Our road trip from San Francisco to LA started with an accidental drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. (I can’t drive and my navigation skills were a little rusty.) We crossed the bridge twice and drove through SF toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Since we had 8 days in California, we decided to take the scenic route and drive toward LA over 2 days. The only change I would have made to this plan would have been to start it earlier than 4 pm and end it before sun down.
Headed toward our midway point, Arroyo Grande, we anticipated a 4ish hour drive. Soon after crossing onto the PCH we realized this was going to be an amazing drive. Two lanes of traffic carved between the mountains and a cliff overlooking the Pacific as the sun slowly lowered was absolutely breathtaking. I hung my head out the window when not belting out radio tunes at the top of my lungs. Neverending waves alternated with vast berry farms and as we continued toward the sunset. Al made fun of my frequent exclamations, “THAT-IS-SO-FUCKING-COOL!!!!” Eventually, we pulled off the side of the road to watch the sunset from an empty public beach.
The whole drive I imagined beach parties with bonfires and happy people splashing in the waves. We saw a dozen kite surfers flying above the ocean. We saw sailboats and ships in the distance. We saw houses carved into the mountains.
And then it started getting weird.
Driving toward another huge mountain, we noticed a flashing light at the very top. I wondered if it was Jodie Foster sending us an SOS signal from a panic room but we soon realized it was actually a huge, neon question mark flashing on for 3 seconds and then off for 3 seconds. Uh. WHAT? We chuckled uncomfortably trying to shake off the feeling that this was an ominous warning to turn back.
As the sun sunk lower, radio stations started to dwindle. Opera, country, or Jesus talk radio. None ideal. Scan and hope we get lucky? Sure.
“This is going to get real scary when everything is pitch black and we can’t see anything around us,” Al predicted.
He was right. Sooner than we expected, the only thing we could see was the pavement under the car headlights. The radio went silent as the scan function struggled to grab a thread of a station. The Question Mark popped into our heads stirring paranoid delusions of mysterious murders. I should Google it. We shouldn’t have been surprised that neither of us had service. A screaming tenor broke the silence causing me to jump. We should have reached the hotel by now.
The Big Sur is probably impressing during the day but in the dead of night with no service and Opera haunting the trail, every shadow of a tree looked like a monster hungering for the next stupid traveler to drive through.
“We should stop at a gas station. Just in case. We have plenty of gas, so don’t worry. But just in case.”
We spotted a gas station that I swear was a filming location for Texas Chainsaw Massacre and pulled in. As soon as Al parked the car at the pump, the station attendant switched the lights off.
“Can we fill up?” Al shouted, interrupting the echo of chirping crickets.
“All closed,” an invisible man growled.
We laughed uncomfortably and decided to move on. Though he tried to keep a calm front, I noticed a considerable increase in speed after leaving the gas station. Instead of cautiously cruising the mountain, we started whipping around sharp corners and racing toward nothing. Despite the chill of the night, I rolled the window open and stuck my head out afraid I would be sick from fear and nausea. I don’t travel well.
We saw a street light. We saw the road open up to 4 lanes. We saw a sign to Arroyo Grande and let out a sigh of relief. Our exit! We pulled off the highway and noticed an In-N-Out. Civilization. Indulgence. Rollercoaster of emotion. We giggled at ourselves while recounting every unnecessarily terrifying twist in the road over our perfectly crisped fries and animal style burgers.
Full from our late dinner and relieved to end our ride of horror, we checked into the Best Western at Arroyo Grande. Sinking into the king size bed, we turned off our desk lamps and pulled the covers to our chins. As we turned to wish each other a good sleep, we noticed the outline of a neon question mark blinking between the curtains over the window.
“DO YOU SEE THAT?” I scream-whispered to Al.
He opened his mouth to speak but a thundering roar outside our window drown out his response. My eyes widened, tearing up at as the roar suddenly stopped.
And then there was a pounding at the door.
“We should have turned around,” we both whispered, clutching each other in vain.
*If you have any information on the meaning or whereabouts of the neon, blinking questions mark please report it immediately.