Wednesday, August 12, 2015
ALL SMOKE, NO MIRRORS
The Aborted Nor-Cal – Oregon Tour
The idea was simple. Coordinate with a colleague on his ride north from the Bay Area to his home near Seattle. Spend a night in Redding, and then head to Bend, Oregon, with a detour around Crater Lake. Part there and return south, exploring some of the few Southern Oregon and Northern California roads I’d ridden only once, or better yet, only heard about: OR 62 from Crater Lake along the Rogue River to I-5; CA 3 from Yreka down past Trinity Lake with, perhaps, a side trip out to Ramshorn Summit; Alder Point Road from Bridgeville through Blocksburg and down to Garberville.
I looked forward to taking pictures of old barns and old bridges and old trucks, pausing at bergs and farmsteads one may fly over yet never see; places where people make a living but it’s not clear how they do (dismissing, perhaps, medicinal herbiculture.)
Fire season in the west, much like the presidential campaign season in the US, never really ends. Two years ago, a wild fire coughed choking smoke over our home in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley at Thanksgiving. This year, in mid-July, a wild fire across the ridge in Lake County would grow to over 70,000 acres – 20,000 of them in a three-hour run one Saturday afternoon. And it wasn’t the first one in the area this go-round.
Meeting up with my riding partner in Winters (after lunch at the incomparable Putah Creek Café) we bolted up Interstate 505 to Dunnigan and I-5 toward the Shasta-Cascade Wonderland hubbed in Redding. The further north we traveled, the more the blue sky deteriorated into a yellow-gray haze. He on his Stelvio and I on the GSA, we reveled in being able to legally bat along at 75 mph through the smoky, 100-degree Sacramento Valley.
At a stop in Orland, we were informed that a bunch of lightning caused blazes were torching the far northern part of the state. Cal Fire’s central command post was set up at the Shasta County Fairgrounds in Anderson. Perhaps we could worm our way in and take a look at the current incident map.
“How can I help you fellas?” The Public Information Officer (out of Riverside County) wore a snappy blue uniform – one that looked as if someone engaged in cutting much line hadn’t been wearing it. The PIO extended a hand and welcomed us with a smile. Pointing to the incident map, there were, indeed, over seventy active fires within this camp’s sphere, stretching from Del Norte County in the north into Napa and Solano Counties in the south. It didn’t look good.
The Coast Range had been seared by a wave of dry lightning a few days prior and another wave was forecast to swing north this very evening.
After a gracious forty minute tour of the camp, covering personnel, sleeping arrangements, shifts, the difference between state and federal fire fighting protocols and technical improvements to assist the guys on the line, the PIO concluded: “You’ll want to get out of Redding early tomorrow in case more of these things blow up.” He swept his hand over that incident map.
We would hightail it in the morning.
Or would we?
I own a Moto Guzzi: a hoot to ride and, in my 11,000 miles of ownership, bulletproof. But for longer trips, I take the BMW. My riding partner’s ride of choice is his ’09 Guzzi Stelvio. Quirky looking, tank a bit too small for long distance runs, but infused with Italian passione. He loves the thing.
Unfortunately, some of that passione decided to burst through a blown gasket just beneath the left side cylinder head about fifteen minutes north of Redding that next morning. The fix may have been simple and the tow to the nearest dealer would be covered by insurance, but the nearest dealer was 194 miles to the south.
The rest of my trip would be solo.
There was no reason for me to continue to Bend so I retraced steps to Redding. The fire incident map had indicated that CA 3 from Yreka was closed south of Hayfork due to wildfire. Alder Point road was closed at CA 36 at Bridgeville due to wildfire, which proved a moot point since I wasn’t going to be able to get to 36 via 3.
Recalling that incident map, I knew CA 299 was one of the few roads traversing the Coast Range that would not be closed by fire activity. I opted to take it from Redding through Weaverville to Arcata on the Humboldt County coast.
A 30-minute roadwork delay afforded the opportunity to visit with a distance running coach from Utah State U. and a young couple from Iowa – both parties concerned about the area’s thin pall of smoke. “Unseasonable smoke is pretty common this time of year,” I said.
Beyond Weaverville, CA 299 crests at Oregon Mountain Summit and descends into the Trinity River drainage. On a normal day, the view from that high point prompts the rider’s pulse to quicken in anticipation of a nicely paved highway twisting in and out of forests, through rustic, tiny villages and along a delightfully tumbling wild river.
Today? Only smoke.
In cool mornings through early afternoons, airborne particulates settle into lowlands, valleys and canyons. As the day warms, the smoke rises and dissipates. The day hadn’t warmed yet.
The further west I drove, the thicker the smoke became to the point that, if there were city blocks in the area, you couldn’t see further than two of ‘em. I stopped for a picture near Burnt Ranch wondering if they might rename the place “Reburnt” or “Twice Burnt” Ranch by the time these conflagrations played out.
Near Blue Lake, now following the Mad River, the valley opens to the sea. On-shore breezes mercifully pushed against the burgeoning blanket of smoke. Thus, the air was a clear and lovely azure. Deep breaths yielded only freshness, no cinders.
The ride south on US 101 into Eureka emphasized just how strongly that cross wind, on-shore breeze can blow.
A quick shower to rid myself of soot. Dinner near the historic wharf, followed by an evening walk along the waterfront, then a night’s rest at the Eureka Inn.
Morning of the final day dawned gray and drizzly, a pleasant, fresh change from the hot, murky interior.
South on US 101 and west on CA 1 led me to a crystal view of the Pacific over the rugged Mendocino coast.
Dubbed the Shoreline Highway, California’s State Route 1 is one motorcyclists, worldwide, come to experience this most entertaining road.
Along the way, riders enjoy quaint fishing villages, stately redwood stands, inviting strolls to the bluffs and views that reach beyond forever.
I dawdled in the clean maritime air, and stopped for a plate of clams at Noyo.
Ninety minutes inland and I would be home.
Whether this loop at this time could be categorized as a great trip, I’d have to offer doubts, given the conditions. But all in all, it was an excellent experience; just one I’d rather not repeat any time soon.
Church of the Open Road Press