Notes on Listening to Music on Highway 1


On Highway 1 the radio cuts out and we have a fight about the Beatles. I say I'm sick of bad country songs anyway, can we have the Beatles? He puts the Beatles on and says he doesn't really feel like listening to the Beatles just now. "Take the CD out," I say. "Why?" he says. "I don't want to listen to it anymore." "Why not?" "Because you don't like them." "That's idiotic," he says. The first song starts to play. "Take it out!" I shout. "No!" he shouts.

Then we do not speak and we listen to several renditions of "Yesterday" and I sip a cold coffee with vanilla creamer which is almost too sweet but also just sweet enough. After awhile he says it's interesting to hear different versions of "Yesterday" and I say I really like the bad country songs and when the CD is over can we try the radio again?

Later, as the road is starting to widen and straighten again, we stop and get out to look at the elephant seals. They are braying and slapping the sand with their flippers. There are hundreds of them stretched out across the beach, and dozens of accidental tourists in the car park, people who thought they were just on a drive and found themselves suddenly on the side of the road, watching these creatures shuffle and snuggle on the edge of the water.

A volunteer docent offers to answer any questions we might have. We have no questions, but he stands beside us for some time anyway.


The last time I did this drive - the only other time I've done this drive - I was 14 and it was summer and I was a passenger. A friend's father had built, or half-built, a cabin in Big Sur and we went for the weekend. On the way up I kept listening to the same Weezer song on my portable CD player. It wasn't even the song I liked so much as one particular part: "They don't make stationary like this where I'm from - so fragile, so refined/So I sniff/and I lick/your envelope and fall to little pieces every time/I wonder what clothes you wear to school/I wonder how you decorate your room." And I would listen to the whole song just for that moment, and then, when it was over, I would press repeat, and listen to it again. I guess I didn't really think about what it meant. Just the way it felt to hear it.

When we got to the cabin in Big Sur there was a drunk man sitting in the living room pouring himself another glass of vodka. Later, at night, when we came inside to brush our teeth, he lay sleeping on the couch, moaning and twitching, and from the bathroom - me on the toilet, her at the sink, spitting out toothpaste - we could hear him crying out: "The rats! The rats!" Like Colonel Kurtz whispering the horror, the horror.

As we snuck past on our way back out, the drunk man shifted in his sleep and we thought for a moment that he had awoken, that he had somehow, in his confused state, perceived us to be the rats, that he was going to squish us, or at least shout at us. But he was only moving a limb and then, in the blackness that happens when all artificial light has been snuffed out, things were calm; so we followed a thin beam of moonlight back to the deck outside and climbed into our sleeping bags and giggled about it when we were sure that the snuffles and haunted cries from inside the cabin were merely a symptom of troubled sleep.

What I remember about that trip mostly is the fog; how, on the drive up, it swallowed us whole, and yet how as we ascended the mountain we reached a ceiling and kept going until we were above the clouds. We stood on the edge of a grassy hill and couldn't even see the sea, the famous sweeping coastline. Just a layer of white haze. We were actually floating.


Today it wants to be clear, and sometimes it is. Even the grey of the half-clouds is bright and I wear my sunglasses the whole way down the coast, until sunset at Morro Bay. Occasionally, on the 1, cutting through the trees, back to the coast, crossing the bridges, we see a lackadaisical hitchhiker - messy-haired, perched on a rock, looking at the view, inhaling smoke. At the last minute, before we pass, a hand will move but not entirely commit to the request for a ride.

Later we put the radio back on. We have this thing about country stations, we listen to them so we can feel like we're on a road trip, or something. There's one song in particular; all of the stations have been playing it. "My oh my you're so good looking. But who are you when I'm not looking?" is how it ends. "Is it still a rhyme if you just use the same word twice?" I say. But it's the third time today we've heard it and I guess it's sort of growing on me.