The California Road = Freedom

A guest post by David Newman

I am a Californian. I have lived in this state – north and south – for all but one of my 74 years. I know its roads and highways, from the twists and turns of Highway 1 to the steep climbs and descents of its mountain passes to the endless sameness of Interstate 5. Whenever I hit the road, I experience a feeling of freedom and exhilaration. I love what the California road trip offers, the ability to pick up and go someplace that is both familiar and filled with the promise of something new.

Ellen and I both grew up with California as our backyard. My dad took my brother Ken and me backpacking in 1960, and we went back to the Sierra several times in the next few years. Ellen’s family had visited Yosemite when she was little, and she and I continued the backpacking tradition after we were married. Our first road trip together was a weekend jaunt to the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. Ellen’s family has made Mammoth Lakes a second home for many years.

We return to the mountains and the coast – both north and south – as often as we can. California is in our blood, and its highways are extensions of our veins and arteries.

The last two years have dealt our road tripping a double blow. First, the coronavirus locked us down in 2020. And then the catastrophic wildfires scarred so much of California, including many of our favorite places – Point Reyes, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma County and the Napa Valley. Even when the roads are open and we are willing to travel, too many of those places will be in recovery.

But eventually we will be freed from confinement and there will be beautiful places to see. So Ellen asked me to look forward by looking back at places that I treasure, to recapture the richness of California and to remind myself of the promise of road trips to come.

A road is a road is a road

My definition of a “road trip” is pretty loose. It can be a weekend or week-long trip, or a short drive to someplace that is mere minutes from home. On what used to be the Devil’s Slide portion of Highway One, just south of San Francisco, you can literally trip along the road.

Even closer to home at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, I caught this chorus line of shorebirds dancing in the surf.

And, while taking a long-exposure shot at Ocean Beach at twilight, I was photo-bombed by a couple taking an evening walk along the beach.

What is endlessly attractive about California are the contrasts, the variety of landscapes, from the fog-draped hills of Point Reyes

To the starkly beautiful high desert east of the Sierra.

There are places we return to because of their breathtaking beauty, like Little Lakes Valley in the eastern Sierra, a favorite day hike for Ellen’s extended family.

And sometimes the road shows me tiny signs of the infinite variety of life. We spotted these mating dragonflies in Pescadero Marsh.

And this honeybee scouting the flowers in the botanical garden in Mendocino.

Nature is not always kind

Occasionally, there are chance encounters that remind me that nature is filled with struggle. Near Abbott’s Lagoon in the Point Reyes National Seashore, we came across this battle between a heron and a garter snake. It took more than a half hour. The heron won.

And on a late-afternoon walk near Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast, this osprey was carrying dinner back to its nest. The osprey was no doubt delighted. The fish, we assume, was not.

There are places where human activity enhances the natural landscape. The setting sun etched the rows of grapevines on the rolling hills of the Carneros region of Napa County.

And sometimes traces of human activity hint at California’s colorful history. Bodie State Historic Park preserves a ghost town in the high desert where 10,000 people sought their fortunes in gold in the late-19th century. It had such a rough-and-tumble reputation that a young girl whose family was moving there allegedly moaned, “Good-bye, God, we’re going to Bodie.” (Perhaps it was “good, by God, we’re going to Bodie.” Hard to tell.)

Along California’s edges

The best California road trips trace its edges – the mountains and deserts to the east and the coastline to the west. Labor Day weekend in 2001 found my brother Ken, his friend Randy and me at Mesa Lake in the John Muir Wilderness north of Kings Canyon National Park.

And Ellen and I return whenever we can, to catch scenes like the setting sun lighting up the desert east of Mammoth.

Or Jupiter rising above the mountains on the east side of Death Valley.

And finally, there is the coast, the edge of California and the continent, the place where all roads end. To me – and to many Californians – it’s unimaginable to live in a place where you can’t see the ocean. In places, the coast is so rugged that only birds can find footing; a flock of cormorants outline the rocks below the Point Arena Lighthouse.

But for much of its length, the California coast means beaches, places where people come for solitude…

Or to play in crowds (maybe later)…

Or to test themselves against the waves…

Or wind.

Or just to watch the sun melt into the horizon, teasing us with what lies on the other side and the possibility of other roads in other places.

I love traveling and the thrill of engaging with people whose lives are different from mine. I’m excited by the challenge of navigating familiar tasks (ATMs, food courts, crossing the street) in unfamiliar places like Jakarta or Chennai or Hanoi. I love New York for its energy and Boston for its history and Paris for its Paris-ness.

But those places are not home. As much as I look forward to boarding a plane and taking off for someplace far away, it’s the road from my front door that calls to me. And soon, beyond the pandemic and the brutal devastation of the wildfires, we will pack up the car and answer the call.


David Newman retired in 2017 as an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. During a special assignment in 2004-5 he and Ellen spent six months living in Jakarta, Indonesia. That trip to Southeast Asia jump-started their wandering.


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  1. Comment
    David, I heard your voice, and I loved your photos too. Here’s to the open road.Deb 🙋‍♀️👍

    • Thanks Deb. I’m looking forward to all the things the road provides — freedom, friends, food.

