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Notes From the Underbelly

Over the Hill

By Eric A. Carlson

"The great blue mountains and the small gray hills. The sounding of the sea. Upon a day."

--John Steinbeck

THE PACIFIC OCEAN is only 25 miles from downtown San Jose--as the parrot flies--yet many valley residents rarely, if ever, drive there to dip their toes into the briny deep or sit on the beach to enjoy the yin-yang of waves. It might be a problem of access. The Santa Cruz Mountains intervene, and the few roads across are crowded and sometimes treacherous. I girded my loins, mounted my brutish motorcycle and rode off seeking passage through the mountains to see the ocean.

The most expeditious route "over the hill" is Highway 17. I highly recommend Richard Beal's droll tome Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz, which recounts stories of the eccentrics who have lived in the area and is a entertaining history of the highway--old 17 and new 17. The book remembers Mountain Charlie, the man who lost a fight with a bear but walked away--very scathed. And Charley "Parkie" Parkhurst, who surprised everyone when he died, because it turned out he was a woman. Also told is the wrenching saga of "Father" William E. Riker--"The Comforter"--who founded his own town, Holy City, and established the Perfect Christian Divine Way philosophy. Holy City was built about 10 miles south of Los Gatos. William unencumbered his followers by requesting they gave him all their money. Near the end of his life, he sued attorney Melvin Belli for calling him a "crackpot." Melvin won.

Highway 9 is another primary artery over the mountain that connects the dots of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, Felton and other, tinier mountain hamlets. Do visit Felton Bowl in Felton and order a White Russian in the adjacent Tiki Bar. Highway 236 spools off of Highway 9 and leads to Big Basin Redwoods State Park--de rigueur for tree huggers and hikers.

There are other, decidedly more convoluted paths to the ocean. I consulted my weathered copy of The Junior Woodchuck Manual, which suggests starting the journey on Moody Road in Palo Alto. Moody Road is a series of improbable corkscrews and lurching angled ascents. It ties into Page Mill Road, which is more of the same. One has attained altitude at this point. Page Mill intersects Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard) and becomes Alpine Road on the other side. One might turn right on Highway 35 here and travel the few miles to the intersection of Highway 84--Alice's Restaurant, the Junction, 4 Corners--for a grilled cheese sandwich, alfresco under redwoods.

There are a lot of bees, wasps and dragonflies in this neck of the woods that won't shirk from eating one's lunch or, assuming one is astride a brutish motorcycle, smash into one's forehead--instant bad karma. Take Highway 84 west to the smaller-than-small town of San Gregorio. In fact, the town seems to consist of only one building: the San Gregorio General Store, which serves as tavern, seed store, post office, hardware store and cracker-barrel nexus. Well, it actually is a general store.

Continue on Highway 84 to Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean, or take a left at San Gregorio onto Stage Road--there are no other roads to take, so you can't miss it. Stage Road, all seven miles of it to Pescadero, is a ride of unadulterated bucolic bliss: glimpses of the mighty ocean from hilltops, cows sleeping on green fields, myriad goats, galloping horses. And no cars. I did not see one car--coming or going. Though some bicyclists seem in on the secret. (And now I've spilled the beans.) In Pescadero, I saw a huge cloud bank rolling over the coast, like a great billowy Wall of China. I pulled up at Duarte's Tavern (pronounced "dew-arts"), which is internationally famous for its creamy artichoke soup.

From Pescadero I rode north on Pescadero Road, which merges into Alpine Road somewhere up in the purple gloaming. Redwood trees tower overhead, and a yellow warning sign warns, "Road Narrows Ahead," which is somewhat amusing as the road is already extremely narrow there--and has been. It gets narrower.

Final Note: Photo is of the Pacific Ocean, which is owned by Ryan O'Neal and other rich movie stars.

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From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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