Author: Marcia L Hill
Date of Trip: April 2013
America’s first freeway
Growing up on the east coast of the US gives you a certain perspective on the world that tends to categorize California as some kind of odd mixture of Hollywood celebrities, silicon valley rich kids, surfers, leftover hippies, and bears. Constantly out of touch and three hours behind the “real” world, California becomes that “other place” where one goes on vacation or uses as a gateway to the countries on the other side of the world. But as I’ve come to spend more and more of my time in southern and central California, my view of both the state and the east’s perception of it has changed.
A lot of this has to do with driving our nation’s first “freeway”, US 101.
The paved remnants of the original el camino real, the Spanish mission trail leading from the northern edge of the state all the way to the Mexican border in the south, is a national treasure and a revelation for this New Jersey boy.
The highway is infamous in the Los Angeles area, full of snarls of traffic, poor pavement, and a route that runs through some of the most densely populated sprawl in the world. Known there as the Hollywood freeway, it’s a nightmarish blend of dense traffic, short on-ramps, and terrible signage. But, even in the midst of the chaos of LA driving, you can glimpse the “Hollywood” sign high up in the hills from the road if you glance at the right moment, and once you clear the US’s worst traffic junction at interstate 405, the trip on “the 101” will loosen, and after less time that you might think, the grass turns greener, the palm trees healthier, and the Santa Ana mountains rise up to meet you with their rugged, rocky beauty.
With that, you’re not in Los Angeles anymore.
When writing about scenic roads, the easy way out would be to focus on the Pacific Coast Highway. California route 1, which hugs the coast and is, in a word, spectacular. But on a spring weekend, with destinations north of LA in mind, a faster and differently scenic trip on a road long traveled by settlers, gold-seekers, faith-seekers, and missionaries reveals a state more diverse, more approachable, and more genuine than this east coast native could have imagined.