Elana Scherr: Malibu Has Great Driving Roads, but It Almost Had None


From the October 2022 issue of Car and Driver.

Malibu, California, is famous for beaches and surfers, but to us car folks, it’s all about the roads. There are more than 80 miles of twisty, tangled asphalt threading along the coast and through the Santa Monica Mountains, like a Daedalus labyrinth of sage and steep cliffs.

Driving this maze can be done with carefully mapped turns to achieve the most apexes with the least traffic, or it can be done willy-nilly—turn west when possible and figure you’ll eventually get to the sea. Both ways are good, and both have dangers. In the first, one must watch out for potholes, and in the second, the deep, time-stealing pleasure of falling down a rabbit hole.

Elana Scherr|Car and Driver

Certainly, the views during a Malibu drive can capture attention. A wall of golden grasses and rosy sandstone is occasionally broken by valleys that frame the sapphire Pacific. Mansions hide up long, ivory driveways protected by tall, glossy gates. Who lives there? Someone famous? Possibly. Someone rich? Definitely. I’ve lost several hours to post-drive Zillow browsing. Recently, though, I lost an entire weekend by following a 97-year-old cowboy to a 120-year-old property battle. And it’s all to do with the roads.

This started about midway down Yerba Buena Road, where a lone watermelon vine stretches out in an otherwise fallow field ringed by antique tractors, feathery pepper trees, and a few brave old rosebushes that look chewed by deer. Far in the back sits a modest ’50s-style ranch house behind an iron sign that reads “Peacock Paradise.” I stopped for a closer look, and José Sanchez hailed me from a lawn chair under a shade tree.

pepe

Elana Scherr|Car and Driver

pepe

Elana Scherr|Car and Driver

Sanchez (“Call me Pepe, everyone does”) came to Malibu as a baby in 1925, when his father got work on the Chamberlain ranch. Pepe grew up in the saddle, riding a mule down dirt paths to the one-room schoolhouse, roping cattle, and working farmland. From a high point on his land—which the Sanchez family purchased in 1951 and where they have lived ever since—he pointed to a kink way at the bottom of the hill, at the last visible turn of Yerba Buena. “This whole road was dirt until the mid-’40s,” he told me. “If it rained, you just stayed home.”

Pepe knows all the roads and when they were paved, not only because he watched it happen, but because he graduated from riding horses to riding Caterpillars, and he graded many of the small roads and trails that spread out from the famous Highway 1—begun only a few years before Pepe came to the neighborhood—to connect the ocean with the valleys. Pepe regaled me with tales of tracking outlaws and taming coyotes, and when I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Malibu where he grew up. How did it stay so wild and remote as nearby Santa Monica got a pier with an amusement park and the mountain range just inland sprouted mansions and street racers above glittering Sunset Boulevard?

pepe

Elana Scherr|Car and Driver

Blame, or thank, Frederick and May Rindge. They bought the land along the coast of what is now Malibu in 1892 and fiercely protected it from homesteaders and developers. It became a battle, with trespassers cutting paths through the Rindge ranch and Rindges destroying roads and even sinking two giant gates in the ocean to prevent people from traveling up their shoreline. Frederick died in 1905. May held on and fought everyone from settlers to railway bosses to the Supreme Court in an attempt to keep any public road or rail from crossing through the rancho. Lawsuit by lawsuit, her property was whittled away, and in 1940, she lost the remainder due to unpaid taxes. Malibu opened up to new buyers and new roads—lucky for Pepe, who helped build them, and all of us who love to drive them.

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