Days of Wine and Redwoods, and Down to the Sea Again

In Travels With Myself on July 21, 2013 at 2:32 am

As soon as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, US 101 became the Redwood Highway, but it wasn’t until 155 miles up the road that I reached Willits, which calls itself the Gateway to the redwoods. And it was 63 miles further before I saw my first actual, identifiable, up-close-and-personal redwood trees. Along the way, the state seems to bunch certain things together by regions.
As I left Cloverdale yesterday morning, I was quickly into the northern wine country. There were vineyards and wine tastings every few miles. I immediately thought of two things. First, I thought about the movie “Sideways.” which tells the story of two guys trying to taste their way south through the state. While that certainly seemed suddenly a very plausible sort of plot, it also seemed as though it might have taken them a week just to get from Ukiah to Cloverdale. I also thought that it is fortunate that I am making this trip sober (I have had only one alcoholic beverage since leaving Connecticut), because if I were a drinking man I might not get to Oregon for another month. One thing that this does explain, I suppose, is why there are so many signs along the highway exhorting people to report drunk drivers by calling 911.
Once I got into redwood country, however, the theme changed. Now there were frequent signs indicating yet another drive-thru tree, or a house made out of a single, hollowed out redwood trunk. And every one of them is apparently the world famous one. There were also a lot of references to Bigfoot, who probably stays hidden these days because he, or she, is simply embarrassed, mortified even, by all the somewhat tawdry attention.
US 101 travels all along through some really beautiful country. The elevation never tops much above a thousand feet, but it feels much more mountainous, as the highway bobs and weaves and dodges its way through the Coastal Ranges of Northern California. In New England, the mountains are green. They have a lush coat of both evergreen and broadleaf trees. This is what makes them so especially beautiful in their October colors. Here, the trees are mostly evergreens, but they stand alone or in groves much of the time, with a gold-brown carpet of mountain grasses between them. This relative sparseness shows the line of the land more clearly, and accentuates the height.
I continue to be surprised, and often amused, by what I find in the small towns that offer a chance to get off the highway for a while. Cloverdale has the “Famous Owl Café.” Hopland is home to the Real Goods Solar Living Center. In Laytonville, which really seems nothing but a small area of shops along US 101, the Pour Girls Coffee shop serves up organic espresso, while across the street at the combination hardware store and supermarket, a fellow was collecting money to start a local non-profit radio station. On the way out of town, I passed a tie-dye shirt store, a Consciousness Center, and a place that calls itself “Area 101” and is festooned with crude paintings of UFOs and grey aliens. There seems to be nothing at all in Leggett except that drive-thru tree, which gets it a mention on the tourist map, and a single store.
I stopped last night in the Redwoods National Park. I got off the highway in Myers Flat and followed the Avenue of Giants for about ten miles of winding, narrow road among these enormous, fascinating trees; alongside wide, dry creek and river beds. I stopped at an RV park in Redcrest, which, with its campsites and cabins and gift shop, was pretty much all of Redcrest on the east side of the road. On the other side of the road was a post office, a little building housing the “Nesting Place,” which sells a lot of old, interesting junk, a shuttered gas station, and a restaurant and gift shop associated with an old twenty-square-foot one-room house carved a long time ago into the trunk of a living redwood tree. There was also what seemed to be one house set back from the road, which I only noticed because it had a TV antenna mounted on the roof. I mention this because if that house got television signals, then it was the only signal getting through. I discovered that I was completely cut off electronically: no cell reception, no 4G, and no WiFi.
My reaction to this sudden isolation from the outside world was two-fold. First, I was frustrated. I rely on my electronics to keep me connected to someone important in my life, who I knew would worry if she didn’t hear from me. All I could do was send a text that wouldn’t go out until I got back in range again in the morning. Knowing that I couldn’t reach her even to let her know I was all right made me realize how much I had come to count on our daily texts and occasional phone calls. I also realized that there were times along this trip when I could be cut off from even emergency communications. What if something happened and I needed help? How did we deal with these things before our modern electronics? How must it have been to know that someone you love would, by necessity of work or travel, be completely cut off from you for weeks or months? How would it feel to be exploring a country as big as this one when it meant being really, completely alone?
My second response was to recognize that it felt especially quiet. I loved being in those woods. I wasn’t actually alone, just among strangers who were friendly and helpful. I had all my basic necessities met, and I was comfortable. When I woke this morning, I realized that I had slept very well and awakened rested and eager to get back on the road. Of course the first thing I did was to listen for the sound of my cell phone, letting me know that I was back in touch with the rest of the world.
Back on my way this morning, I made my way down through the redwood hills. The landscape began to look more like home, like Western Massachusetts or Vermont or New Hampshire. The mountains were all green and lush, the road moved more lazily through the valleys and passes, only occasionally snaking scarily along the side of a cliff – or perhaps I am just getting used to it.
The day had started cool and hazy, and that remained when 101 turned to the shoreline; but the beaches of northern California were beautiful in spite of (and even because of) the weather. At Clam Beach, I walked across a quarter-mile of gently waving dunes to a wild beach untouched by commerce. There was, it’s true a somewhat run-down, small state beach with a few scruffy-looking campers and a chemical-toilet outhouse; but these disappeared from sight as soon as I crossed the first row of dunes, leaving the beach clean and unspoiled. Later, I pulled well off the highway, past a busy little state beach area and resort, down a slightly winding narrow road to College Cove, where I walked from the dirt parking area down a walking path through woods and across the top of the cliffs, then down a steep set of rustic, well-worn stairs to find one of the most breathtaking coves I have ever seen. I ate a light lunch on the beach, then stayed nearly an hour, walking along the beach, and sitting to watch the water roll up onto the sand and crash against the rocks. There is something about a wild, empty beach, especially one nestled among the cliffs and rock formations, that restores me and helps me reconnect to what is real in the world.
Then it was back into the hills and redwoods for a while as I made my way up the coast to Crescent City, where I am spending the night. Along the way I saw three female elk standing quietly be the side of the road. All in all, a good day.

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