentively beneath the table. (Again, he ordered a cheeseburger but received nothing.) The bill was enormous, but I daresay worth the price. We passed rows of Porsches and Teslas on the way back to the Subaru and hit the road, heavier on the belly and lighter on the wallet.
The first stop was unplanned, but we couldn't help ourselves while passing Garrapata State Park. Lox was transfixed. He begged us to pull over, so we did. The Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail is a dusty path with parking on the highway's gravel shoulders. It's a short walk to blue waves crashing into monstrous boulders and cliffs, surrounded by colorful mountain meadows and steep peaks.
We put Lox in his hiking backpack, which always upsets him.
We wear his bag on our back or chest, like a baby carrier. It even has a hole for his tail. By wearing him out, we hoped to keep him from getting worn out. Our hike was short but dense with incredible views of a private beach cut off from the world by cliffs and a roaring tide. It was a refreshing but brief stop, like a highly concentrated dose of Big Sur. We were soon on the 1 once again.
If you have the time, your plan for driving south through the Big Sur should include stopping at every single marked vista point. There are too many to remember, but they were all worth the effort. If a view merits a sign, then it's probably worth pulling over. We pulled over at more of these stops than I can remember, and every single one was worth it.
We reached our first planned hike and pulled Andrew Molera State Park. At the ranger's station, the college-aged ranger said dogs weren't allowed. Lox was indignant. The ranger gave us a list of dog-friendly areas in Big Sur and answered all of my questions about other planned stops. We U-turned back to the highway; Lox would have to die without seeing Andrew Molera State Park.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park was nearby. It's enormous, covering over one thousand acres in the middle of the California coast. It's known for having picturesque beaches and boulder arches, but we were visiting for the waterfalls. We paid the daily fee and parked in the busy lot. There was a vandalized trail guide near the bathrooms with a map of the falls. The mosquitos were abundant and determined, but Lox didn't care. He came to see cascades, even if they didn't allow dogs on Pfeiffer Falls Trail.
It was back in the pack for Lox. For once, he didn't seem to mind. He was already too tired. Lox normally naps for most of the day and didn't realize how disruptive the nomadic lifestyle would be on his busy sleep schedule. Between the winding roads, blinding sights, and frequent stops... well, Lox was practically panting. He made no fuss while we zipped him up.
The trail was short in distance but steeper than expected. The mosaic of sneaker imprints on the ground indicated that this was a trail well-traveled. We came to our first crossing sooner than expected and were unsure of what to do next. Lox voted we continue upstream and said he could smell water falling ahead. But Cristina wasn't convinced. She asked the first hikers we passed heading the other way if we were doing it right. They assured us the sights were ahead, and Cristina was satisfied. It's a rookie move to ask if you're walking the right way on such a popular path. Lox and I were both embarrassed.
Pfeiffer Falls Trail is on the other side of the PCH from the beaches but has an entirely different atmosphere. The shift from cliff beaches to verdant forests is extreme, part of the beauty of Big Sur. One moment you're on primitive sands with no one in sight; the next, you're standing in waist-high mountain grasses overlooking a 200-foot cliff; the next, you're walking through cypress and bluegum forests across a freshly swept wooden bridge with your dog strapped to your chest. All this, seemingly, in a matter of mere moments. We reached the waterfalls soon enough, a bit sweatier for the effort.
Pfeiffer Falls is far from spectacular.
As far as natural wonders go, it's a wonder that it's such a big deal. The water more dribbled than fell. As soon as you stopped to try and figure out why this was worth the effort, you were mugged by a mob of mosquitoes. We took pictures and spent a minute on the overlook deck, constantly slapping our necks and ankles. Lox didn't have to worry about the mosquitos. They were too focused on Cristina and me.
The trail down was much less sweaty. As we neared the trailhead, another pair of confused hikers asked us a desperate question.
"Is there a waterfall up there??"
The circle of life continues.
"You're almost there," Cristina re-assured them.
"But it's very steep and full of mosquitoes," I warned. Cristina slapped my shoulder, but not to kill a bug.
As long as you're planning to do more with your day pass than just Pfeiffer Falls Trail, then the walk is worth a stop. Don't pay $10 just for that, though. It wouldn't be worth it. Lox marked the parking lot, and we were off.
