2000: California Coast

Homeward Bound

July 21 - 22


I rise slightly stiff from the biking. We have a leisurely breakfast and showers, then on the road again. We will do a lot of driving today; we will continue north another thirty miles, then make the turnaround to start home. We pass through Crescent City, an ugly coastal blot; perhaps my opinion is influenced by Mike's reminder that his old girlfriend lives here.

We reach our northernmost destination, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. I have read that this is a special place, and it does not disappoint. We walk through the campgrounds, which are available only by reservation. The campsites are roomy, secluded, and spread well apart in a pristine redwood forest. We hike a trail down to the shore of the beautiful Smith river, where we find some stalwarts swimming in the chilly water.

Walking back through the camp, we see Stellar jays by the dozens feeding and flitting, raucously oblivious to the human interlopers. As we make our way back to our steed, Mike stops me for an unmistakable sound: just to our right at eye-level, two red-headed woodpeckers defy gravity and practice their carpentry on a tree trunk.

It's time to head home. We vow to return to this wonderful place when we can spend more time.

As we turn south, we debate whether to take a scenic drive through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which we briefly visited on the way up. The park is noted for being the home of Roosevelt elk, which are often seen grazing in the prairie opposite the park campgrounds. We decide our odds of finding elk today are remote, and Mike stays on Highway 101.

Then, just past the park boundaries, we suddenly see off to our right - a herd of elk! We screech to a stop behind several cars parked at an overlook, where other eager tourists are also watching.

We dig out the new 500-millimeter lens for the Nikon and sprint to the overlook. The elk are placidly grazing about 300 yards away and I snap a dozen photos.

I hear an unmistakable twang among the onlookers and introduce myself to a couple who are, of course, from Texas, and even know someone who lives in Ballinger! How crazy is that? After a minute more, we trot a quarter-mile to a side road which is closer to the herd, and are rewarded with a better view and a few good photos.

Herd of Roosevelt Elk. Elk cow gives us the  razzberry. Elk stag. Elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods SP.

We pass back through dense groves of stately giants wearing fog shrouds, standing silent vigil over the highway's intrusion. After that, most of the day is a blurry rewind of Highway 101, mountains and valleys, streams and rocky shores. We see every type of vehicle on the road - massive logging trucks, bus-sized motorcoaches with cars in tow, trucks and SUVs pulling every variety of trailer, big touring motorcycles straddled by leather-clad biker-campers, and even intrepid bicyclists pumping doggedly up and down these daunting grades.

I'm especially fascinated by the occasional lone woman traveler, usually on a bicycle laden with packs, and even one sad-looking girl hitch-hiking with a guitar and a hobo-pack. Who are these women? I envy their independence and physical strength, but shudder at their aloneness.

Giant Redwood Paul Bunyan.

We can't resist a roadside tourist-trap named Trees of Mystery, where tourists are beckoned by the forty-foot statue of Paul Bunyan and a slightly faded Babe the Blue Ox.

Paul talks to the tourists and they talk back.

The attraction itself, the so-called Trees of Mystery, is a pay-to-enter redwood grove, which we bypass for a visit to the half-acre gift shop. We sift through the chatchkes and purchase a hat for Mike, a redwood bowl for me, and a gift for our neighbor/cat-sitter.

Pretty, but cold, pond.

We decide to try and make it home by Saturday night, which will give us all day Sunday to unpack and clean the RV, so we want to get within easy striking distance today.

We reach the town of Willits, just out of the redwoods, about 7 p.m. and stop at the local KOA. This campground is everything we have been trying to avoid - loud music broadcast from speakers at the rec area, tight spaces, lots of kids. We take a walk uphill against a freezing wind and find a pretty livestock pond, across the fence on private land. 

I feel so much safer now...

Mike stops to discuss a uniquely-restored, buttercup-yellow '41 Ford pickup with some colorful campers - their sign says it all: "This campsite protected by pink flamingos." Plastic ones, that is.

