Wednesday, February 19, 2020 – Roving in Roatan, Honduras (or “An Unexpected Swim”)

The ship docked at Roatan, Honduras, around 7 am. Roatan sits about 40 miles off the Honduran mainland, and hosts many fine beaches and resorts. The island is also home to a few eco-parks where visitors can interact with many exotic animals. We were going to do both.

We got off the ship and met up with our tour guides Will and Darson. We rode through the streets of Coxen Hole to Manawakie Eco Park. We met up with Jimson, who showed us some of the island’s native plants and talked to us about what they were used for. We met the park’s capuchin monkeys, one of which tried to pick Jimson’s pocket. Sneaky little bugger! We also saw some spider monkey and rabbits, but we pretty much skipped them to get to the park’s real attraction, the sloth. Jimson introduced us to our sloth pal, “Real Deal,” the park’s only male sloth.

Sloths are interesting. Most people know them as slow-moving creatures. Jimson said they can actually be pretty fast if startled. Real Deal was calm and much like a baby. All he wanted to do was cuddle and hold onto something.

After saying goodbye to Real Deal we hopped back into our guides’ car and headed to the west side of the island. As we always do with the guides on our trips, we chatted with Will and Darson, to learn more about life on the island. We joked around like old friends.

We soon found ourselves at Paradise Beach Resort for some relaxation and snorkeling. We hopped on a boat that took us out to the Blue Channel. Roatan is surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. The Blue Channel is a popular spot to view various types of fish, sea turtles, rays, and sometimes even sharks.

Dumb me forgot my waterproof camera on the ship, so we gave it a go with trying to get video with Alicia’s phone inside a waterproof pouch. Trust me on this … we saw lots of striped fish, blue fish, and even a sea turtle swimming around. I would love to provide you proof, but there was a mishap.

We set the phone to camera mode prior to sealing it inside the pouch. Unfortunately, we did not change the screen sensitivity at the same time, so we could not control the phone through the pouch, which turned out to be very frustrating. So we decided to open up the pouch while we were about a mile from shore and 100 yards from the boat. We did our best to keep the pouch above water to adjust the settings. Somehow a tiny bit of water got into the pouch, and … well … RIP Alicia’s phone. At least we have the memories … and this drawing!

We got back to the beach to mourn the phone and try to dry it out in the sunshine. We drowned (Ha-ha! Get it?) our sorrows in a couple beers and a margarita, and enjoyed a delicious fish filet for lunch.

Every so often, we were interrupted by roving vendors who roamed the beach. They were selling sunglasses, candy, and (Are you serious?) waterproof phone pouches. I was even offered a pair of sunglasses while I was clearly wearing a pair. Apparently they were only allowed on a certain part of the beach, because no sooner did they wander into the area with all the resort’s lounge chairs the security guards shooed them away.

We returned to the ship and tried our hands again at the casino. Apparently my luck had run out because we could not hit anything on the slots. We even tried some unconventional methods to coax the slots into paying out. I thought maybe because I was wearing my contact lenses the machine didn’t recognize me. So I did what anyone would do, I made glasses out of my fingers! It didn’t work.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020 – Another Day at Sea (or “What else can you do on a ship in the middle of the ocean?”)

Cruise ships are big operations. Essentially they are floating cities. In fact, Liberty even has a “main street” right down the middle with shops and restaurants. It takes a lot of work behind the scenes to make a cruise ship work. Thousands of crew support the ship’s operations and the nearly 5,000 guests each week. One of my favorite activities on cruises is to take the behind-the-scenes tour. I’ve taken a few on Carnival cruises before, and have seen how each ship operates differently. Today, I took the tour along with my brother-in-law Tim.

The tour started out in the main dining room. The dining room had space on three decks and can seat almost 1,300 guests at a time! The lead sous chef told us everything about what the culinary crew does each day feeding guests and crew. The kitchen crew prepare 125,000 meals each week, using 13,000 pounds of beef, 8,000 pounds of chicken, 1,400 pounds of lobster, and many tons more food. We headed down to the store rooms below decks where all the food and drinks are stored for each cruise. Liberty spends more than $650,000 on food and drink each week. Food orders are made three weeks in advance, and the purchaser has to make the proper estimate for the amount of food to get for each order.

We got to go into the engine control room, where all the ship’s mechanical systems are watched. The entire ship is powered by six 12.6-megawatt diesel generators – enough electrical output to power more than 32,000 average homes. During our tour, only three of the generators were being used. The engines can push the ship at up to 26 miles per hour. These generators not only push the ship, but also provide all electricity and power water filtration and sanitation systems. According to the engineer we talked with, the ship goes through 500,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil per week.

Our final stop on the tour was the ship’s bridge. Unfortunately, we did not get to meet Captain James – a guy from Tampa, Florida, who looked like a trucker and sounded like a cowboy. Ivan, the officer manning the bridge, told us the Captain Does not usually spend much time on the bridge, other than when they are going into and leaving ports, or during emergencies. Ivan said the ship typically runs on autopilot with a minimum of three people on the bridge. One of the three had the sole job of looking out the window watching for obstacles.

For those cruisers who like to learn about the goings-on behind the crew doors on a ship, I recommend a behind-the-scenes tour.

During the afternoon we went to one of the many games put on by the crew. These games are a chance to get together with other guests and get to know them, all while having a little fun. The game we went to was a general trivia quiz. The host reads off 15 questions and guests have to write down their answers. Unfortunately, and I think this has been a growing problem, there are people who choose to cheat by using their cellphones and onboard internet accounts to search answers. I don’t see the point. Cheating for a prize that’s either a pen, key ring, or plastic bracelet. Does it make people feel good? What’s sadder is when I win a game against groups of up to six people looking up answers. I’ll take that key ring now.

After dinner we headed to the ship’s theater for one of their shows. Tonight’s show was called “Up in the Air.” It was an amazing display of strength by the ship’s acrobats, who were hanging from rings and strips of fabric. Some of the tricks they did were dozens of feet above the stage with no safety wires. Other tricks involved performers attached to harnesses. Toward the end, we got to see the panic in one performer’s eyes when she was unable to unclip herself from her harness before they raised the cables she was attached to. She remained there swinging about 10 feet above the stage attached only one of her cables. Eventually, they were able to lower her and she got herself unclipped.

Alicia and I took a late-night walk down the ship’s promenade. As we walked, “Sweet Caroline” was playing over the loudspeakers leading to a sudden singalong by us and other guests.

Monday, February 17, 2020 – A Day at Sea (or “A non-gambler sits at a slot machine. The results will shock you!”)

I’m not big on gambling, I spent five years working in a casino, which can turn you off to games of chance. Alicia, on the other hand, likes to gamble as a form of entertainment (which is how it should be treated). For some reason, I think the gambling fates know this and I never have any luck. I can walk up behind Alicia while she’s playing, and doing well, and she’ll start losing. I can suck the luck out of someone like a black hole.

Alicia had arranged a slot pull with some folks from a Facebook group prior to the cruise, so she stepped away from her machine, leaving me to watch it.

I got bored and decided to press the PLAY button a few times while I waited.

After a few plays, I hit a payout for $525. OK, this is good. I kept playing, sure that Alicia would be happy about being able to play on house money for a while. Soon, I hit another bonus. Then another. Within about 15 minutes I had more than $1,100! Maybe the gambling fates were on vacation too!

We walked away to explore the ship and get a snack, followed by other activities.

Liberty was so big that there was an ice rink on one of the lower decks. An ice rink! We paid a visit to the rink to watch a skating show. It was amazing to see what those figure skaters could do while on board a moving ship! Some of the skaters even managed backflips!

