California Road Trip: Elephant Seals, Hearst Castle, Neverland Ranch

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Day 4


Drive Time : 3 hrs

I woke up from a night of car-camping, not as stiff and sore from folding myself into the backseat as I expected. Back in the zone.

Pictured: The Dread.

Today was the final day of my Los Angeles-to-Redwoods-and-back road trip, a whirlwind that kept me busy and alert every waking moment (and some sleeping moments) of the past four days. As I pulled out of the RV Park, I already felt it setting in: The Dread. I missed this lifestyle already, and I was still living it for one more day. This mourning created a mild panic that followed me into Cambria and insisted that I try to milk every last drop out of the final miles ahead. 

I wandered the quaint streets that I’d admired on Day 1, taking the time to dip in and out of shops and soak up the town as much as possible. I stopped for breakfast at Mimosa’s around 9:30 or 10AM, a wooden building that felt extra cozy in the damp morning hours. I read more of The Back Country while munching on yogurt and granola, trying to relax and take my time, but I felt the urgency creeping up. My last day, I have to do everything, my last day, I have to do everything, my last day, I have to do everything….

I checked out an antique shop next, where the woman advised that I’d just missed the annual Pinedorado Car Show, BBQ, and outdoor market. That must have been the festival that was getting into full swing when I passed through on Friday. She suggested I visit “East Cambria” today; apparently I had only seen part of town. It was just up the street, and when I arrived the FOMO overtook me - there were so many cute bistros over here, why didn’t I go to one of these instead? Look at all these thrift shops, why are they taunting me when I’m not trying to accumulate extra belongings? I went into a chocolate shop and couldn’t choose between all the truffles; what if I picked a gross one? That’d be wasteful. I bought five, took one bite of each, and felt immediately sick. The good times were killing me. I had to get out of there before I found something else to miss out on.


Drive Time : 20 min

As I made my way towards Hearst Castle for my tour, I remembered about the signs for Elephant Seal viewing at San Simeon Beach and drove a few minutes further up the road. I expected it to be one of those things where you might see a seal or two in the distance if you’re lucky, but instead the entire beach was overpopulated with elephant seals resting on the shore, no more than a few yards down and away from the viewpoint. It was a spectacular opportunity to witness wildlife right in my backyard.

(No offense, Nature, but those things are weird. How do their mouths work?)

Hearst Castle

Drive Time : 5 min

I continued on to the Hearst Castle Visitor’s Center, where tourists check in and board a bus that takes them up the winding mountain path to the castle itself. A ticket agent told me to begin my tour by watching the movie about William Randolph Hearst’s life, so I spent 40 minutes doing that with another group of people, only to find out when I emerged from the theater that he’d been wrong (it’s optional and you watch it at the end) and my tour group had left without me. Fortunately I only had to wait another 20 minutes to jump on the next tour. 

I didn’t bring my camera with me, only my phone (I wasn’t sure if it would be allowed, but it turns out it would have been fine. I also just thought it might be obnoxious to the group).

The drive itself is already breathtaking before you can even see the castle. The road makes switchbacks across the hills, alternating to provide snapshots of the ocean (which becomes more and more grand as elevation is gained) and of the landscape ahead, the castle peeping in and out of view while gradually growing in size. The voice through the overhead speaker encourages us to keep an eye out for deer and goats, and maybe even zebras (a few still roam the countryside even though most of Hearst’s exotic pets were sold or donated elsewhere in years past). 

The bus pulls up to the grand staircase in the front of the estate, and we’re received by jovial National Park Service employees - I wonder if Hearst’s guests were received similarly by his staff? Our guide emerges from the group and leads us up the staircase, explaining that we’ll follow her for the first half of the tour and then be set loose to explore more on our own (I liked this setup more than the Winchester Mystery House tour). I was impressed by her vast knowledge; at every stop, she finished her main spiel about what we were looking at by opening up the floor to questions, almost like a challenge. She answered every one passionately and in-depth, off the top of her head, even if it was about some minute detail of the room - what year is that painting from? Is the trim on this original? What’s the significance of that scepter?

