Drive started ugly, on route 101 toward SFO to pick up the rental car. Although Charles Kuralt was talking specifically about the U.S. interstate system, "it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything" if you are not careful. Fortunately, route 101 would soon change dramatically.
I took route 1 through the city to see the Presidio for the first time — about what I expected. Having seen the Golden Gate Bridge from afar, that was what I expected, too. The view of the bay from the bridge itself is probably impressive, from what I could tell from glimpses between traffic and pylons. I was, however, impressed with the northerly view of San Francisco from the Marin side of the bay; this view alone might have justified the one-hour drive up here.
The 101 corridor through Sonoma County — wine country — is straight, flat, uninterrupted, and lightly trafficked. A fortunate combination for driving while sightseeing — not that Sonoma county offers a lot to see from within a car. Vineyards were interesting for the first ten miles: acres of grapes in flawless rows from one end of the valley to the other, under the watchful eye of the winery villas, perched on the surrounding hills like alert shepherds watching neatly-arranged sheep. After a while, however, the repetition grew, well, repetitive.
North of wine country lie California's world-famous redwood forests. When Lewis & Clark traversed the continent, the redwoods blanketed most of northern California that was not desert. After two centuries of manifest destiny and industrialization that blanket is like one stored too long in a closet, eaten through by moths, whose holes now outnumber the areas left. On the plus side, the feds and several states have preserved some forests and wilderness areas for posterity. Fortunately for me — but perhaps not for the flora and fauna — the local highway network runs past and through those areas, making them easily accessible to the casual tourist.
Indeed, tourism is one of this region's largest industries, after logging. By this point, route 101 has begun to meander its way through the valley of redwoods like a mature river within its floodplain. Around each bend, each small town begets a strip mall whose growth was stunted by gestation in vodka. The resulting clusters of disconnected shops would be garish if they were not so charming. Other than gas stations, corporate America has not discovered this region — not a single McDonald's anywhere. From home-made handicrafts to a 58-foot tall Paul Bunyan (and a like-sized Blue, of course), everything is carved from local redwood. Each souvenir shop offers something unique and local; the only common themes are Bigfoot and redwood carvings. The One-Log House in Leggett takes the latter to the extreme; this café is the hallowed-out trunk of a redwood tree, 13 feet in diameter and 20 feet long. This small space is cramped with small tables, and food is served from a kitchen in the adjacent building which, of course, sports its own handicrafts shop. The deli sandwiches are nondescript, but the carpentry shop (open for the public to see) is worth a stop.
Emerging from the redwoods in California's far north, route 101 hugs the coast most of the way the Canadian border. Ducking in and out of the hills, the road at times abuts a sheer 100-foot drop to the sea. A few small coves and lagoons provide the requisite scenic outcroppings. This region, inter alia, is elk country; herds of wild elk roam the countryside freely, barely an half-hour north of Paul and Babe in Klamath. I drove past a grazing herd around that that time; but, without a safe place to pull over (much of route 101 is only two lanes with no shoulder), I could not get a decent count or snap a photograph. During quick glances as driving allowed, I counted four bucks, three of which had antler racks at least as wide as my car.
Route 199 meets 101 north of Crescent City. Today's ultimate destination, Grant's Pass, Oregon, is 80 miles away, with the Oregon border halfway in between. The Oregon portion is OK, but the California portion is spectacular. Running sinusoidally along the border of the Jedediah Smith State Park, route 199 teases the edge of the forest for the first 15 miles. From there, it turns and runs through the heart of one of the densest forests in North America. The road's builders surely had restaurant experience, for they planned a five-course meal for the eyes.
The appetizer along the forest's edge impressed this driver with a few stout trunks and perspective on the distant hills carpeted by the same. The salad came when the road dipped into the forest for the first few times. Passing redwoods whose girth rivaled the length of my car, I was struck by the density of trees, even this close to the edge. Each stood hundreds of feet high and dozens of feet around, yet the soil supports each one less than five feet from its neighbors. In between, squat bushes and hardy, shorter trees manage with precious little direct sunlight. The sun barely penetrates even to the road, where the trees have been cleared by men. Sunlight speckles the asphalt as it freckles the face of a red-haired child in a day at the beach. Dots of light dance as the treetops sway in the breeze high above.
Next comes the main course. After witnessing the size of the forest from the outside, this driver felt prepared to see its innards. However, like a medical student observing his first operation, I quickly realized that a view from the outside left me ill-prepared. Parts of the forest were dark enough to require headlights at 3pm. Each tree stood prouder and straighter than his neighbors in the never-ending competition for sunlight. The next fifteen miles are a gauntlet of darkness and vague forms between the redwood pillars. Even at the modest pace of 20 miles per hour, I had little chance to glance sideways to discern them all properly. The redwoods' shape predisposes the eye to see vertical forms, and most of the underbrush reaches heights of eight to ten feet. It is hardly surprising that this region produces more Bigfoot sightings than any other in the world.
Like an expert waiter, the road hardly lets its diner notice the transition to dessert. For the next five miles, the road clings precariously to the sides of cliffs. The deformations of the guardrail and scrapings on the asphalt are a sobering reminder of the forest siren's power over the driver. Despite the obvious danger, however, no one could turn around. The vistas of near and distant hills compete with the road for attention — and most of the time, win. The sentinels one met so intimately just minutes before now line the opposing hillsides at erect attention. Those slopes are as steep as the road's, and where the road overlooks a cliff, the visitor is treated to one of the most spectacular sights on Earth. The hills reach as far as the eye can see. Each rounded by millennia of weathering, they are as smooth as soft rolls of chill sorbet scoops, viewed through the sides of a glass. The trees blanket every inch of the ground from this vantage point. Rather than the afghans knitted by Aunt Rose, which have occasional gaps in the stitching, these trees are an artisan's masterpiece of finely-woven silk, with threads as fine as any imaginable and stitching that disappears to the untrained eye. Frequent turnouts provide appreciated respite from this harrowing stretch of road and opportunities to consume these vistas properly. Without them, I might have left my car dangerously on the road to stand on the cliffs.
As I began to suspect that dessert must soon end — though the forest and road gave no outward indication — it occurred to me that the slopes I saw from afar were as steep as the road's own. However, each tree stood erect, reaching for the sky with all its considerable might. Just as I began to speculate on the angle each trunk must form with the ground, the road clung for dear life to the edge of an outcropping, halfway up a 500-foot, nearly-sheer cliff. This rare bare spot on the local hill was immediately followed by a curve in the opposite direction, as the hillside surrounded the ravine far below, as if to intimidate it into submission. This gap in the local trees was precisely what I needed to answer the question I had scarcely enough time to formulate. Where the road treated me to a cross-section of the forest, highlighted by the slanting afternoon sun, I could see the sharp bend in each tree trunk beginning about three feet off the ground. Some bends reached sixty degrees to allow the trees to reach a skyward trajectory. If I did not know any better, I might speculate that the forest hivemind read my thoughts and gave me the only satisfying answer it could. I wondered if this was the understanding a visitor would feel in a Victorian nobleman's smoking room if he listened quietly to the men sharing their after-dinner cigars after the women had taken their leave from the dinner table, as they decided the pressing political and business questions of the day. This was how clearly route 199 explained its redwoods as the forest became gradually thinner and bare spots more frequent. Each new cross section of forest offered an educating glimpse at a new crop of trees.