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View from the Pacific Coast Highway. (Andrew Clark for the Globe and Mail)
View from the Pacific Coast Highway. (Andrew Clark for the Globe and Mail)

Road Sage

Driving Miss Clark to Big Sur Add to ...

Some celebrate a milestone by opening a bottle of champagne; others with a gift of something special – an antique book or engraved cufflinks. I mark life’s big moments with a drive.

It doesn’t have to be the fastest or the most exotic trip, but when you’ve completed a significant journey, it seems only fitting to embark on another, one whose sole purpose is the enjoyment of the ride itself.

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In the late 1980s, just before we were to finish university, my friends and I took a road trip through Maine. Its primary features were lobster, beer and driving. We rose each morning, looked at a map and hit the road. When we found a town that seemed like fun, we booked a motel and stayed the night. This system eventually led us to that most sacred of crustacean purveyors: Noonan’s Lobster Hut in Kennebunkport.

Two decades later, I celebrated the end of an intensive bout of research in Italy with a drive from Naples to San Fili, Calabria, taking a diversion along the Amalfi Coast for kicks.

Franco, the photographer I’d been working with, had moved to Canada for business, and hadn’t seen his mother in years. He wanted to surprise her. We made the trip in one night, calling his home a few minutes before we arrived. I’ve never received such a greeting. When we arrived, his family was in the street cheering. His mother was easy to pick out of the crowd – she was the one crying tears of joy. We ate, laughed, talked and set out again at around two in the morning – driving all the way to Rome.

So, as my eldest daughter finished her last year of high school, I knew that a drive was in order. Not just any jaunt would do. This occasion demanded an unforgettable journey. Oddly, it didn’t require too much thinking. The destination was obvious: the Pacific Coast Highway – California State Route 1 – a legendary drive, one designated as an “All-American Road.”

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH to locals) runs 2,000 miles from southern California’s sandy beaches to Northern California’s jagged rocky cliffs and on to Oregon. Every inch is amazing, but the drive from Monterey down to Big Sur is exceptional – it is without question one of the great drives in the world.

It is life-altering.

Drive that stretch once and you will leave a piece of your heart. Each time you get behind the wheel its memory will haunt you leaving the question, “When am I going back?”

Another reason to celebrate a teenager’s accomplishment with a drive is the fact that the automobile is the best place to engage people of this age. Sit down to dinner with a teen and it’s time to enjoy a production of “The Celebratory Dinner” by Harold Pinter. Awkward pauses and loaded silences abound.

“You excited about going to university?”

“Yes.”

“How’s your dinner?”

“Good.”

“Remember when you were eight and thought I was cool?”

“Vaguely.”

But when you’re in a car, you’re both in the front seat, looking forward, and the pressure is off. For many teens, communication in a car is easier because they can pretend they’re not talking to you. So, whatever conversation there is tends to be more relaxed, more fun, less about the future and more about the drive that’s unfolding.

Many call the PCH one of the most dangerous drives in America. If you suffer from vertigo, it’s not for you. The highway snakes along the coast and you are often, when travelling southbound, only a few feet from the edge of a cliff that drops hundreds of feet to the ocean. The driver must keep his eyes on the road. There are plenty of spots to pull over and drink in the scenery.

Ironically, I never feel safer than when I am on the Pacific Coast Highway driving to Big Sur. There’s no question that the PCH is a dangerous highway, beautifully dangerous, but the honest truth is you’re in more danger driving back home, where, for the most part, people are lulled into complacency by the familiarity of the terrain.

Down by Santa Monica, you tend to find more driver foolishness. The NorCal trip, with its obvious precarious nature, smartens up the motorists. You don’t see drivers texting while they cross the 714-foot-long Bixby Bridge. When a sign says 25 mph – guess what? You drive 25 mph. You pay attention. One idle moment and you could be airborne getting a very different sort of view of the Pacific. If you want to drive below the speed limit, go ahead – when there are four cars behind you, you pull over at one of the many roadside stops and let them pass. That’s the etiquette.

On the day of our drive, I picked up our rental – a 2012 Ford Fusion and we started our trip. The weather was vintage Northern California: mists gave way to dazzling sunshine. The wind on the PCH whipped up and, each time we stopped to enjoy a view, it felt as if the gusts might blow the doors off. We stopped in Big Sur, stood in awe before the Redwoods and then drove PCH back toward Carmel.

Of course, I didn’t see too much of it. I was driving. When you are behind the wheel on the Pacific Coast Highway, you must resist the urge to rubberneck the view.

It was fitting. After all, as a parent that’s your primary purpose, to help your children get to where they need to be and learn how to enjoy the ride. I’ll get my chance in the passenger seat. We’ll be back some day. Maybe I’ll be in my eighties.

“You excited about going into the home?”

“Yes.”

“How’s your dinner?”

“Good.”

“Remember when I was eight and thought you were cool?”

“How could I ever forget?”

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

Follow on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

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