Many roads in our area have a name as well as a number. Highway 101 is also the Bayshore. Interstate 580 into the central valley is the Altamont Pass. The Nimitz Freeway will take you from San Jose to Oakland on what’s officially Interstate 880. Highway 1 is the Coast Highway with some speculator views of the California coast – and many white-knuckle moments for those afraid of narrow roads with 200 foot drop offs into waves and rocks.
But the road from San Jose to Santa Cruz is just Highway 17 or to us locals, “17”. The road winds through forest of the coastal mountain range and makes its way to the beach. The road itself is a four lane highway with sharp turns, lots of traffic, and plenty of opportunities to challenge your driving skills. Accidents are common and in the winter mud and rock sides often close the road for hours or days. Once or twice a decade a light snow will close the road.
Hey, this is California, the nearest snow plow is 246 miles east near Lake Tahoe.
17 is also one of the important places in my life. My mother loved going to Santa Cruz and the beach. Some of my earliest memories are of her driving us “over the hill” as we locals say. She drove us in the mom-mobile of the day, a white 63 Chevy station-wagon. Car engines weren’t as reliable and on a summer Saturday drive, we would count the number of cars that were pulled over with steam rising from the radiator.
Sometimes mother’s car would join the overheated in the turn out and we’d have to wait for it to cool before we could add more water to the radiation. Yes, we carried extra water for just such fun. When finally we got over there and were parked at the beach, we’d run along the beach, play in the waves, make sandcastles and eat. Then it was back home again.
I don’t really remember how often we went to the beach. Maybe only a few times during a summer, but those days, along with the sunburns, come to mind each time I start the climb past Lexington Reservoir.
As I got older, we didn’t take the trip as often as the teen years, and family problems started. However, mother continued to make her way to Santa Cruz on her own. Sometimes just to watch the waves and escape a little. She liked to drive over to Light House Point during a storm and watch the waves crash over the rocks. There is a power in the sea that can be healing.
She needed healing as her marriage failed and her children scattered to the winds of adulthood.
I remember a day not long after I’d received my driver’s license and a double date adventure along that road. A friend of mine wanted to take his girl friend, Debbie to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, but her father would only let her go if it was a double date and we promised to be home before dark. I had a girl friend at the time and my mother was willing to let me use her 69 station wagon which was only seven years old. Mother even called both girl’s mothers to tell them she’d given permission and promising that I was a responsible driver. Mother was a romantic at heart.
It was an exciting morning when we teens set out. Mother had bought me a tank of gas, given me the “be responsible” talk and hid three one gallon canteens of water in a box in the back, just in case the mechanic hadn’t quite got the radiator fixed. That the spare tire was flat, was my fault, I was supposed to check and didn’t.
Bob and I had save up as much money as we could so we could buy ride tickets and meals for the girls. I did see Debbie’s father slip her a bit of cash as she kissed him good-bye.
We were having a good time blasting the radio, until just after Patchen Pass when there was a loud bang and suddenly the steering when stiff. It was all I could do to control the car and guide it into the parking lot at the Summit Inn. In the parking lot I opened the hood where Bob and I to see what went wrong. There we saw the belt to the power steering was off the pulley and was partly broken.
A man and his wife came out of the restaurant and he came over to see if we needed help. Turned out he had a tool box in his car and with his help we put the belt back on. None of us thought it would hold long, but calling for a tow truck wasn’t something I wanted to do. Mother didn’t have much money and none of us kids had that much cash between us.
So the plan was to fix it as we could and make our way to Scott’s Valley which was just a few miles down the hill. They offered to follow us just in case and gave me directions to a gas station he knew would be open. We all pilled in and bravely set off down the hill.
Just after the summit is one of the steepest and sharpest curves on Highway 17 and our brilliantly improvised repair failed just as I started into it. Have you ever driven a car with failed power steering? Don’t, just call the tow truck. But we were young and with my date, Patty’s help, we managed to pull the steering wheel far enough and I braked hard enough to get us around that curve. Bob signaled to the couple following us and we just kept going.
It didn’t take long to get to the gas station where we said our thanks to our escort and I talked to the mechanic about fixing the car. He saw that we had two girls with us and asked how much money we had. We settled on a price, which wiped out our funds (and I’m sure less than he normally charged), and took the girls over to a coffee shop. I sat in the booth shaking for about half an hour – thinking about everything that could have gone wrong.
It was the end of our outing as we all decided it was best to just return home. When the car was ready, I drove us back over the hill. That wasn’t to be the end though. Just after arriving in San Jose, a driver in another car started making hand gestures at us that something was wrong with the back tire.
I pulled over, and while the tire wasn’t flat, it was quite right either. I was thinking of changing the tire when a CHP officer stopped to see what was wrong. He looked at it and helped me check the spare, which turned out to be flat. The office said, “If it was just you boys, I’d say drive home slowly, but you’ve got the girls. Let me call your parents.” It was a different era back then.
Half an hour later, Mother turned up in father’s car and we traded cars so I could take everyone home. It was both disappointing and an adventure.
When we got to Debbie’s house we found that my mother had called them and they had made dinner for us. We were then invited to stay for and spent a pleasant evening listening to records and just talking until Debbie’s father quietly suggested that it was time I took Patty home.
These days, Heather and I drive 17 to Santa Cruz a few times a year. We’ll have breakfast and walk along Cliff Drive. Some times we’ll take family to the Board Walk.
But driving that road is more than just getting from here to there. It’s a time machine to the past and all the adventures and emotions that live there.
I’d intended this to be a happy Mother’s Day post, but 17 also leads to a sadder memory. After mother’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and her transfer to hospice, I recall talking to my brother’s and Heather about some of the things we could for mother for mother during her final months.
I suggested that I might be able to drive her over to Santa Cruz for one last look at the ocean from Cliff Drive. She wouldn’t have to get out of the car and I knew she and I would value that experience.
It never happened. After entering hospice she was never again well enough to leave her bed and all there is of that wished for trip is a picture in my mind of what could have been.