Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Wild Coast

Day One.

The sea of waving green-and-yellow cartop flags gave way immediately as soon as I turned off traffic-choked I-5, replaced by a few orange and black flags until I got to Corvalis - then, no flags, and indeed few cars at all. The road narrowed as it plunged all at once into the thick tangle of green that marked the beginning of the coast range. At only 2 pm, it was already growing dark under the evergreen overcast. No matter: it was a relief to be out of heavy traffic after 90 straight miles of it. I had unwittingly begun the third leg of my round-the-country adventure on the same day as the Civil War, the annual matchup between the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers that is the sporting event of the year in NFL-less Oregon. In response, I decided to cut over to the coast 40 miles short of Eugene, my original turnoff point.

Route 34 was in truth no faster than the interstate - appreciably slower, in fact - but I'll take a tangle of tightly wound hairpin turns as a time-consuming obstacle over a horde of SUVs piloted in mass formation by distracted sports fans any day. The pavement was smooth, dry, and without leaves or gravel; I quickly settled into the rhythm of the twisting road, right and left, up and down.... my freeway-induced stiffness melted away as my right hand teased the bike faster and I began shifting my weight across the saddle as I took more aggressive lines and carved the turns steeper. At some point, I no longer thought about which lines to take or turn entry and exit speeds, no longer concentrated on the intricate dance of my hands and feet on the controls...I simply saw and did, acting instinctively, the bike a mere extension of my body. This is not so different from the best sort of flying. To coordinate effortlessly, simply willing the machine wherever you wish, intoxicated by the rush of speed, feeling exhilaration in the artistic perfection of a perfectly banked turn...these are familiar pleasures indeed. The road, of course, is the fundamental and defining difference, its constant reassuring presence as sacrosanct to motorcyclists as freedom from its boundaries is revered by aviators. As one artist revels in embracing unconventional and limitless means of expression, another finds pleasure in working creatively within the boundaries of chosen limitations.

Soon enough I was at Oregon's coastline, a wild and broken stretch that would be lonely and isolated by the Coast Range if not for Highway 101, on which I now turned south. I was hoping to make Bandon, some 100 miles to the south, but the sun was now low in the sky. I couldn't resist the beautiful late-afternoon light and stopped to take pictures a number of times. At Heceta Head, I pulled over at a turnout to photograph the iconic lighthouse, and heard the distinct barking of sea lions as soon as I turned off the motor. Sure enough, a large colony was gathered in the cove below, audible over the surf from a good half-mile away.

It was nighttime by the time I stopped for gas and dinner in Coos Bay, making for a pitch-black ride for the last twenty miles through the forest to Bandon. I'm not experienced at night riding, and it puts me at ill ease. I imagine animals and other obstacles that aren't there and tend to initially lean into turns far too aggressively, fearing they are tighter than they actually are. I was relieved to soon reach Bullard's Beach State Park, where I made camp for the night. It was still fairly early, but in the absence of anything better to do I quickly settled in for a long, cold, mostly sleepless night listening to the surf crash ashore.

Day Two.

I was fitfully dozing when my wristwatch alarm went off at 5:30am, and rose with strange dreams still replaying in my mind. It was cold so I put on my full riding gear right away before breaking camp. The first two miles into Bandon were quite numbing, making for an early decision to stop for a cup of coffee. By the time I left, the sky was turning light. An hour later, the rising sun warmed my face and again bathed the coastline in beautiful light that begged me to pull over and take photos.

I reached the California border and Crescent City before 10am, and simply crossing into the Golden State seemed to warm the air several degrees. Redwood trees lined the road, filling the air with their wonderful scent. South of Crescent City the highway turned away from the coast, narrowed, and entered Redwood National Forest. Needing to arrive in San Fransisco that night, I couldn't afford to stop, but the ride alone was a glorious introduction. Each turn brought another gasp-inducing view. The late-morning sun filtered down through the massive trunks in bright shafts; while the comparison to the interior of a cathedral is overused, it is inevitable as I know no better description of the look and feel of the place. There was no other traffic other than a guy on a Harley who followed me and appeared to be having an equally wonderful time. In the south of the park, the views opened up as the road widened to four lanes and turned downhill towards the sea. I opened up the throttle, leaving my friend on the Harley behind as I cruised down a beautiful set of sweeping turns at 70, 80, 90 mph.

Just north of Arcata the views became suddenly familiar again. When I flew for Horizon, I had frequent Arcata/Eureka layovers. The layover hotel, the pizza joint, Lost Coast Brewery where I had enjoyed many a handcrafted brew... I kept an eye out around the old haunts, hoping in vain to spy one of my Horizon friends enjoying an overnight in Eureka. Not seeing any, I continued onward.

South of Eureka, Highway 101 becomes a four-lane freeway, the form it retains most of the way to Los Angeles. While a good road in its own right, it does bypass virtually all coastline along the way, so I was planning on taking California's justly famous Route 1 the rest of the way to LA. It doesn't begin until Leggett, some 90 miles south of Eureka. Because the intervening coastline is left undisturbed by roads or many other human touches, it is an especially wild and lonely place known as the Lost Coast. It is, I suppose, an example of how isolated the entire rugged west coast would be had the coastal highways not been constructed in the short period after civil engineering had progressed enough to make such roads possible but before environmentalism made it unfashionable to blast your way through untrammeled wilderness.

