I got up at 6:15 and practically ran out of the Econolodge. Oregon Boy #1 was still at the front desk when I checked out. I said, “Hey! You’re still here.” He said, “Hey! So are you.” I replied, “Not for long!” He told the whole red-hair story to the girl at the counter. They directed me to a drive-up coffee cabana, where I scored a triple-shot americano for $1.50. Shit is cheap in Oregon, my friends.
I got back on the 5 and headed south to Highway 199, which cuts across to the coast. 60 miles later, I found myself in California. Never having been before, it was a big moment for me. Some guy in a truck with Oregon plates seemed to think he was off on the trip of a lifetime, but I had him beat. I was hoping for the California border produce shakedown, but I guess they only do that on the interstate. I was a little disappointed, but pressed on.
I drove through Redwoods National Forest, which was beautiful. I was really glad to have a sunroof. Furthermore, I was extra glad I had had the brakes done in Seattle, because I would have been miserable driving through the hills to the coast. As I got nearer, I started to notice weird clouds in the sky to the west. It took me forever to realize that it was the mist from the ocean. I had never seen anything like it before.
I arrived in Crescent City around 11am, and got my very first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. It was less spectacular than I expected; not that it was the ocean’s fault, but it was about 50 degrees and overcast, and Crescent City seemed deserted. I walked out on the pier, took photos, and talked to some kids who were netting crabs.
I got back in the car and headed south, finally on the 101. It was a little disconcerting to see mile markers in the 900s, and realizing I was probably going to be driving every one of those miles. The fog was incredible. It hung over the road, and occasionally the sun filtered through and made rainbows. I wished it was sunny, because I wanted to stop and sit on the beach, but the cool weather was a nice change. I stopped a ways down the road at a black-sand beach and got out to see the ocean. The beach was covered in driftwood, oysters, and crab shells. I climbed amongst the rocks, looking at the seaweed and above-water anemonies. The rocks were slippery, and I decided to leave before breaking my bones.
I drove past Trees of Mystery and saw the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Until recently, I wasn’t aware that Paul Bunyan was a big deal anywhere outside Minnesota. It made me a little homesick. Then I saw some elk, and many, many redwood trees. At that point, I was 280 miles north of San Francisco, and wasn’t planning on getting there until the next day. That meant I could take my time along the coast.
Based on advice from Road Trip USA, I stopped in Arcata for lunch. The book said the Utne Reader (also a Minnesota original) described it as ‘the most progressive tiny town in the US.’ It was really cute, with a town square surrounded by little shops and restaurants, and totally hippie; all the girls were wearing peasant shirts and sarongs, with their long hair up in ponytails, and the guys had dreads and wore cutoff shorts. Also, almost everyone I saw was college-age. I felt old.
I stopped at the Big Blue Cafe and ate a tofu burger. While I was sitting there drinking my cappuccino, a couple of college kids came in for lunch. They turned down the first table they were offered because it had bad feng shui. The second table was acceptable. I half-listened to their conversation as I wrote. The boy was babbling about Echelon, which I found interesting because I thought that kind of government-conspiracy paranoia was exclusive to the right wing. He went on and on until my hands started to twitch, wanting to wrap themselves around his throat. The conversation eventually drifted to living in Arcata. The girl said she liked living there now, but wouldn’t want to raise kids there, because they’d end up as drug dealers. The boy said, “Well, that would be OK, as long as it wasn’t crack or heroin or meth or something.” At that point, I knew I had to leave, or I’d soon be overturning tables in a rage.
I wandered around town for a bit, getting a really weird vibe. There were a bunch of drunk guys laying on the sidewalk outside a bar, and in the town square. I went into a cute glass shop and talked to the guy there for a long time about the weather in northern California, and the possibility of tsunamis, which I somehow found really amusing. He seemed starved for human contact. I stopped at the natural foods store and stocked up on protein bars and produce. Then I drove to Eureka, which was a super-cute, artsy little town. I got coffee at the bakery and shopped at a few galleries. Once again, the place was almost deserted. One of the women working there said that you could never predict when it would be crowded. It was kind of cold and overcast, but it was still a holiday weekend. I stopped and talked to all the people working in the stores, and everyone was really friendly. One girl I met said that it was hardly ever sunny there, but you could go 15 miles inland and it would be 100 degrees.