After dinner we went back to the casino. Thanks to my winning ways earlier, Alicia had earned nearly enough points playing on the house money to earn a free cruise along with other perks. Ah, how the tables had turned. She wasn’t doing so well this time so she asked me to press the button for a while. My luck from earlier continued. Soon I was hitting bonuses and other winning combinations. $400 … $600 … $900 … We were both confused about what was happening. After a while, I started to feel the machine cooling down, so we wisely walked away.

We did earn enough for a free cruise, by the way.

2020 Caribbean Cruise – Introduction

With current events unfolding, I guess it’s time to write this out. Maybe those stuck at home can enjoy a little vacation in their mind.

It had been a while since we took a vacation without the kids. Through a fortunate series of events, we planned a vacation for Presidents Week, when the boys would be out of school. Alicia’s mom offered to let Ryan stay with her for the week, and my mom offered to watch Alex. The boys, who are typical brothers who tolerate each other to a point, would get some rare time apart and fun times with grandma! Alicia and I, on the other hand, would be enjoying the high seas on a cruise.

We put Alex on a flight to Southern California to go with my mother. It was Alex’s first time traveling unaccompanied. We were sure he’d do fine. We talked with him about being respectful to his neighbors on the plane, as well as using his manners with the flight crew. Alex was really excited to go alone. We turned him over to the Southwest crew at the gate and waited for the plane to take off. After Alex was in the air, we went to meet with Alicia’s mom for lunch and to drop off Ryan.

The next day, we took the hotel shuttle over to Oakland International for our flight to Houston. I probably say this every time I write about flying, but there is definitely something magic about traveling by air. I love it. From the takeoff, where the sudden acceleration pushes you back into your seat, to the amazing views offered from 30,000 feet up, flying really is something special.

Sitting down on the plane, I was surprised that another low-cost carrier has seats with more room than other carriers that cost much more (I’m looking at you, United). While, we bought an extra seat to have a row to ourselves, I still really appreciate not having my knees pressed against the seat in front of me for the whole flight. Back to the extra seat. Getting an extra seat, that will remain empty, was something we first did on our trip to Curacao a few years ago. Some might call it an extravagance, but I call it a necessity to keep your sanity and remain comfortable on a long flight. We don’t buy extra seats on short flights – we can handle sitting next to someone for an hour or two, and usually the middle seat would be occupied by one of the children, but for a cross-country flight, that extra seat comes in handy. We strategically placed a “Seat Reserved” sign on the empty middle seat. I may be a little hypocritical here, or maybe not because we spent the extra money, but it really is weird to see how selfish people can be on airline flights. The airlines limit people to a carry-on and a “personal item,” essentially two carry-ons. I always bring two, but I make sure one of them will go under the seat in front of me. Anyway, I watch as several people bring two carry-ons and try to fit them both in the overhead bin, taking up space that could be used by other passengers. Put your purse under your seat, Karen! Oddly, despite the apparent lack of consideration for other guests when placing their luggage, people still act politely. Late-boarding passengers still politely ask those who have been seated if an item belongs to them and if it’s OK to rearranged them in the overhead bin. These same late-arrivals also ask if an empty seat is taken before just climbing over the guy in the aisle seat and plopping down.

We touched down at Hobby Airport in Houston in the early afternoon. As always, the plane’s cabin erupted into a symphony of click-clacking as people unbuckled their seat belts before we reached the gate. Another symphony of cellphone notifications began as everyone on board took their phones off airplane mode. It’s definitely the music of our time.

After gathering our bags, we made our way to our hotel and met up with Alicia’s brother and his wife. They had rented a car (a pretty badass Kia) and we were going to find something to do with the afternoon. We all decided to go to Johnson Space Center, home of NASA’s mission control and astronaut training facilities. We figured we could get a tour in before they closed. So we squeezed into the fabulous Kia and headed out.

As we entered the visitor parking area, we were greeted by a pair of T-38 Talon airplanes mounted on poles. NASA uses the T-38 as a chase and observation plane, and as a flight trainer for astronauts. During the Space Shuttle program, it was a NASA tradition for Shuttle astronauts to travel from Houston to Cape Canaveral in T-38s. A supersonic plane would be the ultimate commute vehicle in my book! Much better than a silver Kia.

The visitor center at JSC had a theater that provided visitors with a movie about the history of the American Space Program that left you wanting to shout, “Murica!” at the end. The movie was well done, and is highly recommended. If you’ve ever seen one of the movies at a National Park, this movie was similar to those.

The centerpiece of the visitor center is one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used to transport the Space Shuttle from one side of the country to the other after flights when the Shuttle used to land in California. The SCA is a modified 747 that was originally owned by American Airlines. Inside the SCA was an exhibit on how the SCA was envisioned, along with information about testing to see if it would actually work. Sitting atop the SCA was a full-size replica shuttle known as Independence. Independence was originally an exhibit at Kennedy Space Center, and was built from actual Rockwell International blueprints. While not an actual spacecraft, Independence is as close to a real shuttle as most people will ever get – the inside being a faithful representation of the flight deck and payload bay of a real Shuttle as the real shuttles on display are not open for tours of the cabins.

After walking through the visitor center, we took a tour through JSC. The tour we chose would take us to the Christopher J. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center. The “MCC,” commonly known by its call sign “Houston,” has been used by NASA since the Gemini missions (Mercury missions were controlled from Cape Canaveral). The building houses the historic Mission Operations Control Room 2, where the Apollo XI mission carrying the first astronauts to the moon, was controlled. Stepping off the tour tram, you could feel the history emanating from the building; This was “Houston.” Our specific tour would take us up to the fourth floor of the building to what they were calling the Orion Mission Control Room. This specific control room is currently used as a backup to the control room used for the International Space Station and for training new mission controllers. In the future, around 2030 as told by the tour guide, this control room will be used for Orion missions, and for the first manned landing on Mars. History is all around at JSC.

After leaving JSC we searched the area for some Texas barbecue. You can’t go to Texas without getting some barbecue. We found a place called Delta Blues. Our waitress, who claimed to be a converted vegan, was very friendly and helped us with recommendations and sauce pairings. We started off with appetizers of deviled eggs and pork belly. Both were quite delicious. Three of us shared a family platter consisting of a heaping portion of various meats and unlimited sides. The plate had smoked brisket, turkey, chicken, pork, and two kinds of sausage. We chose mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and collard greens for the sides. The meat melted in your mouth, and the sides were full of flavor. Plus, there was so much food, not even three of us could finish it! Though I certainly tried.

On Sunday morning we took a car from Houston to Galveston to get on our ship the Liberty of the Seas. Liberty had arrived in Galveston late Saturday night, earlier than normal, due to heavy fog in the area that threatened to close the port. We ran into some of this fog on the way to the port. Hopefully we would be able to get out. From the moment we set foot in port, precautions were being taken to minimize the possible transmission of various illnesses, including a particular one that was starting to make news – coronavirus. Hand sanitizer stations were everywhere and people were being told to wash their hands frequently. The cruise line had also taken additional precautions by screening passengers for symptoms prior to boarding and preventing boarding by those who had traveled to China, Hong Kong, and Macau within the two weeks prior to the cruise. Illness is common on cruise ships, mostly flu and norovirus, but has never really bothered me. I always take precautions to minimize risk, such as washing hands and avoiding sick people. I wasn’t worried about this one.

The fog remained over the Galveston area as people continued boarding and we got closer to sail time. Looking out lounge windows during the safety drill, I could see towers of oil platforms docked across the channel disappear and reappear as fog moved through. After the drill, Alicia and I headed up to the front of the ship to a “hidden” spot we heard about from prior cruisers. This spot was the ship’s helipad. As we sailed off into the fog, the ship’s horn blared several times as a warning to other vessels that the big dog was coming through. A couple of dolphins played in the water ahead of the bow. Guests played “king of the world” by standing at the tip of the deck and stretching out their arms. Everyone was ready to make the most of this trip.

