Tuesday, June 6, 2017
BIG BLUE CONQUERS THE DOLDRUMS
Return to a favorite ride along California’s Coast Highway
I recall my dad turning 65. He looked really old. His right leg, shriveled from a mining accident forty years before caused a markedly deteriorating limp. He received hearing aides but arthritis in his hands prevented him from changing the batteries. His active pastime changed from backpacking into nameless places to reading books – over and over – and sipping highballs starting at about 3:00.
I think about my recently repaired hand and my recently repaired knee – neither ever to be “good as new” – and I realize that turning 65 is passing a marker – a marker that causes one to reflect. Sometimes that reflection looks clearly like a country – western song:
My knee’s near shot and my hand can’t grip
I’m getting’ hard of hearing and there’s pain inside my hip
Politics is blood sport and kids no longer spell
Seems as if my world and self are goin’ all to hell
The big Triumph had only been on local, hour-long trips for well over half a year. I am beginning to think my touring days are coming to an end. A trip is scheduled to Wyoming later in the month and then to British Columbia later on, and I’m wondering if I should just plan on taking the Subaru. The Thunderbird is a fabulous bike for what it’s made for, but is it made for what I want to do any longer? What about switching to a Triumph Scrambler – lighter, more maneuverable, or a Ducati – lighter, more maneuverable, and with mojo, or a Yamaha or Honda each of which have local dealers? What about a Vespa?
The late spring weather is glorious. A damp cloth massaged the bugs away from the windscreen and wiped the accumulated dust from the bike’s fenders and tank. By 9:30, after downing a gulp of orange juice, I am on the road to I didn’t know where.
Climbing the freeway ramp onto northbound 101, the Thunderbird thrusts me forward with an exhaust note whispering, “Why haven’t we done this recently?” I feel a smile creep across my face.
US 101 north of Sonoma County is a mixture of freeway and two-lane coursing over hills and through valleys blocked with vineyards. On the freeway portion, about three weeks ago, a new Chevy Impala was sliced in half in a head on collision – the spot now speckled with orange marking paint over the oil and coolant stains. The Chevy driver walked away. I check my speed and find myself obsessing about the weird collection of skid marks that decorate the blacktop on this length of 101. How'd they get there? Who survived? Who didn't?
I pass though Hopland, eschewing a favored breakfast joint, motor north past Ukiah and the right turn that would take me inland into Lake County. There’s a new by-pass around Willits I’ve wanted to try and it cuts about twelve minutes off the journey north. I wonder what’s happening to down town. CA 162 splits off toward Round Valley and Covelo to the east, but the T-bird would be no match for the rugged forest road that crosses the Coast Range. Nice rest stop just north of the junction. At Laytonville, I head west on Branscomb Road. It’ll be twenty-eight winding miles out to the ocean. Recalling that folks on the west end of this route often take their half right out of the middle of the road, I cling toward the shoulder only to be proven right on curves twice in a span of about 20 seconds. The descent to the Pacific is a corkscrew shrouded in trees that settles onto a willow thicketed stream course. No surprise view of the ocean. Just a stop sign at CA 1.
The Coast Highway is tucked behind a dune until it crosses a river and then rises to one of those points where “Wow!” is simply involuntary. Thirty miles of coastline bluffs and breakers stretch before me under an azure sky supporting just enough cirrus cloud to provide depth. I stop at the nearest vista.
There, a couple from Minnesota gush about their drive and how we have so much in common (referring to my Governor Brown and their Senator Al Franken) and then ask if I’d snap a photo. Of course I will. And he insists on taking mine.
I’ve ridden this road many times on all manner of motorcycles. On a good day, the tablelands and cliffs are spectacular and the green hills sweeping eastward seem Eden-like. The road twists and drops into creeks and river valleys, forested and cool; then back along the pasturelands where, indeed, the cows must be contented. Motorcyclists – even the Harley guys – wave, the experience being so grand.
A fine little winery called Pacific Star sits overlooking the sea, their Dad’s Daily Red being a worthwhile catch. McKerricher State Park offers trails and tide pools. There’s a nice excursion train ride out of Fort Bragg and a great coastal hike recently opened behind the old mill site. Noyo Harbor is what San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf used to be about 60 years ago. The state maintains the lighthouse at Caspar. Mendocino Village invites one to stroll its wooden walkways, explore its galleries and enjoy the ocean’s symphonic sound track. Little River, Albion – where the highway crosses on a historic wooden trestle – Elk and several other waypoints dot the route. There’s another lighthouse and a classic motorcycle shop in Point Arena as well as a nice chowder house out on the pier a mile west of town.
State parks, vista points, old barns, farmsteads and contemporary architectural wonders speak to the changing history of the land. Gualala offers a nice grocery store and access to the mouth of a river of the same name. Sea Ranch is a ten-mile stretch of privately held properties, many of which are vacation rentals. Access is restricted to paying customers in all but a few places. Sea Ranch’s development prompted outcries about the fencing off of the coast leading to the establishment of the California Coastal Commission. Just moments south is Stewart’s Point with a fine country store and gas. It rests in the heart of a coastal protection zone established by the previous administration…
…but I don’t stop at any of these. I’ve visited them before (even renting at Sea Ranch) and I don’t want to get off. I just want to ride.
Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs Road heads east from this point. An arduous 40 miles on will come to Healdsburg on US 101. The first four miles are single lane pavement, well worn and feeling the effects of a winter in which many coastal roads succumbed to nature’s greater powers. Climb over one ridge then another, descend into a river valley and cross on a 1911 vintage bridge that some numbskull thought would be improved by decorating it with gang sign in red spray paint. But the redwoods here, unsung and unprotected, provide a cathedral-like canopy. I stop for a photo and a passer-by pauses to make sure I haven’t broken down. “You are riding a Triumph, after all,” he says.
Within ten or twelve crow-fly miles the temperature has risen from a coastal 62 to an inland 85. The forests have faded into the rearview mirror and rolling hills awash in knee high dry grasses remind me that it’s summer. Cresting and falling and turning, the pavement has improved and soon I pass the Warm Springs Dam on Dry Creek. I’ve entered my home stompin’ grounds. I’d hiked the lake just a week ago.
At 4:00 I arrive home having stopped only for gas once, for “rest” twice and for photos three times. That glass of orange juice saw me through the day, the bulk of which had been in the saddle. Rolling the T-bird into the garage, I reflect on the people and the scenery and the road and the day. I assess my hand, my knee and my hip and realize I am feeling no discomfort.
Time to pack for Wyoming.
© 2017Church of the Open Road Press