Room With a View -- Of a Power Plant

By Donald A. Ranard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 11, 2003

When I ask if any of the rooms have a view, the manager looks up from my registration form, a half-smile tugging the corner of her mouth.

"We're not known for our view," she says. She's in her late fifties, early sixties, with a blond bouffant hairdo and bright red lipstick. She was in the back watching TV when I came in.

"Try this one," she says, handing me a card key. "I don't know about the view, but it's quiet." She shows me the location of the room on a chart. Second floor, end room.

I drive around to the back of the motel and see what I didn't notice from the front: Between the motel and the ocean is a power plant with three giant smokestacks. As I'm climbing the stairs to my room, the manager steps out of the back of the office with an armload of towels. I fight back the urge to shout down to her, "How about a room without a view?"

Actually, after three days of driving up the California coast, passing through one picture-perfect town after another, a Motel 6 with a view of a power plant may be just the change I need. I'm less than halfway up the state, but already the small coastal cities -- Santa Monica, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo -- are starting to blur in my mind. They're lovely, these towns, almost European, with their sidewalk cafes and street life, their couture-cuisine restaurants, art galleries and bookstores, their Victorian bed-and-breakfasts painted in tasteful shades of rose and green and teal, and in the evening, sipping a latte, with a soft breeze blowing in from the ocean, it's possible to imagine you're in a small city on the Mediterranean.

But after a while they start to look alike, as if designed by the same neo-traditional urban planner. Everything is in perfect condition, the historic buildings so flawlessly restored they seem brand-new, unlived in, without any history at all. After a day or two, I begin to feel about these places the way Audrey Hepburn felt about Cary Grant in "Charade": "Do you know what's wrong with you?" she told the perfectly composed Grant. "Nothing." Aesthetically, these small cities are the opposite of sprawl, but they're starting to have the same numbing effect on me.

Which is why I decided at the last minute to take the Morro Bay exit. Two weeks before, when plotting my trip, I crossed Morro Bay, Calif., off my list of places to visit. With nine days to drive the Pacific Coast, from Anaheim, Calif., to Tacoma, Wash., why waste time in a place that one guidebook calls a "working fishing town" whose pleasures "lie hidden behind its ugly manmade features"? But now, after three days of one designer downtown after another, "ugly manmade features" suddenly sound interesting. And the notion of a working fishing town seems intriguing -- you mean, there's a place on the beautiful California coast where people actually work?

The room does have a view, it turns out, or at least a bit of one: Off to the left, on the other side of an access road, is a small park with a baseball diamond you can see from the balcony if you stand at an angle facing away from the power plant. It's late afternoon and a father is hitting fly balls to his son.

I walk down to the beach along an old macadam road that passes a high school on the right (a school next to a motel?) and on the left a closed-down roller skating rink, a cement factory, the power plant and an RV park.

The beach isn't one of those pristine white-sand Southern California beaches. There's real life on this beach -- and death: kelp and seaweed, sand flies, mollusk shells, decaying fish. The sand is hard and brown, perfect for jogging, but there are no runners in moisture-wicking high-performance gear here. The only other person on the beach is an old guy in cutoff jeans and a fisherman's cap walking his mutt.

A few hundred yards out to sea is the town's one tourist attraction, Morro Rock, a large volcanic plug connected to the mainland by a causeway. There was a story about the rock -- what was it? I sit down on the sand and take my guidebook out of my rucksack. It seems that years ago the town decided to build a causeway to Morro Rock to attract tourists; if you could get up close, the thinking went, people from all over the world would come to look at the rock. But where were they going to quarry all the stone to construct the road?

"The answer was not long in coming," I read. "Why, from Morro Rock itself! As the years passed, millions of tons of rock were blasted from the face of the dome -- talk about killing the goose that laid the golden egg!" Eventually, the state stepped in and stopped the blasting, declaring Morro Rock a sanctuary for the endangered peregrine falcons that had made the rock their home.

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