Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Lost Coast

How many of these signs did I see?
Did I have chains? Nope.
Did I need them? Nope.
Oh well
Taken 1/14/07 at Honeydew California

I’ve visited places more remote than Petrolia, California. East End, Saskatchewan comes to mind. So does Rovaniemi Finland, Nevsehir in Turkish Cappadocia, and Okunakayama in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. But I took the train (albeit a coal fired steam train) to Okunakayama, and a regular FinnRail Pass got me to Rovaniemi, the capitol of Finnish Lappland on the Arctic Circle. I rode a tour bus to Nevsehir, and the only reason East End was so remote was that we took the back way in, driving north and west from Chinook, Montana, instead of the more direct route north and east from Havre, Montana. Petrolia, however, is only thirty miles by road from the Victorian Village of Ferndale—itself some eighteen miles southeast of Eureka. The Mattole Road (named, presumably for the Mattole River which flows alongside part of the highway) is roughly a semi-circle connecting Ferndale, Capetown, Petrolia, Honeydew, and the Roosevelt Redwood Groves of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It is not a road for the faint-hearted.

In fact, I would not recommend the Mattole Road if you are at all acrophobic, prone to motion sickness, nervous about having large bovine animals on the road, or overly fearful of driving on roads that have no shoulders, no guard rails, and extremely steep drops. This was my Sunday Drive today. It’s only thirty miles from Ferndale to Petrolia. Allow a good two hours—more if you can find any spot wide enough to get off the road to take some pictures (or throw up, if need be). There were some remarkable vistas—I think. Gypsy wasn’t saying, and frankly, I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road. The few times I found a wide spot, I could see beautiful sights that were practically impossible to photograph because of the brush, trees, power lines, cows, in the way. Add occasional snow, ice, and the possibility of black ice to the equation and you have a fun day at the wheel in store. Let me back up, I would not recommend the Mattole Road. Period. (And you should know how much I love to drive.)

Leaving US 101 at Fernbridge for the five mile drive to Ferndale, always referred to as “The Victorian Village of Ferndale,” you cross the coastal plain and drive through the valley formed by the final stretch of the Eel River as it reaches for the Pacific just south of Humboldt Bay. Immediately upon leaving Ferndale, you begin to climb. And climb. And climb. Did I mention the signs warning you to carry chains? Around a bend and, whoops, was that the Pacific down there? But you’ll never know unless you have a navigator along, because you don’t dare pull your eyes from the road.

Yes, that is the edge of the road at that cow's rump
There is no shoulder on this road. None!
Mattole Road, Humboldt County California
Taken (through the car's windshield) 1/14/07

I must admit that I didn’t do a good job of keeping track of mileage on this section. It just seemed to go on and on. Of course I was driving fifteen miles an hour. The road, for the most part, is paved, but I quickly learned that when I saw a “Humco” sign warning of loose gravel, it really meant that the pavement ends. As for the “Humco,” well I can only surmise that some bureaucrat decided that it took too much paint and too many man-hours to paint “Humboldt County” on the road signs. Eventually I climbed out of the trees and reached a point where any available vista to the West included ocean while any vista to the East included mountain ranges seemingly without end. Then I went around a bend in the road and every vista included ocean—to my right, to my left, directly ahead. It was quite a ways below me, but it was there in every visible direction. Somehow I knew the road was going to have some pretty steep descents.

Coming out on the flats, I passed a sign saying “Capetown.” I had no idea I’d gone so far, and frankly, I expected Capetown to have more than two buildings. I missed the road that would have taken me to the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse—possibly because I have two area maps, one of which puts the lighthouse at Cape Mendocino and the other puts it at Shelter Cove, some 40 miles south. Eventually, I did reach Petrolia, and boy was I ready for lunch.

Driving into town I passed a building with four pickups parked in front and a picture of a burger painted on its façade. There was no sign other than a neon “OPEN” sign, so I continued into town intent on enjoying a wonderful Petrolia meal. Stopping to snap a picture or two of St. Patrick Catholic Church, I read the historical marker noting that the first producing crude oil wells in California were 3 miles east of town. So that’s where they got the name. Across from the historical marker was a large building with a Post Office sign. Normally the US Post Office is closed on Sundays. This building was apparently open for business, but there was no sign other than the one for the P.O. I chose to get in the car and drive around town a bit—not that there was much town to drive through. I did find a second church, the Petrolia Seventh Day Adventist church. Not your normal choice for the Protestant church in a two-church town.

Seeing no alternative, I turned the Volvo around and headed back to hamburgers and pickups. Whoa, apparently the California statute outlawing smoking in public places got lost on the way to Petrolia. All three men at the bar, and the woman tending bar, were smoking, and filling the rather large room with the residue of their Marlboros. The sign behind the bar offered Fettuccini and a couple of other dishes, but plainly stated “No Hamburgers.” I told the barmaid that I was looking for lunch and was told “I don’t think he’s cooking today. It’s Sunday.” When I declined the offer of cold beer or strong whiskey, claiming the road as my reason, I was directed to the store. “The women there are real good. They’ll let you use their microwave and won’t charge you for it.” Great, just what I wanted for lunch.