A camp cat (black) crosses our path. The KOA store sells Jonny Cat, so maybe there's hope for Chelsea traveling after all (HA!).

I don't like it here - too densely populated, noisy, I feel surrounded. The serenity of the redwoods is vaporizing quickly.

On Saturday, we pull out early in a dense fog, anxious to leave behind the bad vibes from last night. Four miles outside the town of Willits, we burst suddenly into blinding sunshine and a completely different climate! More construction on the road - it's old hat now. Since home is an easy day's drive away, we decide to take a detour around Clear Lake and through the wine country of Napa. Mike spots a deer in a field - nope, it's a llama! The drive to Clear Lake is pleasant but in marked contrast to the country we've seen all week: the endlessly green forests and plunging mountainsides have changed to gently rolling wheat-colored hills scattered with oak trees.

Clear Lake- - isn't. We stop near a sliver of gravel shore and the algae smell is strong. We watch some fascinating diving birds. They have black crowns, white necks, brown bodies, dagger-like beaks and red eyes; I must look them up when I get home. (I later learn the birds are grebes. Reminder: take the bird book next time.) Using binoculars, I spot a group of four babies which look very much like ducklings.

The drive around Clear Lake takes us through a patchwork of shore communities, mostly tacky motels and run-down beach houses. We stop to feed The Guzzler; this time Mike restarts the pump after the $50 limit and the final tab goes to $85. I browse the resident mini-mart which features sweet rolls, beef jerky and gallon jugs of vodka.

Past the lake now, we head toward the wine country. Mike spots a friendly-looking oak tree on a side road and maneuvers The Beast into the shade, where we prepare and enjoy a leisurely breakfast and take a stroll past the fields. Another simple but special pleasure!

Our next stop is the small burg of Middletown, where I visit a roadside stand of The Village Blocksmith. He sells sets of pine blocks which can be arranged in many different castle-like configurations.

The Smith is quite a salesman and I'm tempted, but think of my already-cluttered house and resist.

Queasy & Wobbly - or is that me?

We are surprised by Highway 29 to Calistoga, a steep climb through Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and then a dive into the Napa Valley. The curvy road sabotages my inner ear, and we pull over for a walk and some air.

A pair of identical chestnut horses gazes at me from behind barbed wire; I snap their photos and christen them Queasy and Wobbly in honor of the occasion.

To battle the nausea, I take the wheel to continue the drive into St. Helena, where I stop for a stroll through town. Mike and I disagree (as usual) over parking. After I have pulled Big Boy into an unused corner parking lot, he takes over, backs it out, then backs it in facing the other direction. Are we happy now? Is vacation over so soon?

We nose into the pricey shops of downtown and purchase a vibrating mouse for Chelsea (sure, sure) from a pet boutique.

We decide to see if we have time for a short visit to Marine World; I haven't been there since Six Flags took over. Forgetting it is Saturday and unaware that the Solano County Fair is in full swing on the same street, we stumble into a traffic jam. Mike reverts to Silicon Valley behavior and starts snapping like a turtle. We quickly decide to beat a hasty retreat and are lucky to find the freeway just beyond the gridlock. Merging onto Highway 680, we spy depressing smog ahead.

There's no more denying it, vacation is over. Our trip dwindles to a close around 4 p.m., chugging along in the familiar traffic of 680 and 280. Finally Mike glides The Rattler back into its original position in our driveway, and we are home.

Bye-bye beast.

Unpacking takes about as long as packing, but goes smoothly. We unpack Saturday after returning, and save the cleaning chores for Sunday. A thorough scrubbing inside and out, and our borrowed beauty is ready for return.

I feel a small pang; it was a serviceable if ungainly steed. I am consoled by the hope that we will have many more trips as wonderful as this, perhaps next time in our own, less clumsy chariot.

We settle back into our routine; were we ever gone? I congratulate myself for keeping this journal of our experiences, and look forward to revisiting the memories recorded here. And even more...I look forward to our next trip!