Perhaps I was enjoying the fast sweepers of Highway 101's Lost Coast bypass too much, because I somehow missed Leggett and the turnoff for Route 1. I didn't realize it until about 20 miles later. By now it was late enough in the day that my only hope of reaching San Francisco before dark was to continue on Highway 101 and bypass the rest of the northern California coastline. Otherwise, I could cut back over to the coast at Willits, and plan on riding the last hour or two in the dark. I glumly decided that scenery took precedence over timeliness and turned west on Route 20.

Boy, was I glad I did. What a road! It started out straight enough, then snarled into a series of tight, climbing switchbacks. After a fair climb, it leveled out and traversed the slopes with unending hairpin turns. As it reached the west side of the range, the trees thinned and the road straightened somewhat to allow for fast, open ridgeline sweepers. As it neared the coast, it again plunged downward with hairpins and switchbacks, finally ending 35 glorious miles at the small town of Fort Bragg.

Now I had high hopes of making up some time, for I had traveled this stretch of Route 1 in 2004 and recalled it being somewhat straight, flat, and fast. Actually, a large portion of it is straight and flat, but it is not fast because those straight and flat sections are broken up by innumerable little gullies that the engineers did not bridge for whichever reason, but built several slow, tight switchbacks down and up each side instead. It might have proven a fun road in another circumstance, but having already sliced my way through countless turns this day, and with my light fading fast, it was merely obnoxious and tiring. Around Fort Ross, the road became downright rugged as it again hugged the crumbling, heaving coastline. By now it was nearly pitch dark, heavy opposite-direction traffic was blinding me, and the road was not well marked with reflectors. I felt like I was groping my way through a maze marked not by walls but sheer cliffs. Once I hit an unseen pothole in the middle of a turn and my rear wheel began sliding out from under me. I yelped, eased off the throttle as I stood up, and then gingerly leaned back into the turn to return to my lane before an oncoming car hit me. I rode on over the crumbling road with shaking knees.

At Bodega Bay I stopped briefly to call Dawn, who was at MSP waiting for her flight to San Francisco. I was dead tired, cranky, and getting cold again in the night air, but Dawn's voice helped calm my nerves. I hadn't eaten a thing since Crescent City, which certainly wasn't helping matters although I didn't feel hungry. The first twenty miles outside of Bodega Bay were easy country roads, not at all unpleasant for night riding. The next thirty miles to Stinson Beach were slow and curvy, but were pleasant enough riding along Tomales Bay and through dense strands of Douglas Fir and Eucalyptus trees. After Stinson Beach, though, the road got steep, snarly, and pockmarked as it climbed over the Muir Hills. Worse, I soon climbed into a dense fog bank. It fogged my face shield and then my glasses, and even when I removed both I couldn't see enough to creep forward at more than 10 to 15 mph. It was a constant balancing act: just fast enough to stay upright on the bike, but slow enough to not unwittingly drive off a cliff. I lost all sense of position, direction, or time, putting all concentration into negotiating the next twenty feet of road at a time. Several times I reached what I thought was the crest, only to resume the climb after a short level stretch. Finally, past a full parking lot that obviously doubled as a Lover's Lane, the road finally began its downward stretch. I was out of the fog mercifully soon, the road surface improved quickly, and the switchbacks weren't so tight on this side. Soon after rejoining civilization I was rocketing along Highway 101 at a suddenly-blazing 65 mph (and getting passed by all comers!). Across the timeless Golden Gate Bridge, through the cheerful streets of downtown San Francisco, and back onto the freeway to SFO, where I checked into a cheap-and-seedy Travelodge.

My destination finally reached at 9pm, exhaustion and hunger overtook me. I had been riding for 14 hours and had covered 560 twisting miles; while far short of my record thus far (920 miles), this was far more tiring. After a long hot shower and a breakfast-supper at IHOP, I collapsed into bed for a 30 minute nap before Dawn called me to say she was on the ground at SFO. After a short, cold ride to pick her up at the airport, we went to bed to the sound of revelers outside, and I hoped my bike would still be parked there and unmolested when we woke up to resume the ride to Los Angeles.

(To be Continued in Part Two)


BikerBarlow said...

Great story of your ride, and don't worry, that "slow old guy on his Harley" you pulled away from, would have gladly stopped to help you had your 90mph curve not quite worked out as you anticipated. *grin* No seriously now,about 6 months ago I bit the bullet and bought a handlebar mounted Garmin NUVI for my RKC and boy is is great! A cool feature I discovered is if you find yourself out after dark, lost in IMC (Instead of sittin' by the pub fireplace with a Great white in hand...) you can scroll the scale on the display all the way down to it's lowest setting and pretty much "see" what the road is going to do in the next few hundred feet with more reasonable accuracy that doing pop-eyes. Not to rely totally on it, after all it ain't no EGPWS!LOL! but in a pinch it's a god-send worth every penny of it's $400 or so! Really! Do it, buy one, then you can look like those Harley Guys' on their Geezer-Glides but san's the heated coffee cup warmers! Ride free and don't be hassled by the Man!

BMW. The next best bikes in the World!

Ryan said...

Ah, great pics of the North Coast, and my neck of the woods. Be careful out there, especially this time of year. Beautiful pics!