We got a reasonably efficient start, getting out at 10ish and heading down Route 1. Okay -- while the few miles north of Monterey may not have been very impressive, the 90 miles south of it are pretty damned cool. I've only been on this road once, some 20-plus years ago in a car driven by my father, and it scared the snot out of me at the time. Now, it's still a tad scary, but being behind the wheel myself helps a bit.
Route 1 goes down the CA coast -- in some cases, more or less literally skirting the coast, with sheer cliffs on your left and dropoffs into the ocean on your right. It's quite a remarkable road, largely not even bothering with a speed limit, because you can only accelerate a little before hitting the next 20 MPH switchback. One moment it's a dense forest, the next it's barren rockface. The barely-tamed nature of this highway, blasted through the mountains, was driven home by the remains of a rockslide, which had apparently been cleared a few hours before.
Anyway, after a couple of hours of that, we reached our destination: Hearst Castle. We had enough time to do two of the tours, so we chose numbers 1 and 2.
Tour 1 was, frankly, kind of annoying. It is "The Hearst Experience", and they insist that first-timers should go on it, but personally I think it was a bit of a waste of time. It's slow-moving and chatty, with the interpreter mostly blathering about ancient gossip, asking silly questions to get the crowd involved, and generally playing towards the lowest-common-denominator tourist. It shows off a few really cool rooms (including the dining room to die for), but overall covered a lot less ground that I might have wished.
Fortunately, Tour 2 made up for many sins. This is the tour of the upper floors -- they make a huge deal about the fact that it involves lots of walking, but that turns out to mean about 400 stairs and a half-mile or so, not exactly a problem. This tour shows you around the upstairs guests rooms (cool), the kitchen (double cool) and the libraries (very cool). msmemory, always observant, pointed out to the guide that the same book was shown on display in two rooms, and in both cases was turned to a page of Masonic imagery; he confirmed that Hearst had been a Mason, which also confirmed my observations of some subtle Masonic imagery on the frescoes outside. (For example, a figure holding a trowel and common gavel up on one door.)
All tours start from the Visitor's Center down the hill -- tourists aren't allowed to drive up -- so about 20 minutes or so of each tour consists of being driven up and down the hill to San Simeon. It's some of the most striking terrain around, but those old fears of the Route 1 coastline were here in spades: I simply cannot understand how a full-sized bus can make its way up the narrow and winding road up the mountain. (The Castle is way up an enormous hill, making it an even more impressive engineering project.)
Afterwards, we saw the movie "Building the Dream", which describes Hearst's youth, and how that influenced the construction of the castle. It's a little hagiographic in tone, but has some breathtaking vistas and interesting details that I wasn't aware of, so it wasn't wasted time.
Oddly, I don't find the place quite as tacky as I once did. It's still a monument to excess, and the wild combinations of periods slammed side by side is rather bizarre at times, but having developed a taste for period art, I've come to find it pretty cool. Calling it the realization of a dream seems pretty accurate: it's the result of a driven man who realized that he had a nearly infinite amount of money to build the home of his dreams, and had the imagination to do it. The result is idiosyncratic to an extreme, but still quite cool.
By the time we finished at the Castle, it was quite dark, so trying to drive home up Route 1 wasn't a sane option. We came inland, and went up the 101 instead. That was odd in and of itself, really driving home how big California is. Here I am, driving 70 MPH (that's the speed limit here) up a fairly major highway at 7pm -- with my brights on. Totally bizarre: I don't think there's a major freeway in MA where I can put the brights on at 3am, but the 101 was almost deserted for its southern stretch.
The other oddness was the radio: for a fair chunk, there were no options other than Spanish oompah music and cult-rock. When the Christian Rock movement started to gain force, I didn't have a problem with it -- it seems reasonably inoffensive on the face of it. But I have to say, listening to even a little of it is downright creepy. Hearing this odd mixture of obsession and indoctrination gives a visceral look into red-county America that you just don't see at home. It comes across as unbalanced in the most literal sense: so desperately wrapped up in its subject that it borders on fanaticism. Unsettling.
Anyway, other than that the drive was notable only for the fog: how the locals manage to blast down the roads at 70 through that sort of soup I do not understand. Fortunately, we found a Margie's Diner (apparently a small local chain) and had some good and preposterously overlarge sandwiches, which helped restore my nerve. And thence, back to the hotel for the evening Internetting...