  2. A wonderful tribute to California and the adventures you and Ellen have shared. Not a native Californian, I was stunned by the beauty of Big Sur when Carolyn and I drove up Highway 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco back in 1970. Only the first of many fabulous sights, some available only two blocks from our home.

    • Thanks David. I really am a California chauvinist, but I believe that no state can match ours for the range of things to see, some of them right around the corner.

  3. David, Thanks for posting such a rich melding of words and pictures. Both were beautiful, poetic, evocative… a joy to read here in the Northeast, where the weather is turning sharply cooler.

    • Thanks Robert. Enjoy your autumn; it’s a special season.

  4. Great post, David. Short California road trips around Sacramento and into gold country are keeping us sane during lockdown with the two kiddos.

    • Thanks Carolyn. I love the Gold Country. Many years ago (pre-Ben and the rest of you), we spent a few hours at Malakoff Diggins in mid-October. No one was there except for us and a few deer browsing on the apples that had fallen from some Gold Rush-era trees. It was wonderfulComment

      • Loved this David! Your photos are great. It will be great to get back on the road someday in our beautiful state.


  5. Thanks Carolyn. I love the Gold Country. Many years ago (pre-Ben and the rest of you), we spent a few hours at Malakoff Diggins in mid-October. No one was there except for us and a few deer browsing on the apples that had fallen from some Gold Rush-era trees. It was wonderful.

  6. Hi David,

    Thank you for taking me back decades to when I was happily living in San Francisco and travelling around California. My two favorite photos are the shorebirds dancing in the surf and the fog tickling the trees in Point Reyes. I completely identify with your love of California and all it has to offer. Maybe I’ll be able to travel there again. But for now your photos and narrative will have to suffice.

    • Thanks Laura. Sometimes we get so attached to traveling that we forget to look at what is close at hand. No matter where we live, we are surrounded by “special places,” if we remember to look for them.

  7. Dear David: Beauty is said to be in the eyes of the beholder, but your camera brings and extends it to us so flawlessly. Enjoyed each picture, accentuated by your recorded observations! More power to both of you, let your eclectic lives also bring us the richness of traveling and seeing!

    • Thanks Mono. I’m glad to be able to share.

  8. David!
    These are fabulous photos connected with a good story line – gives a beautiful look at the glory of our state. Sadly now, as fires burn and ocean temperatures rise – we’re turning back into a desert. Hopefully not too late to save this place?? Thanks for sharing – I can’t wait to get out on the road either!

    • Thanks Minette. I have fond memories of our float trip on Cache Creek the summer Ben and Zevi graduated from high school. So many of those areas that we all love have been scarred by fire. I share your hope that we can gather our collective will and wrap our heads around the problem.

  9. Beautiful photographs and story

    • Thanks Maria. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

  10. Loved every word and every image. My California adventures with you and Ellen have been many – starting with my first solo PSA flights to SF from LA. While most were joyful – July 4, 1989 in Mammoth was bittersweet as we dedicated my mother’s memorial bridge over Mammoth Creek as seen in the second picture. Beth in the backpack was Sam’s age now. Little Lakes Valley, Pt. Reyes, backpacking with Ben in Yosemite surrounded by acres of wildflowers, more flowers in Anza Borrego and countless other rural as well as urban (remember our lunch atop the Waldorf Astoria in BH) spots up and down our state are fond memories. Can’t wait for these unsettling times to pass so we can resume exploring together.

    • Thanks. There were a lot of memories that didn’t make the cut, like early-morning canoeing on Mono Lake and our backpacking trips. I recall the trip you and Ellen and I did at Green Creek near Bridgeport, where we were afraid you and your sleeping bag were going to get blown away by the wind.

  11. David,
    Your photo of the setting sun “melting into the horizon” is stunning! Pure glory before our eyes!
    Thank you.

    • Thanks, Diana. Even as restricted as we are, there are still wonderful things to see. We are so lucky to be in a place with so much open space s close to home.

  12. I so appreciate this photographic journey through my home state! As a fellow nature enthusiast, all of these places form the architecture of my mind’s photo storage. Now in Seattle, California seems very far away. Before Covid, I was able to visit every 6 weeks. My plan is to visit over the thanksgiving holiday and it is getting closer everyday. Thank you, David, for sharing your outdoor life with us.

  13. Comment
    What a terrific combination of words and images linked so intrinsically with Ellen ! I could hear your voice as if you were sitting right next to me ….. wish I would have spent more of my summers out of the Texas heat and done some long California road trips ! Still time as soon as this virus backs off ….

    • Hi Susan,

      How many years ago was it the we took your parents up to Tahoe. It was before your mom had her hip operation, and she could barely walk, so we took her to end of a dirt road above the lake so she could get a taste of the mountains. Stay safe, and we’ll look forward to another road trip.

  14. Comment Hi David,

    Much enjoyed your pictures and comments on the California Road Trip. Brought back sweet memories and revived some sadness due to the Covid 19 confinement. I’ve Often felt that Huell Houser had the best job in California.


    • Hi Phil,

      Getting paid to travel around and look at things? What could be better?


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