One of my longtime goals has been to share the stories about the travels I did with my father. I wrote an introduction back in November of 2013, and you can read that here. I've shared our 1985 trip to Sequoia, King's Canyon and Yosemite, our 1986 trip to Bryce, Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, and here now is our trip up the California coast and across to Kings Canyon in 1989. Enjoy....
It had been a couple of years since dad and I had last traveled together. In 1987 I had purchased my condo, and had used vacation time for moving, plus I didn’t want to have the costs of a vacation compound the costs of purchasing, moving and furnishing the condo. In 1988 I took a trip to Maine to visit one of my mom’s cousins. So, in 1989, dad and I planned our next trip together up someplace that I’d never been, but had heard much talk about: the Big Sur.
We had taken a family trip in 1974 up the coast, taking my mom’s aunt Harriet with us after the passing of her husband Davey. We had gone to some of the missions (Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, San Antonio and Carmel) and came back through Carmel Valley, so I wanted to revisit some of those locations. On that 1974 trip we had all of us plus Harriet, except Donald, who was probably in Europe with his high school class. It was a great trip, and I had fond memories of it as dad and I planned this next trip.
1988 had been a good photographic year for me. In January of that year I had gone to Yosemite with a friend and colleague, Craig Brubaker. We spent a long weekend in the sub-freezing temperature and snows, creating wonderful images of the valley and of the magnificent granite cathedrals. In the fall I visited the aforementioned Maine cousins, and took a couple of trips around the area, seeing the glories of the New England fall in the White Mountains, and the rustic beauty of the seaside villages all along the Maine coast. I truly felt that my photography was becoming more and more refined and skilled, and that the images taken were getting closer to being shared and sold.
So, in 1989, dad and I planned a fairly ambitious trip. We’d travel up the coast all the way to Carmel, cross the Salinas Valley and head over to Kings Canyon. We gave ourselves plenty of time: I think I planned to take a good 10 days off in order to enjoy the trip. As usual, dad did the preparations, using the triple-A guidebooks to secure accommodations. We purchased our film, packed our bags and food for the trip. Dad came up the evening before and stayed in my extra bedroom to facilitate an early morning departure. Everything was set.
The next morning was beautiful. We loaded up the Volvo wagon, and headed north out of town. We traveled up the San Diego freeway, and then headed west on interstate 10 to Santa Monica, where it empties out on Pacific Coast Highway – better known as Highway 1. We drove through the beach communities into Oxnard, where we had to re-connect with the 101 just south of Ventura. We continued along the 101 through Gaviota Pass, where we exited again on Highway 1. The drive through the hills up along the 2-lane highway, after miles of freeway travel, was refreshing. Being that it was early fall, the tourists were gone and the road was virtually empty. We soon arrived in Lompoc – flower capital of the state. Our first stop was at the mission La Purisima Concepcion – the only completely restored mission in the entire chain of historic California missions. We had visited here on our trip with Harriet, so I was looking forward to this visit and the chance to do some photographic work. The mission was quiet, and provided many opportunities to do photography. It was one of the first times dad and I went our own ways, exploring our own artistic visions. The mission and its grounds left an indelible impression on me, from the moment we walked across a small wooden bridge into an open pasture that revealed the mission in its glory. I felt as if I had stepped back 100 years to a time when this was an active mission, with nothing around it except open fields. That perception still lasts to this day.
We wrapped up the day and continued along Highway 1, up to the farming community of Guadalupe. From there we went west to the Nipomo dunes, a state reserve run by the Nature Conservancy that possesses some unusual and spectacular dunes. There was a storm approaching, which provided some dramatic skies. We had the dunes and the beach to ourselves. There was a fence that had been nearly completely buried in sand which provided some strong compositional shots. We stayed there until the sun had almost set, then headed east to Santa Maria. The motel that dad had planned on was booked, so we found another motel for the night. We popped next door to a Denny’s for dinner, and retired for the evening.
The next morning dawned clear and crisp, and fresh from the rain the night before. We headed back west towards Guadalupe, turning north at Highway 1. The whole Santa Maria valley was clean and clear, and the fields of various vegetables were verdant green with rain. We continued up Highway 1, passing through Vandenberg Air Force Base, to where the highway joined the 101 in Pismo Beach, eventually ending up in San Luis Obispo. We secured our room for the night at the Peach Tree Inn, and then took some time to explore the beautiful Mission San Luis Obispo and the downtown area.
The next day dawned clear and beautiful, but clouds off to the west told us that we’d not be in good weather for the whole day. After a brief breakfast we headed out of town to Montaña de Oro State Park, one of the most stunning and spare stretches of California coastline. Ever since that first trip there with dad, I have returned there often to photograph, or just revel in the quiet beauty. But this first exposure to the beauty of the central California coastline was just beginning.
We headed out of the Park, continuing into Morro Bay State Park, and then back to Highway 1, turning off onto Old Creek Road out of Cayucos. This too has become one of my regular drives whenever I’m up in that area. As we wound through the rolling hills of coastal oaks and sycamore trees we found plenty of photographic opportunities, and stopped frequently to take photographs. Old Creek Road ends at Highway 46, and if you cross the highway, it becomes Santa Rosa Creek Road. Way back in 1969 we had rented a motor home and had taken the Santa Rosa Creek Road out of Cambria. Most of the road is narrow - not even two lanes - and as dad drove us close to the edge of the road, my brother, Jim (who was sitting in the front passenger seat right over the front wheel well) felt that we were getting too close to the edge. Even today he still talks about that!
