Opinions: July 14, 2003Travels with Crawdad Nelson: Pork, beans and a dewy nose
By Crawdad Nelson
May 26 – Fortuna to South Fork Bridge
Around 4 o’clock a friend drops me off in Fortuna. Well-rested and encouraged, make the short run through Rio Dell and Scotia, crossing several bridges over the Eel. It has dropped somewhat since last week, but once I get past Redcrest, I am back in windy country.
On my way through, I stop at the General Store and a local asks “cruisin’ the ‘nue?” and this takes me by surprise so I laugh. It’s warm and has been for a while down here, and the people have become summer tourist-town people. They sit on porches and watch the parade.
I make it as far as South Fork with an hour or so until sunset. Although the signs here seem to forbid camping, I see no harm in spreading my gear in the shelter of some brush and watching night gather.
At night it’s windy and although 101 is a good distance away, I catch the sound of trucks coming down a grade, a sudden hammering and grinding noise which competes with the noise of wind on the river to invade my dreams. I dream of remote cabins, unlit, unsteadily constructed and perilously overlooking water.
In all this I am alone but I hear voices calling to me out of the void. I wake, realize where I am, watch the stars, and let the wind blow.
May 27 – South Fork to Benbow
Cruisin’ the ‘nue, I get water from the park headquarters again and spend several important dollars on a bean and cheese burrito in Myers Flat. It’s still early in the day and I push through Miranda, Phillipsville and the Hobbit patch at a steady pace. Foolishly wearing a tank-top earns me a sunburn, but I cover my shoulders on the way through Redway and limit the damage.
I choose a campsite on the Benbow detour, quieter than last week’s, and hidden. I make my first camp just at dusk, to warm a can of pork and beans provided by Food Not Bombs during my stay in Arcata. Nutritious though they may be, pork and beans are hard to choke down, even hungry – I save some for breakfast and scuffle for my last carrots and a soft apple with several hundred miles on it.
Finding my water jugs dry, I refill directly from the river. Dehydration is the most immediate problem.
There’s an osprey nest in the trees across the river, and in the morning, as I sit stretching, a flock of quail come in, one by one, landing all around me then trotting through the brush. Their identifying calls remind me of childhood and I find myself plotting how to approach these birds as a hunter. But they have found me, and we are unarmed.
May 28 – Benbow to Willits
I start early and go hard all day. At Confusion Hill, there is construction work going on and a friendly Caltrans worker ferries me and my bike through the work zone in the pilot vehicle. I feel somewhat privileged and infinitely safer.
The construction provides 20-minute gaps in southbound traffic, so the run through Leggett, the most hazardous stretch of 101, is a piece of cake. I make Spy Rock by 2 o’clock, but keep going. Rattlesnake Summit is over 1,700 feet in elevation, and I get a real sense of having climbed a significant slope.
Reaching Laytonville around six, I am tired enough to stop, but if I reach Willits there’s a bed and shower. So I take the Sherwood Road cutoff – the first climb is three miles, up a 15 percent grade over loose gravel. I take as a positive sign the fat roach and the $5 bill I discover near the bottom, but by the time I cross the first crest and the black oaks open into meadow, I am ready for some relaxation.
The sun is dropping on the surrounding hilltops, but this land is privately owned and tightly controlled. A Great Dane, big as a horse and ash-colored, gives silent chase down the first hill, but I lose him just before I have to slow to climb the next one.
Snake tracks lead through road dust, wire fences and “No Trespassing” signs line the road, which leads through thorny meadows.
The sun is dropping quickly. I am moving slowly. There’s no sign of life but black and red cattle standing around looking indifferent and hordes of vicious mosquitoes who attack whenever I rest. I know there’s a downhill at the end of all this, but it seems at least five of the seven miles on this part of Sherwood Road are uphill.
I calculate that I have covered nearly 60 miles when I finally reach the spot where this road ends and my choices are Fort Bragg – 31 – (over tortuous mud and dirt road) or Willits – 9 – my rest stop is toward Willits. Just at dark, I arrive. A bed and a shower.
