northern california

redwood trees

It’s another sunny day on Hwy 101 as we leave Brookings, Oregon, and drive the seven miles to the California border. The landscape loses a bit of its luster here at the top of California, at least where 101 traces its path through countryside away from the ocean on our right and the Redwoods off in the distance on our left. But a short way south of Crescent City, the road takes us through Redwood National Park for a few miles and out the other side and on south to Pepperwood, where the sign says “Avenue of the Giants.” Originally built in the 1880s as a wagon and stagecoach road, this scenic highway runs parallel to 101 for 32 miles through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It’s majestic.

Back on 101 at Phillipsville and down the road a spell, at the junction of Hwy 1 is one of those “you’ve gotta do” attractions in Leggett – driving your car through the base of a Redwood – the Chandelier Tree. There are three such trees in the area, and we’ve chosen this one for the memories. We’ve been here before, back in 1994, on a family vacation; and as it happens, not much has changed – the tree is still standing, the car still fits; only thing different is we’ve changed our clothes and Bridget’s about two feet taller this time around.

After driving under the monstrous tree, we head back out to the main road to pick up Hwy 1, where it begins, where it ends, right here in Leggett. Hwy 1 slowly descends through the mountains, wending its way in a series of switchbacks that will eventually take us out to the ocean. The trees blanket our descent, crowding out any daylight left to the day. And then with the trees and mountains behind us the road makes a line to the coast – with its homes scattered among the cliffs, surrounded in green and shrouded in coastal fog – we are transported to the coast of western Ireland and sing a little song of joy. Hwy 1 hugs the coast, cutting through the cliff edge – Northern California’s Big Sur. It’s getting dark as we drive through the town of Westport; just one or two lights on, enough to lend the town a sleepy look amidst this some kind of beautiful. You just know the real estate ads all say 360-degree views and mean it.

But Westport appears to be shut down for the day, so there’s no lingering. On to Fort Bragg 15 miles down the road and another Super 8 night.

fort bragg
We’ve chosen Fort Bragg as our resting stop for one reason only: Eggheads Restaurant. It was on our itinerary in 1994, and so it is in 2012. Plus ca change. And I don’t think it’s all just in my mind. Twenty years ago, you walked in the front door and stepped into a mini Wizard of Oz museum, but today, if you didn’t visit the restroom out back, you might miss the connection. But we do know enough: Outside the back door, in pure Wizard of Oz kitsch, a painted yellow brick road leads the way to the loo, otherwise known as the Emerald City.

When I ask the woman at the checkout counter where the display case with Oz paraphernalia has disappeared, she looks at me strange: “What display case? I’ve been here longer than I care to remember and there was never any display case.” She speaks firmly, but I remain unconvinced. Twenty years ago, we were an Oz family, deep into the series that ran to dozens of books, and I clearly remember an exchange where I gave money and got Oz goodies in return. She’s having none of it though. As I turn to leave, out of the corner of my eye, I see what I was looking for – the Oz figurines that used to live in a display case but now are relegated to the kids’ crayon baskets. I shed a tear for their lonely lives among the broken reds and purples and blues.

Any disappointment about days gone by was more than made up by our meal, complete with bottomless cups of coffee, fit for any road warrior.

Full to the brim, we headed out to explore the shops along the main street, including the tattoo parlor.

Then it was down to the beach in search of glass. The story goes that in the early 1900s, Fort Bragg residents threw all their garbage over the cliffs into the ocean – everything from cars to appliances, and included in that was household glass. Eventually all the garbage was cleaned up from this dump, and all that remains is glass embedded in the stones along the shore. We need to see this! Admonishments not to take any of the glass we find on the beach builds our anticipation of just how beautiful the Glass Beach must be, rich in color, sparkling in the sunlight.

I guess the warnings have gone unheeded over the years, because all that’s left to sparkle is the sun on the water. Indeed, there are random bits of glass embedded in the rock, but there is lots of crawling around on hands and knees to find it. Perhaps town council should rename it Former Glass Beach.

Glass Beach


Picking up Hwy 1 out of Ft Bragg, it’s a 15-minute drive south to Mendocino, sitting pretty atop the cliffs that lead down to the ocean on three sides. Home to artisans and musicians and writers and more artisans, the town is bursting with shops and galleries that are a feast for the eyes. So much to see, and the best way to do it is on foot, so we park the car on the main street and head out for a stroll along the streets in town and down to the water’s edge.

We are well past the height of the season and I am astounded by the abundance of flowers in bloom – Mendocino has some gardeners extraordinaire to its name.

It’s a quiet day at the Mendocino Art Center, and after a quick tour of the indoor galleries, we wander among the grounds. The colors are muted, but there’s still lots to see …

albion and points south

The afternoon is fading, just enough time to stop at the cove in Albion for a bit of beach time …

… and further down the coast past Irish Beach and Manchester to the Point Arena Lighthouse, as we say goodbye to the ocean before heading inland.

In retrospect, we would have been wiser to have taken the exit for Hwy 128 in Albion that would have given us the easy route to Cloverdale in the heart of Sonoma wine country. But I can’t easily pass up an ocean sunset, especially one with a lighthouse thrown in for good measure. And with that came an alternate route to our destination – the aptly named Mountainview Road. Climbing and descending in hairpin turns at dusk turned out to be quite the adventure. The sign says it all …

sonoma wine country
Mountainview Road eventually led us to Hwy 128 and the town of Boonville in the heart of the Mailliard Redwood State Reserve, and from there south to Cloverdale to meet up with Tina Hannon, our couchsurfing fellow Van fan. Wonderfully, our trip to Sonoma coincided with that of world traveler Maurice Kinkead, our couchsurfing host in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who was making a stop in wine country before heading south to San Francisco and LA before heading off to New Zealand and Dubai. But first, wine country – wineries, wine tastings, grapes – this is what it’s all about in this neck of the woods. Tina’s home looks out on acres of grape vines; I daresay the view from most homes in the area is of the grapes.

What better way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in October than seeing the sights, first to the town of Geyserville for a stop at Locals, where the local wineries have their fine wines on hand for all to sample.

Maurice and Bridget at work

And then it was off to nearby Francis Ford Coppola’s Winery, complete with poolside wine tasting and fine dining outside the main building, which houses, among other things, paraphernalia from Coppola’s movies, including Don Corleone’s desk from “The Godfather” and skulls from “Apocalypse Now.” And this skeleton …

Further south along Hwy 101 to Healdsburg, we were hoping to find a winery a bit more in the down-to-earth vein, but our winery of choice was closed for a private function, which simply meant changing our plans and stopping in at Healdsburg Bar & Grill in time for tea – or in this case, more wine.

Our travel plans don’t leave us more than 36 hours in wine country, when really a week would have done us better. But it’s not to be. Sunday arrives with the sun shining and plans to head south for an afternoon at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, and then for Bridget and me, continuing on to Santa Cruz Sunday night.

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