Editor-in-Chief Matt Bean remembers discovering the unexpected on a Western road trip, and looks forward to revealing the winners of this year’s travel awards in his September/October 2019 editor’s letter

California Coast
Danilo Ruiz/Getty Images

The West is where the unexpected is expected. Take the solo trip I planned one year down the Pacific Coast Highway. I borrowed a motorcycle, threw a leg over the saddle, and taped directions to the tank. Point A: San Francisco. Point B: Big Sur. That was just about it. 

As I made my way down Highway 1, I thought of advice the writer Paul Theroux once shared. “Leave the camera at home,” he said. “You’ll remember the journey more.” My mother, a lifelong nurse, had offered her own kind of wisdom upon learning of my two-wheeled indulgence. “Bring good underwear,” she said. “If you end up in the emergency room, they might have to cut off your pants.” Both had a point: Travel’s better when you live a little. Practice calculated spontaneity. Want selfies at an all-inclusive resort? Nah, you wouldn’t be reading Sunset.

Theroux had the last laugh. I ignored his sage advice and fastened a camera to the headlight to capture the curves. Past the Bixby Canyon Bridge, I pulled off to check the footage. My camera had melted like a hot crayon, the heat of the lamp turning the footage to slag. So long, Canon. 

Silver lining: In the forced focus of a helmet all the usual distractions faded away. No satellite radio, no Apple CarPlay, no podcasts. Nothing to do but live, breathe, remember. The smells were insistent, a fifth dimension to each turn. The brackish spray wafted over me in the flats; I punched through rustic bubbles of earth and eucalyptus in low-lying groves. I surrendered to the swing of each turn. You don’t get memories like that when you are messing with Facetune. My last-minute motel room had thin walls and enthusiastic neighbors, but even they faded away. I popped the windows and let the waves lull me to sleep.

The next day I jogged up the foothills to clear my head. At the summit the shore faded into water, which faded into the foreverness of the sky—a highlight. Throw yourself into a western ramble and the payoffs can be powerful.

This issue marks our annual travel awards, and while spontaneity can’t be prescribed, in the following pages you will find dozens of new places to stay, explore, and enjoy that put you in proximity to the unexpected. They are suggestions, plot points—sort of like that map taped to my gas tank: Point A. Point B. The rest, well, that’s up to you.