 

From the Archives – The Old Bridge

I originally wrote this piece in November 2006 for my university magazine writing class.

I participate in a hobby called geocaching. Geocaching is something of a 21st-century treasure hunt. People hide small objects – bottles, Tupperware containers, ammo cans – in various places and post the geographic coordinates on the geocaching.com web site. Cache hunters then use Global Positioning System receivers to locate these items. Essentially geocaching can be described as using multi-billion dollar military technology to find Tupperware hidden in the woods.

There’s not really any sort of prize or competition involved, the reward is in the journey.

I had been wanting to find a unique cache for a while. Most of the caches in our neck of the woods in Humboldt County were pretty simple. Park here, walk here, the cache is hidden in the hollow part of the log. Big whoop! Give me something interesting.

I searched the geocaching.com database and found one that seemed very interesting. The cache was hidden on an abandoned highway bridge in Shasta County. The bridge was part of the old US Highway 99 and was less than a mile from its Interstate 5 replacement. It was practically hidden in plain sight.

I had to go there.

This cache contained two things that I enjoy: geocaches and old roads. Yes, I am a road geek. I find roads fascinating from a historical standpoint. I’ll notice spots along a highway where a newer section was built to bypass an old section. Today, we’re so used to our eight-lane, wide-open expanses of blacktop, I like to see how things were when times were slower and people took time to enjoy the view on their trips.

But how did this bridge come to be left to die in the shadow of its newer sibling? The story of this bridge starts with the creation of the first national highway system.

Ever since cars were invented Americans have had a fascination with the open road. Once cars started rolling off assembly lines we were no longer tied to trains, horses or other forms of land transportation. With ever-increasing numbers of car owners, states started creating their own road systems so people could get from point A to point B.

Something changed in 1926. At that time, there were all these roads, but how do you get to point B if it is in two states away, or even across the country? The nation’s road network was a mishmash of state highways with no clear pattern or numbering system. It was mass confusion. This is where things changed. In 1926, the US Federal Highway system was created. The US highway system was the precursor to today’s Interstate Highway system. This is the system gave birth to such famous roads as Route 66 and Highway 101.

The system created a common numbering system for highways. The reasoning was that if people could go from Point A to Point B on the same numbered road, there would be less confusion and people could get to their destination quicker. For example, one could drive from Chicago to Los Angeles just by taking Highway 66. It was a brilliant system and it made sense.

It was also in 1926 that the main road along the West Coast was created. This road went from Calexico, Calif., on the US-Mexico border all the way to Blaine, Wash., on the US-Canada border – nearly 1,500 miles. Along its path, it passed through Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle. It was US Highway 99. This road remained the main North-South road on the West Coast until 1964 when Interstate 5 was completed. Ironically, Interstate 5 follows much the same route as Highway 99.

Highway 99 was one of the roads made famous in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It was the last road the Joads took down into the fertile valley at the end of their journey to escape the dust bowl.

One thing that set these highways apart from their Interstate replacements was that they allowed you to see America. Because many of the routes were not straight lines like the Interstates you saw many of the small towns and natural wonders that dot the American landscape. Alternately, Interstates allow you to go from point A to point B without stopping at higher speeds leading to a bland trip where all you see is the road. You get there quicker, but you miss out on much of the beauty that is America.

Furthermore, one thing these highways had that today’s interstates don’t is beautiful architecture. Through mountainous areas and over rivers you could find some of the most beautiful bridges and roads ever created, a far cry from today’s utilitarian roadways. Much of this road system was built for form as well as function. The roads blended into the landscape so much that they looked like they had been there since the beginning of time.

Alas, US Highway 99 was decommissioned in 1968, leaving much of the road to rot away in the shadow of Interstate 5, though a large section of old 99 still exists in Central California as State Highway 99.

I wanted to find part of this old highway. I wanted to see architecture that just doesn’t get made today. This geocache would let me find a part of that rotting highway.

Officially the bridge’s name was the Harlan D. Miller Memorial Bridge. It was built in 1926 and was named after the former head of the California Department of Bridges and the bridge’s designer. Oddly enough, Miller was so revered by his peers and those who worked for the department that the replacement bridge on I-5 was also named in his honor.

The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Many people regarded it the work of a master as Miller had taken a large role in designing and building the bridge. It was not only functional, but was a work of art, built during a time when structures were built for beauty and for use. Many people say the Miller Bridge is one of the most artistic and amazing bridges ever built in California, though others like the Golden Gate and Bixby Bridges get all the attention.



I exited I-5 a few miles north of Riverview, Calif., just past the northern tip of Shasta Lake. I drove down an empty unmarked road that had a very unfriendly looking sign marked “Private Property.” Though it said Private Property, the listing assured me the road itself was public. Besides, the two houses I passed looked abandoned, I was pretty sure I would not be bothered. However, it added an element of danger to the trip.

I reached the end of the pavement and was presented with a forked dirt road. One direction would take me down to the river; the other would take me along a cliff with no guard rail to the bridge. This dirt road was the old highway.

I maneuvered my Honda Civic down the road at less than 5 miles per hour, I avoided ruts that would swallow the front end and steered around rocks that had fallen from the cliff face that was cut to make way for the road.

The pavement that used to be the old highway was no longer there, swallowed by time and years of neglect. However, signs of the old highway still remained, like a portion of the old stone arch guard rail that kept travelers from falling into the ravine below. The road looked barely wide enough for one direction of traffic. I can see why it was replaced.

I turned a bend in the road and I saw it. The bridge was there in all its beige and black glory. A concrete bridge at the end of a dirt and clay road looked out of place. The red clay contrasted sharply with the beige bridge.



A first look at the bridge showed me that it was unique among the bridges of the era. The guard rails were adorned with bright blue tiles that, despite being 80 years old, still look as bright as the day they were installed. Furthermore, there was something on the guard rails that you don’t see on bridges … anywhere. There were benches.

Forged from the very same concrete as the rest of the bridge were two benches at each end. Life moved slower back then. People weren’t in such a hurry to get to where they were going. Benches allowed travelers on 99 to rest a while and take in the beautiful scenery of the area. On one side, a river snaking through a deep canyon, on the other, the lush, green mountains. The benches were every bit a sign of a bygone era.

I walked across the bridge. It still felt solid; the mark of a quality feat of engineering (though I’m sure my 230 pounds were a mere pittance compared to the weights this bridge was designed to hold). The description of the bridge said it was still safe to drive on. Surely, they did not have the construction technology we have now, but like the ancient Romans they built things to last. How else would so many decades of neglect not relegate such an edifice to a pile of rubble at the bottom of the ravine?

Despite the bridge’s sturdiness, the years had taken a toll on it. Many of the surfaces of the guard rails and curbs were covered in moss. Fifty years of vandals had left 50 years of marks all over the bridge – “SO I’M ANTI SOCIAL” … “PMC.” I wonder how long it took after the bridge closed for the vandals to move in. The bronze identification plaques installed at both approaches to the bridge were even missing.

I reached the south side of the bridge. It was here, hidden among the ever encroaching foliage, that I found the hidden geocache. It was a simple item, a large vitamin bottle covered in camouflage tape so you would not see it if you were not looking for it. There was not much inside to trade for, so I left a travel bug (travel bugs are uniquely numbered items the users can track on its journey around the world), signed the log book and replaced the bottle where I had found it so another 21st-century treasure hunter could find it upon his discovery of this location.