Another vista soon followed; then another, then another. When driving north to south through the Big Sur, you should plan to stop at every marked viewpoint and a few of the unmarked ones as well. Live life like a 12-year-old Shih Tzu, unsure if you'll get to see these sights again.
It was early evening when we pulled into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park once again. Lox's eyes widened at the sniff of another waterfall.
The McWay Falls Trail parking lot is a small roundabout. There's an overflow lot that was unnecessary on a Thursday evening in August. There were only two other cars in the lot, and Lox ate his dinner in peace. The ranger station had already closed.
McWay Falls Trail is a fast, simple, and rewarding walk. The trail is less than half a mile long, round trip, on a flat path that takes you through an echo-filled tunnel. There are no dogs allowed on the trail. Lox said he'd be on the lookout for any and would bark as soon as he saw one.
The main draw of McWay Falls is the grande patio view. The trail ends at a cliff's edge overlooking an unreachable beach. Cristina was the first to see the falls. They were on the other side of a vast sandy bank unmarked by footprints, the sign of an untouched paradise. Imagine getting stranded on a beach like that.
The trail ended abruptly, cut off by signs warning of danger ahead. I saw two teenagers poke their heads out from beyond the fence, checking if we were rangers or feds. Lox took in the falls for one more minute (seven minutes in dog time), and we walked back to the car. A group of Asian tourists passed us on the way out. They were a mix of delighted and disappointed to see a dog on the trail.
Lox was soon asleep next to his car bed. The little sucker was pooped, even if he wouldn't admit it. We stopped at yet another vista point twenty minutes down the road with more views of the shore, wild grasslands, and jagged reefs. The horizon burned bright, and the sun began its descent. We had one last stop before the hotel - Pacific Valley Bluff Trail, about five minutes north of Gorda.
If you find yourself in the area around sunset, I can't recommend this view enough.
Pacific Valley Bluff Trail is a lightly used path with no parking lot or large signs to mark its existence. Its trailhead is across the street from a fire station. The only way you'd know it was a trail is if you got out of the car and went to read the sign for yourself. That's what I had to do, at least. The fence makes it look like private land, but it's not. What few signs are posted indicate that this is indeed a state park trail. Notably, there are no signs indicating dog or camping restrictions. All they ask is that you close the gate behind you so the cows won't escape. Easy enough. We re-linked the chain behind us and stepped into an immense field divided by a dirt path. We walked towards the ocean with cliffs ahead of us and towering mountains behind us. A fog crept over the hills, sharpening the contrast between the sunset's light and the dark of the night. The views were nothing if not dramatic.
The trail was leisurely and rewarding. It's a 1.5-mile out and back, though we didn't do the whole thing. We walked to what we judged to be the first viewpoint, overlooking an unnamed, untamed beach. The evening's low tide revealed a shore the length of a football field, decorated with sea kelp and driftwood. From this viewpoint, we could see a path to the sand that looked too dangerous for Lox. So we stayed on the cliff instead, counting down the seconds till the sun disappeared. We carried Lox back in the dark, taking turns holding him for warmth. He may have been humiliated, but we were comforted. Pacific Valley Bluff Trail was a perfect ending to an easygoing day of vacationing through the Big Sur. About an hour later, we pulled into San Simeon. Our hotel, The Morgan, was well-lit and easy to find, directly off the PCH.
We checked in to a spacious room complete with a television and gas fireplace. It was more than we needed to drop dead asleep for the next ten hours.
San Simeon to Los Angeles - No More Big Sur
Our morning in The Morgan was less hurried than the days before. There was no more Big Sur to see, and only traffic lay ahead of us. We fed the little man and took him out.
The sights near the hotel were tragic. The Morgan sat between a cheaper-looking hotel and a Mexican restaurant that was closed the night before. Across a short green is the highway, and across that highway is a liquor store and hotels you can rent by the half-hour. There were summer homes close to the beach behind us but Loxdidn't want to walk that far. He did his business in the neighboring hotel's backyard, instead.
We ordered two to-go continentals with two coffees from the front desk. Cristina didn't like her frozen burrito. She expected something fancier from The Morgan's world-renowned kitchen, which was just a freezer and old microwave. There was a bustling crowd in the lobby that morning. Most of them seemed disappointed by the breakfast as well.
