Sea Fever

The phone rings Friday morning. Hardly ever a good thing. Not this time. It’s friend Paul down there in Redding. He wants to show us Highway 36.

I don’t need reasons to ride but I know Highway 36 ends up at Humboldt Bay, and I’d been dreaming of seagulls wheeling in the surf mist and cherrystone clams, two dozen large ones, steaming in rich broth laced liberally with garlic. When you live 300 miles from the coast and you are 62, such nocturnal fantasizing is not unusual.

Paul says, “Come on down to Poverty Flats, spend the night with us and we’ll get at it in the morning.” Paul and his wife Carel are from Canada, which is larger than the United States but not nearly as violent. They play hockey, but the serious stuff, like war and gunfire at school and work, is rare. Paul is a commercial pilot and an aircraft mechanic, something about the latter skill comforting in that regard, no? Carel crunches numbers for a tax guy, but I do not hold that against her. They both ride hypersport GSX-R750 Suzukis very adroitly. They speak reverently about Canadian superbike champion Miguel DuHamel smoking the field at Sears Point. Pam and I ride two-up on our luxotourer Gold Wing 1800. We revere old movies and going to bed before 10.

My favorite thing about Redding is the ride there from our place in Big Valley. Highway 299 soars west, up and over two mountain ranges, then snakes down a riparian gorge that’s always beautiful but never more so than in May when carpets of purple lupine and yellow-gold poppies illuminate the corners and the trees are in resplendent burst with new green and Cedar Creek still rushes lustily with spring snowmelt.

In Redding, population 90,000 and growing at a fearsome pace, you will be either pleased or despondent depending upon how you feel about the new world order. You like golf, mall land, the new $32 million postmodern city hall with the nice fountain in front, and the new $27 million Sundial footbridge designed by an architect from Zurich. You’re pleased. You like a city center that isn’t dead, glorious Sacramento River banks unfettered by the real-estate industry, people who drive like they’re not on crack, and freeway underpasses not inhabited by homeless people in cardboard shelters. You’re despondent.

Paul and Carel’s home turns out to be a quiet, lovely place on a cul-de-sac in the foothills above Redding that has doubled in value in three years. Poverty Flats? Ah, dry Vancouver Island humor. Their only problem is their immediate neighbor; dog lovers whose mutts bark at all hours and invade their yard and defecate while Paul and Carel barbecue. Welcome to suburban California. I saw one of the dogs briefly while Paul was turning the jerked chicken on the grill that evening. Paul gave it the stink eye the forward gives the goalie just as he power slaps the puck through his crotch at the speed of light. Fido did the cognitive head tilt and scampered out of range immediately.

Morning. Highway 36. We connect with it after exiting Interstate 5 at Bowman Road south of Cottonwood and riding about 20 miles through the lush grasslands and shady groves of ancient oaks that typify the upper Sacramento Valley. Paul warns me this section is a roller coaster, a seductive strip of asphalt where lies the possibility of going airborne off the rises, especially at full fever on a GSX-R. I tell him not to worry; Pam and I at full fever on our Wing are like motor maids on a poker run. You guys ride your pace. Sooner or later, we’ll show up.

By the time we do just that for breakfast in Wildwood, the grassy oak-studded rolling valley floor creased by lovely creeks has risen into the rarefied high country of Trinity National Forest, where the road winds through a great expanse of pine and fir, where the roller coaster has given way to a tight ascendance of esses and snakers that Paul refers to as Carel’s favorite section. Sure enough, when we pause at an overlook for a photo of the snow-mantled Trinity Alps piercing the sky to the north, Carel keeps on going. Then, in the quiet mountain air, above only the sound of the wind rushing in the trees, we hear the unmistakable heady whine of an expert rider carving corners with power and élan.

South Fork Mountain Summit. Elevation 4,077 feet. The view here of the longest continuous mountain ridge in the continental United States is a stunner, a clear indication that so much of north-
ern California is still, blessedly, a vast wilderness. And the previous 20 miles or so of the ride have been further indicative of the eclectic nature of Highway 36. Suddenly the road changed again. It became Gold Wing Nirvana, an elongated section of fully visible broad sweeping arcs of clean pavement where thousand-pound luxobikes love to fly. The downer at this point is that Paul and Carel are not as fixated on going to the coast as we are. They had enough of marine layers living on the Island all those years. Paul tells me he never saw a starry sky until he movedbto Redding.
They decide to head back home. As we wave good-bye at the summit I tell them I’ll bring them a souvenir from the sea.

