17 Mile Drive
The most beautiful stretch of road in the continental US is alongside Asilomar State Park. It curves and bends gently along the lip of the Pacific Ocean, past a dozen or more tiny coves rimmed with sandstone. Look closely and you will see a harbor seal, poking her silky nose up through the water. Squint into the distance, where the sea turns to fairy-tale patches of rose and champagne, and a humpback flukes with her baby beside her, impossible giants still roaming the seas near to us, after all we’ve done to them. The whole world soft and cool and pastel, the beauty evident, and each passerby on the road feels like a friend along the way, not merely another fellow passenger, as Dickens said, to the grave.
Every night for three weeks, I’ve driven this stretch of road at sunset, just after the blazing citrus fruit that powers the entire solar system dips out of sight. It’s the last breath of sea before another windy night in the creaky Victorian I’ve rented for the month. The one night we decided to stay home and skip our sundown drive, I stepped out on the second floor balcony only to have the screen door fall straight off its track, onto my shoulder, and nearly send me plummeting off the edge. It would be an appropriately Victorian way to die — crashing down into the roof of the glass novelty greenhouse in the next yard, perhaps impaling myself on a toad-adorned weather vane— but I took the point. I’m here to live in sunset nights and beach mornings, perched in between tidepools — and I better not waste it.
The reason I’m here, of course, is that I’m so bloody angry I can hardly speak. I’ve stopped speaking publicly — I don’t mean in grocery stores, I don’t just make exaggerated nodding motions and wave vaguely toward the artichokes when a clerk asks me if I found everything — but I’ve shut up entirely on Twitter, and for my own good. I was growing too angry and too paranoid to speak sanely on anything, and far, far too exhausted of the robotic arguments consistently thrown at me by strangers, desperate to bait me into fights or maybe just have some acknowledgement that another person noticed their stupid, stupid points of view.
But it turns out, this trip, beautiful and languorous as it has been, hasn’t made me less angry. It’s made me more angry, and now I’m not quite sure what to do. It’s as if I went to a spa for a full day of treatments only to walk out bloated, cucumber juice in my retinas and a lavender frond stuck God knows where. To my surprise, the reason for this anger isn’t Twitter, it can’t be, I’m not there. The reason is 17 Mile Drive.
At the end of the road through Asilomar, just past the sweeping dunes of the beach, where the surf outside the bay comes pounding in like a parade, and little bonfires dot the sand, you turn inward toward the land. On your right, an unobtrusive road leads up to a rustic little booth. It is here the greatest grift in the United States takes place.
17 Mile Drive is world-famous, of course. Has there ever been a con that wasn’t? But next to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which rests comfortably on a coral bed of earned success as the most popular site in town, 17 Mile Drive is the second by a wide margin. Yet somehow, in the two decades I’d come here, I’d set neither foot nor wheel past that charming little booth on the twisty little road in the woods. My visits have often been short and jam-packed, but with a whole month to luxuriate in the wonders of this beautiful coast, last week I finally said words to my husband I did not know I would come to regret: “Let’s do 17 Mile Drive,” I suggested brightly, naively. “It’s probably touristy, but it can’t be that bad.”
Friends, it was even worse. I have lived in Los Angeles in neighborhoods where dodging dog excrement means stepping in human excrement, I have visited bereft tube stations in London, where the monotone begging of a teen girl, just my age at the time, still echoes in my head. I have seen people strangled on the street. I’m easy to horrify, and I’m horrified by a lot. But something about the blight on humanity called 17 Mile Drive — Which might be better referred to as Do Fuck OFF, Poors — made me feel ill in a part of the body I didn’t know I had.
The first thing you have to know about 17 Mile Drive is that it costs $11.25 to drive on. It was this silent alarm bell that had kept us away from it for so long; why, after all, would you pay $11.25 to drive down a seaside road exactly like the stunning one you just paid nothing to drive down in Asilomar? Here I found a strange assonance with Disneyland and other theme parks, who have specialized in the last five years at what are called “Upcharge” events, where you get to go to the theme park and pay $70 or $80 more than the normal admission to be let in at night. Oh, theoretically they are “parties” or “Sweetheart Nites!” and they throw up some decorations, but it is the same park, just for more.
But 17 Mile Drive is not just Disney’s California Adventure Plus Eleven Bucks , it’s more like one of those theme parks where you pay the upcharge to walk through cardboard Halloween mazes and have workers dressed as zombies scream in your face. That is exactly the experience, except the workers are rich people, and the cardboard prevents you from seeing any of the park.