The grounds are truly impressive, the view stunning, and the scent calmingly, intoxicatingly sweet (apparently he specifically picked his plants with this effect in mind), but a disconnect lingered in my gut. Hearst took inspiration from different cultures throughout the world, bringing back sphinxes from Egypt, Roman columns and a sarcophagus, an Irish king’s mace, and mosaic patterns from Spain, all to be displayed alongside modern materials and “revival”-style recreations. It’s cool as hell, in theory…but in practice, it struck me as Hollywood kitsch. Everything there is being cared for and cherished by the Park Service, so why did it feel…wrong? Is it because intermingling the real artifacts with the “fake” bastardizes the real? Is it because the relics should be honored as they are, rather than serving to improve upon the larger displays? Is it because these precious pieces of history were originally intended to entertain Hearst’s famous friends, when they should have been available to researchers and the public in some kind of museum? Is it simply the pageantry of it all, the show of wealth, that bothers me? It feels presumptuous and pompous to style your personal abode after the palaces of kings. Do I care? In contrast you could say the grandeur of the estate actually serves to enhance and highlight the importance of it’s most cherished procurements. It keeps them living. I do agree that Hearst found a way to integrate the past with the present. Maybe old things shouldn’t be locked away behind glass enclosures, unable to continue interacting with the world. Maybe new things aren’t inherently dismissible simply by nature of being younger than their counterparts. It’s not necessary to settle on any one perspective; I think both can coexist. What is undeniably true is that visiting Hearst Castle is a singular, thought-provoking experience. He created something that, on the whole, is unlike anywhere else on earth, and yet is a lot like many places in part. 

Past the tennis courts and through the Roman Pool, tourists re-board buses to the Visitor’s Center. As we descend the mountain, the old lion enclosures to our left, I think about the amount of work it must have taken the construction workers to haul all of the artifacts, building materials, and trees up and over that landscape, especially considering Hearst often changed his mind and decided to redesign and rebuild nearly-completed projects (reminds me of employers I’ve had: been there, feel for you guys). Hearst Castle truly represents a feat of human tenacity, dedication, and, however showy it may be, real reverence and appreciation for the artistic accomplishments of mankind. I left in awe of us, and with confusion at why we bother. 

Neverland (“Sycamore Valley”) Ranch

Drive Time : 2 hrs

At some point during the day I remembered that Neverland Ranch is in Los Olivos, directly along my path home, and wondered how I could have forgotten to put it at the top of my list from the outset. I’m a diehard Michael Jackson obsessive. I’ve studied his life, his psychology, and his affect on culture to the point that I could write a scholarly dissertation (if you don’t believe he’s a postmodern genius, start here). I don’t know how I’ve lived in California for over a year and not yet made it out to visit his longtime home, but on this day the timing was perfect for me to arrive before dark. What better way to end my road trip odyssey than to finally complete my pilgrimage to honor the King?

Does anyone know if this is Morro Rock?

Much of the drive dipped through designated cities rather than provincial farmland. I was intrigued by the colorful seaside town of Cayucos, and as I stared out the window in awe I happened to be listening to an interview with Cal Fussman where he quoted Mary Oliver: “Pay Attention, Be Astonished, Tell About It.” Isn’t the timing of things uncanny sometimes?

In the final twenty minutes, the route started to feel as off-grid as I’d always assumed. Google will tell you the exact address, but there must be a block on it in Google Maps, because the app wouldn’t recognize the house number and only brought me as far as the outset of Figueroa Mountain Road. I wasn’t sure how much further to drive to find the gate. Luckily I found the address triangulated on a Yelp map, so I was able to watch my current location draw closer and closer to the Ranch on there instead, and, voilà! It was obvious which gate was Michael’s based on all the tributes left there for him by fans. I pulled over to investigate them closer - nothing but love and support. I couldn’t make out any hints of the theme-park-esque estate in the distance; if you didn’t know any better, you’d assume there was nothing but flat farmland for miles around.