I walked past the end of the bridge, following the old roadway south. No more than a few steps from the end of the bridge the pavement disappeared and turned into more red clay. I looked down the old road, trying to visualize where it went from here, only to see its remains fade into the green forest as if it were a botanical version of a black hole. The road was cut from the forest and the forest was taking it back.



I snapped some pictures of the road fading into the green oblivion, got a shot of the old and new – the original bridge in the shadow of its modern replacement. I walked along the sidewalk taking peeks over the edge into the ravine below. A set of railroad tracks appeared from behind a hill, turned parallel to the bridge and then disappeared behind another hill. A train passed by, blaring its horn at the old bridge. Dog Creek, the stream that passed under the bridge, gurgled along its southerly route, its waters destined to wind up in Shasta Lake some 10 miles south.



I stepped up onto one of the old benches and leaned over to get a look at the bridge’s magnificent arch. Its 250-foot arch was once one of the longest in California. The arch had turned black from time in some places. Its columns had red streaks from rust that has seeped through the concrete from the steel inside. It was like the roadway was crying red-orange tears because such a beautiful piece of architecture was being allowed to waste away.



After taking in all the beauty this location had to offer, though I’m sure if I went back I’d find something else wonderful to look at, I carefully maneuvered my car around the old roadway again to get back to I-5 and head home. I merged back onto the freeway among the 18-wheelers and cars that fly by at 70-plus miles per hour without so much as a glance at nature’s wonders that surround them. I glanced off to my left and through the trees I could see flickering images of the old Miller Bridge nearly invisible if you aren’t looking for it. There it was, hidden in plain sight, the past in the shadow of the present longing to be seen and remembered. The bridge would remain and await its next visitor and, just as its flickering images did to me, it would thank them for the visit and ask them not to forget this hidden beauty.

Since I wrote this piece, Caltrans has ceded the access road to the owner of an adjacent property. The property owner has stopped keeping the road clear and will confront anyone trespassing on the property.

Weekend Jaunt

Friday, August 9, 2019
McKinleyville, Calif., to Dunsmuir, Calif.

At the suggestion of my amazing and supportive wife I headed out on a weekend jaunt around Northern California. I had invited my good friend Anonymous Greg, but he had other plans and I would be taking the trip solo.

My plan was to stay a night at Castle Crags State Park near Dunsmuir, then head southeast into the northern Sierras for the next night.

In the days leading up to the trip, I had been keeping an eye on the weather forecast in the areas I would be going. The pesky weatherman was predicting thunderstorms Friday night into Saturday morning in the very area I would be staying. As a fail-safe, my wife suggested I book a motel in Dunsmuir so I would not be out on the mountain during any thunderstorms.

As is tradition, I had coffee and breakfast at Starbucks, then headed east on California Highway 299 through the Trinity River canyon. As long as I kept moving, it did not feel too hot out on the road with my bike’s air temperature gauge reading in the high 80s. Unfortunately, I had to stop for construction near the town of Junction City. Crews were clearing debris from a rock slide that occurred during the wet winters, and the highway was down to one lane. As I sat and waited, I watched the temperature reading climb into the 90s and then settle at 105 degrees. I was hoping the wait would be short, as I saw westbound traffic rolling through the construction zone. Unfortunately, the flagger didn’t turn his little sign around when the last car past. What gives?! A few minutes later a convoy of dump trucks came out of the construction zone – surely we’d get to go after they passed. Still the flagger stood there holding his STOP sign on a stick. A few minutes later, another string of westbound cars came through the construction zone. Surely the heat has gotten to the flagger, and he’s forgotten to tell his buddy at the other end that he’s got a half-mile string of cars waiting to go. After about a 15-minute wait in the heat, the flagger came to his senses and waved us through. The breeze was a welcome relief.

I stopped for lunch in Weaverville and to check the weather forecast. Skies were getting cloudy and the lightest of drizzles was falling, but not enough to make anything wet. The forecast and radar showed clear skies to the east. Maybe the weatherman has lost his mind as well. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

I stopped in Redding to grab some supplies before continuing. The bad thing about going anywhere north from Redding is that at some point you have to get on Interstate 5 and slab it. In the case of Dunsmuir, it’s nearly 50 miles of Interstate.

Surprisingly, for I-5 being the main artery through California for all sorts of cargo traffic, there were very few trucks on this section. The other thing this stretch of 5 has going for it is the scenery. Where other parts of I-5 are straight and boring, this section follows much of old US Highway 99 and winds its way through some very scenic mountains, making you feel less like you’re on an Interstate, and more like you’re on a back road.

I stopped at Castle Crags State Park and checked into my campsite just in case I was going to hang out there. I got to the site, which was situated on the side of a mountain and found the only level spot to be the asphalt parking pad. I hung out for a bit and cooled off in the shade. After a few minutes, I saw a gray car drive slowly past my site. The driver looked to be leaning forward to look at me. I thought, “What does this guy want? I’m in my own site.” Then the driver called out, “Scott?!” I looked closer and saw it was one of my old friends from the Army. What a small world! After a bit of chit chat, I decided to head up to the vista point to see the park’s namesake crags.

Castle Crags State Park was opened in 1933 and protects a group of granite spires and domes on the eastern edge of the Klamath Mountains. The domes were formed about 170 million years ago when granite plutons, bubbles of molten rock, rose toward the surface and solidified. Uplift and erosion have given the crags the appearance of the turrets of a castle, hence the name.

The best view of the crags is from the vista point. The vista point is at the top of a narrow, windy, one-lane road where people who drive vans think they don’t need to get over to one side. I came within inches of two of these inconsiderate vans on my way up.

The view of the crags from the vista point is great. In some ways, they remind you of Yosemite National Park, but in other ways they look much more rugged than Yosemite’s smooth domes. From the vista point I could see almost 360 degrees around me and saw mostly blue skies. I was pretty sure the weatherman was wrong today and there would be no thunderstorms … But it was still early, and weather can change quickly.

I left the park after taking a few pictures and headed to Dunsmuir. I checked into the motel (after all, I’m made of sugar and might melt if it rained), and relaxed a bit in the cool air.

After cooling off, I headed into downtown Dunsmuir (if you can identify a part of a one-square-mile town as “downtown”) for dinner. I got a table at Dunsmuir Brewery Works, a small brewpub on the north end of downtown. The staff was really nice and quick. I ordered a Rusty Spike Red Ale and a soft pretzel to start. The beer was good and the pretzel fresh with mustard and beer cheese for dipping. For dinner, I had a pulled pork sandwich. The pork was perfect with the right amount of BBQ sauce, and it was topped with cole slaw. I wasn’t so sure about topping a sandwich with slaw, but it worked in this case.

 

 

I rode around town a bit to explore, then headed back to the hotel room. By this time, the clouds had moved in, and it seemed the old weatherman was going to luck out. I settled in the room to rough it. And rough it, I did … First the motel’s internet went out (the horror!), then the cable TV went out (and during LivePD too!).

I went to bed to rest for the ride in the morning.

Around 1 a.m. I awoke to a loud crash from outside. The thunderstorm was here. Mother Nature seemed to be directing all her fury at the Dunsmuir area. The sky was constantly alight with the purple flash of lightning – no sooner would one flash fade then another would start. I could tell the lightning strikes were close because rather than the long rolling sound of thunder, I heard short claps of thunder. In addition to the light and sound show, the skies opened up and dumped a torrent of rain on the area, quickly creating a waterfall form the motel’s roof that stretched its entire length. I could only imagine what it was like on the side of the mountain at Castle Crags. I was glad to not be out in the weather in my leaky tent. The motel seemed a good choice.

Mother Nature continued her show for nearly two hours before everything went quiet. I finally went back to sleep around 3 a.m.

