American Road Trip: The Last Leg

The final few days of my trip had arrived.  In some ways it felt like I’d only just landed in the US and in others it felt like I’d been driving for a whole year.  My goal was to see the famed Avenue of the Giants before heading to Sacramento to complete the final preparations for my upcoming rail trip through Russia.  I’d then make a final drive to  San Francisco where I’d catch my flight over the Pacific.  I had five days to complete this last leg of my road trip and started out from Yreka, California.

On the first day my goal was simply to get to the coast.  Although California looks long and thin on a map when compared to the rest of North America, it can actually take quite a while to drive across it, particularly in more remote regions like this and with the odd mountain range thrown in your path.  I wanted to get to Fortuna that first night and my GPS took me on a pretty incredible route on California 96, a remote road that I mostly had to myself and that travels through the Klamath National Forest.    It pretty much followed the Klamath River the entire route so although I was traveling through fairly decent mountains, the road mainly stuck to the valley floor where the river was meaning it was reasonably windy but not hilly.  The eastern side of this mountain range was very dry with brown grass, patches of pine forest (many of which showed evidence of large wildfires) and lots of rocks on the steep hillsides.  For some reason I don’t like this kind of dry mountainous landscape.  I find it bleak, oppressive and it brings out deep almost primeval feelings of fear in me.  I don’t know what I’m scared of but the sensation of trepidation and dread is very real even on a sunny Sunday morning like this one was.

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This feeling of non-specific yet impending doom weighed on me for another hour or so until I passed through the tiny town of Happy Camp, noted for the huge Bigfoot situated on the main street.  Apparently this is Bigfoot country and I later found out that I was driving the Bigfoot Scenic Byway, but I have to say I didn’t see any signs of the creature myself.  After passing through Happy Camp the landscape and light began to change.  The sky took on a shade of blue that it only gets by the sea and the forest became more lush.  I was glad to leave the arid hillsides behind and was suddenly anxious to get to the Pacific again.  It would be another hour or so before I reached there but it was enough to brighten my mood and to begin to appreciate this lovely remote road.

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Unfortunately it wasn’t quite what I expected.  I wound up at the coastal city of Eureka, California, well known to be a slightly offbeat place and I found it characterised by the sheer volume of drug addicts I saw staggering around the streets carrying sticks.  Not walking sticks but sticks off trees.  That coupled with the fog covering the area both blocked my view of the bay and made me glad I hadn’t booked a motel there.  What I did see of the bay seemed to be a kind of estuary and I didn’t count that as seeing the ocean again so I simply carried on to Fortuna for the night.

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The next day I made for the Avenue of the Giants, a huge ancient redwood forest that can be viewed as a side road to US-101.  It really was quite remarkable to see these absolutely huge trees right on the side of the road and their size dwarfed everything else.  Cars looked like toys, humans like dolls and even the road itself looked tiny.  That coupled with the bright sunlight occasionally penetrating through the huge shadows gave the whole place a dreamlike feel.  You could easily imagine folk and fairy stories coming to life in a place like this.

Sadly it is also difficult to photograph.  The forest itself is very dark and the sunlight filtering through the trees looks incredibly bright in contrast, so unless you are an expert with the right camera equipment you will have a hard time dealing with that.  And then there are the trees themselves, literally too big to fit in any shot I tried to take and if I tried to step back further I’d find myself amongst more of these giants, thus blocking the view of the one I was originally trying to photograph.

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As I continued on to Fort Bragg I thought I was leaving the scenic stuff behind however I continued to dip in and out of Redwood forest for the rest of the day, eventually finding myself on yet another stunning drive.  This route was the beginning of Highway 1, the famous California Pacific Coast Highway.  This particular part was a narrow road with endless hairpin bends that travels through more Redwood forest.  This forest doesn’t appear to be as old as the Avenue of the Giants so the trees aren’t quite as big yet remain impressive.  In fact, if you hadn’t done the Avenue of the Giants road you’d probably think these ones were giants.

There weren’t many other vehicles on the road and most of those were logging trucks.  There were plenty of cyclists and not to put too finer point on it, they either had balls of steel or were just plain stupid.  And I say that with a huge dose of respect.  Basically the road is cut into a rocky hillside so every corner you go around is completely blind, you cannot see oncoming traffic let alone what is in your own lane ahead of you.  Once I realised there were cyclists I cringed on each corner and even though I was crawling along I still worried about if I would be able to stop or swerve in time to avoid one.  The logging trucks weren’t taking the same precautions that I was and it just seemed like the worst place in the world to be a cyclist, despite the incredible ride and amazing views they would no doubt get.

