When I was just 19 years old, I drove to the California coast for the first time. I had two days off from my job as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter in the Cascade Range of northern California, and I decided to drive to the coast for the first time. I left the ranger station and drove west, through Lassen National Park, then down into the scorching Central Valley, which was about 100°F in the shade, of which there was very little.
I got out of the valley as quickly as possible in my little fire engine-red Buick Opel, then drove past golden hills covered with grasses and scattered oaks, up into the Coast Range, which was covered with soothing green Douglas Firs. This was California State Highway 36, which turned out to be the slowest road I’ve ever been on. It snaked its way up into the mountains, following closely the contours of the deep ravines and steep mountainsides, with one hairpin curve leading immediately into another. Imagine a really long strand of spaghetti noodling around the mountains, and you get an idea of the playful road. It took most of a day to drive.
When I reached the hamlet of Mad River, there had been an accident in which a man had been thrown out of the back of a pickup. I stopped to help his family lift him back into the pickup, supporting his head rigidly as we lifted. It was going to be a long three-hour trip for him to the nearest hospital while laying with his neck and back badly injured in the back of the pickup. Life was more primitive then; today a helicopter or plane would be dispatched.
I drove on from Mad River through two more hours of twisting roads until I descended from the sunny mountains into the cool and foggy California Coast. It was soothing and new. I saw my first Coast Redwood trees as I approached Highway 101. I learned about ocean fog. I drove north to Redwood National Park on my whirlwind tour, stopping at a roadside cafe in redwood country where burly guys were talking about the huge size of a redwood they had just cut–one of those trees that took up an entire logging truck all by itself.
I hiked some short trails in the redwoods and walked the Pacific Ocean beach to explore Fern Canyon in the fog. It was magical. Too soon, I had to hightail my way back to my job, but at least I had experienced a bit of the storied California Coast.
Since that early summer, I’ve returned many times. One summer, my wife and I explored the Menocino Coast while I was stationed in Mad River, where I had helped administer first aid several years before. We saw our first sea stars: this is embarrassing, but we were very young and from the midwest and were so excited to sea starfish that we attempted to take several home with us. Of course, they died and we were left with a stinking mess and a guilty conscience. Live and learn.
Many years later, in 2013, I drove up Route 1 and 101 from San Francisco, after participating in an art show in a redwood grove in Marin County. The road was as twisty and slow as I remembered it, and there didn’t seem to be many more people living out there along the lonely coast than there were before. It is a hard place to make a living, with much of the logging industry diminished.
The old-fashioned tourist industry struggles along this coast; I suspect that Californians spend far more of their money fashionably sipping wine in Napa Valley than in walking among ancient redwoods. But there is still a drive-through tree for travelers who want to show their kids what the tourism experience used to be like.
But there were reminders on the radio that there are alternative ways to earn cash. There was a report of several black SUVs heading north on a back road near Mendocino, with a wood chipper being hauled behind one of them. It seems that the government uses its black SUVs to search-and-destroy marijuana crops, which are then fed through the chipper (maybe the mulch is then fed to pigs; and perhaps it gives the pigs the munchies which helps fatten them up). There is apparently a whole network of people who call in reports of the government agents and where they’re headed. This seems to be a contemporary twist on the moonshiners and revenue agents that made up so much of the popular view of Appalachia.
I camped overnight at MacKerricher State Park north of Fort Bragg. I’ve heard that this park is where the movie set for the house in the great movie Summer of ’42 was built. That film, which came out in 1971, starred Jennifer O’Neill as “Dorothy,” a woman living on Nantucket while her husband was away and fighting during World War II. It was an enchanting story, and based upon a real experience in the screenwriter’s life. See it if you haven’t.
MacKerricher was filled with ocean fog during my visit, so it was wonderful for photography. The roar of heavy surf hitting the rocky shore lulled me to sleep.
The next day, I drove north through the redwoods, eventually reaching Oregon, the words to a Jimmy Webb song so memorably sung by Linda Ronstadt making for an unusually pleasant earworm in my brain:
“Going up north where the hills are winter green
I got to leave you on the California coast …”
And, so, that’s where I’ll leave my memories until my next visit.
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date).