When one ill-conceived plan falls apart, implementing an equally ill-conceived plan is important.
Day 1 of my trip had little to recommend it: the slog south from Vancouver on I-5 through Seattle and Tacoma had been pretty brutal. High temperatures, road construction and two serious accidents added a lot of time and frustration to that leg of my trip. I finally packed it in at a small motel in Tumwater, Wash., after seven-and-a-half hours on the road. There are lots of industrial-looking buildings in Tumwater that show signs of being closed long ago and have since become canvasses for graffiti artists.
My idea seemed simple and fun at first. I was going to find the finest Old Fashioned on the U.S. West Coast. The Old Fashioned, experts opine, is the first cocktail ever invented, getting its name in 1880. A couple of years ago, my wife Janiebelle and I were on vacation in Manzanita on the coast of Oregon, where I had an Old Fashioned that practically blew my head off. It was so good I think I had an out-of-body experience. I’d been thinking about that one drink ever since. With that as my benchmark, I had the genesis of a story.
I created a two-week window in my crowded schedule and planned out my ride down the coast. Well, planned is an exaggeration. I figured that if I kept the Pacific Ocean to my right, I’d be riding down the west coast. And I would drink Old Fashioneds. But not at the same time. And I’d quit heading south at the halfway point of my two weeks so that I could get home again. Planning completed. My wife thinks I’m an idiot.
Day 2 saw me finally make the Oregon border, and taking the bridge over the Columbia River to grab Highway 30 west felt like the first real progress I’d made on this trip. My plan was to cut over to Astoria at the top of the Oregon coast and get down to Manzanita to refresh my memory of The Ecstasy.
Finally on Highway 101, I headed south along the coast. After much heat and many twisties, I got off the highway and idled down the long slope into the beach town of Manzanita. Rolling through town, I looked with great anticipation for the little restaurant I remembered so that I could reacquaint myself with the perfect Old Fashioned. I could almost taste it!
Every single thing about that town was exactly the same … except that one restaurant had changed hands and now served only breakfast and lunch. And they did not serve Old Fashioneds for breakfast! Or lunch! I was devastated. I had to collect myself, sitting in some shade and staring forlornly at the ocean while cogitating upon how I was going to carry on. After a suitable period of mourning, it was time for a new plan. The Old Fashioned was dead to me.
A New Plan Emerges
Because I was going to ride to California anyway; and because I am the late John Steinbeck’s most ardent fan; and because Steinbeck, author and winner of both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Salinas, Calif., not far from the coast south of San Francisco; and because he lived there for a significant period of time and worked in the Salinas and Monterey area, which greatly influenced his writing; and because in Salinas there is North America’s only museum dedicated to a single author – that being John Steinbeck; and because the museum had his camper truck, which he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), on display … why not make my trip a quest to examine the roots of Steinbeck and perhaps sneak a touch on the flank of Rocinante?
At the age of 60, Steinbeck had used this camper while writing Travels With Charley: In Search of America. Charley was a standard poodle and Steinbeck’s best friend. I believed that there is a likeness of Charley sitting in the front seat of the pickup truck in the museum. Who wouldn’t want to ride 4,000 km round trip to see a stuffed poodle in a pickup truck?
This was shaping up to be a rather fortuitous situation. Although I mourned the absence of the perfect Old Fashioned, I rejoiced in the possibilities awaiting me in Salinas. I was immediately back on my bug-encrusted Harley, headed south on Hwy 101. However, it was not an easy trip. My GPS constantly failed me. After some roadside investigation, I determined that one of the power pins in the Garmin cradle wasn’t springing out to meet the receptor on the GPS (a common malady among some of Garmin’s models). The only solution I could think of was some electrical contact cleaner to free it up.
I rode on until I came to a small town with four operating businesses. I decided to explore the lumberyard/hardware store/community gossip-gathering place. The very helpful woman in this emporium dug around and found me a gigantic can of electrical contact cleaner. It was the only one in the store. I hoped I could squeeze it into a packed saddlebag.
Sadly, my IQ dips sharply when it comes to navigation and I had come to rely on my GPS over the past 10 years. I was terrified to be travelling without it, what with my level of trip preparation.
I sprayed about half of the can onto the GPS cradle and contacts, slapped the GPS back on and tried to fire it up.
