Night 17: Mendocino Coast

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
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Trip End Jul 18, 2012


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Where I stayed
Ocean Cove Campground

Flag of United States  , California
Friday, July 6, 2012

Today we drove about 160 hard, twisting, turning miles on CA-1. The high was about 71, but most of the day was in the low 60's. Except for a brief period of heavy fog, it has been clear and crisp.

This is the night you dream about during the work weeks. Let me see if I can explain this setting because I wish I could bottle it up and take it out when I feel stressed. 

We are camped at a large private campground somewhere near Plantation, CA, on the Sonoma coast. We are two hours from San Francisco. 

I am about 50 yards from a grass-covered cliff overlooking a dark Pacific kelp forest where a clan of Western gulls battled it out earlier with a group of brown pelicans for good sleeping spots. There is no moon, only the countless multitude of stars and galaxies. The cloud of the Milky Way is visible. The sounds include the crackling, popping fire here. (I am burning the last of my cheap Oregon wood.) I can gear the constant roar of the sea hitting the rocks. There is a quiet trickle from a creek nearby and the occasional chitter chatter of other happy people. The air is crisp. The fire is warm. I just enjoyed some ramen and a local micro-brew. I have nothing much to do today or tomorrow or this month. God is good.

Today we went to places we have never been before. We are scouting. It is a different kind of travel. You just drive in some direction and do whatever fancies you with absolutely no expectation. Today turned out to be a scenic driving kind of day, a bit more scenic than yesterday's  mostly driving day. It took many more hours to go 160 miles than it should because we took the blue road, as William Least-Heat Moon described them. These are the roads less taken. The roads that are in no hurry. Much of my navigation today was inspired by a radio show I was listening to in Idaho a few nights ago. The guest said that CA-1 is much more interesting of a drive than US-101. He was referring to the road south of the San Francisco Bay, but it was true of the roads north of the Bay too.

We began the day thick in the redwood forest at Humboldt State Park southeast of skeezy Eureka. It was a rough night. My sleeping bag broke. I was cold and often letting my imagination create images of bears or axe murderers that did nothing to warm me up. Eventually I found a way to sleep by wrapping the bag around me and sleeping on the edge.

When the sun came up, I was groggy. I got to work breaking camp as Jessica labored in making pancakes and washing dishes without a sink. I had time to clean up the van a little bit too.

Soon we were off continuing where we left off yesterday on the Avenue if Giants, the giants being the Towering redwoods. Not far from camp we pulled ofer to show Andrew the thousands of rings on a fallen and cut stump. The stump was laying on its side, and was still much taller than I was. The ground where it once stood was now a large crater. 

Behind it, in the grove, was the tree of trees. If redwoods are huge, this one was planetary in scope. It should be measured in football fields, not feet or inches. I craned my neck back and could not see the top. I couldn't even imagine the top. The bark was a beautiful red. The branches stretched out across the tops of every other tree in creation. It was the greatest living thing in nature to be sure. Andrew and I named it "King of Trees" and marked it as such in the GPS.

The Avenue ended not long after that and merged back with 101. Not far down the road from this, in Garberville was a store worth getting trapped by. The Bigfoot store was surrounded by award-winning work if the resident chainsaw artist. He made a Shrek, a whole slew of bears, a great little fairy tale treehouse, and most importantly, a large Bigfoot.

The place sold all things Bigfoot and Redwoods related. Since I am outspoken for not counting out the reality of a Bigfoot, this store was fir me. Jessica bought me a Bigfoot shirt and we got a few things. I really wanted to buy one of the redwood saplings going for $8 outside for my father. 

He is a collector of slightly exotic flora. He has carried shovels into the woods near our family vacations in Vilas County, Wisconsin, to dig up ferns, transporting them in plastic shopping bags and successfully raising them 500 feet below and several degrees latitude below their natural habitat. He raised a white birch for some time in the backyard. It was never as tall as the ones in Northern Wisconsin, but it lived for a long time. He also has transplanted firs. So I thought this redwood would be a fun challenge. Could he grow the thing in a place that is often below freezing and sometimes in drought like Chicago? In the end, i decided not to buy it (sadly) because I was not sure I could keep it alive for 2500 miles across the scorched Plains and bone-dry deserts.

In Leggett, we opted against the drive thru tree, but admired the little log houses. Not the kind you're thinking of... I mean it is a house made of ONE log. Leggett is also hone to the turnoff for the great blue highway: CA-1.

