Go home, road! You’re drunk

Our goal: The Pacific Ocean.
Our goal: The Pacific Ocean.

LEGGETT to SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – We had crossed the continent and I felt that my reward for that – especially the part where I made it through the Idaho Rockies – was to see a sunset over the ocean.

The Redwood Forest is still in a mountainous region, but it’s like being in the Adirondacks – smooth, rolling hills that are more scenic than deadly. So even though I knew we’d have to get to the other side via a mountain range, I carefully chose a route that didn’t look so bad on our handy Rand McNally atlas.

The GPS told us Fort Bragg was only about an hour away. We had two hours till sunset and the ocean road popped out north of Fort Bragg. Off we went, taking a left at Leggett. I should have known better than to get off the Interstate, and sunset be damned.

Really? Would guardrails be too much to ask for?
Really? Would guardrails be too much to ask for?

The limit on the road from Leggett was 65, which explained my optimistic GPS’s estimation. But the trail was nothing but switchbacks, hairpin curves and yellow suggestions to kick back to 10 or 15 miles per hour, and it lacked two things I really enjoy about roads: shoulders and guardrails. Twenty-four miles took us almost 50 minutes.

“The ocean!” Trev exclaimed. “Where’d that come from? It’s a stealth ocean!”

And I thought: “Thank god we’re almost at sea level.”

But here’s the part where my eastern expectations got in the way again and my stomach fell down into my kneecaps: West Coast sea roads aren’t at sea level. The damn things cling to the cliffs, sans guardrails. Here, finally, was the scenery I’d travelled 5,500 kilometres to see and I bloody well couldn’t enjoy it as the sun dropped quickly and I desperately navigated the darkening, roller-coaster road, my shoulders and biceps screaming from more than an hour of driving my truck like a truck.

The sunset, seen from a turnout for a good 57 seconds.
The sunset, seen from a turnout for a good 57 seconds.

We spent the night in the last available room in Fort Bragg and the next morning got our asses back to the Interstate via a mountain trail little better than the previous day’s.

But the fun wasn’t over, because we were invited to a barbecue in Santa Cruz, way down the coast. Since we don’t get anywhere fast, we texted our San Jose host, Carmen, to say we’d meet her there.

“There’s traffic on the 17,” she texted us. “If your GPS gives an alternate route on Hwy. 9, take it.”

Alpha’s a finicky GPS who thinks he’s always right – he doesn’t believe in alternate routes till I’ve driven so far off the path there’s no other choice. Which was just as well because as we hit the traffic, Carmen texted us again: “Just stay on the route. You might get lost on the 9 even with the GPS – sorry.” Then, ominously: “In the mtns. Going to lose reception. CYA soon.”

The traffic was really heavy. The sun was cooking us through the windshield, even with the AC on. The baby was a little fussy. “There the turnoff for the 9,” Mel said.

You know what happened next. I don’t have to write it up. Let me sum it up as nearly an hour of this:

California mountain road

Was it worth it? Hells yeah. The driveway was marked with balloons and we turned left onto a steep curving dirt road that led to the home of Carmen’s friends. On walking paths there were to be discovered all manner of junk and treasures and up near the house little trails through a garden of sorts, a fantastic dusty play area for the children and acres of mountain to be conquered by Trev and several new little friends.

The other party-goers were a slice of the California you see in movies and read about in books: characters who had escaped for the weekend their lives filled with long commutes and straight-laced jobs. We were welcomed instantly and not at all awkwardly and ate a feast of sausages, salad and beer. Trevor wrangled the children into building a fort with found objects in the redwoods and Jilly climbed and ran and giggled till she was filthy and exhausted.

A pain in the ass to get to? Yup. A priceless afternoon with new friends in a neo-hillbilly setting? You can’t plan for that action – you just gotta run with it and store the memories away forever.

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