“On this fabled coastline, redwood groves reach skyward, the Santa Lucia Range plunges into the sea, and waves are beaten to froth on ragged rocks. It’s a place of elemental power that can make human affairs seem inconsequential.”
(Published in Daily Times, 30 May 2012)
Shortly after we drove out of San Francisco, we encountered a traffic jam caused by a major accident. A large trailer truck had completely crushed a car. Fortunately we arrived after the casualties had been removed, though police was still on the scene.
Whatever the cause – it could have been an error of judgement, drink-driving, micro-sleep, fatigue, or distraction on the part of one driver – it had resulted in a huge tragedy. Yet, this was the only accident we saw in over 17,000 km of driving across the US and Canada.
In contrast, accidents are a common sight on Asian and African roads. In India, in 2010 alone, 133,938 people were reported killed in road accidents, which means 367 deaths every day. Over half a million Indians suffered major injuries, many of whom were crippled for life. Most of these accidents were probably avoidable, for they would have been caused by reckless driving, bad roads, poor signage and defective vehicles.
Somewhat shaken by the sight of the accident, we resumed our journey. We chose the coastal road to Los Angeles, the California Highway 1, rather than the faster, inland Interstate-5. National Geographic introduces the most spectacular segment of this great drive in the following words: “An exhilarating driving experience, this twisting, cliff-hugging, 198 km route along the central California coast takes about five hours to complete at a leisurely pace.”
“The route starts in historic Monterey, visits the art colony of Carmel, and threads through Big Sur, where mountains plunge into the Pacific. Farther south, the landscape mellows to oak-studded hills as the road passes Hearst Castle on its way to Morro Bay. In places, the road has narrow shoulders and sharp drop-offs, so stay alert.”
“On this fabled coastline, redwood groves reach skyward, the Santa Lucia Range plunges into the sea, and waves are beaten to froth on ragged rocks. It’s a place of elemental power that can make human affairs seem inconsequential.” It is an amazing drive indeed, the road itself being a marvel of engineering.
Atop a hill a few kilometres inland from the road, but purposely hidden from view by its builder, is Hearst Castle, built from 1919 and 1947 for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. On commissioning his architect in 1919, Hearst had instructed him: “I would like to build a little something”. This palatial “little something”, modelled after a Spanish cathedral, boasts 165 rooms. It attracts one million visitors per year.
Along the California coast, one passes through very pretty cities and towns, most of them named “San” this and “Santa” that, after saints in Spanish, a testament to the area’s Spanish heritage. Thus, we have San Francisco and Santa Barbara. Los Angeles itself is Spanish for “The Angels”. However, people are drawn to this densely populated region not for any saintly or angelic reputation but rather by its earthly attractions, such as Mediterranean climate and proximity to fine beaches and the sea. “Silicon Valley” is in California; so is the world’s largest pornographic industry.
Los Angeles is most renowned for Hollywood and its adjunct, Beverley Hills. It is also the home of the original Disney Land theme park. The Interstate-5, which originates on the Canadian border some 2,000 km to the north, terminates about 200 km further south on the Mexican border.
When we asked a young lady in Los Angeles for directions to Beverley Hills, she told us to follow a particular road, adding, “keep driving until you see road signs in white, then you will know you are in Beverley Hills.” She was right. Elsewhere in LA, all road signs are in green, but those in Beverley Hills are in white. The colour of the road signs is not the only give-away. Beverly Hills is, of course, Beverly Hills, manifestly wealthy and glamorous.
Our next sight-seeing stop was the Grand Canyon, en route which we stopped in Phoenix (Arizona) to meet an old friend. I first met Richard, a professor of history at Arizona State University, in Islamabad in 1980 when he joined Quaid-e-Azam University as a visiting Fulbright Professor. He later served as Director of the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad in India.
Situated in the Sonoran desert which extends into Mexico, Phoenix is hot and arid, inhospitable for any vegetation except cactus, of which there is plenty. Houses are in a grey-brown hue mixing well with the desert surroundings.
Richard took us to the Heard Museum of Native Culture in Phoenix, founded in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Heard. Much of the archaeological material in their collection came from La Ciudad Indian ruin, which the Heards purchased in 1926.
When I last passed through Los Angeles in 1990, Richard was kind enough to fly all the way there from Phoenix in order to meet me and my family. Every December of the last twenty-some years, with almost religious regularity, Richard mailed his friends a Note with a recent photo of his family including their two dogs. Meant as a New Year greeting, the Note described the main activities and events affecting him and his household in the year gone by.
The inevitabilities of life spare no-one. Richard’s wife of over three decades suddenly passed away a couple of years ago. No more New Year Notes from him. Richard’s Indian connection still greets the visitor at the door of his large house, of which he is now the sole occupant. It is in the shape of a warning, in English, Hindi and Telugu, to “beware of dogs”, although both dogs are now dead.
If it wasn’t for Richard and Judy, these dogs would have lived the dog’s life on Indian streets – famished, nasty, brutish and short. Loved and well-fed in their new American home, they grew into handsome dogs with shiny coats and could easily be mistaken for high pedigree. They were appropriately named Rupee and Lucky, for they lived the proverbial American dream, a tale of rags to riches. Good karma, perhaps. I mean the dogs.
By Razi Azmi