…Ahh! The simple remoteness of it all…
A long-time riding pal looks at a map of Northern California and comments, “You’ve been on pretty much all of these roads!” While that’s more than a bit of an overstatement, it’s true that I have been on a lot of ‘em. And yesterday, I bagged two more.
My recent fascination with the Eel River environs has found me looking at remote sections of our Coast Range in Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt Counties. The geography of this area is a jumble of volcanic spasms, tectonic folds deep river canyons all animated by the occasional earthquake or storm induced landslide. The fascinating history is far less impacted by white presence than the gold-infused Sierra-Cascade to the east. It’s easy to disappear into these hills and imagine tens of thousands of years of untrammeled life by the area’s first peoples, and clear to see the brunt of 19th century loggers and ranchers and the railroaders who tried to link everyone together. Which doesn’t mean our conquering culture didn’t do immeasurable harm to those who came before. See https://thechurchoftheopenroad.blogspot.com/2018/06/killing-for-land-in-early-california.html
A good map or atlas (I carry DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer) indicates place names you can drive right through and never see, because whatever was there, no longer is, or isn’t much. Owing to the fact that I’ll be traveling dirt roads, I’m in our Subaru Forester this trip. Given a suspect right knee, my days of confidently riding a big dual sport like my late Yamaha Super Tenere are over. Plus, in the 100,000 miles I’ve put on the Sube, I’ve never once worried about tipping over on the thing.
I left US 101 at Laytonville following a well-graded Dos Rios Road into the Eel River Canyon. Dos Rios is a small enclave of a dozen or so houses perched above the confluence of Berger Creek (I’m thinkin’) and the Eel. I think I spotted a school, but I’m not sure I saw a store.
Picking up State Route 162, I head north and east and over a ridge into Round Valley and Covelo. The valley floor is lush, perfect for raising cattle, the cash crop that spelled the demise of the native peoples to whom that slice of heaven had been promised. The town offers a number of services, but a number of services seem to have left as well. There’s a Tri-Counties Bank in a newer building, but the old bank building stands as a burnt-out hulk. The US Forest Service anchors a Mendocino National Forest ranger district there, but Georgia Pacific (or was it Louisiana Pacific?) mill, a long-time big employer, is long gone.
Route 162 angles east, but north through Mina toward Zenia is the road I’ve long wanted to traverse. Mina Road pavement ends just outside of Covelo, but the road is well graded, and signs ask folks to “use four-wheel-drive to protect the road from washboarding.” I’d never thought of the connection, nor do I understand the physics of the deal, but my Forester is all-wheel drive, so I hoped I was doing my part. The road twists and rises through oak woodlands into mixed deciduous forests, one side posted as reservation land for the consolidated tribes. Kindly do not enter. Okay.
The top of the ridge finds yellow pines and broad, high meadows suitable for grazing. Mina, the berg, is little more than a framed gatepost entry to a ranch. Without glancing at the GPS, one wouldn’t know that now they are traveling on Zenia Lake Mountain Road. I check the map to see a Lake Mountain Ranch but see not a Lake Mountain. Will there be a Zenia?
Just when I’m noting the freshness of the high-country air, I encounter mile after mile of the Mendocino Complex burn scar of 2020. This fire, geographically, the largest in state history, took out Simpson Camp, a childhood Shangri-La, maybe fifteen to twenty miles east southeast of where I found myself this noon.
The big fire raged south of Kettenpom, a placename on this road, one that supports a small general store, what looks like an ag supply with bundles of PVC irrigation pipe ~ I wonder what for? ~ and even has a bright orange “76” gas sign. Not sure it there’s gas. A good-looking albeit laconic dog lazed in the road directly in front of the store as I wheeled around and on to Zenia. Perhaps there, I’d pull in for a Snickers bar.
Zenia, a bigger dot on the map than Kettenpom, has a post office. And it once had a store. There would be no Snickers bar this day ~ at least not one from the Zenia General Store.
From this point, there’s an inviting road that leads north into Van Duzen River Country, but that’ll be for some other time. I turn west to wind beneath the Zenia Bluffs and into Alderpoint. Alderpoint was a workstation on the now-defunct Northwestern Pacific Rail line. For 75 years, the NWP fought a losing battle with the forces of nature in the Eel River canyon. Remnants of the rail grade can be seen paralleling the river from a fine bridge upon which I crossed. Town, itself, is a relative city. Big(ger) store. School. Businesses that support logging, ranching and, perhaps, extraction industries. Lots of little homes. Maybe not a lot of wealth, unless one considers that value of living in a scenic jumble of hills and ridges, oaks, pines, and meadows, with background music provided by the Eel River. Not bad!
The nearest closer-to-full-service town in Garberville, twenty winding miles west at US 101. The pavement is nice and I’m sure that Alderpoint residents know the route well as they seek a little more selection on the grocery or hardware shelves. But I don’t want to go to Garberville. I want to bag Bell Springs Road.
All morning, I’d driven the eastern edge of the Eel River watershed. This afternoon, I’d head south on the west side. After heading southwest on Alderpoint Road, I exit south on primitive Harris Road. I’m going to Harris! Another labelled dot on the map. Roughest route of the entire circuit, the Subaru handles it with aplomb. I’m happy to not be on the bike, rolling over rolling gravel and small boulders. I’m too old to pick the thing up off its side, and nobody’s coming along on Harris Road to help me out.
I’m not surprised to find that Harris once had a country store, but no more. The skeleton of the place still stands with a long, low overhung porch, whitewashed walls the whitewash of each dates back about 70 years, and nothing but ranchlands nearby. I am shocked, however, to turn south on Bell Springs Road when I come to an unmarked placename: New Harris. Outside of a road junction not even a derelict store.
But I am enjoying Bell Springs Road, another one of those routes I’ve coveted. Rising and falling over pasture lands and across high meadow grazing lands, there’s a remote on-top-of-the-world feeling with 360-degree views. To the east, the Yolla Bolly wilderness peak still have snow, between here and there rises Cain Rock where the NWPs golden spike was driven in about 1916. Cattle dot some areas, trees forest others. Random roads track over the ridge and down into the Eels River’s deep canyon. At some point down there is Island Mountain, site of a 0.8-mile tunnel, longest on the NWP route. But, in reaching the site of Bell Springs, I realize I’ve missed the necessary road had I wanted to use to trundle down and see that engineering marvel.
Bell Springs is home to a fire department with a red pickup and a third- or fourth-hand fire truck. The company’s sign may have been hand painted by a fourth grader with an affinity for balloon letters. Yet, a lovely slice of ruralness.
It’s about twelve miles down to the junction of US 101. Closer to the highway, population seems more dense and less rancher-like. Once on the Federal Route, I have to remind myself to wick things up a bit in the Subaru as folks like to travel 65 miles per hour, not the 27 I’ve been enjoying for the bulk of the day. It’s two hours to home.
I’m enamored by the remoteness of our nearby Coast Range. I’m easily mesmerized into fantasies about life there when the nearest neighbors were mule deer, bald eagles, and the occasional mountain lion.
After seven hours of bumping around, it seems to me that, other than timber and some grazing, there has never been much that could be monetized or Europeanized or exploited in these parts. Which is good. The true value of this region may be where this region takes you when you visit.
Let’s not tell anyone about it.
Church of the Open Road Press