Day 1: 190 miles
Gigawatts discharged: 1.21


Saturday, August 10, 2019
Dunsmuir, Calif., to Plumas-Eureka State Park

As Little Orphan Annie sang, “the sun will come out tomorrow.” I woke to sunshine after the night’s meteorological festivities. I packed up my gear, wiped down my wet bike, and headed out. I rode through town trying to find a place for a quick coffee and breakfast, but every place was closed, so I continued north.

I turned onto California Highway 89 just south of Mt. Shasta City, and headed east. I stopped in McCloud for breakfast at the White Mountain Cafe. The coffee was strong and the breakfast was big. I had an order of pastrami hash and eggs. The kitchen forgot my toast, but I probably would not have eaten it anyway because of the large portions.

 

I continued east on 89 toward Lassen Volcanic National Park. About 20 miles east of McCloud, the skies turned on me and the blue skies went gray and it started raining. The rain continued off and on with no clearing most of the way between McCloud and Hat Creek. As I rode through the areas around Obie and Cayton, the smell of pine was thick in the air, likely brought on by the rains.

As I got closer to Hat Creek, the roadsides began to be dotted with outcroppings of lava rock. The area has a long history of volcanic activity and cinder cones and groupings of the dark red, nearly black rock covers the land. The Hat Creek lava fields are the second largest fields of dried lava in California after Lava Beds National Monument. The visible rock is the result of eruptions 20,000 years ago. In many places, the highway cuts directly through the fields.

I stopped at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory to take a look at the site. The observatory is home to the Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio telescopes used by the SETI Institute to search for signs of extra-terrestrial life. While the observatory is open to visitors, it’s closed on weekends and I could only view the dishes from the road outside the site.

On my way back to the highway from the observatory, the skies opened again and a heavy rain started to fall. Though my riding jacket and pants kept me mostly dry, nothing could stop the water pooling on my seat from soaking through the crotch of my pants. The manic weather let up again while on the highway between Old Station and the entrance to Lassen National Park.

I entered the national park, which now has an entrance fee of $30. Fortunately, I have a lifetime pass. I recommend a pass for anyone who frequently goes to national parks. The normal annual pass will pay for itself after 2 or 3 visits.

Things stayed dry through Lassen for the most part until the road reached around the 7000-foot level. Above 7000-feet, rain and thick fog (though at that altitude I’m told they’re clouds) made travel slow-going through the most twisty sections near the summit and Bumpass Hell. I was surprised to see large patches of snow still on the ground next to the highway in these areas. With the constant rains and temperatures down into the low 40s in the park, I felt pretty dumb for not bringing any cold weather clothing. I made my way to the south visitor center where I bought a hot cup of coffee and a long-sleeve t-shirt. You can always count on the National Park Service for having a gift shop with reasonably priced clothing.

Now motorcycle riders are a unique lot. Perfect strangers who share a common interest will strike up conversations and go out of their way to do something nice for a fellow rider. As I was getting geared up and ready to go in the parking lot, a man and his wife riding a Harley tricycle stopped next to me and struck up a conversation. They were traveling back to Washington and wanted to know if I was familiar with the area. I wasn’t too familiar, but I gave it a shot. They asked if there was a gas station at the north end of the park, specifically further west in Shingletown. Fortunately, I knew this answer. I helped him out and he offered to buy me a cup of coffee in the visitor center. I thanked him for his generosity and told him I had just had a cup. We chatted for a bit about our bikes, gear, and travels, then we went on our ways.

After exiting the park, I headed east on Highway 36. Soon after turning onto 36 the skies cleared up and things began to dry out. I encountered a few light drizzles along the way, but nothing that would get you wet. As I rode Highway 89 alongside Lake Almanor winds picked up coming down from the high country and across the vast open lake.

Shortly after turning onto Highway 36, somewhere around the Mill Creek area, I met a personal record. I crossed the 9000-mile mark on my V-Strom. To some travelers, it’s not much – I know people who’ve gone enough to ride around the world multiple times – but each milestone is important to me, as the miles are all mine.

Highway 89 entered into the Indian Valley, a large open plain surrounded by mountains. Ranges spread out across the valley. The area was first settled by Peter Lassen, and many families soon moved to the area. Many of the homes and ranches in the valley date back to the times of these settlers.

Highway 89 followed Indian Creek out of the valley and into a narrow canyon with walls 1500 feet high. The highway followed the creek’s sinuous course until its confluence with Spanish Creek, forming the North Fork of the Feather River. From the confluence, I headed east on Highway 70 high above Spanish Creek towards the town of Quincy in the American Valley. The scenery was amazing and the road twisty and fun.

I arrived at Plumas-Eureka State Park around 3 p.m. Plumas-Eureka sits on the site of the former Eureka Mine. The park has several mining exhibits along with other exhibits about the history of the area. The park sits at the base of the 7100-foot-tall Eureka Mountain, which has a network of mine shafts running through it. In 1853, gold was discovered at the site and the mine was active until the 1890s, extracting more than $8 million in gold from the area’s mines. The park was also home to the first ski resort in the Western United States.

I found my campsite in the maze that is the Jamison Creek Campground and found the area to be very rocky. I ended up setting up my tent on the parking pad. The afternoon was windy and I could see banks of clouds moving quickly past the adjacent Eureka Mountain.

After setting up camp, I headed a few miles to the town of Graeagle to pick up some food for the night. When I left the campground and got to the store it was sunny outside. The weather quickly turned while I was shopping and I came out to pouring rain. I headed back to camp and the rains subsided by the time I got there. The fast winds were moving systems through the area quickly. I settled at my campsite to make dinner and the skies opened up again, dumping a torrent on me. I took refuge in my tent and made dinner inside its cramped quarters. Of course, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I finished eating the skies cleared and stayed that way for the rest of the night. I started a fire and settled next to it with a cold adult beverage.

People tend to notice when one is traveling alone. Couple that with a motorcycle, and people tend to approach you often. I’ve talked about this during other travels, but there seems to be a mystique surrounding the lone motorcycle traveler that draws people to them. I was soon approached by my neighbor from the next campsite over. He introduced himself as Chris and told me he was there with his wife Barbara. Chris and Barbara were visiting Plumas-Eureka, as they do every summer, with their good friends Dean and Judy who were in the campsite across from mine. Chris told me they two couples had been going camping together for 45 years! Possibly noticing that I had a limited supply of firewood, along with being solo, Chris invited me over to their campsite later in the evening when they started a fire of their own.

Chris and Dean were in their late 60s, but they sure did not act that way. I went over when they were preparing to start their campfire. Chris and Dean were like two children when starting it. Chris started by placing a bed of newspaper about one foot thick inside the fire ring. On top of that, Chris put a stack of kindling about two feet high. Chris talked about being a Boy Scout and being taught that one should be able to get a fire going with no more than two matches. Chris assured me his fire would only take one. Chris reached into the nearby food cabinet and pulled out a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid. Chris emptied the bottle on his mountain of newspaper and kindling. Chris didn’t even have to touch the lighter-fluid-soaked newspaper before it went up like the Hindenburg. I’m pretty sure the flames could have been seen from space.

As we all sat around the fire talking about our travels and such, Chris and Dean constantly teased each other like a couple of teenagers. They gave each other grief about how each tends to the fire, or their choice of wood to place in the fire. Friendship is forever, and boys will be boys no matter their age.

Day 2: 240 miles
Cookies eaten: 17


Sunday, August 11, 2019
Plumas-Eureka State Park to McKinleyville

Hallelujah! I’ve woken up to clear skies! I dried my tent and bike the best I could and packed up to head home. Chris and Barbara were up and about. I said goodbye to them and thanked them for their hospitality.