The Big Sur was behind us, and Lox finally felt easy enough to return to his usual sleep schedule. Cristina and I planned stops in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. The California coast is lovely beyond the Big Sur, and we didn't want to waste the drive.
We made two stops before San Luis Obispo, either carrying Lox or leaving him in the Subaru. Both were hazy in a creepy yet romantic way. The first stop was Chris Gordon Holland State Beach. Parking was free and easy, right next to the platformed trail running parallel to the coast. The wooden path is surrounded by underbrush and ocean, constantly crashing into one another. Like all things Big Sur, boulders and shivering whitewash abound. The sea air was refreshing. There's something to a big whiff of freshly collapsed wave, almost like it's broken down and easier to digest. At least, that's what Lox said.
Our next stop was Morro Strand State Beach, for which Lox stayed in the car. It was too murky to see anything. Parking was free but limited, though there was little competition for space. We walked to the beach barefoot. On emerging from the dunes, the first thing we saw was a couple taking their horses out for a morning gallop.
"Wow," I said, "It must be one of those beaches." By that, I mean rich people beaches. Imagine being so wealthy that you can take the horse out on a Friday morning joyride. If I sound jealous, it's because I am. They looked like they were having a blast.
Morro's beauties hid behind the cold and the fog. We walked around for less than ten minutes, poking at dead jellyfish and becoming rich with sand dollars. We dipped our ankles once and ran back to the car to unfreeze our toes. I'm sure that Morro Strand is a lovely beach when it's sunny and more visible.
We drove a quarter of an hour south to San Luis Obispo. Cristina found a lunch place called Bliss on Higuera Street. We took our time getting there, appreciating the charms of SLO Cal. Planted trees and red bricks line the sidewalks filled with glass storefronts and patio seating. The crowd is well-to-do, though mere paupers by Carmel-By-The-Sea standards. We stopped in a few shops, marveled at quirky restaurant concepts (one place that only sells ice cream sandwiches - how wonderful), and found our way to Bliss, a vegetarian deli complete with all the health-conscious delights you might expect. I ordered the chia burger, and Cristina had a veggie bowl. (Sorry, Lox - no cheeseburgers.) We found our seats on the back patio they shared with neighboring businesses. There were plenty of tables in the shade, and we sat comfortably, cooled by the waving branches and the shadows they cast. Our food was delightful. I don't even remember taking the time to chew.
After lunch, we took a digestion walk along the trail by San Luis Obispo Creek. The path is playful and requires light boulder-hopping across a shallow and lazy creek. Still, we passed Lox across the stones, one by one. He was mortified, of course. We left San Luis Obispo less wound up than we'd arrived and set the map for Santa Barbara.
Two hours later, we were there. We'd experienced barely any traffic the whole trip but knew our luck would soon come to an end as we inched closer and closer to Los Angeles.
Cristina parked in the horseshoe-shaped De La Guerra Plaza, right behind McConnell's Ice Cream. Truth be told, the entire Santa Barbara experience centered on ice cream. I had never been to McConnell's, but Cristina swore by it. The staff told Lox he couldn't be in the store, so he and I waited outside while Cristina ordered. I was having my doubts about McConnell's. But soon, a group of children rambled down the brick sidewalk, playing and talking loudly.
"McConnell's!" One kid screamed.
"MCCONNELL'S IS THE BEST!" Another replied, much louder than necessary.
"Wow," I thought, "That kid sounds like he's willing to lay it all on the line for McConnell's. It must be pretty good."
Cristina brought out a scoop of dairy-free cookies and cream in a waffle cone. After one bite, I knew that I, too, would lay it all on the line for McConnell's.
The streets of Santa Barbara were active, but we were not. We ate our scoops on a nearby bench and knew we could go no further. With heavy ankles but happy hearts, we took our final trip to the car.
Lox slept the rest of the way to LA, dreaming of gray cliffs and waves. Wherever his life takes him, he'll always have this experience, and so will we. I don't know where he'll want to go next. But wherever it is, it'll definitely be because he wants to go, and not just a lame excuse for Cristina and I to get out of the house and take some pictures. That's the only thing we can know for sure.