I went into a shop (OBJX) that I could have spent hours and all my money in. It was like a museum, with bizarre junk from everywhere. My favorites were brooches made of ear bones, bingo cards from a mental hospital, and the hundreds of glass slides from medical schools and colleges. I bought three slides of patients with facial deformities to bring to Jay. They totally creeped me out.
I got back on the 101, then exited at Ferndale. It’s the kind of town my mom would love: all victorians. The cemetery was amazing; it reminded me of New Orleans. It wasn’t a port like the towns north of there – at least, there was no huge waterfront. Lots of beef and dairy farms. A lot like Wisconsin, actually.
I was a little tired of driving, and considered whether to take the 101 (faster), or Highway 1, where it began further south. I figured if it stayed foggy and cold, I’d stick to the 101. All of a sudden, it was sunny and beautiful, and my decision was made. I must have been far enough inland, because it went from 60 to 80 degrees. I opened the sunroof and windows, even though I was going 70. It was so perfect. I exited at the famed Avenue of the Giants, a 35-mile route that parallels the 101 through the redwood forest. I stopped and saw the Immortal Tree with a bunch of Japanese and Indian tourists. It probably goes without saying, but I love that there’s this entire route devoted to giant trees. It’s kind of amusing. I mean, people like giant things. Biggie fries, SUVs, redwoods. Put them all together, and you’ve got yourself a party. Unfortunately, this time it was just me and the trees. I drove on, and finally, I stopped for the big event: the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree. I pulled up to the booth and the little old man inside asked, “Just one?” I said, “Yep, just me for the drive-thru tree today!” He laughed and asked where I was from, and commented that I was far from home. I considered telling him that I had driven all that way just to drive through his tree, but I couldn’t lie to a cute old man in a booth. He gave me a coupon for a FREE postcard at the gift shop. $1.50 for the drive-thru tree and a free postcard. How could I go wrong?
I sat and waited for the dumb woman with 15,000 kids in an SUV (and probably some biggie fries) to nudge her way into the tree in her gigantic vehicle. It was 7’x7′ clearance, and she barely made it. They had to fold in the mirrors and everything. It took forever. Finally, it was my turn. Chico fit easily, of course. I took a picture looking up out the sunroof through the hollow tree, then pulled up so I had enough room to get out and take a photo of the car inside the tree. I was pretty damn happy with myself, and thankfully no one was watching.
I went into the gift shop to claim my FREE postcard. There were two old women sitting in there. One of them said, “Girl, you got such purty hair!” I thanked her and ran away as fast as I could. This wasn’t the first evidence I had that northern California was actually part of the South.
I got back on the 101, laughing to myself. I decided that I was indeed going to take the 1, because it was beautiful outside. I exited and immediately, it became a tiny, twisting mountain road. At that point, I was positive that blowing a tire was a message from the god I don’t believe in to get the brakes done right away. I would have hated myself otherwise. There was no way I’d have made it to San Francisco, or at least I’d have had to stick to the interstate, and missed the whole coast.
Highway 1 wound up and down for 40+ miles. I had to keep putting on and taking off my sunglasses; one moment, I was blinded by the sun, the next it was dark from the overhanging trees. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in 20 minutes. I had to use 2nd gear most of the way down. With all the sharp turns, it was like slaloming, which was fun for a while, but quickly started to wear me out. With all the mountain driving, my arms and shoulders were killing me.
Half an hour later, I drove up another big hill and came around a curve that finally had no trees. The sun was glaring. I got to the top and started to round the curve, and my jaw dropped. It was the Pacific Ocean – the rocky, rugged coastline I kept hearing about but didn’t really believe existed. The water was perfectly blue. I pulled off at the overlook and started crying. I couldn’t believe how incredible it was. It was perfect.
