Which is exactly what I did on my first long road trip when I was a kid, a two-week sprint up and down the West Coast with my parents and three siblings. We stopped in Scotia, California, to see how a sawmill reduces big trees to board feet. We lumbered farther up 101 to Oregon to comb the beaches in Newport and Lincoln City, savor ice cream at the Tillamook Creamery, and pose for snapshots before the winter quarters of Lewis and Clark outside Astoria. We crossed into Washington, where we explored Olympic National Park before touring both the state capitol and the now-gone Olympia Brewery (once again, epic water).
Highway 101 is also a survey course in Western history—or mythmaking. It's commonly believed the highway got its start nearly 250 years ago as El Camino Real, a horse path linking 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California. Today, a series of instantly recognizable roadside bells mark that route. But that story may owe more to the romantic notions of regional boosters than to the conclusions of rigorous historians. And while mission founder Junípero Serra remains controversial (because of the impact those missions had on American Indians), there's no question that he was an urban visionary. He built missions in or near what would become the four largest cities on the West Coast: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco.
The final exam for Highway 101? Essay question: Tell us about your favorite stretch of the road.
For me, the answer would be the Golden Gate Bridge. The 1.7-mile-long span—with the Pacific and the Farallon Islands to the west; the bay, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco skyline to the east; and art deco towers soaring 500 feet overhead—still raises goose bumps every time I cross it.
The bridge in many ways is a microcosm of Highway 101 itself: an engineering marvel that required extraordinary innovation, collaboration, and foresight to complete, and an indispensable link between north and south, connecting urban dynamism with untrammeled nature and untapped opportunity.