Here is my best description of 17 Mile Drive, which I will try to present without prejudice. For the first few miles, it is two lane road featuring a series of full parking lots, some directly next to each other, with occasional alluring signs pointing you to vistas like “The Restless Sea” or “The Kraken Riseth.” In one of the parking lots, there is an official sign — not a handmade one, not a goof — that adds “Let’s Go Brandon,” which is one inkling that you’re in that kind of territory, but not the first sign. The first sign is that to your left, away from the sea, where in Asilomar there are rolling hillsides covered with dune plants of beauty and natural architecture, here there is a golf course. Every thirty or forty feet along that side, there is a sign like this:
These signs are at what can only be called insulting intervals. Imagine if you walked into a grocery store with a sign at the front that said “no shoplifting.” Then imagine if, as you simply tried to get your shopping done, in every aisle, on the hanging sign listing Bread-Baby Food-Tomato Paste, on every third bag of Lay’s potato chips, in flashing Neon on the Haagan-Daze freezer door — it repeated the same sign— NO SHOPLIFTING. You’d begin to think they suspect you of something very quickly.
For you see on the other side of these golf courses are the rich resorts. Not just rich, but Ritz, places with names like Chateau de Bay Espana, The Inn At Sleeping River, and The Miralax, I think. Don’t mistake me: Monterey proper, and the endlessly twee Carmel-by-the-Sea, have plenty of fancy hotels and inns that will run you hundreds of dollars a night. But on 17 Mile Drive, $400 per night is dune grass, it is deer spit, it is an embarrassment of poverty. For it is here the true Great Plague, the rich and tactless, come to stay, and they are the fiercest defenders of exclusion, they are the NFTs of people. They want one existence, for themselves, and you are not invited.
And then the road gets even worse.
When the road diverges from water to greenery, you are plunged into a grove of rare and ancient Monterey Cypress trees. One spot, where we got out to look because the parking lot was empty, declares itself the second-oldest grove of these beautiful giants in the world (the oldest, it should be noted, is in a state park five miles away, which costs less to enter.) They are marvelous trees, too tall to measure, a stark white and bread-grain grey stretching upward in an endless yawn. We would’ve loved to walk under them, to stand beneath their trunks and peer upward toward eternity, but we couldn’t, you see, because the grove is encircled by a fence. There’s no path to walk through it, or even a turn out beyond the parking lot where you can get out to have a closer look. NO TRESSPASSING, the fence directly in front of your car states. KEEP OUT.
And that is it for the real forest, and the real horror picks up instead. You are plunged into a level of hell I’m certain Dante had jotted down in an early draft: The hell of Mansions of the Ultra Rich. You know the kind. They are 14000 square feet or possibly 6 acres wide. They are the very top of the line in squat, tasteless, at odds with the landscape, and unappetizing. In Sea Ranch to the far north, there is a building requirement that all houses “lie lightly on the land” with effort put into sustainability, view preservation, and environmental protection. Here, it is more like there is a local law that rich people are allowed to flop their testicles out on the dinner table.
For at least eight of the 17 Miles, this is your primary view. What would be beautiful trees and vistas blocked by hideous, beige piles of very expensive shit. The houses seem almost to taunt you; you are behind a row of them, and occasionally get a peek-a-boo of the ocean you didn’t have time to look at in the parking lot segment. But you aren’t really seeing the ocean, you’re seeing how much of a nice view of it the rich person must have, since he or she can walk in front of the 16-bedroom Tuscan Tudor Antebellum pied-a-terre to see it. “And here,” a smugly invisible tour guide you didn’t invite and didn’t realize had joined you in the back seat announces “is what you could have if you were Reese Witherspoon.”
It may sound like I’m jealous, but in a profound way I am not. For here is the problem: to be jealous of Reese Witherspoon’s views, she’d have to see them, and the majority of the supermax mansions we passed were startlingly, deathly empty. Other than a few where construction workers were busily adding new wings or third in-law units to the properties, the houses were desolate of life. When I was little and my family quite poor, my father would entertain me by taking me to see open houses in new developments. I loved running up carpeted stars no cat had puked on, seeing a stove so squeaky-new the glass front still had a filmy wrapping on it. But even those model middle-class houses, so proud in their small granite countertops, felt the chill of having no personality, no messy family, no askew painting that no one remembered to level on the wall. And 17 Mile Drive is this in its most grotesque, horrific state: no single person out gardening, no cars in the expansive driveway, not a single light on anywhere in the house on a dark, cloudy day. They are not just gaudy, they are gory waste, the tombs of living demigods, modern pyramids to the wealth of their owners, and they desperately want you gone.
