“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.”
– Frank Borman
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was born in March 1499, a citizen of Portugal who made his way to Havana as a young man, and then joined Cortes in Mexico in 1519. Eventually, he made his fortune mining gold in Guatemala.
In 1542, he was asked by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead the first European expedition to the west coast of what is now the United States. His fleet of three ships sailed up the coast. Like all Spanish conquistadors, he hoped to discover the legendary Cibola (the Seven Cities of Gold – or, failing that, the hoped-for Northwest Passage, dubbed the Strait of Anian by Spanish explorers.
There were over 200 men on the three vessels – sailors, soldiers, slaves and priests. They made many ports of call along the California coast – places that would eventually be named San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, the islands of Santa Cruz, Catalina and San Clemente. Though the northern limit of their expedition was (probably) Point Reyes and the Russian River, north of San Francisco, they actually missed the entry into San Francisco Bay entirely (it wasn’t discovered by Europeans until 1769).
Over the course of the journey, the expedition met and recorded the names of many native tribes along the coast, with the goal of establishing future trade on their minds. They were instructed to avoid conflict whenever possible, but to make notes about the people, language, religion and quality of living.
Turned south again by winter storms, the expedition decided to spend the season in the Channel Islands. There, during a skirmish with natives, Cabrillo splintered his leg against a jagged rock while springing from a boat. He died soon after from complications and infection.
The only report made of the expedition has been lost; what remains is a summary of the original report made by a later investigator. Little attention was paid to Cabrillo’s discoveries, and none of the place names he and his crew made were ever entered onto official maps – if they had, San Diego would be San Miguel today, and Catalina would be San Salvador.
Cabrillo was buried on one of the Channel islands – but no one is sure which one.
A few more facts about Cabrillo:
- He fought as a captain of crossbowmen against the Aztecs.
- In 1532, he returned to Spain, where he married Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega, who came with him to the New World. They had two children.
- In 1540, an earthquake destroyed the city of Santiago in Guatemala. Cabrillo’s report on the destruction is considered the first piece of secular journalism in the Americas.
- Cabrillo earned fame as a shipbuilder, and built the flagship he sailed in on his journey to California, the San Salvador.
- When Cabrillo’s crew returned to Mexico, they claimed they had come “very close” to China on their journey.
- The Cabrillo national monument in San Diego is the most southwesterly spot in the contiguous United States.
It’s fair to say that there are few roads in the United States more famous than the Cabrillo Highway. It’s almost certainly one of the most beautiful, stretching for 140 miles along the Central California Coast between San Luis Obisbo and Monterey. Part of California Hwy 1, this particular stretch of passes through some of the most memorable seaside landscapes you can imagine, including Pismo Beach, Morro Bay (with the eponymous Rock looming just offshore), Cambria Pines by the Sea, San Simeon (home of William Randolph Hearst’s famous castle estate), and – most notably – Big Sur.
What is called the Cabrillo Highway today is the oldest length of Highway 1. In 1919, the state government approved funds to build what was originally called Highway 56, and allocated prison labor from San Quentin for the project. 18 years later, when the two-lane paved road was finally opened, it was called both the Carmel-San Simeon Highway (for its endpoints), and also the Roosevelt Highway, because of the New Deal money that was used to finish the project. Later projects lengthened the highway southward through the town of Cambria and into San Luis Obisbo, and northward to Monterey.
Today, the stretch of coast called Big Sur, where the Pacific Ocean crashes into the knees of the Santa Lucia mountains, is one of the most undeveloped stretches of coastline in the country. The name “Big Sur” comes from the Spanish “el sur grande”, or “the big south”, meaning the big land south of Monterey (the old capital of Spanish California). There are small communities here, catering mostly to tourists, and much of the land is conserved in state and national parks.
It is the seascapes that capture the visitor’s attention here, the spume of sea spray shooting up as waves crash violently into the rocky shores. Balanced between sea and sky, on a narrow road that hugs the cliffs, the traveler is treated to a spectacular view at every twist and turn.
- The first road into Big Sur was a wagon track established about 1872.
- Prior to the building of the highway, Bug Sur remained one of the most remote areas in the country, and it wasn’t connected to the state electric grid until the 1950s.
- The original highway cost about $10 million dollars
- Most of the locals refer to the highway as the Coast Highway.
When I found out I was going to be participating in a retreat in Santa Cruz, I knew an essential part of th exp3erience for me would be the actual journey there. There are multiple routes to take from Los Angeles to northern California, and depending what route you take (and how many stops you take along the way) it can take between 6 and 8 hours to make the trip.
The only question was whether I was going to take Highway 1 the whole way. I have only taken the coast road through Big Sur once, that I remember, and what I remember mostly about that trip was sitting white knuckled in the passenger seat. See, I have a bit of paranoia when it comes to twisty, mountain roads. I can’t help imagining how easy it would be to misjudge a curve and to shooting off the side. Not to mention the issue of oncoming cars..even the most adept driver has no control over the mistakes of others on the road.
Ultimately, though, I knew I had to face my fears if the trip was going to mean anything at all.
I left early, 6:45 am. The early part of the trip went smoothly enough, but it always takes so much longer to get through Los Angeles than you think it will. By 11, I had passed through Santa Barbara and was travelling through the part of California that I love the most. There is something that feels very true about the oak-dappled green-gold hills of that landscape, and some day I’m going to have to try and explain just what I mean by that.
I’m also going to have to try and capture it in photos. But, due to my time constraints on this journey (I was supposed to be at the retreat by 4 pm) I didn’t have time to stop and take photos as often as I wanted.
While the hills I passed through were already turning summer-gold, as the road turned back to the coast, the landscape turned vivid green. I stopped in Cambria for lunch, and dallied on the beach for shot of surf and sky. As I watched, a finger of fog slipped in, hiding everything in a dense, impentrable blanket. I felt a knot of anxiety, looking northward – was I going to have to drive Big Sur without even getting the benefit of the view?
Fortunately, the fog departed as quickly as it had come. I headed off on the last (most perilous!) part of my journey with clear skies overhead.
I would like to say the experience was revelatory. Mostly it was just tiring. Gorgeous views, yes, and I’m satisfied with some of the photos I was able to take. But by the end of it (knowing I was on a schedule) I was really just ready for Big Sur to be over. Another bend, another cove… well, I suppose there is a metaphor in life for that. At least the tiredness tempered my white-knuckle tendencies – I don’t recall feeling anxious at all, once I was actually there.
Next time I travel the Cabrillo Highway, I want it to be the destination, not a place I have to pass through. I want to be able to stop and enjoy the views, and take more photos than I was able on this trip. I want to drive it both ways, north and south, to discover the vistas that were all behind me this time. I want to park somewhere, maybe, climb down closer to the sea, or discover the redwoods that hide within the mountain slopes. There is so much to see along those 90 miles…
…I can’t wait to discover it.