I knew it would only be possible to see the outside of the gate and that noone is allowed into the property itself, and I didn’t plan to trespass (although how interesting would it be to explore like these guys?), but I was surprised by the level of active security still present all these years after MJ’s death. There were definitely people inside the little security house behind the gate, watching me the entire time; I could hear them shuffling about. Otherwise it was quiet and still, besides distant reverberations from the farm on the adjacent side of the road (mainly voices, but also the ring of a bell…a dinner bell? A clock striking the time?), the footsteps of a lone dog trotting by, and the cawing of black crows perched in the trees at Neverland’s entrance. They sounded agitated and grew louder with my approaches, serving as defacto guardians of the estate. It all combined to make me feel paranoid and on edge, honestly (probably how MJ felt every moment of his life). As the sun went down, what initially felt like a sweet and idyllic homage to a man Gone Too Soon suddenly took on a more sinister vibe. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I turned to leave, but right at that moment the lanterns lit up behind me (if my Hearst Castle tour hadn’t been late, I wouldn’t have remained at Neverland when the lights went on - things work out). The crows continued to berate me, and I did leave soon after, but I stayed a moment longer to admire the newly welcoming vision. The lanterns reminded me that Michael Jackson opened his arms to and represented all walks of life (black/white, young/old, male/female, straight/gay), and, excuse the corniness - was a beacon of light for people around the world. I don’t think he would have wanted this landmark, maintained and celebrated in his name, to feel creepy. He desperately valued privacy, but I don’t think he intended to drive people away. I left feeling mournful of that dichotomy, and surprised that my short time on the outside looking in was able to make that struggle tangible. I’d gotten a small taste of the fortress-like forces keeping him separated from the rest of the world.

Darkness had fallen for the next stretch out of Los Olivos, so maybe I just couldn’t see the beauty all around me, but as far as I could tell Michael hadn’t chosen an environment akin to the relaxing, majestic central coast respite of William Randolph Hearst, or even like the hole-in-the-wall slice-of-mountainside hideaway where Art Beale found self-actualization in Nit Wit Ridge. There was nothing out here. At all. Not in a calming, back-to-nature kind of way, just nothing. I thought, “What were you doing out here, Michael?” Perhaps he chose a landscape that represented nothingness on purpose, to counteract the overwhelming environments he spent most of his life in, but if that was the idea, he quickly bulldozed it with everything he built on the grounds. Neverland wasn’t exactly Walden Pond. Maybe, like a true artist (and gentrifier), he saw this land as a blank canvas. Whatever their differences, Hearst, Beale, and Jackson all succeeded in one similar goal - they created physical manifestations of the ideal worlds they imagined in their heads, and lived in them every day. Can we replicate this in our everyday lives? Should we want to? I believe my ideal world is already here and now, out there waiting for me in too many places at once; it doesn’t need to be drawn out of my imagination. Can I still revel in it every day, even if I’d rather it not all be accumulated in one place around me like a shrine?


Drive Time: 3 1/2 hrs

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and pitch black. No more stops to make, no more last-ditch-efforts, no detours visible to me even if I wanted to take them. When I parked in my neighborhood I considered sleeping one more time in the back of the truck; “the road” is a state of mind, after all. Instead I sighed, dragged my things inside, and looked over my haul. I hadn’t accumulated much, but what I did collect told a story:

Are you just supposed to know that the bridge tolls in San Francisco are all cash-only?

As I climbed into bed, the final death knoll of the trip, I reminded myself that an “on the road” state of mind doesn’t have to involve a car, a map, or even a road. It’s only a sense of anything-can-happen, of unpredictability, of openness to whatever might come your way and distract from your schedule, of wonder and excitement at not knowing where you’ll end up that day. I no longer had The Dread, because I knew when I woke up, I’d still be on the road. On my way to work, I’d still be on the road. In old age, I’ll still be on the road. Everything in between is just a detour.


Distance: 420 miles
Driving Time (Not Counting Stops): ~ 9 hrs
go back: day one, two, three


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