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By Jonathan Haeber
The Dining Cars Cafe is one of those rare sights along Highway 101 that is both supremely depressing and beautiful in its own right. What has remained serves as a testament to our changing culture. As an optimist I believe that our perceptions of past relics are changing, and our appreciation for these things will exponentially increase in the coming years. eBay thrives largely because of our fascination with less sophisticated, yet highly endearing times.
Through the years, I’ve taken the same road south many times — both day and night, in all inclement weather, while I became an uncle for the first time, and after deciding on Berkeley as a home.
The 101 is not your typical road. It’s a long stretch of lonely yet beautiful pavement that passes through the Camino Real. California Live Oak sweeps by; strip malls juxtaposed with grapevines and gabled barn roofs. Stories of lives and loss paint themselves across the surface of your hermetically sealed windows while you speed by at 70.
Blips of outposts peek through the pastiche of your passenger side window with vague, fleeting images that give you the sense that this highway was originally intended to be traveled at half the legal limit. These highway side constructions are meant to soak into your psyche like a well-engineered bridge, or a meticulously carved statue.
Now the grain silos and fruit stands blur to the side. As you accelerate, the landscape you traverse regresses to the same type that pioneers in Studebakers looked at as a means to an end — a route to a destination.
The radio blares, singing ensues, cars pass on right, coffee in the cupholder — anything to kill the boredom, anything to make you forget that you will spend six hours glued to a seat. It wasn’t always that way, though. Road trips were sojourns. Escapes. Cars looked like rocket ships, with their streamline moderne curves and their googie-style, gas-hungry body. They were escape pods to the moon.
We once pulled off to the side without requiring an on-ramp and off-ramp — such diminutive landmarks of separation, such gatekeepers of interaction with a landscape. Even after overcoming the burden of slowing down your progress, of passing the Hades-like off-ramps, you encounter the buffers: the fast food joints, and the Denny’s, 7/11s, and other such purveyors of trans-fat, carb-loaded body fuels. You shake off the gas nozzle, pull out your credit card, turn the ignition and leave.
Every once in a while, you may be the lucky recipient of a gift. You will see the life that the landscape once had. You will see the places where people let their engines cool down; the historical markers that nobody reads any longer; and the giant plaster-and-chicken-wire monuments of an era when time was not something to pave, or even save. Time was measured, not in how much you were able to shave off, but rather the quality of what you received — hot apple pie a la mode, window wash with a smile, proud brass plaques, and hand-formed putt-putt courses.