The store turned out to be the large building next to, or perhaps containing, the Post Office. Apparently Petrolia is so remote that no one feels the need to put up a sign. The locals all know where everything is, and there are no visitors. I will give them this. The women at the store were “real good.” The nearest restaurant was two hours away, they told me, but I could buy things and cook them in their microwave. Thanks, but no thanks. Outfitting myself with a bag of baby carrots, a couple sticks of string cheese, a can of V-8, and a Dagoba Milk Chocolate/Chai bar (WHAT???), I hit the road again. Pondering a freezer case that contained soy burgers and soy hot dogs, I decided that all the old hippies hadn’t disappeared, they’d just moved to Petrolia. Then I remembered the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Ah—a town of religious vegetarians. How lovely!

Fasten your seat belts. It's gonna be a bumpy ride!
Mattole Road, Humboldt County, California
Taken 1/14/07

Seeing a sign for Lighthouse Road, I turned West and once more found myself driving on one of those Humco Loose Gravel roads. Punta Gorda Lighthouse had the distinction of being the most remote lighthouse in California. Today it’s in ruins, or so I surmise. The maps say “Ruins” but the advisory sign at the beachfront parking lot said to allow a half day for the hike, and frankly, I’d already spent more than half a day just getting to this point. Well, dammit, I’d come to take pictures, and so far I hadn’t been able to shoot much. Let’s see what Mattole Beach is like. Hmmm, the first thing I saw looked like a maypole. Just past the maypole, someone gathered beach stones and laid out a labyrinth. What was I saying about aging hippies? Looking both to the north and to the south I saw not one other person on the beach. This is what is known as California’s Lost Coast—and I know why.

Back to Mattole Road and on south to Honeydew. The fifteen miles from Petrolia to Honeydew is better than the road north, but that means you take the curves at twenty mph instead of five to ten. Honeydew had a bar/restaurant/store. Oh I have no idea what it was. Again there was no sign, just a bunch of old geezers sitting on the porch and lots of cars parked in front. OK, not all the aging hippies went to Petrolia. Apparently a goodly number hang out in Honeydew.

At this point I had to make a choice. Turn left and stay on the Mattole Road back to US 101 between Weott and Redcrest, or continue south on the Wilder Ridge/Ettersburg Road toward Shelter Cove. Sorry, Charlie, I’m already wondering if I’ll make it home tonight. I don’t need to head any further south, so east it is, and once across the river, I’m climbing again. The road climbs steadily for eight miles, again at 10 miles per hour. You pass the occasional privacy fence, and remembering that the number one cash crop in Humboldt County just happens to be illegal, you don’t ask any questions about these fences. What is particularly bizarre about them is that there are no gates, and no roads or driveways anywhere near the fence. I have no idea what they’re hiding, and frankly, I don’t want to know.

After eight miles of climbing you reach the ridge line, and my GPS receiver said we were about 2500 feet above sea level. This is the boundary of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and as you descend the east face of the ridge, you see for the first time today guard rails. Not many, granted, but more than you’ve seen so far on this road. After descending another seven miles, you reach the actual redwood groves. The road has now become a one-lane/two-way thoroughfare through the redwood forest. Where before you feared meeting a dually pickup because there was barely room for the Volvo and the pickup to pass, now you fear meeting a Honda Civic. There is no room to pass. Should you see an oncoming vehicle, you find the nearest point to get off the road—or hope that they do.

Twenty-three miles after leaving Honeydew, I’m back to US 101 and have the choice of taking the freeway or the older “Avenue of the Giants.” Thanks, I’ve done my sightseeing today. I just want to get home, and it’s only 150 miles away. I’ll take the freeway.

Get out your magnifying lens or click on this to see it full sized.
I know that when I go camping I always take along two cows and at least three goats.
(See second line under caption ANIMALS)
Also, does the last line mean that I can camp at 501' outside the campground?
Taken at Mattole Beach Campground, Humboldt County California

I don’t recommend the Mattole Road—from either direction. Would I go back? You betcha! I’d love to camp at Mattole Beach. I’d love to hike to the Punta Gorda lighthouse ruins. I want to find out where the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse really is. But I think I’ll wait for summer and a convertible. I love the Volvo, but it felt too big. Next time, I’ll take the Saab.

Weather: Blue sky, sunshine, temps ranging from a low of 28 to a high of 50

Mood: Great. Tired, but great. This is what I love doing.

Photos taken: 67. There weren’t any places to get off the road and shoot.


Greta said...

I'm having a rough day! It's grey and cold instead of white and cold or sunny and bright. It's been like this since the end of Sept. I've slept from 7:30 am to 10:30 am and I can't get through to Google at times and I'm getting frustrated.

Carl said...

Hey Bryan! Make sure there's room in that Saab for me. I see the road has not been maintained much since I was there in the late 70's or early 80's. That is not a road for Steve. It is, however, a road of history, adventure, and great scenic beauty. Thanks for the trip.