The GPS did not come back to life. After that, I read the directions on the can. Apparently you’re supposed to spray just a little bit, then wipe the sprayed surface with a lint-free cloth and let it dry before you power up the unit again.
I think the best part of the coastal highway is south of Lincoln City, Ore. Not that there’s anything really wrong with the highway north of Lincoln City, but south, there’s less traffic, fewer towns and even more spectacular views of the beach and sea stacks – giant rocks jutting upward from the surf. And there’s plenty of third- and fourth-gear fun to be had on the winding road, assuming you don’t get distracted by the view and ride off a cliff.
I was done for the day by the time I got to Brookings, Ore., a stone’s throw from the California border. I booked myself into a swanky resort right on the beach at a very reasonable price because the hostess took pity on me, thinking I was near death based on my appearance and because of my sad, sad GPS story.
That night, I decided to dine in a manner appropriate to my accommodations. I found a lovely seafood restaurant at the pier where, for the first time in my life, I tried Oysters Rockefeller as well as an Old Fashioned. It was a perfectly fine Old Fashioned, but it was not nearly the perfect Old Fashioned. Regardless, I carried on with the rest of my meal and went for a walk before returning to my hotel room. At 3 a.m., I was wakened by the oysters, which wanted to tell me that they had no place being in my body and wanted out. We discussed that for the next couple of hours.
Because of the previous night’s oyster party, I slept in a bit on the morning. The town was completely socked in with fog and I felt quite chilly for the first time since I’d left Vancouver. I was actually considering staying a second night to recover and work on my GPS, but sadly there was no vacancy. So I packed my belongings and slapped my GPS on my bike. Flipped on the ignition and, as a shaft of light streamed down from Heaven, the GPS fired up.
Welcome to California
Shortly after leaving Brookings I was looking forward to seeing the “Welcome to California!” sign. This was the farthest south I had ever ridden, and crossing into California was going to be a milestone for me. But soon I saw some cones closing off the roadway and directing me into an agricultural inspection station, where the attendant gave me a cheerful “Have a good day!” and waved me through. The next sign I saw was for Crescent City, Calif. I had crossed the border at the inspection station without even knowing I was in California. What the hell? That was the crossing into California? Where is the photo op? Still, at least I was in California. And it was just as foggy and chilly and damp as Oregon had been 10 minutes before. Eventually I pulled over to layer up.
Redwood country is spectacular. As expected, I had never seen trees so large. The experience was like riding through Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, except it never seemed to end. The air smelled fantastic. But I was warned by a fellow with no front teeth to watch out for Bigfoot.
I soon discovered that blasting along freeways apparently uses more fuel than a steady 90 km/h cruise, and I found myself getting dangerously low with no signs of any fuel possibilities along the way. Eventually I saw a sign for the town of Garberville, which claimed to have two gas stations. As I was down to less than a quarter-tank, I decided to pull off and fuel up. And that’s when I entered The Twilight Zone.
Garberville is a town firmly entrenched in the past. It looks like the set of a 1950s movie with its neon signs on storefronts. The most recent cultural reference I could find were some dirty hippies. But the town did have a motel with air conditioning and a pool, which was important because although I’d been freezing that morning, I was now back in 35 C heat.
Garberville is like some desert town from a David Lynch film. I quickly checked into my room, last redecorated circa 1969, and cranked up the blessedly modern air conditioning so that I wouldn’t stick to the Naugahyde. I couldn’t wait to explore the town.
Many of the storefronts that looked interesting when I cruised through town on my bike were actually empty, having gone out of business. There weren’t too many people around, and those who were looked pretty sketchy.
As I was walking along the street and looking at all the empty stores, I met a woman who owned a café, one of the few remaining active businesses in town. I asked her whether all the neon signs for the shops and theatre worked, because I wanted to take some photos that evening. She looked at me as though I was crazy and told me that none of the signs work and in fact there’s very little light in town after dark – and it would be better if I weren’t walking around at night. I quickly returned to my motel, and left Garberville early the next morning.
Afternoon Rush Hour
Friday, I pushed on because I wanted to be in Santa Cruz that night. The temperature was still very hot, but as I approached San Francisco it began to cool off although the traffic became much worse. In fact, just after lunchtime was like rush hour. I was so hot that I had to pull off the freeway at an underpass and strip off my layers and open all my vents. That didn’t make any difference anyway because the traffic wasn’t moving and I easily got back into the stalled lane I had just left.
