I had come down the coast from Brookings OR on Wednesday, only to be driven inland, after another run through the Redwoods, by cold fog and rain. The California coast is as pretty as predicted, all crashing waves, iconic cypress and pine, golden grassy hills with a lace of oak trees across their crowns, but sure enough it was warmer and sunny in the interior, and the trip from the coast to Willits was beautiful. Those lacey strings of sage-green oak trees were dominant in the hills, and the trunks all looked like Japanese ink paintings, gnarly and effortlessly elegant at the same time.
The roads twisted and turned up and down the countryside in a sometimes dizzying corkscrew and I again wished for an old English sports car, something that would make driving on these roads at 40 mph seem death-defying, something out of an old movie. My Chevy handled it quite well, but with none of the lithe grace I imagined commanding from a ragtop in the switchbacks and canted curves. A newer, more luxurious sports car, a Porsche or BMW say, would require more speed, more range to be thrilling. 40 to 60 is the seat-grabbing territory of old British cars and “bathtub” Porsches (I’ve seen a half dozen of these in the past week, all restored beautifully), where the road seems so close you don’t dare to drop your hand out the side for fear of skinned knuckles.
Willits itself was a pleasant place, again a mixture of old west and new age. Signs for the rodeo share equal billing with ads for the local head-shop.
In Zaza’s, a bakery/coffee shop, I was in line in front of a group of hat-wearing scuffed-boot ranch types and the woman at the head of the line asked if the Chai was “…really good? Like, I don’t want to order it if it’s not really good. Oh, it is? Then could you give me a cup with some gently warmed soy milk?” I kid you not. The drug store signs and a Main Street “night club” are flashbacks to my first trip across America, in 1958, as is The Lark Motel, where I spend the night. Clean, reasonable and convenient– could you wish for more?
Across the street, a food truck seems permanently parked. “Burrito King_ the best burritos in California!” got my business for dinner and I’m done for the day.
The next day I fall for the weatherman’s patter about the rain moving east and a predicted mid-70’s sunshine-fest on the coast and drive back in that direction, just a bit south, toward Fort Bragg. He lied. Slightly less wet than the day before, the coast is still in a fogbank. What was I thinking? Still, as a formerly professional photographer I meet at Russian Gulch State Park reminds me, gray weather is perfect for photography. I shoot some 4×5 on the coast and take advantage of the motel stay the next night to change all of the holders over to fresh film. I’m in for a long time in the darkroom this winter, if nothing else. I realized that I was just as over-ambitious in planning how much film I needed as I was in thinking of the distances I would be able to travel. My mother’s dictum about having eyes bigger than my stomach comes back to me with a new twist here–but I will not run out before getting home, that’s for sure.
The beaches in California are less accessible than those in Oregon– a lot more property rights issues here. Oregon was remarkably forward thinking when it declared in 1967 that all of the shoreline is public land––state park, in fact. California is not without lovely parks, however, and Russian Gulch is one of them.
The precipitous nature of the coastline and the fact that Rt. 1 hugs that line pretty closely makes for two things: more of those canted curves and narrow bridges that soar above the gulches and gullies like ribbons stretched between the hills. The one over Russian Gulch is more accessible than most, with a viewing area at its base.
I would have done so if not for a word from Bruce, that friendly former pro photographer who wanted to talk Speed Graphics and relive his salad days as a darkroom wizard in a lab at Berkley, CA, contact printing 8×10 negatives on a light table that used an array of small, independently controlled lights under a double layer of frosted glass. For burning and dodging you switched lights on and off, augmenting the process with carefully ripped tissue paper placed just right on the glass. Once you had the perfect print, you could reproduce it any number of times, he said. I tried to imagine being that kind of darkroom craftsman and decided I simply wasn’t in his league. I might get one good one, but consistency is not in my make-up and I would change all the variables every time I printed. Ah well…
I say seemingly, because, if you look closely at the cars, or more closely at the people you can see that many of the “locals” are pretty gussied up, and the wealth on display did not come from a local economy, since there isn’t really a local economy. The nearest larger town is Mendicino, which is picture perfect enough without my taking many pictures of it. I did catch this one however, from a bluff nearby. If the folks in Elk are working in Mendicino, they’re commuting the twistiest road I can think of to do so. There really isn’t any quick way to get anywhere on this coast.
In the afternoon I decide that a night out in this weather would not be good, and that I am unlikely to be able to meet any of the folks I had planned to meet in San Fran. I also have to face the fact that I will not be able to go as far south on this trip as I had planned. Time to head back to the right coast- slowly. So I write emails to folks apologizing for leaving them hanging, and head on up and over the hills again- this time to Santa Rosa. From there it’s a short 4-hour hop through the wine country to Yosemite and two nights in a campground.