So we left behind Oregon and crossed into California with Highway 101 taking us through the majestic Redwood Forests. Ancient behemoths lined the road, towering over us. The size of the trunks have to be seen to be believed. We learnt that these trees used to cover the earth, but due to changes in the atmosphere they now only thrive on the cool northern foggy Californian coast, small parts of China, and a Californian mountain range. Some of the trees are over 2,000 years old, and the tallest remains the tallest despite losing its top 50ft five years ago. Makes ‘The Major Oak’ seem like a poor relation….
We pulled off 101 to take a small turn into someone’s garden where they’ve created a ‘drive thu’ tree. I’m pretty sure it was Dolly Parton that greeted us at her small homemade gatehouse and wanted to chat about where we were from. Like most American’s, she welcomed us warmly to her home, state and country and wished us well for our trip. Obligatory touristy pictures taken we turned back onto 101 within 15 minutes and set on our way.
At an interchange we left Highway 101 and took the turn that would lead us on a stomach churning drive through more Redwoods at the start of Highway 1, until we reached the Californian Pacific coast. As I was driving I was fine, but we had to stop a couple of times to let my passengers out for fresh air, solid land, and to let their stomachs settle. Highway 1 was nearly empty of traffic on this traverse to the ocean, probably because the 10 miles took nearly an hour to cover. Hairpin bends and adverse cambers would slow even the boldest of drivers. We saw only cruising Harleys and Indian motorbikes, and the occasional pick up. In a little gully we passed an encampment on either side that made us think we had landed on the set of ‘Deliverance’. A tumbled down wooden house and sheds, replete with target practices, a dozen pickup trucks in various states of repair, and roaming dogs. We pulled over for a picture and spotted the rather incongruous sign on a table of veg “Free Organic Vegetables”. None of us felt brave enough to leave the safety of our car, we’ve clearly watched too many American horror films…….
Of course none of our journey’s would be complete without the unexpected treat of wildlife. Today it was the turn of 2 majestic antlered Stag’s. We’ve not been able to pin down if they were deer or elk, but it’s hardly relevant. One on either side of the road, gently grazing in the shade. They were unbothered by us or the few other cars that had pulled over. Like the other large creatures we’ve encountered they looked up and held our gaze. Just beautiful.
We finally hit the coast and as we did so and the pacific opened up for us again. Rugged and wild, this time it was flanked by brown grass prairie farms. Cattle strolled by, surprisingly, on the roadside. In addition to the undulating twists and turns, we also got to enjoy a bounty of cattle grids. Dean had the best of this as he was now sat in the back. I’m not sure what they were, but they looked like fields of red and purple lupins, and other colourful flowers flourished amongst the brown grass. More stops and more photos. We’re so used to every patch of beautiful British coast being ‘done up’ and ‘gentrified’, and full of tourists that it’s a real shock to find all the way through this trip, rustic rural life untouched on such an iconic road, with hardly any company. I guess it’s because America’s such a big big place with so much to see.
By 1pm we came upon a tiny harbour town with a single pier used by salty sea dogs for the daily catch. Outside the Inn that led to the jetty a boat full of small children was surrounded by people. It turns out they were about to commence the launch and maiden voyage of a concrete boat built from scratch that weekend. The speech revealed a drunken night in Georgia had seeded the idea, and a year later “having done some math” a group had come back together to fulfil the challenge. With nothing better to do we hung around, avoided the glass that came flying into the crowd from the smashed champagne bottle (not everyone did!), and watched the boat winched off the pier and lowered into the water. Cheers all round as she floated, and more cheers as she continued to float when the first three passengers stepped in. She was then rowed around the harbour, with various members of the team and their families all having a go. It was a fun and motley crew of interesting people. The tattooed motor biker clutching a Chihuahua cross who had its own goggles and rode up front, the elderly Bernie Sanders supporting couple who wanted to get our views on Brexit and talked about their hitchhiking adventures 40 years ago, the man who’s dog wouldn’t go down into the boat so we got a dog for 20 minutes to care take, the weather beaten fisheman who had been out that morning and had his stunningly beautiful glassy eyed catch laid out on the sluice and talked Fred through them all, and best of all the Welshman, fag in hand, who had been in California for 40 years and not lost a trace of his accent. He’d run a Welsh bar and live music venue in San Francisco for years, hosted many UK bands breaking the US, before retiring up the coast and “out of the madness”. A small place celebrating an audacious achievement with an unconventional, creative and thinking crowd. Not bad for an accidental moment on this trip.