Eventually I got to the Golden Gate Bridge, which would have been a spectacular sight if there wasn’t so much fog. The bridge does look like the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, only longer and painted red.
It was so cold in San Francisco that I had to pull over and zip all my vents closed and add layers again. Getting through San Francisco and environs took forever, but it was, for the most part, a beautiful city. Being able to recognize the architecture and some street names, even though I’d never been there, felt odd. Eventually I made it through and once again the temperature got hot enough that I had to pull over and do my dance of unzipping and unlayering.
The World of John Steinbeck
Janiebelle had flown down to meet me in Santa Cruz so that we could spend the weekend together exploring John Steinbeck-land. Saturday morning we headed for Steinbeck’s childhood home, where he began writing. Salinas is a pretty little town, which seems to have John Steinbeck as its sole industry. My wife surprised me by taking me to the Steinbeck home for lunch, a terrific opportunity to learn more about him and his youth. The elderly volunteers told stories involving the house as well as young Steinbeck and his family.
John’s father purchased the 4,000-square-foot home with an unfinished second floor. As each child was born, he would create a bedroom on the second floor, until all three children had their own rooms. John’s was at the front of the house, and many of his characters came from the people he observed passing on the street when he was young.
A volunteer told me that there were two kinds of people in the then-small town of Salinas. Those who were angry that Steinbeck included them as characters in his novels and those who were angry because he didn’t.
Rocinante in the Metal
The National Steinbeck Center, which is quite a large museum devoted solely to Steinbeck and his work, features vignettes representing all of his writings, including the films based on his books. However, a highlight for me was his custom-ordered Chevrolet pickup (he called the head of Chevrolet personally with his list of requirements) and custom-built camper in which he travelled to write Travels With Charley. As much as I love Steinbeck’s novels, I’ve always been particularly fond of that book, both because of it being a massive road-trip story, but also because of his observations on the U.S. and its people in the early 1960s. And as promised, there was a (somewhat creepy) likeness of Charley sitting in the front seat of the pickup.
Heading for home up 101, I discovered that my previous experience with San Francisco was not a fluke. It seems that any time of day you travel anywhere near San Francisco, you face rush hour-like traffic. It was hot and very slow. I finally made it to lovely Santa Rosa for the night.
Next morning, more of the same. Pounding up the 101 in the heat, I gave in and decided to head west to the coast again to ride along Highway 1, which hugs the Pacific Ocean shoreline. Even though the route would be slower, I was hoping that it would be cooler.
Too Many Twisties?
I took Highway 20 west from Willits, and this was the twistiest, most exhausting road I have ever ridden. Admittedly, I was not in peak form. Hauling my big Harley around turn after turn took all of my concentration. I don’t think there was a straight section on this road until it came out at the ocean. For an hour, I rode through twisties and switchbacks, some so tight they were marked 15 mph. Even though the air grew cooler, I was sweating from the effort of keeping the Harley on the narrow, shoulderless two-lane road and out of the way of RVs and other traffic.
Highway 20 finally hit Highway 1 and the coast at the town of Fort Bragg. I decided to follow Highway 1
as far north as possible to enjoy the cool coastal air. But cool ocean air often breeds fog. And roads that follow the coastline often breed twisties. So I was back at it again for at least another hour. Totally exhausting. I never thought I would say this, but I was sick of twisties, my neck creaking from twisting side to side and looking up and down through turns with elevation changes that were as constant as the curves. The views were spectacular, but I could barely enjoy them in the worry that I might ride straight off the road or into an oncoming vehicle. This was probably the most exhausting day of the trip thus far.
I stumbled upon the little town of Fortuna, Calif., a little jewel nestled in agricultural land that was cool and comfortable and that had a lovely motel across from kilometre after kilometre of fields.
The rest of the trip was a blur of high-speed I-5 with brief detours into Portland and Seattle that exposed me to their tent cities and homelessness amid efforts at gentrification. In all, the trip was just about 4,000 km on the nose and 12 days of heaven and hell. My ride was an educational, albeit limited exposure to the current U.S. – and not much at odds with Steinbeck’s observations of 1962 America.
And as it turns out, I’m still looking for the perfect Old Fashioned.