CA-1 began by meandering and twisting up a mountain of the Coast Range to over 2000 feet. Then it meandered down. The speed limit was 55, but if you wanted to live, you go no more than 25 mph. This stretch of the road took a lot longer than planned. It also made Jessica seasick so we pulled over as soon as we got to sea level, just to relax her belly. 

At the bottom, the road continues to twist and turn, but not in the same maddening way. The ocean is always to our right, usually a few hundred feet below us over a cliff. The sea was full of rockstacks and tiny islets. Blue rivers rushed into the sea every few miles and the road twisted around each one.

We stopped at MacKerricher State Park because they had a sign announcing the posession and display of a grey whale skeleton. It was true, Andrew was excited about the sight, but probably not as much as I was. We continued to the day use part of the park. Here we bypassed the beach and walked down the boarded path onto a cape. Below the cape, a collection of rocks in the sea made sunning spots for tired harbor seals, which turn a golden brown after they are dried off.     

On the way back on the path a pelican was resting. I figured he would fly off as we got closer. We'd move closer and he just sat there. I remembered my sister's stories about her time working at the wildlife refuge at Key West. Imagine her voice here with an echo a la the soap opera flashback: "The pelicans go right for your eyes. They see the reflections and think they are wet fish fish fish fish (for the echo)!"

He was as tall as Andrew. He had a sharp hook at the end if his long beak which sat on on the end of a long powerful neck. And inside that head and behind his vacant eyes was a tiny little bird brain that thought my eyes were fish. So I did what any coward would do when he refused to yield, I sat on the path. Jessica just walked by and the pelican didn't bat an eye. So I risked it and walked by, waiting for that beak to tear into my thigh. He just flapped his 6 foot wingspan a bit, startling Andrew, and sat there. He was probably thankful we finally moved on.

Next stop was Fort Bragg, another creepy little Northern California port town. It was home to some huge lumberyards. We ate at a barbeque place on 101 called Q. It had very decent food at very high prices, but I was hungry. Behind the restaurant are a few trailers filled with guys on bikes riding around with suspicious packages. It makes for done fine entertainment. It turned out that Fort Bragg was the last major town we would see. The Mendocino and Sonoma coasts to it's south are sparse when it cones to services.

Not far south of Fort Bragg was a town that is much the opposite: Mendocino. It had a Victorian feel to it architecture-wise. Strangely, though, every other building has it's own water tower. I later found out these were relics of the old gold panning days. It's main drag was dominated by an old white building that used to be a Masonic temple. Atop the steeple was not the usual cross or Puritan weathervane. Mendocino's biggest tower was topped with a life size wooden carving of a little girl playing with a seagull while Father Time undid her braids. He was lurking behind her like the pedophile that he is. It seems time is running out for her. This steeple ranks right up there with the huge golden hand pointing to heaven in Port Gibson, MS. 

Mendocino was having a music festival and the streets were crowded with visitors. We were on a mission south and so we left Mendocino to it's festival and its steeple and moved on down CA-1's twists and turns and oceanic mega-cliffs.

The Mendocino coast is beyond beautiful. The road is merciless. I literally have a callous on one of my fingers from gripping the steering wheel. As beautiful as the cliffs and haystack rocks and surf is, the highway shoulder is 400 feet up. Mostly no guard rails, not that they would help. It us unfair, though, for a place to be so beautiful.

Andrew sat in the back mostly oblivious to the coast. He gas become obsessed with collecting and writing postcards. He also occupies his time by drawing and explaining maps of imaginary KOA's and pretend Wall Drugs. He plays the rhyme game with his mommy. He sometimes watches a movie or underlines familiar words in his Shrek book. Since the age of four months, Andrew gas been in the road. He just takes his shoes off, hets comfortable, and deals with the drive in his own way. Sometimes his energy and enthusiasm keeps me trucking.

The Sonoma coast is just as beautiful as Mendocino's. It too is dotted with parks and wilderness spots. There are fabuously wealthy residents here in huge wooden mansions off the road.

We ended up right here on the Sonoma coast, eating with stars overhead. We are lucky because I was going to camp in Salt Cove SP, but it seemed camping was full. As I found a place a few miles away to turn around, I noticed it was a campground owned by a local grocery store. I went into the grocery and happily paid them $20 instead of the state park's $40. Problem is, they might have spectacular views, but no bathrooms. This campground has portojohns and that's about it.

We will survive. Tomorrow we connect with San Francisco, a town previously only reached by plane for us.        
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