Seeing a sign for a lighthouse we took another turn off and found ourselves running north atop a cliff face. An impossibly cute white lighthouse stood at the end of a rocky outcrop. We parked up to take some pictures. As we did so we looked down on the sea and below us lounging on the rock pools were dozens of sea lions. They were excitingly close and we stopped for 20 minutes just watching them, mesmerised. Huge round eyes looked up every time Dean took a picture. I’ve no idea what sea lions hearing is like so it was either a coincidence or we experienced their exceptional hearing. I Need to check it out.
Filled up on our days experiences we started to look for somewhere to stop. We passed through a few coastal towns that we’d hoped to find accommodation in but all were out of budget, or when we drove through we realised they were places with not enough to occupy us. The coast was also shrouded in a fine fog and came with onshore winds that put the temperature at a not very appealing mid 50sF, so we made the decision to peel off Highway 1 and head inland down the Russian River. Within 5 miles of turning inland the fog lifted and blue skies shone down on riverside beaches and kayakers enjoying the late afternoon sun. We passed through Monte Rio and just as we came through it saw a vacancy sign. A quick U turn and we pulled in to the River View Garden Motel. The scene was stunning. Beautifully tended, the garden was a riot of vibrant colours and rich fruit trees which led down to a private riverside beach. Two Pomeranian's were sunbathing in the yard. A look between us and we decided that whatever the price, within reason (!), we were staying here for a few days. Mr J negotiated an out of budget price that we could just about stand, and with a full kitchen we thought we could make our way back into budget with some frugal cooking.
A shop in Safeways in the next town got us stocked up and we quickly agreed that we would stay for 4 nights, taking a break from sketchy motels and the rugged cooler pacific coastline. Mr J has given us free use of 3 kayaks and we’ve spent the last 3 days out on the river, fishing for minnows with plastic cups, catching crawfish with hot dogs tied to string on a stick (that was other more savvy people actually, but Fred and I joined in), taking morning and evening swims, chatting to other river goers, and spotting more stunning wildlife. Our first day kayaking down river for an hour and we saw Condors sunbathing with wings outstretched, rainbow coloured herons, a mink slipping out of the water onto the river bank (apparently a rare sight because they were all but wiped out by the Russian Fur Traders in the 1800s), fish of all sizes, and so on. Taking our water proof ‘Go Pro’ out we’ve swum early morning, mid day and late at night, hopefully capturing the best of our river stay.
Last night as we took a late afternoon swim we were joined by Casey. Pootling along in his kayak he heard us and pulled over to identify our accent. We were soon passing a jolly hour in the warm water chatting about the area, its history, English and American music. Sporting a goatee, tattoos, and a few pirate earrings, we learnt that he was 14 years sober and clean from a crystal meth habit that had cleaned him out. He moved up from LA to this spot of Northern California and rebuilt his life in the woodland. He now works installing and refurbishing septic tanks and, when not at work, takes to the river in his kayak. Still into Motocross, which he had competed in internationally, he helps out with kids who are starting off in Motocross. He wanted to know all about our trip, and was planning to do Europe and South America on his motorbike. It was a lovely time and we were sorry when we started to get too chilly to continue the conversation.
So now we’re on our final day at Mr J’s. Playing badminton on the brown grass, swimming in the cooling river with the fish, blogging in the hammock under the shade of the fruity trees to the sound of the wealth of birds calling. We shall miss the small plates of spicy frittered courgette flower heads, curried cauliflower and peas, and big jugs of Chai he has brought up to our balcony. Yet more fabulous hospitality in a magic hideaway we didn’t know we would wash up in.
Tomorrow we head to San Francisco to stay in the El Capitain on Mission Street. It has the worst reviews on Booking.com and Trip Advisor but is the only affordable accommodation in the area we want to be to explore, the Mission and Castro districts. So for one night we will be back with the crack and crystal meth addicts that haven’t found Casey’s sobriety, and saying good day to the homeless as we come and go from our hotel. We just need to figure out how to keep our empathy in check and our wallets in our pockets……..
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx