Northern California

Trip Start Mar 26, 2006
Trip End Oct 20, 2006

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Flag of United States  , California
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Wow - Northern California in September is spectacular - sparkling clear sunshiny days, dramatic coastlines, and ocean teaming with wildlife. Beautiful. And no wind! A welcome relief trom the constant onshore breezes of Washington and Oregon.

The minute we cross the border from Oregon, we recognize California's quirky style - strip malls, palm trees, springy pastels, shiny convertibles. We make our way to Redwood National Park where we again find ourselves amongst towering behemoths, surrounded by earthy relaxed quiet. Rays of sunshine cascade horizontally through the moisture-laden air and cast beams of light onto the carpet of ferns below.

Redwood Hostel, near Klamath, sits perched on a hillside across the 2-lane highway from a small beach. The uncharacteristically high ratio of gay men to straight comes as a nice surprise here and we spend an evening draped across the living room couches talking politics and travel with new friends from Portland, Australia, and Boston. One minor annoyance at this hostel is the policy that prohibits guests from hanging out in the building from 10am to 6pm, but there's enough to do nearby to fill a couple of days and the facilities are nice enough that we don't mind...much.

When we roll into crunchy, organic, ultra-progressive Arcata, it feels like we've been transported to the Boulder of 20 years ago, stoned hippies and all. The dread-coiffed crowds at the coffee shop, many of them students at Humboldt State University, discuss fair trade, radical feminism, and MySpace over steaming cups of joe beneath advertisements for hospice work, reiki treatments, inner-voice workshops, fiddle lessons, and visiting gurus.

The Humboldt State campus is bursting with the youthful energy of a new semester - Todd and I get a kick out of the "Department of Appropriate Technology". I feel the tug of wanting to stretch my mind by taking a class, and ads for an upcoming grad school fair get my mind churning. But what to study?

We decide we like Arcata in all its feisty grunginess, though we wonder if we could survive the 10 months of grey weather. This feels like a place where Ranger Todd could really return to his radical environmentalist roots and where I might finally learn to play the guitar.

Further south, on our way to the Lost Coast, County Road 211 out of Fortuna takes us past idyllic pastoral setting of lovely farmhouses, rolling pasture, and herds of dairy cows. Something about these wide open spaces, the warmth of the sunshine, and the gently curving road brings me completely into the present, melts away my mind, and brings a huge smile to my face. This feels like quintessential road trip territory.

We stop for a walk along the surf at King Range National Conservation Area. An older couple, who've just finished a very windy couple of days backpacking, inform us that they're going to stop somewhere nearby to score some wee - "This is the pot growing capital of California!" - before checking in for their massage appointments in Calistoga. Further along the beach, we get a spontaneous lesson in seaweed harvesting from a local woman whose soft gray hair and open smile make her seem gently aged by decades spent among salt and waves. It's also easy to find private stretches of beach here - we spend some time listening to the waves and watching the curious seals watch us - and I can't think of a better way to be spending my birthday than right here.

Further south, we spend a couple of days exploring Ft. Bragg. After an awesome dinner of cioppino at Carine's Fish Grotto, where the front entry is adorned with pictures of famous movie stars who've eaten here, we come across a band of people gathering near the mouth of the harbor. A bohemian-looking Aussie calls a bunch of us over, sits us down on logs in ront of a makeshift "stage", and for the next 45 minutes we watch as he and several others flame dance in the dark night to techno beats played on a boombox. It's a weird crowd - families with children seated next to teens taking tokes from their weed pipes. It starts to get cold, so we give them a couple bucks and disperse early.

The next few days are a whirlwind. We stay at MacKerricher State Park, where we sit on the rocks and watch seals sunning just 50 yards away. We continue down Highway 1, stopping to check out each little viewpoint and wayside. We talk for awhile with a father and son who are prepping their gear for an abalone dive. Todd and I just shake our heads in disbelief when they walk out into the dark water, swim out a ways, then disappear every few minutes when they dive into the 55 degree water. This is free diving - no scuba gear! Just wet suit, snorkel, fins, and a knife to pry the abalone loose - while holding your breath! All I can think about is that these are the guys you're always hearing about who get munched by Great Whites. But at each of the parks along the way we see more divers, some with scuba gear and some without, and it dawns on me that there actually IS a population of people who does this stuff without a divemaster. Crazy!

In Mendocino, we're charmed by the quaint shops perched on the cliffs above the ocean, the abundance of local arts events, and the obviously liberal bent. Todd gets a little miffed with me when I pull over and abruptly cut him off from reading a AAA description of the area until he realizes that I've stopped in front of the chocolate shop. We proceed to gobble down delectable chocolate covered caramel, pecan caramel clusters, and mouthwateringly rich fudge. We spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the jagged clifs and crashing waves along the Mendocino Headlands, completely mesmerized by the natural beauty and the incredible sea that stretches out to the horizon.

From Mendocino south it's one spectacular view after another along Highway 1. At Bodega Bay, we cut inland to Santa Rosa, which makes a good base for a day of winetasting in nearby Napa Valley. We pack a delicious picnic lunch of hummus, flatbread, cheese, and fresh fruit and head of for wine country. First stop is Sterling Vineyards, well known for its gondola that takes visitors to the hilltop location where they produce all their wine. The self-guided tour is terrific and we enjoy watching the trucks roll in with huge cartloads of grapes that they dump into a big mechanical masher. We watch videos about the different grape varieties and how they're treated and explanations of the wine making process. Most of all, we enjoy the wine tasting!

After two more vineyards, we're ready to call it a day, so we head back to Santa Rosa.

My good friend, Bill, who recently moved to San Francisco, coerces us into arriving in the city a couple of days early. He generously puts us up in his place, and after 6 months on the road, it's indescribably good to have a base to call home for more than a couple of days. We're exhausted from a lot of traveling, and we've done the tourist circuit here before - the Wharf, Chinatown, Union Square, the Castro, the Mission, Golden Gate Bridge - so it's nice to just skip all of that and instead spend some time catching up on email, sleeping late, eating good food, downloading missed episodes of Lost, and hanging with Bill.

Also, as it turns out, we're in town during the Folsom Street Fair, an event I had never heard of before and definitely an experience that I won't soon forget. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this annual San Francisco event, it's the world's largest gathering of Leather and S&M enthusiasts. That's right - basically a huge kink fest. Since I'm trying to keep this somewhat family friendly, let's just say that they put it all out there - and I mean ALL. If you want the details, you'll have to ask me in person...after I've had a few too many drinks.

There have only been a few spots along the way that we've been sorry to leave and San Francisco is definitely one of them. We've had a great time here, but sadly it's time again to move on. A HUGE thanks to bill for being such a gracious host! (Maybe next time we can help unpack the boxes in the dining room now that we've conquered the kitchen?)

On to adventures further south!
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