So bound, we begin the long downward slide through the great temperate rainforest that is Humboldt County. At once, Highway 36 undergoes yet another facelift, for it now courses the windward heights of the coast range, rugged country that bears the full brunt of Pacific gales that keep road crews busy all winter. Hastily repaired washouts and one-lane detours necessitate a much slower pace. A good thing because historic, weathered logging and ranching hamlets like Dinsmore and Bridgeville invite pause, the latter burg especially because an investor just bought the whole town for $700,000, about the median price for single family home in San Francisco. And then the sublime natural beauty of the region becomes overwhelming as you enter Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, where the magnificent giants turn daylight into a corridor of haunting primordial twilight, where the only speeding you want is toward more understanding of what’s truly happening on this planet.

Eureka, the sea at last, the breath of the ocean. Eureka, the once-thriving logging capital and major commercial fishing port. The trees and the fish, for all practical (read: commercial) purposes, are gone. Marijuana cultivation and meth amphetamine use are booming. I’m out of film so we ride to the mall. The mall is booming. We wade through throngs of shoppers, and then I feel anxiety crawling up my flanks because the clerk in the film store tells me it’s grad night at Humboldt State University, so if we want to get a motel room we better start looking fast. We luck out at The Comfort Inn, get a double queen for $135, bigger than we need, but it’s the last room available.

The sea, we need the sea. We ride across the bridge to Samoa Peninsula. We park the motorcycle and sit on a spit of sand that separates Humboldt Bay from the gray Pacific. The sea is so calm as to seem incongruous, the waning afternoon so windless as to seem airless. A few surfers are attempting to ride small mushy rollers. Nearby is a fairly late-model car with one wheel missing and all the glass smashed. Behind us the Simpson Pulp Mill hisses up a towering column of steam. In short order we get enough of the sea. We’re famished after a long day on the road. We’re ready
to eat without restraint. The Samoa Cookhouse, a 19th-century loggers’ mess hall, still serves loggers’ portions of pork steaks smothered in gravy and slabs of roast beef and mountains of mashed potatoes and at least two desserts family style. And as a bonus after dinner you get to walk it off around the old establishment that also serves as a museum exhibiting the halcyon days of redwood logging. Of course there are souvenirs available. I remember my promise to Paul and Carel. They’re going to love their official Samoa Cookhouse coffee cup.

Early morning. Post grad night. You can almost hear the hangovers being slept off. Before departing we park the motorcycle for a photo in front of Eureka’s famous landmark, lumber baron William Carson’s imposing Victorian mansion built in 1884. A sign posted on the lawn reads, “The mansion is a private club not available for public entry.” Across the street is another ornate dwelling known as The Pink Lady where professional designers are headquartered, and another vintage residence, somewhat smaller and more austere, houses a law firm. It’s all so quaint and charming.

Highway 299. Homeward bound. A road as captivating as Highway 36 for all the same reasons but there are about 50 miles where it traces the sinuous course of the Trinity River roaring in full spring tumult, a venue where you know somewhere deep in your leather that it doesn’t get any better than this.

Then, as a finale, as we approach the riverside community of Big Bar, I have an experience I’ve never had before in 40-plus years of motorcycling, an experience I don’t want to repeat. I notice a gaggle of turkey vultures feeding on the shoulder of the road, on the carcass of a deer, I suppose, but before I can make that identification, one of the eagle-size birds decides to take off and cross the road and suddenly at 45 mph I’m in an Alfred Hitchcock movie fully expecting the flying beast to smash into my windshield. As I duck instinctively behind the plexiglass, one of its wings does just that, leaving a macabre imprint, but I take the full impact of the bird’s body on the top of my helmet. It’s a blow that leaves me with a concussive headache for a minute or so, and both Pam and me with the indelible olfactory memory of the impressive stink of carrion.

What’s the old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times?

We do indeed.


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