A year ago I stayed with my sister in another rented house in Carmel, where the houses start at a million-five, not enough to buy you a garage on 17 Mile Drive. So many of the houses were completely empty, I’d said to her on a walk, “It would make a good story, someone using VRBO calendars to calculate when places are empty and then sneaking in to live in them.” A week ago, a man was arrested in the area for doing exactly that, getting away with living in an empty mansion for weeks until unfortunately his curiosity got the better of him and he stole the owner’s Alfa Romeo and promptly crashed it. My sympathy is with him; I’ll bet the owner has insurance against this nuisance behavior of the starving masses.
How does this all relate to Twitter, the more logically minded of you might be wondering by now? How does it relate to my general growing anger at the world, my fury unabated by a vacation?
Today, Elon Musk bought Twitter. It’s not that one billionaire is better than any of the others, but some are decidedly worse. He was already trying to snag it while I drove on 17 Mile Drive, through the last stretch where the mansions stop and another resort begins, where they smugly tell you they’ll refund your $11.25 if you spend $35 at one of the restaurants — just not the cheap snack one where you can get sensible things like chips and a cookie. Get a lobster or else, the invisible tour guide sneers.
And I can’t help but link him, a man who has always had money and will always have money, with the people who smash their $36 million dollar monuments to themselves along a view they never bother to enjoy. They want to own the sea, but mostly so they can keep you from it. And to them I add those who’d put up a reference to Trump on a public parking lot sign, or those who’d make sure the KEEP OUT signs were regular enough for the even the most unwashed and illiterate sucker to cough up $11.25 for the second-most-famous site in Monterey Bay. And then onto the list creeps the tourists crowding the indoor portion of the tiny Mexican restaurant down the street while the patio stands empty, as Covid cases double day by day. And the groups of school children standing in an unbroken, packed line to get into the entirely indoor aquarium, not a mask among them, even though statistics suggest at least one child in every class is likely to have some kind of immune condition. And pretty soon I am back where I started, in anger over one thing that’s all the things: that they are doing it simply because they can, and because they want to. They are polluting the shores and destroying the views, they are mocking the poor and disrespecting their opponents, they are breathing Covid into waiters’ faces, and over the otters at the aquarium, because they haven’t been explicitly told not to, at least not by anyone they care about. If a new Asilomar were born tomorrow, I am sure the laws that prohibit building mansions along its shores would be nowhere in sight. I’ve heard people ask, could we pass seatbelt laws now? I wonder: could we pass any of our laws? The first amendment? The thirteenth? The twentieth?
Unbridled selfishness is here to ruin us, and it is fundamentally changing me and this world. I have been struggling for months now, trying to reckon with my anger in view of my position as a writer. Surely my job is to expand empathy, to speak in ways that are relatable and true, to connect to the everyman. Much to my discomfort, I have become a different kind of writer in this era, the kind no one invites to parties, even though I can’t come anyway, because there’s a pandemic everyone keeps forgetting exists. I have become a deeply reluctant rebel, I’m afraid, even though I’d be very happy just planting some irises by the seaside and never going on Twitter again. As one of a long line of writers who are insane, I have to admit, you’re not getting the old me back, not often. If I am supposed to write, if you want me to write, I have to write what feels true or I’ll quite frankly kill myself, and what feels true right now has nothing to do with empathy, and nothing to do with irises, either, much as I wish it did.
I’ll leave you with this. We decided to play a little game on 17 Mile Drive. At each stop, we’d set a price of what the stop was worth. Zero cents if we couldn’t get into the parking lot. A dollar if the view was nice. At the end of the road, where the resort unceremoniously dumps you in the middle of a highway roundabout, we added it up: it came to $6.75. I blew $4.50 and my last remaining innocence, and all I got was this prediction: we will wake up one day to find the whole world is 17 Mile Drive, and the Keep Out sign is posted over our beds, and our memories of the free road and the soft sunset through Asilomar are as far behind us as Once Upon a Time.