Highway 101; West Coast USA: My way or the highway

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Highway 101; West Coast USA: My way or the highway

Frankly, it doesn’t come much less glamorous than Crescent City in northern California. Fast food outlets encircle our motel and cooking oil hangs heavy in the night air, so I wander the vacant streets.

In a nearby bar two overweight, heavily made-up women are impaled on bar stools like meatballs on toothpicks. One tells me they are waiting for something to turn up, and later it does: he’s wearing a baseball cap, an ill-fitting brown suit and a lecherous grin.

Back at the motel I say to Megan, “We’re outta here early tomorrow, right?”

Crescent City is just another stop on our drive from Port Angeles in north Washington, down the Pacific Northwest coast through Oregon on Highway 101, to return the rental in San Francisco.

Aside from the promise of natural beauty, this journey has taken us through towns with interestingly speculative names like Beaver and nearby Sappho in Washington. After Crescent City lie Trinidad, Samoa, Eureka and -- Westport.

Disappointingly in Oregon -- a state where Nature shows off -- access to the coast has been often denied by housing or trailer parks and small towns seemed scrabbling to survive. There was also far too much chainsaw art carved from tree trunks -- life-size bears, lumberjacks, Vikings and once a grizzly toting a guitar -- for my liking.

DSC00755“Who buys this stuff?” I ask a girl selling chainsaw junk.

“You’d be surprised,” she says, which was no answer at all.

But optimistically we drove on, stopping for petrol, beef jerky and the sweet salmon candy we developed a taste for. The trip had been occasionally tedious -- Lincoln was an effluent of tacky gift shops, crab shacks and places selling driftwood sculpture -- but when we crossed into California yesterday we were back in touch with the sea crashing against rocks. For people from the opposite end of the Pacific it was familiar and welcome.

Then we reached flat-lining Crescent City.

But it is near redwood forests so the following morning we head up Elk Valley Road as sea mist casts a suggestion of mystery over the otherwise uninteresting town.

The deserted lane through the ancient forest is muddy and we pull over beside a tree with a trunk as broad as a house. It is as quiet as the stars in the enveloping mist, thin shafts of sunlight illuminating patches of fern and rendering them vivid green beside the creek. We sit and smell the silence.

In the century after the 1849 gold rush half of California’s redwoods were felled. These giants around us, some 1000 years old, pierce the low clouds and are living testament to the loss.

We follow the loop road back to Highway 101 heading south through tiny towns like Elk and rundown Orick (“Alas, poor Orick”). Trinidad announces itself with an exceptionally ugly RV park. But with such a romantic name we feel obliged to explore it and discover a vibrant fishing village.

The Tsurai Indians carved canoes from redwoods here 400 years ago, a Portuguese vessel arrived in 1595, and two centuries later it was named La Santisima Trinidad by the Spanish explorers Hezeta and Bodega (the latter getting his own bay further south).

Russian fishermen and fur traders used the harbour in the early 1800s, and in 1850 Trinidad became the port for gold-seekers working the nearby Klamath, Trinity and Salmon rivers.

Treasure seekers -- and later those searching for a quiet life -- claimed Trinidad, also famous for Katy’s Smokeshop which has been selling fresh smoked fish for 60 years.

We walk in and Megan asks for salmon candy. The woman with the wispy moustache and hairy, powerful arms, is disdainful.

“Well, I guess some people like that. Kids mostly. We sell other things.”

She walks away as we admire the glistening fresh salmon and scallops the size of your palm in the cabinets. We buy vacuum-packed smoked scallops and albacore which Hairy Woman rings up, then we shamefully leave. Still wishing they’d had salmon candy.

DSC00797No matter, we are heading down to Humboldt Coast to Samoa, so named early last century when a local businessman built a heated public pool. American Samoa was in the news so this tough lumber town with its exotic baths became known as Samoa.

Megan’s father is from the real Samoa so we photograph the nearby woodchip factory belching smoke. It’ll make a nice “Welcome to beautiful Samoa” t-shirt for the folks back home.

But it is the Samoa Cookhouse, the last cookhouse in the West, we are here for. Built 100 years ago, it catered for lumber workers and served three cheap, hefty meals a day. It has long tables covered in plastic tablecloths (no reservations) and the main hall seats 110.

The set menu for lunch today is Swiss steak and potatoes. The meal (US$9.95, seniors 10% discount) includes Cajun chicken soup, salad, coffee, their superb homemade bread, and dessert.

Mary, a round motherly woman wearing a pinny, says twice that if we want more of anything -- even steak -- to just call out. An hour later we are so weighed down we can barely walk around the historic photos of lumberyards and tree-felling which line the walls.

After Eureka across the bay we aim for Leggett where we can, for $3, drive through a redwood.

“I guess I should go real slow to get my money’s worth,” I say to the woman taking the money.

“You got it, honey.”

So I drag out the drive through the tree. It is a full four seconds before we appear on the other side. It’s a rip-off but funny, although it’s the last laugh for a while.

We now have a choice: Highway 1 or 101. But we want the road less travelled and that is coast-hugging Highway 1. Big mistake.

The forest drive which follows is beautiful but demandingly winding, the petrol gauge flickers alarmingly low, and each corner reveals another corner. Dusk and drizzle are falling.

We croak into tiny Westport, shout with relief at the self-serve gas station, then head for pretty little Mendocino (population 1200) for a hotel and dinner.

The historic Mendocino Hotel is packed and although we can get a garden cottage the restaurant is fully booked. The usually quiet town (freshest air in America, apparently) is hosting drivers in the Mille Miglia, the local equivalent of the famous 1000 mile Italian car race for vehicles built between 1927 and 1957.

The street displays gleaming car flesh: restored Fiats, Renaults, classic Cadillacs and massive Buicks. We party with the drivers and the following morning farewell them as they putter off to Santa Rosa on the 101. We are back on coastal Highway 1 which takes us through Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock filmed The Birds), and skirts around photogenic Tomales Bay which has been created by the San Andreas Fault.

After tart eucalyptus groves -- so different from the pine fragrances of Oregon and the meadow flowers of Mendocino -- the road climbs high above the blue-green Pacific.

Distant San Francisco glitters in the afternoon sun. We skip through dormitory suburbs, past sleepy and salubrious Sausalito, and before us is the graceful, welcoming symmetry of the Golden Gate Bridge.

That night we are having a drink near Union Square before dinner. The guy next to me gets chatting. I tell him we have come from Washington following the coast roads.

“Wow, that’s some drive. You’ve seen some interesting places.”

“Yeah,” I laugh. “And Crescent City.”

“Crescent City? That’s a great little town.”

I finish my drink in a single gulp.

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