By Tom Ehrich

SAN MATEO, CA -- If, as they say, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," then my driving pilgrimage of 4,000 miles begins with 23,061, El Camino Real, Half Moon Bay, and Rte 1.

23,061 is the odometer reading for my rental car as I pull onto Fifth Avenue.

El Camino Real (the fabled California "royal road") is the right turn I take to start my journey south and west toward Nevada.

Half Moon Bay will be my next turn, as I head south far enough to avoid the snow-covered Sierra Nevada range when I head west.

Rte 1, the coast-hugging road with astonishing views, is the two-lane road I am taking south to Gilroy and my turn west. Other southbound routes exist -- Rte 101 and I-5 -- but they are massive superhighways, which I am trying to avoid.

Beyond these rudimentary knowns, everything else will be discovery.

By turning west near Gilroy, I will miss the Monterrey Peninsula and Carmel by the Sea, among the most glistening of gilded-age venues. Rather, I will point my SUV toward Bakersfield, the hardscrabble city where rough-hewn country music legend Merle Haggard grew up. I don't share Merle's angry-conservative politics, but I get the personal laments and regrets of his music.

I think this first day will be the hardest. I will need to freshen my skills as a driver after eight years of minimal driving in New York. I will need to make the switch from family visitor to solo pilgrim. I will need to start the thread of God-thinking that is central to this journey.

Once I leave the coastal road, I will proceed on roads I have never traveled, or as ol' Willie put it, "Goin' places that I've never been. Seein' things that I may never see again."

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