Friday, May 16, 2003... Greetings from Thousand Oaks, California, base camp for tomorrow morning's assault on Los Angeles.

Today I drove from just south of San Francisco to just north of metropolitan Los Angeles, stopping long enough to photograph the exterior of eight Spanish missions as well as the interior of one hotel men's room.  Although most of the missions were built near the Pacific, the day's first stop took me to the town of Fremont, in the East Bay, to photograph Mission San Jose.  Less than half a mile from the 200-year-old church, a development advertises new homes starting in the "mid $1 million range."  Something tells me it's a tough sell these days...

Old 101 passes through the heart of downtown San Jose -- the old San Jose, not the Silicon Valley complexes which line every modern thoroughfare.  San Jose's population has more than quadrupled since 1960; it's now significantly larger than San Francisco.  But the growth has been concentrated in the north and west of the city, leaving much of 101's route as it must have looked when Dionne Warwicke sang "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" 35 years ago. 101 passes through Gilroy ("Garlic Capital of the USA") en route to Salinas, gateway to John Steinbeck country.  Then comes the fateful split.  State Route 1 heads for Monterey, Carmel and the spectacular Pacific Coast; US 101 veers southeast, across miles and miles of land as empty as (though much greener than) any route across Nevada.  Route 1 has Big Sur and Hearst Castle; 101 has King City and Paso Robles.  No comparison.

But 101 has a legitimate footnote in roadside history:  the world's first motel.  The Milestone Motel, later the Motel Inn, opened at the extreme north end of town in 1925.  Although it closed years ago, when I passed by a construction crew was  working on the roof.  Just south of town, the Madonna Inn presents its own unique vision of roadside culture.

Owner/contractor Alex Madonna started with a vacant field, some earth-moving equipment and a whole lot of pink paint.  He created the world's first theme motel:  each of its 100-plus guest rooms has a different fantasy theme:  the "Caveman Room," "Daisy Mae," "Matterhorn," "Pioneer America," and so on.  (A complete list, with room photos, is here.)   The main dining hall is painted what can only be described as Pepto-Bismol pink, and most of the common room furnishings wouldn't look out of place in a New Orleans whorehouse of the 1890s. 

Urinal, Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo, CA

The Madonna Inn is also the only place in America where visitors are encouraged to bring cameras into the men's room.  En route to the urinal in the photo below, the visitor passes a double sink carved out of a single piece of polished stone.  When the visitor stands in front of the urinal trough to do his business, he breaks the plane of a photoelectric sensor, which sends a waterfall cascading down the rocks on the opposite side.  This sense of excess-for-its-own-sake permeates the Madonna Inn, which may even be tackier than the, uh, "singer" of the same name.

Shortly thereafter, 101 returns to the Pacific Coast for the first time since the Golden Gate Bridge.  It hugs the shoreline south of Santa Barbara, offering views to rival the more famous Route 1 through Big Sur.  The big difference is that Big Sur allows the driver to enjoy the scenery, while 101 is a six-lane freeway on which anyone driving a mere 70 is likely to be passed by little old ladies.

Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA

This area knows how to market itself to visitors.  Santa Barbara needs little help, but most of the towns have some gimmick.  Solvang is a Danish-themed tourist town with lots of quaint "shoppes" of the kind beloved by busloads of senior citizens on day trips; Carpinteria has a " Santa Claus Lane" just north of town (the only one overlooking a beach and palm trees)...and Buellton has pea soup.  For more than 60 years, "Pea Soup Andersen's" restaurant has advertised itself with the same caricature:  a chef with mallet lifted high overhead as his assistant carefully positions a splitting instrument atop a tiny pea.  Was split pea soup once a rare delicacy?

Stopped for the night at Thousand Oaks, just northwest of metro Los Angeles.  I've always said that the best way to drive downtown city streets is early on a weekend morning:  tomorrow will be the acid test.  I'm planning to drive the original route of US 101 all the way from the west end of the San Fernando Valley through downtown Los Angeles to Orange County.  This plan is subject to change if either my blood pressure or the elapsed time gets too high -- I'm visiting friends in San Diego at 3 PM and must reach the Mexican border before then. 

Just 1-1/2 days of vacation to go.  I promise that tomorrow's photo highlight will have nothing whatever to do with plumbing...

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