May 29 – Sherwood Road to Ridgewood Summit
Resting until noon, the route leads toward Willits: mostly downhill. The weather is warm and mild. Above one mile down the road, I suffer my first flat tire. I knew this could happen, but wasn’t ready. It’s an eight-mile hike, pushing the bike and loaded trailer, to the first air compressor. It’s a good time to think things over.
My attempts at hitching a ride on passing pickup trucks are futile, and the narrow-shoulder road is a poor choice for a laden pedestrian. It takes hours – I’m not sure how many, and it’s not all that important. Eventually I reach Willits, repair the tire (it was a tiny glass fragment, still stuck in the tire tread), and move south down 101.
Toward evening I find a sheltering berm just past the Ridgewood Summit. The sun drops into fog in the West. I make a soft bed of grass – still green enough to be soft – and pass a restful night. I think of snakes in the grass, but on my spread-out tarp I feel reasonably secure from attack.
May 30 – Ridgewood to Lake County Hills
The drop from the Summit to Redwood Valley is under cool and foggy skies. Coffee, with biscuits and gravy, at the Redwood Valley Café, is a substantial enough beginning.
I spot the first of many dead snakes on Highway 20 just West of the Lake County line. There are more, along with a nearly continuous obstacle course of broken glass – mostly beer bottles – on the shoulder.
The climb toward Clear Lake is quicker than expected, and I make decent time. The lake itself is 20 miles long, nearly flat, and there are one or two large but flattened snakes per mile. Also a large number of lost flags, souvenirs of patriotic travelers.
Around 4 p.m. I pass the lake and begin climbing toward the Colusa County line, another 15 miles of hills, mostly up. It’s getting hot by now, and the countryside is a stern and barren mix of ridges cut by mostly dry stream beds.
The road is lined with glass chips twinkling in the sun and more flat snakes, averaging three feet in length and a half-inch in thickness.
Near evening I have climbed what I hope is the final summit, and make camp under a large oak alive with strange birds, who leap about and cry loudly. After dark, the birds quiet down and the coyotes begin their songs. A dog from a house in the valley below answers them. Light dew accumulates, tickling my nose.
May 31 – Summit to Sacramento
I rise early as sunshine, warm already, kisses my summit and the surrounding peaks. My water containers are loaded with spring water and the first two miles are downhill. I’m disappointed to discover one more hill in my way, but it’s the last.
I’m in Colusa County now, and soon leave the congestion and broken glass of Highway 20 behind as I turn southeast on Highway 16, into Yolo County.
White water enthusiasts are heading upstream. I count 12 busloads coming up the hill as I go down. It’s nearly 30 miles before I reach the first coffee. It’s free because it’s tepid and weak.
The general store at Holmes has a wooden sidewalk and the talk is agricultural. Inside, a photo of a local sport, near the trophy bucks and bass, displays a 48-inch rattlesnake killed nearby. Highway 16 continues through Rumsey, Guinda and Esparto, but the main fe
ature of interest here is endless fields of grain, lettuces, tomatoes and dry earth being prepared for planting.
An irrigation canal, filled with Trinity River water, cuts south through fields, and farmers on both sides of the road work with equipment to direct their precious allotments into orchards and fields.
I reach Madison, and then Woodland, by late afternoon. Camping opportunities are bleak here. I’ve had enough traveling, but I find a back road paralleling Interstate 5 into Sacramento.
Not far from Woodland I spot the promising big-city skyline. It’s flat here for as far as one can see. Cropdusters fly overhead.
Somewhere in this bleak landscape I encounter the Sacramento River, and sporting people in speedboats and on jet skis plunge up and downstream, laughing and squealing. The river is wide, deep and swift, and the banks are dry and unappealing.
Just before dark, 80 miles from where I started, I enter West Sacramento and begin looking for the bridge that will take to my ultimate destination. It’s been 21 days and 500 miles from Gualala.
Saturday night in the big city, with no money and nothing to eat but a can of corn found on the roadside. Time to get things organized.
Crawdad Nelson is a moving writer.