I took about a million pictures at six overlooks. I thought about stopping at the beach, but it was getting late. The road began to straighten out at various points along the coast, so I drove as fast as I could, feeling my stomach drop as I went speeding up and down hills. I was the only one on the road for miles. I drove through Fort Bragg, then decided to stop in Mendocino for dinner around 8pm. It was a cute, tiny little town (Road Trip USA told me it was the idyllic scene for many movies and TV shows, including ‘Murder, She Wrote’). I decided against trying to get into Cafe Beaujolais dressed the way I was, so I picked a place next door: the creatively-named 955 Ukiah Street Restaurant. The servers there were kind of snooty, but nice. They put me upstairs in the very back corner. I ordered a salad and cappuccino, and got out my notebook. A short while later, they seated a couple of women at the table right next to me, even though the upstairs was almost completely empty. The next time the server came back, they quietly asked to be moved. I laughed. Was it me? I hoped so.
I still had no idea where I was spending the night. Based on my book, I was hoping to reach Gualala, because it was one of the few places along the coast with relatively inexpensive lodging. I was amazed at how remote some of the coast was. The towns were few and far between, and the fact that I could drive 40mph at the most on Highway 1 made everything seem even farther apart.
It was getting dark by the time I left Mendocino, and Gualala was seeming really far away. I had gotten used to the fact that it was light until after 10pm in the Pacific Northwest. The fog made it seem a lot darker, too, and I was feeling like I was really out in the middle of nowhere, completely alone. I drove and drove, looking for a motel. Finding nothing for miles, I decided to just camp in my car, because there were numerous state-run campsites all along the beaches. So then, my goal became to find a payphone so I could call home and reassure them that I was alive. I had been out of contact for over 24 hours, and the last anyone knew, I was in Portland. Also, I had forgotten the two-hour time difference, which made it after 11:30 in Minneapolis.
I finally arrived in Elk, California. It struck me as a nice coincidence, as I had just read an article in a travel magazine at my mom’s house about this tiny little town called Elk that no one knew about, but which was worth the trip. It was about 10 buildings in total, and even though there were cars and lights at the resort, it seemed deserted. Not even a gas station. I ran into the post office, looking for a phone. Finally, I saw the glowing green PacBell phonebooth at the side of the road, looking ominous. I rushed to call Heather. She yelled at me that mom my was in a panic, and wanted to call the highway patrol. I have to admit I loved the idea of Eric Estrada coming to my rescue, but she wasn’t so amused. I was in a hurry to find somewhere to sleep, and it was getting later and later. She agreed to call my mom, and I ran back to the car. A hitchhiker carrying more than his own weight in packs came staggering up just as I started the engine, and scared the hell out of me. My car went screeching back onto the highway.
I headed south again and finally saw a camping sign about 10 miles down the road. I couldn’t find the state beach, but there was a KOA. I pulled in ten minutes before the office closed. The woman at the counter was super nice, like a mom. She put me in a campsite near the bathroom, and told me that she’d let the security guard know I was there, so he could keep an eye out for me. Not that they ever had any problems, but I was a woman on my own, sleeping in my car. I found my site, parked, and hauled my sleeping bag and blankets out of the trunk, setting up a semblance of a bed in the backseat. I ran to the bathroom and washed up. The restrooms there were way nicer than I expected: private, and really clean. If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have showered.
Sleeping in the car wasn’t as bad as I expected. It would have been pretty comfortable if I hadn’t been so sore from mountain driving and falling down. I had the sleeping bag on the seat, my big pillow against the door, and three blankets. I woke up and flipped around a lot, but otherwise I slept well, and I knew that the next night I’d get to sleep in a real bed.
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random notes from my travel journal:
i’m dressed like crap and i look like i’ve been beat up, but i totally fit in here anyway.
there’s no cell phone reception up here. isolated in california? go figure.
omg. he just said, ‘the way of the tao’. why do i hate them so very very much? and why do they serve so much meat here?
is it weird to have all this redwood stuff for sale in the redwood forest? i mean, aren’t we celebrating the majesty of the living trees?
holy shit, gas is expensive in california.
further evidence that norcal is part of the south: i’ve had no signal all day. i’m within 150 miles of sf! wtf?? i feel like i’m in montana. although i suspect calling people and raving about how unbelievable the ocean is might be unpopular anyway. man, i’m totally going to have to find a payphone.
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