The Continental Pt. 12: The Wild Wild West
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
After surviving Death Valley, we were feeling very much alive. We pressed south, through the Mojave Desert, past Joshua Tree National Park, and over the Santa Rosa Mountains to San Diego. With its size and diverse terrain, California was surpassing Arizona as my new favorite state—before we’d even made it to the coast.
Our goal was to make it to the Southwestern-most point of the United States. My husband was obsessed with hitting the corners of the country; as well as the highest point, the lowest point, driest point, the midpoint, the outermost points, continental divides, and the northwest angle. He was also fanatical about crossing state lines; the minute we entered a new one he would grab for the atlas, search desperately for a pen and fill in that state, scribbling frantically, even if he was at the wheel.
So for him (and for me), standing at the Mexican border was gratifying. We had driven as far as we could and then walked on foot down a dirt road to a fence, which stretched out into the ocean before it disappeared into the waves. Niklas subconsciously reached for the Green Card in his pocket as helicopters circled overhead. But otherwise it was eerily quiet as we peered over at Tijuana and watched dolphins swimming in the sea.
We spent the next day in San Diego getting a tune up (mechanic number thirteen). We learned that even getting an oil change in an old car is a challenge; we had to drive to two auto shops (mechanics eleven and twelve) before finding one that had the right filters.
They investigated the elusive rattle, which, of course, had gone quiet, but, of course, they discovered other issues. We napped on a dingy sofa, waiting five hours for the car. That left one free evening and we caught up with an old friend, saw the seals in La Jolla and ate fish tacos.
Eager to begin cruising up the coastal roads, Niklas chose the ones nearest the sea, no matter how small. I was keen on this too until we were constantly stuck at stoplights in one beach town after another. While I liked the vibe, surfers and joggers crossed the streets wherever they pleased. Our Continental was cut off by bikers and stuck behind slow-moving SUV’s—like pack mules—with sports equipment sticking out every which way.
I’m more of a highway person myself; I sometimes feel a need for speed and suggested taking I-5. But Niklas was adamant.
Therefore we rolled into Los Angeles late. As we approached Sunset Strip, Niklas spewed out rock and roll trivia—which bands got their start where. He owns eight guitars and once played in a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band. I found it romantic that my very own rock star wanted to take me to the Rainbow Bar And Grill for dinner, and I made an effort to look my best.
It was hopping on a Saturday night, packed with aging musicians, wrinkled groupies, and older guys in suits that might have been managers or producers. Unfortunately we were showing our age too, because by eleven o’clock we called it a night and fell into bed.
Driving up the PCH through Malibu is a true joyride, with the ocean to your left and the steep clay slopes of the canyons to your right. Continuing up the 1 to the 101 is also incredible, but don’t take it if you’re in a hurry—luckily we weren’t.
Each leg of our journey was taking twice as long as Google maps predicted. Yet the coastline was even more stunning as the sun set, and we continued to follow its curves until midnight.
The hotels were becoming sparse and most were fully booked. Their names ended in Ranch, Resort, Lodge, or Spa, indicating that they were out of our financial range anyway. We couldn’t turn back and retrace our winding tracks, and we didn’t want to go forward and miss the scenery. We realized we would once again be sleeping in our car and were thankful that we bought a big one. Pulling over to a lookout point, we parked under a pine tree in the black of night and slept under the stars, the sounds of the ocean far below.
We awoke to the most spectacular view and to find that, unbeknownst to us, we were in the heart of Big Sur. It was transformative. Where desert meets forest, the mountains and cliffs here are covered with yellow and purple wildflowers. The trees are growing sturdier but still surrounded by succulents.
Living in our car, brushing our teeth in a bathroom where we stopped for a coffee, refilling water bottles in the sink, and wearing yesterday’s clothes, we felt like true hippies. We were traveling with the bare necessities and not much cash, living off the land, and loving each other in the moment.
I made sandwiches on the trunk of our car at a rest stop.
“What day is it today… Tuesday?” I asked Niklas.
“I thought it was Saturday,” he said. Turns out it was Thursday and that was the sign of a great vacation—and of our new carefree lifestyle.
Our first glimpse of San Francisco through the hills reminded me of Italy or Spain, with the stunning views of stacked houses. In the city, topping the steep inclines of the streets was imposing in our car, especially for a short person like myself. Where today’s hoods curve down for better visibility, ours shoots straight out, even angles up slightly. It blocks what lies ahead and below, creating a blind spot that requires blind faith.
But we didn’t care; we were living on the edge. Sustaining ourselves on trail mix, we walked around town with our backpacks. We explored the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, which was the center of the revolutionary anti-war movement and is still a throwback to the sixties. Stopping in for a drink at the Zam Zam bar with its eclectic clientele, we had found our people. I had begun to wear my hair curly and the constant mist turned it into a mini-afro. I fit right in. Niklas’s greasy hair and stained clothes made him a natural as well.
Leaving San Francisco, we took the 128 back to Highway 1, by far the most mazelike road I have ever experienced. I love looking at mountain roads, but I don’t necessarily like driving on them; their narrowness, our wideness. I most certainly don’t enjoy passing logging trucks flying around the hairpin curves.
Finally we hit the 1, and eventually we made it to the Redwoods.
Even the Continental was dwarfed in the national forest, and Niklas and I were totally shrunken. The scale and shift in perspectives was wacky and wonderful. A sign, which advertised a drive-through tunnel, carved in one of the trees beckoned and we a pulled off on a side road. Our colossal car drew a lot of attention, and a crowd gathered, cheering when we came out the other side. With only an inch to spare on either side of the rearview mirrors, I heard a scraping sound, but like all of the noises the car made, I tried to ignore it.
After all, it’s hard to have a care in the world in the land of California.
The laid back energy of the people had rubbed off on us and we felt, like, totally mellow and relaxed. The California coast had lived up to its reputation: a little bit outdoorsy, a little bit earthy, a little bit rock ‘n roll, a little bit hippy, a little bit dippy, a little bit woodsy, a little bit wild… and a whole lot of fun. And for a while we were allowed to become all of those things.
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Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.