I headed into Graeagle for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat at the Graeagle Mill Works. The coffee and sausage breakfast sandwich I ordered were good, but the lady working the register could use a little help. She seemed very disinterested in dealing with customers. She looked like she would rather be anywhere but there.

As I was eating my breakfast, I saw a man enter wearing a sweatshirt that said “Nantucket” on it. Perhaps this was the elusive Man from Nantucket. For a minute I considered asking him about the rest of the poem, but didn’t want to embarrass him.

I headed north on Highway 70 toward the Feather River Canyon. I stopped near the town of Keddie to view the Keddie Wye. A wye is a type of railroad interchange laid out in the shape of a triangle. It allows trains to change directions in a smaller area than required by a balloon track. The Keddie Wye is unique and a popular sight for rail fans in that two legs of the wye are built on elevated trestles and the third leg is built into a tunnel. Additionally the line enters a tunnel just north of where the two northern tracks join together. This is the only wye in the world with such an arrangement. Unfortunately, no trains crossed through while I was there.

I continued on Highway 70 and it soon turned west into the Feather River Canyon. The canyon follows the North Fork Feather River as it winds toward Lake Oroville. The road on one side and railroad on the other closely follow the contours of the canyon as it meanders its way west.

Along the way through the canyon I passed many PG&E dams and power houses, part of the Feather River Power Project. The project with its series of dams, power houses, and large penstocks has been called the “Stairway of Power” because the river drops 4300 feet in its first 74 miles. Each dam and power house drops river water to its next elevation, like a staircase, allowing PG&E to use the same water several times to generate electricity.

The highway and railroad switched places multiple times through the canyon, with bridges crossing bridges in a couple spots. The railroad crosses over the highway at the Tobin Bridges, and the highway crosses over the railroad at the Pulga Bridges.

Temperatures were hot in the canyon and the best way to stay cool was to keep moving. However, I still needed to stop and hydrate every so often. I even had to change my shirt after soaking through one!

As I got closer to the western end of the canyon, I started seeing signs of last year’s Camp Fire. The lush green forests had given way to burned out tree stumps and barren grass fields. The fire started in the canyon near the Poe Dam and ended up being the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history, killing 86 people, burning more than 153,000 acres, and destroying nearly 19,000 buildings, including much of the town of Paradise. I could see why the fire spread so fast and far, as strong winds started picking up toward the canyon’s western end.

After coming out of the canyon near Wicks Corner, I headed north on Highways 149 and 99. I stopped for gas in Red Bluff and hopped on Interstate 5 for one last stretch of superhighway before turning west on Highway 299 for the home stretch.

Along the route home, I passed a few other V-Stroms heading the other direction. I’m pretty sure they’re all good at recognizing our similar bikes because they all seem to wave enthusiastically.

As I passed Berry Summit west of Willow Creek, I started to feel the cool coastal air – a welcome relief from the heat further inland. Feeling the cool air flowing through the vents of my riding jacket is that final reminder that I am home.

Day 3: 330 miles
Gallons of sweat expelled: 973

Total: 760 miles

Tour of California, The Video

I’ve put together a video of my recent trip to Pinnacles National Park and Carrizo Plain National Monument. It’s not a Speilberg, but it shows what I saw.

The music is “Gemini” by Pipe Choir. Found at the Free Music Archive.

The video was made using Cyberlink PowerDirector. Footage was captured on a Contour+2 camera mounted to my helmet and a GeekPro action camera mounted to the bike’s crash bars.

Tour of California, Part 4

March 21, 2019: Pinnacles National Park to Santa Rosa (205 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 25, California Highway 156, US Highway 101, Monterey County Road G11, California Highway 1, Soquel-San Jose Road, Summit Road, California Highway 35, Interstate 280

I packed up my camp and headed out of Pinnacles without a plan for where to go. I headed toward Hollister for food and fuel. Along the way, I thought of some of my options. I thought about heading east to the Yosemite Valley, or maybe I would do the Mount Hamilton Loop and Mount Diablo. I stopped at adventure headquarters (Starbucks) to check out my options.

When I arrived, I saw a pack of the official motorcycle of Starbucks, BMW GSs, in the parking lot. I stopped and said hello. It turned out they were heading to Carrizo Plain. I answered some of their questions about the roads in Carrizo Plain and got back some arrogance (These are GSs, they can do anything.)

The weather for the evening and on Friday was not looking too good anywhere. It was supposed to be in the mid-30s and raining in Yosemite. The Bay Area was looking at wind and rain overnight. I decided to head north and figure things out as I went.

I made my way over to Highway 101 and went south a couple miles to take Monterey County Road G11 (aka San Juan Rd.) west to Watsonville. G11 wound its way through miles of flat farmland. The smells of growing vegetables filled the air; however, when I passed the town of Aromas I smelled the unmistakable odor of cinnamon gummy bears – perhaps Aromas was aptly named.

After a few miles of northbound travel on Highway 1, I hoped on one of the area back roads recommended by Lance, Soquel-San Jose Rd. The road used to be the main link between San Jose and the coast before construction of Highway 17. The road was really fun. There was no traffic and there were many great curves. At the top of Soquel-San Jose Rd., it intersects with Summit Rd., which turns into Highway 35 a few miles north. Summit Road passes through the town of Loma Prieta, the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake (there’s the San Andreas again!)

Summit Road crosses Highway 17 and turns into Highway 35, also known as Skyline Boulevard. Heading north from the intersection with Highway 17, Highway 35 is barely one-lane wide and has many tight blind curves. The road was quite a challenge. Once it passed Black Road the highway opened up and I could increase my speeds. I could see why Skyline Blvd. is popular with motorcyclists. I didn’t see many on the road today, though. I saw more sports cars than anything. Perhaps it’s still a little too early in the season.

As the road climbed higher along the ridge and toward Mount McPherson it started to get colder. I had to stop and put my jacket liner in. Off to the west, I could see the Pacific Ocean and an incoming storm. Off to the east, I could see San Francisco Bay.

I stopped at the legendary Alice’s Restaurant at the intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 84. Alice’s is the destination for people riding and driving the area around Skyline Blvd. I had to stop for a snack. When I stopped, I was given some compliments on my motorcycle by some of the customers. One of them, a Canadian, instantly was drawn to my two Canada stickers, which he loved. He told me he was thinking about a V-Strom and was glad to see one in the wild being used as it was intended.

I highly recommend the raspberry cheesecake.

I continued north on Highway 35, eventually meeting up with (gasp!) the Interstate to make my way through San Francisco. I hit the city right at the start of rush hour, so it was slow going, but splitting lanes made things a little quicker.

I made a quick stop at the Golden Gate Bridge for that missing photo op and to get some more National Park stamps.

I decided to cheat again (the horror!) and got a room in Santa Rosa. With bad weather in the forecast I would re-evaluate the plans for my remaining days as the weather changed.

I made a stop for gas in Rohnert Park and was approached by another customer. He told me he had a similar V-Strom and complimented my on mine. He told me he didn’t think the bike would be a good choice for long trips. He was shocked when I told him I had taken mine to Canada and had been riding around California for the last week. Maybe he’ll get out there and see for himself and change his mind.

March 23, 2019: Santa Rosa to McKinleyville (231 miles)
Roads Traveled: US Highway 101, California Highway 175

The weather didn’t improve in Santa Rosa, and I ended up spending the previous day there. It gave me a little time to do a complete proper load of laundry and to do a little cleaning of gear.

I headed north on Highway 101 for the final stretch home. There’s so much more of California to see, but that will wait for another time.