This time, dad and I drove it leisurely, making the slow climb up from Highway 46 to where the road crested the hill, and you could far ahead into the canyon. It is still one of my favorite spots to just see and breathe. We continued down the road, easing ourselves down the steep inclines and manipulating the switchbacks. I seem to recall asking dad why he even had thought of taking this road 20 years before in the rented motor home. It seemed so reckless now. The road meandered along the creek, past barns and remote ranch houses until it reached the Cambria High School, and finally, the small community of Cambria itself. We drove through town, out to Moonstone Beach Drive where we secured a room for the night at the Mariner’s Inn.
As I write this it seems like we would basically go from hotel to hotel, and not do too much in between. I didn’t think about it too much at that time, since I was living with mom and dad and I was used to their way of travel. For dad, you got up early, got on the road, did photography, and then around 3 PM started to get a room for the night. We’d usually hang out in the room during the afternoons, rarely exploring during the magic light of the late part of the day, eat an early dinner, watch TV and were asleep by 9 PM or so. So, our daylong drives were short, and our main purpose was photography, not distance. As I travel now I use the morning and late evenings to photograph, and during the day if the light is right, and secure a room long before I go so I don’t have to worry about it at 3 or 4 PM.
The next morning we got up, explored the beach a bit, and then headed north on Highway 1. We passed the grand Hearst Castle, which we had toured on that trip 20 years before. Our goal was to get to the Big Sur Lodge, but the skies were ominous, and as we drove north on this narrow stretch of cliff-hugging road, we were greeted by rain. We stopped at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which has the often- or even over-photographed McWay Falls, drove past Nepenthe, the restaurant the mom and dad had visited on their honeymoon in 1952, finally reaching Big Sur Lodge during a gentle rain. Shortly after we got into our room, which really was a small nice cabin, the rain came down hard, and our usual afternoon of photography was thwarted. There was no TV, but I had brought my boom-box, so I listened to music while dad read. We went to dinner at the lodge, and then back to our room for reading before turning in for the night.
The next morning gave us the type of conditions that make for great photographs - clouds left over from the storm. We left the lodge, heading north until we got to a nice pullout where we stopped and took several photographs. The clouds were very dramatic, and both of us captured some very nice images. After satisfying our creative selves, we drove into Monterey, and spent a wonderful late morning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The 1986 Star Trek movie “The Voyage Home” had been filmed here, so it was somewhat familiar to me. But truly seeing the displays and the mammals and fish of the central coast, particularly the sea otters, was a treat. We then took the famous Seventeen Mile Drive, winding our way back down to Carmel, one of mom and dad’s favorite locations. We spent the late afternoon at the Mission Carmel, one of the most visually stunning of all the 21 California Missions, and the one where Father Serra is buried. I have returned there to photograph, because it offers so many wonderful textures and colors. Rather than stay in Carmel, which can be expensive, we took the short drive east to Carmel Valley, where we booked a place for the night. As we were eating at one of the local establishments, an aftershock of the recent Loma Prieta earthquake shook the diner. No one panicked, and we returned to our meals. Our room was comfortable, and large, and even the bathroom had a separate dressing area. There was another mild aftershock, but nothing that worried us.
The next morning we returned to Carmel, heading a bit south to Point Lobos State Reserve, another rugged area of central California coastline. But to me, this place had a stronger draw, because photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Elliot Porter photographed here. It was, you might say, the Mecca for landscape photographers along the central coast. The morning was crisp and clear, and dad and I spent quite a bit of time capturing images of this amazing place.
Our time along the coast was done, because we were going to head over to Kings Canyon for the last couple of days of our trip. We drove through Carmel Valley, and as we did we came across several tarantulas crossing the road. Dad shared a story with me that he’d heard from an old buddy of his who served in the army during WWII. This buddy stayed at Camp Roberts, close to where we were. Apparently, there is a short window of a few days each fall when male tarantulas start seeking out mates, and this army buddy told dad about tarantulas in his boots and his bedding. As we carefully drove through the small army of black hairy spiders, I tried my best to avoid them. We continued down through Carmel Valley, eventually reaching the 101 at King City. From there we hooked up with highway 198, which took us across the San Joaquin Valley to Visalia, and then up to Kings Canyon. Dad had not been able to secure us lodging at Grant Grove, so when we got to our small cabin for the night in Wilsonia we were not too happy. It was tiny, with a small bathroom. We decided that we’d make the best of it, and headed for an early dinner at the Grant Grove Lodge. While we were there, dad shared with the front desk about our poor accommodations, and they told us they had an opening. So, we booked a cabin (the same one we’d stayed in 3 years earlier) and we returned to the other location to “check out”. Dad did a little fib about having stomach problems and that we were going to head home, and got out of paying for the cabin. We then returned to the Grant Grove Lodge, and enjoyed a much more comfortable cabin.
There was snow on the ground - not much, maybe 2-3 inches, but it was beautiful. The next morning we explored the Grant Grove, capturing images of those magnificent trees. I had brought along my Mamiya RB67, which shot 6x7cm transparencies. It was a heavy camera to move around, but I wanted to have good, clear images. We left the Grant Grove, driving down The General’s Highway to Sequoia, and grabbed some images there. It was cold - the oak tree leaves were all golden and there were small puddles iced over. But we were rewarded with spectacular photographs.
We headed down the mountains, back into Visalia, where we stayed with dad’s cousin, Jean, for the night. As always, listening to the wonderful stories of their childhood during the 20’s and 30’s was a treat in itself.
I write this so many years later - nearly 30 year later to be exact. I remember these trips as the times that dad and I spoke volumes in our silences. No, we got along. But we both felt that the road and the natural beauty surrounding us needed to be listened to. It was not unusual for us to drive for miles or even hours without a spoken word. And now, as I take my teen son on trips to Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and maybe even Sequoia, it’s like being with my dad again: enjoying the silence as we build our relationship.
All photographs taken by Cliff Prothero
All photographs taken by Cliff Prothero