I managed to not kill any cyclists and finally glimpsed a triangle of deep blue between two steep hillsides.  Within minutes the beautiful Pacific coastline sprawled out before me.  Call me biased but I think the Pacific Ocean is the best ocean and I was incredibly happy to see her again.  I stopped at the first turnout, breathed in the salty air and took lots of photos.  I had plenty of time to get to Fortuna so I took Highway 1 slowly south, stopping at every turnout I could find and eventually took a beautiful walk through shoulder high grass and wildflowers down the hill to the shoreline.

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Similar to my farewell to the Atlantic Ocean on a foggy day in Maine a few weeks prior, I spent some time saying hello to the Pacific again, trying to figure out which way Vladivostok was (I would be there a few days later), which way New Zealand was and where Hong Kong was.   At the end of my trip I will be sailing on a cargo ship from Hong Kong to New Zealand across my beloved Pacific, before that I’ll traverse large parts of Asia, Europe and Africa overland, visiting both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  I wanted to spend some time fully contemplating that but I’m afraid it was just too hard to process so I let the sea air clear my head and continued on to Fort Bragg for the night.

I dithered the next morning about whether or not to take Highway 1 down to the Napa Valley area, then swing northeast for Sacramento.  It would be the long way round but would link me up to the northernmost point of the coastal road that I’d driven a few years back and allow me to see more of the ocean.  My decision was made for me when I opened the curtains in my room and saw nothing but cold damp fog.  There was no point taking the road if I couldn’t see the coast so instead I made a straight shot for Sacramento. In order to get to Interstate 5 I basically had to cross back over pretty much the same mountain range I’d traversed a few days before but much further south.

This route took me past lakes, over mountains and through valleys on a relatively busy road.  The entire area appeared to be drought stricken and I suddenly had to crank up the air conditioning.  When I left Fort Bragg it was a chilly 52F and I had the heating on for most of the drive, I checked the temperature again to find it was 113F and later on the freeway in Sacramento it would top out at 118F.   The valleys and hills were baking and despite all the grass the atmosphere had a dry desert-like quality to it.  On the other side of this mountain range the air was heavy with what Californians call a haze and what I call smog.

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I eventually made it to Sacramento and spent a frantic few days setting up an international SIM card, mailing stuff home I didn’t want to carry through Russia, unsuccessfully attempting to buy a new camera and so forth.  I left a bed covered in goodies for the motel maid, things I no longer needed like a café press and an electric kettle.  I also left her $10 and a note apologising if she had to get rid of it all but hopefully she found a home for most of it.  The drive to San Francisco airport was predictably awful because frankly there are too many people living in that region now and it was a shame that my last day of driving on such an incredible trip was spent in heavy traffic so that I was too busy concentrating to spend time contemplating the journey I was about to complete.  Dropping off the rental car was so rushed I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to her.

I checked into my hotel and was still too tired and flustered to really think about my trip and before I knew it I was on a plane to Korea the next day.  Thinking about my road trip didn’t happen until I was on the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia less than a week later, letting someone else take control of the driving and with plenty of time to just ponder it all.  Yet as I write this in the restaurant car on the Vladivostok to Moscow train with Siberia whizzing past the window like so much of the US did in my car, I am still unable to adequately sum up my 9-weeks on the road in the US.   I think I’ll have to leave that for another blog post.

For now I’ll just say that I had an incredible experience and that road tripping in America is pretty much just like you see in the movies. I may not have gone all-Hollywood and held up a bank or picked up a hitchhiker that looked like a young Brad Pitt, but from the diners to the truckers to the landscapes, there is nothing quite like it anywhere on Earth.  But at the same time there is something satisfyingly recognisable for anyone who has ever seen any road trip themed American movie.   If you have a travel bucket list then I recommend you put something like this toward the top, even if you are American.  Especially if you are American.

My trusty GPS had been on every time I was in a car so had tracked all of my driving.  I took a photo of the screen before I switched her off for good and the final stats she gave me for all those drives I did since May 1st were 13,343.9 miles driven and 266.16 hours of driving at an average speed of 50mph.  That was quite a trip.

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Highlights:  Klamath National Forest & The Bigfoot Scenic Byway |  Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg, California  |  Avenue of the Giants

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