I rode through acres and acres of Sonoma and Mendocino County vineyards. Their grapevines were neatly lined up in ranks and files like soldiers on formation and stretched from the edge of the highway up into the hills.

I made my way back through Leggett, where my journey essentially began by riding through a tree. I hit a patch of rain going through the Leggett area. It only lasted a few minutes, but plenty of it was able to make it under my helmet.

I tried to take Highway 271, which is the old alignment of Highway 101, at Piercy to change things up, but alas the road was closed. I soon crossed back into Humboldt County and wound my way through the towering redwoods of Richardson Grove.

I hit more rain, this time heavier, in Weott. This patch of rain was shockingly cold, and my heated grips on full were not doing much to make my hands more comfortable.

I made it home between 1 and 2, and was greeted by a happy family. Another adventure in the books.

1,535 total miles.

I started out the trip with just a plan of visiting some seemingly unrelated places. Along the way, I discovered the thread that connects these places, and a much of California, together – the earth’s forces, always in motion, making California the beautiful place that it is.

At times I felt lonely. But I also reveled in the silence and solitude, finding beauty in both and experiencing those things you just can’t put into words and have to experience yourself.

Spotwalla Map of the Trip

Tour of California, Part 3

March 19, 2019: Carrizo Plain to Monterey (237 miles)
Roads Traveled: Soda Lake Rd., California Highway 58, Bitterwater Rd., California Highway 41, California Highway 33, California Highway 198, US Highway 101, California 68, California Highway 1

I got up early enough to see some nice golden color as the sun was rising. Pillowy clouds had moved in and subdued the morning light.

As I was packing up, I got a couple visitors to my camp site. The first was an older man who had been camping with his wife on the opposite side of the road from my site. He walked around looking at the bike and told me how impressed he and is wife were that I was able to fit “so much stuff” on the bike. The second was a woman who had arrived shortly after sundown. She had seen the bike parked in the campground as she drove through. She told me she had a motorcycle of her own and had never thought about going camping with it. She picked my brain for a few minutes about the kinds of things to get for camping from a motorcycle. After saying goodbye to my neighbors, I took off down the hill to see some of the plant life on the valley floor.

On my way down the bumpy dirt road I saw a black object laying on the ground. As I got closer, the item looked familiar. It turned out to be the sunshade from my GPS! Apparently it had fallen off from the bumps on the way up the hill the previous day. I was surprised to see it in one piece after spending several hours on the road.

I stopped multiple times on the way out of the monument to take pictures of the wildflowers in bloom. I saw goldfields, baby blue eyes, phacelia, and fiddlenecks in the early stages of their bloom. Another week or so and these flowers will likely be big and bright.

I made a right turn from Highway 58 onto Bitterwater Rd. Bitterwater was devoid of other traffic, allowing me to use the whole road for my travels. I passed through open range and several cows in the roadway and soon entered Bitterwater Canyon – another creation of the San Andreas.

I had to stop in the canyon to reposition my right-side handguard because it had worked its way in, jamming up my brake lever. After a quick adjustment with an Allen wrench, I was good to go.

Bitterwater Rd. let me out on Highway 41 near the Jack Ranch Cafe in Cholame. I took 41 east over Cottonwood Pass and into the Central Valley. As I descended into the valley, I could feel the winds picking up as they too came over the mountains. The air was fragrant from the farmlands and smelled a lot like an herbal tea.

I stopped in Coalinga for gas and a snack so I could plan my next move. All around me, rain was forecast for the late afternoon and evening. I thought about going back to Pinnacles, but my tent wasn’t very waterproof at the time. I had a friend from the Motorcycle Relief Project in Monterey, who was interested in getting together. So I planned to head to Monterey for the night and to meet up with my friend. Not looking forward to the prospect of a leaky tent, I cheated and booked a hotel for the night. I could recharge and get some cleaning of clothes and myself out of the way.

I headed out of Coalinga on Highway 198. The road was like a roller coaster with its ups and downs and twists. There was no traffic and I was able to have a lot of fun. Soon, I was in San Lucas and heading north on Highway 101.

I arrived in Monterey before the rain. I enjoyed a burger and beer at the hotel bar then did some laundry.

I got in touch with Lance from the MRP and we arranged to have breakfast the following morning and do some riding.

Sleeping in a bed felt good.

March 20, 2019: Monterey to Pinnacles National Park (145 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 1, Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, Jolon Road, King City Road, California Highway 25, California Highway 146

As is expected, I slept well in the hotel bed. No shame in this game.

I met Lance for breakfast at the Black Bear Diner. I love Black Bear even though it’s a chain. The portions are big and the prices right.

Lance is a blacksmith, and runs a school with his brother where they teach people how to ride adventure bikes. Though not a veteran himself, he attended the MRP in September as the off-road riding instructor. I learned a lot from Lance in Colorado, and it was good to see him again.

After breakfast we headed south on Highway 1 toward Carmel. As we pulled onto the highway the skies opened up and it started to rain. Onward we went!

We stopped at Mission San Carlos Borromeo for a few pictures. Ryan, my oldest son, had done a report on the mission for school, so I thought it would be nice to stop there for him. Lance, being a blacksmith, looked closely at all the metalwork and told me how difficult some of the stuff was to do by hand. While we were checking out the mission the skies cleared. We continued on.

We rode to the Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur. Bixby Creek is one of the most photographed bridges in California – probably slightly less than the Golden Gate. Built in 1932, the concrete arch bridge is 714 feet long and is 280 feet above Bixby Creek as it enters the ocean. We stopped in the turnout for a few pictures and watched all the other people who stop to photograph the bridge.

Lance and I said our goodbyes and I continued south toward Big Sur.

Highway 1 follows hugs the coastline of California for much of its route from north of San Diego until it turns inland west of Leggett. It is famous for the views of the rugged coast and its roadway precariously perched upon the precipitous palisades of the Pacific Coast. The highway follows nearly every curve of the land. Numerous pullouts and vista points were along the highway, giving travelers amazing views of the coast and the ocean. I stopped at one and saw the unmistakable puff of a spouting whale. Unfortunately, the wiley creature disappeared and hid under the water, preventing me from getting a picture of it.

As I continued and approached Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, I saw a pullout full of cars with people lined up along the cliff. I stopped and saw one of the coolest sights one could see – a waterfall flowing into the ocean. The scene, with its blue green water and colorful vegetation looked like it belonged in a tropical paradise. California truly gives you a taste of everything.

South of Lucia, I turned inland on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. The road, a steep, twisty, narrow stretch of pavement connects the coast with Fort Hunter Liggett and King City. In about 4 miles of road distance you climb nearly 3,000 feet into the Santa Lucia Range. The road itself was one you take slow. Its steepness and sharp switchbacks kept me in first and second gear for most of the climb. The road then drops down, following the Nacimiento River into Fort Hunter Liggett, an active Army base. There was no guard posted at the gate on this day and I continued through the base. The road inside the base was very smooth and free of any traffic.

After leaving the base, I turned onto Jolon Road and headed for King City. I picked up a little rain just outside of town, but it was short-lived and I could see clear skies ahead.

I stopped for a cup of coffee and to check on the upcoming night’s weather before heading on to Pinnacles. I headed east on County Road G13 and passed pastures and vineyards before entering the narrow Becker Valley. Soon I found myself back on Highway 25, heading north to Pinnacles.

As I turned onto Highway 146 for the final stretch to the national park, I passed a milestone on the V-Strom. My odometer clicked over to 8,000 miles. It’s not much, but the miles were all mine. I arrived at the park with minutes to spare before the store closed. I picked up food and drink for the night and found myself a campsite.

