ALONG CALIFORNIA 1

CALIFORNIA'S Highway 1 gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ``Get the show on the road.'' Officially designated as America's first scenic highway, this roadway stretches almost the entire length of the state's coast. Along the way it unfurls panoramas - of Big Sur's Pacific primeval, of regal redwoods, and of bikini-adorned beaches - that are unrivaled anywhere in the United States. Highway 1, in short, is a destination in itself.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the highway's completion, and this weekend several coastal communities here intend to celebrate. Cambria and nearby San Simeon, in keeping with their small-town characters, are planning for a ceremonial rededication of the highway, a vintage-car exhibit, a road race, a dance, and a 550-pound, 10-tier ``anniversary'' cake.

The road between quaint Cambria and quixotic Carmel, which opened in the summer of 1937, represents the last link in the 644-mile chain on the Pacific. This stretch of Highway 1 is Big Sur country - and driving through it can be one of the most humbling experiences known to man, says photographer Stephen Wilkes, who spent more than four months on this road working on his new book, ``California One.''

While the southern California route is curious for its people (and peopled with the curious), northern California is noteworthy for its landscapes. ``As you move up the coast, the ocean becomes rougher, the cliffs get more jagged, and the road slows down,'' Mr. Wilkes says. ``By the time you hit Big Sur, it gets overwhelming. Then you're totally humbled.''

Wilkes, a New Yorker, sees Highway 1 as ``a national treasure.''

``It's a road on the coast of California, but it's a vein that runs through America,'' he says. ``It's so varied that it's like driving across the country.''

From the New England-style charm of Mendocino on the north coast, across the graceful Golden Gate Bridge, through the San Francisco metropolis, past the family farms dotting central California, to the theater-of-the-absurd at zany Venice Beach near Los Angeles, Highway 1 reveals it all.

``Life on the [south] coast centers around the beach; it's a metaphor for life in L.A.,'' Wilkes says. This is Newport Beach, Santa Monica, and Malibu - the land of basking bodies, sprout sandwiches, and surf bums. And Highway 1, be it ever so clogged with cars, is the dream of every little deuce coupe in California.

Despite the diversity, Highway 1 maintains a surprising continuity - and the tie that binds is the omnipresent Pacific.

Sometimes the ocean is a placid backdrop for the lively beach culture of southern California. Sometimes it's angry, hurling giant waves at the cliffs. Sometimes it erodes the mountains that underpin Highway 1 itself - and demands constant vigilance and maintenance by the California Transportation Department.

But always, you sense the Pacific's proximity. Usually you can see the water from the highway. Or smell it in the briny air. Or hear the rhythmic lull of the waves on the shore - rocking, rocking, rocking, like a blue cradle for a setting sun.

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