PASO ROBLES, MORRO BAY & RAGGED POINT, CALIFORNIA
Updated: Aug 16
Spring has been a long time coming. The icy fingers of winter have held America in its grip for longer than usual this year. Even the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California, places that are normally a warm refuge for travelers, did not escape unusually cold days and even colder nights.
So to move on to discover that the green shoots and yellow flowers of Spring had not only arrived but positively exploded onto the stage was as uplifting as much as it was overdue.
We had traveled north, to a small town lying in the heart of wine country, enwrapped in rolling acres of vineyards. Paso Robles at this time of year is a veritable Eden. After months of staying in arid deserts, the lush fluorescent green of these rolling hills was food for the soul and, simply, felt like home. After many years of drought, this part of California has been blessed with late winter rains and produced a spectacular wonder of nature's renaissance.
Everything about Paso Robles is perfect, except perhaps the pronunciation of the name which has been unfortunately corrupted to 'Passo Roe-Bulls'. We had been calling it 'Passo Rob-laise' with a Central American lilt, which seems far more exotic. But the locals call it just 'Paso' anyway. This attractive, engaging and friendly town is located on the Salinas River, surrounded as far as the eye can see by miles and miles of abundant vines that stretch out their trained tentacle branches on the sides of the gentle hills. The town was established by James and Daniel Blackburn who bought the area in 1857, after the Mexicans had left. They were bankrolled by one Drury James, the uncle of the infamous Jesse James. It lies halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, right on the path of our old friend, El Camino Real, the 'Royal Road' and the old life-line route from Mexico to Texas to California. Countless Catholic missions, many still standing, were strategically positioned along the trail for Franciscan friars to offer sanctuary and sustenance to anyone who passed. The small hamlet of Paso was soon well-known for its mineral hot springs which were re-routed to the bathhouse in the historic El Paso de Robles Hotel to soothe away the aches and pains of the saddle-weary cowboys and travelers.
Today, life revolves around an attractive grassy square at its center, land donated in perpetuity by the Blackburns as a place of respite. This sets the calm tone that exists here and there is a relaxed 'café-society' mood amongst the many restaurants, art galleries and wine bars that encircle the square. There is something wonderfully undiscovered about Paso Robles, a glorious feeling of splendid isolation away from the lightning-speed chaos of urban California.
With almost one hundred wineries within a few miles, virtually all offering wine tasting, we had arrived in a bacchanalian nirvana. We rolled like the hills themselves from one welcoming vineyard to another, each fresh sip of local wine seeming to taste better than the last.
To the south, Route 58 is an unmissable springtime delight, a leisurely 30 mile drive through unbroken country scenery to the blankets of flowers that cover the hills, a sight that must not be missed at this time of year. This is what they call the 'Super Bloom' and we instantly put on our Super Bloomers and set off. You will not be able to pass Shell Creek Road without being stopped in your tracks by the blinding fields of yellows, peppered with the splatter of purple and blues, all alongside a fairy-tale trickling stream. In a nearby field, incongruously, a herd of bemused buffalo gaze at you with just a hint of wild-eyed menace.
To the West sits Morro Bay, a Pacific coastal town dominated by an extraordinary volcanic rock. The town itself does not offer much other than some pleasant seaside shops and eateries and a pretty harbor. It is an easy decision to get back onto the coastal Highway 1 to head north.
As you pass through Cambria, there's a turn-off to the right to take you into a bizarre street of old Wild West houses, which are worth a ten-minute pit-stop, probably not much more. There is, however, much more excitement ten miles up the road where you will find the herds of elephant seals lying out on the beaches, huddled together as they wile away the days. On first sight, they look completely and cataclysmically dead, lying motionless on their sides and backs. This is a sort of seal Ramadan and they come here, for some reason, to fast - and to breed before migrating towards Alaska, the 5000lb males rearing up with loud seal grunts as they bellow and fight to defend or establish their dominance over each other and, thereby, all the pretty girls that are lying around.
The soda aisle in Walmart? Wrong, they’re lady elephant seals.
"I'm not dead" (with apologies to Monty Python).
Continuing on Highway 1, you will soon find the road climbs dramatically, turning into a roller-coaster of the terrifying twists and turns on the cliff-face road as it leads its way precariously towards Big Sur and beyond.
Highway 1 clings to the Pacific cliffs
Right at the start of this challenge is Ragged Point, with a picturesque Inn looking down over the ocean. Not only is the view incredible, but the gardens and quality of food reaches a point of excellence.
Ragged Point Inn
The gardens of the Ragged Point Inn
Twenty miles to the East of Paso Robles is an innocuous stretch of straight road that rises over a slight hill on its way to Fresno. On the left is the small, nondescript rest-stop of the Jack Ranch Café. You would normally pass this without giving it much or any attention but if you look closely around the tree outside there is an unassuming memorial that attracts thousands of movie fans every year. For it is here, just East of our Eden, that James Dean died.
The luckless and ridiculously good-looking Dean was driving his $7000 Porsche Spyder with his mechanic Rolf Wütherich westward to Salinas to compete in a race when he had a head-on crash with a Ford sedan driven by an ex-Navy veteran with the curious name of Turnupseed (should have been Turnupspeed). At the junction of Route 46 and 41, the Ford made a turn and crossed the center of the road. Dean had no chance and was killed almost instantly. The others survived.
Our heart-throb was just 24. Only one of our moody, angry-young-man's movies had been released at the time, the magnificent East of Eden (ironically its author John Steinbeck had been born and was raised just up the road in the Salinas Valley). Dean had already shot Rebel Without a Cause and Giant (curiously and expensively cast with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson) but they were not released until after his death. These three celluloid landmarks gave him immediate super-stardom but it was the accident that made his name a legend. A weird post-script is that Wütherich subsequently tried to commit suicide twice during the 60's and then in 1967 stabbed his wife 14 times in a failed murder/suicide before dying, ironically, in a drink-drive accident in 1981 - in itself, a sorry tale worthy of a dark Dean movie.
Paso Robles is a great find. But it is easy to miss. Don't pass it by. It is a very special place and a perfect rest-up for our RV before its next adventure.
And doing irreparable damage to the annual wine production is not a bad way to spend a few days...
Strolling down a country lane near our RV site we came across a local sewage man clambering over his large, shiny metallic tanker. He had that cowboy look about him. We immediately nicknamed him "The Cesspit Kid".
As we passed, we commented to him that we liked his slogan on the side, which read '#1 In The #2 Business' . His weather-beaten face broke into a smile.
"Not as good as the one I wanted to use" he said. I asked the obvious question.
He grinned as he came back in his slow cowboy drawl...
"YOUR WIFE MIGHT NOT TAKE YOUR CRAP ... BUT WE WILL".
We liked that.