I did a quick set up of my tent and placed my stuff inside, then headed into the park to explore. It was nearing sunset and the fading light seemed to enhance the reds and greens in the mountains around the Condor Gulch Trail. Looking up at the rocks that make up the Pinnacles, I saw several birds circling overhead. From where I was, I could not tell exactly what they were, but Pinnacles is home to many turkey vultures and has been a place where California condors have been released back into the wild. A few of the birds looked much larger than the others, so it’s quite possible that some of the ones I saw were condors.

Where does Pinnacles fit into my “theme” for the trip? The pinnacles, which are the park’s namesake, are the remnants of an extinct Neenach volcano. The pinnacles are made of solidified andesite and rhyolite produced inside the volcano. The pinnacles happen to be the western half of this extinct volcano. Creep along the San Andreas Fault moved the pinnacles to where they are today from their original location near present-day Lancaster – 200 miles away!

After a short hike along the trail, I returned to camp for my dinner and to wait for nightfall. The moon was full and I had plans to go back into the park for a little night viewing of the pinnacles.

After dinner, I headed back into the park. I arrived at the parking lot at the Condor Gulch Trail and was the only one there. It felt a bit eerie, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder why people wouldn’t want to use the brightly lit night to view the pinnacles glowing in the soft moonlight.

I hung out on the trail for about an hour, watching as the light changed as the moon rose. Soon, the pinnacles seemed to glow in contrast to the dark trees and other vegetation around them.

While it’s great to share adventures, sometimes solitude is what makes it special.

Tour of California, Part 2

March 18, 2019: Pinnacles National Park to Carrizo Plain National Monument (235 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 25, Indian Valley Rd., Vineyard Canyon Rd., California Highway 46, US Highway 101, California Highway 58, Soda Lake Rd.

I got up around 7:30 after sleeping much better than the previous night. I bundled myself up so I would stay warm as the overnight temperatures had dipped into the low 40s. I tried to burn my remaining firewood to warm up a bit while drinking my morning coffee and breaking down camp, but it just wasn’t happening.

I took the short ride into the National Park proper to view the Pinnacles. The views of the rock formations were good, but I didn’t have much time to hike around. I thought I might come back on the return leg so I can do some exploring.

I headed south on Highway 25. The highway didn’t have a color rating on my Butler map, but I found it to be quite fun. There was very little traffic and the road was in fairly decent condition.

The hills in the area were bright green! Much of the scenery of rolling hills and grasslands reminded me of the “Bliss” wallpaper that was the default on Windows XP. Soon Highway 25 met up with Highway 198. I continued straight onto Peach Tree Rd. The road, which was very narrow, wound its way through farmland and the valley called Slack Canyon, then climbed up into the hills toward San Miguel. At best, the road was 1 1/2 lanes, maybe less. It didn’t matter though because I didn’t see a single car, truck, or anything until I was a few miles outside San Miguel.

I dropped into San Miguel for a top-off and a stretch. I stopped for a few minutes at Mission San Miguel. Stopping at the mission brought back some memories. When I was growing up, my dad would often take my brother and me to San Francisco for our summer vacation. Along the way, we stopped a few times at Mission San Miguel to tour the grounds. I quickly noticed a lot had changed around the mission since those days of my childhood. The road now had curbs, and the town had been built up quite a bit. No longer was there a dirt parking lot and empty fields around the mission.

I backtracked out of San Miguel to Vineyard Canyon Road to go to Parkfield. As I made the initial climb up the hill out of San Miguel I got a glimpse of Camp Roberts in the distance, my old annual training stomping grounds from my time in the California National Guard. “Camp Bob” still looked like a collection of old World War II-era barracks (because it mostly is), but it looked like it had been built up considerably since my time in the Guard.

Vineyard Canyon Road wound its way through green pastures and soon climbed up into a landscape of brown brush. The road dropped into a valley near the town of Parkfield.

For geology and earthquake fans, Parkfield is the epicenter (har har) of activity. Parkfield lies on the San Andreas Fault and is in an area keenly studied by geologists. Parkfield is the perfect place because since 1857 there has been a magnitude-6 quake on an average of every 22 years. The relatively short time between events and regularity of occurrence makes Parkfield the most closely studied earthquake zone in the world.

I stopped at the bridge into town, where a sign proclaims you are crossing the San Andreas Fault. Heading east the sign tells you that you’re entering the North American Plate; heading west, the Pacific Plate. The bridge itself lies on a portion of the fault that experiences aseismic creep, that is fault movement that does not result in an earthquake. Since the bridge was built in 1936, creep along the San Andreas has resulted in the piers of the bridge shifting 5 feet relative to each other. Looking down the south guard rail, one can see a bend created as a result of the creep.

I stopped at the Parkfield Cafe where a water tower proclaims Parkfield as the “Earthquake Capital of the World” and invites customers to “Be here when it happens.” Across from the cafe is a hotel inviting you to “Sleep here when it happens.” I thought the cafe would be a good place to stop for lunch, but alas, they are closed on Mondays. Fortunately, the cafe’s owner was out and about in town and saw me wandering around the cafe. She was kind enough to go inside and get me a bag of chips.

I left Parkfield and headed south on Cholame Road which runs along the San Andreas until it reaches the Cholame Valley. One thing I noticed on Cholame Road, which runs through Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, was Monterey County takes care of their road. In Monterey County the road was very smooth and the pavement relatively new. Once I entered SLO County, the road turned into a rough, pothole-covered mess. Those potholes that were filled, were not even filled level with the rest of the road surface.

Cholame Road soon meets up with Highway 46, just west of its junction with Highway 41. The intersection of Highways 41 and 46 is called the James Dean Memorial Intersection. The junction is the site where actor James Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955.

There is not much left in Cholame, other than a restaurant, which I stopped at for lunch. Because of its proximity to the James Dean intersection, the walls are lined with photos of Dean, and there’s a memorial to him in the parking lot. I chose the bacon cheeseburger, which was very good.

Continuing on, I stopped in Santa Maragarita on Highway 58 to top off my gas tank and to pick up some supplies for the night. Carrizo Plain was still another 60 miles away, and there’s no other place to stop before getting there.

Highway 58 was a very nice road. Caltrans had recently laid fresh blacktop over its rises, falls, twists, and turns. The scenery was wonderful as well. Green hills abounded with stands of oak trees and streaks of yellow and blue wild flowers.

58 emerged in the vast Carrizo Plain, tucked between the Temblor Range on the east and the Caliente Range on the west. I soon reached the National Monument boundary and the shores of Soda Lake, a shallow seasonal lake that is a dry bed most of the year. However, because of the wet winter, the lake was full.

The national monument covers nearly 247,000 acres and contains the largest single native grassland remaining in California. The east side of the plain is where the San Andreas fault runs along the base of the Temblor Range. Carrizo is one of the places where it’s easiest to see the surface feature of the fault. If you have seen a picture of the San Andreas Fault from the air, you’ve likely seen the Carrizo Plain section.

I headed up the 5-mile dirt road to the Selby campground nestled in the foothills above the valley, where it’s free to camp. Surprisingly the campground was nearly full and I got the second to last site. It was still somewhat early and I took my time taking in the vistas from the campground before setting up my camp for the night.

As the sun went down, I heard a pack of coyotes in the distance calling each other. After that, there was no sound at all except for the occasional airplane flying overhead. There’s a reason why the Bureau of Land Management’s information about the plain says “you can hear the silence.”

The downside of being so far away from everything is that any items you might need you need to carry in with you. Due to my limited space, I did not have any firewood. I love a campfire, though. I found two partially burned logs inside the fire ring, but was unable to get them lit.

Instead, I enjoyed the clear skies under the light of the nearly full moon. The valley was illuminated in blues and yellows by the moonlight, and thousands of stars were visible overhead.