I’m freezing my ass off in a tent somewhere in BFE Oregon, miles from any trace of civilization, at 2300′ elevation. The sun hasn’t quite set yet although it is getting dark. At least the cold is keeping the mosquitoes away, but somehow I forgot my jacket on a trip to Alaska. How do I get myself into these messes?
I set out from Palo Alto yesterday morning, July 7, with a vague notion of “going to Alaska.” How hard could it be? Just go northwest until the road runs out, and that should do the trick. Hey, it worked when I moved to California… Along the way, I picked up my friend and quondam colleague Chatchai, who’ll be coming with me as far north as Bellingham, Washington, just south of the Canadian border. Chatchai is a Thai citizen, and given the uncertainties of the world just now, he would prefer not to exit the United States until the situation has become clearer. For my part, I am hoping the Canadians will let me across the border.
Leaving San Francisco, we crossed the Bay Bridge and I went to Ham Radio Outlet in Oakland to buy a book, figuring this trip had a high likelihood of downtime needing to be filled. And with that, we were off. The drive up I-5 was beautiful but uneventful. The isolated craggy peaks of the Sutter Buttes were crystal clear in the blue distance, some 40 miles off, as if to beckon a traveler with more time than activities with which to fill it. I hope to visit them sometime but yesterday was not to be that day. Sometimes reckoned the world’s smallest mountain range, the Sutter Buttes were about the only point of interest until Lassen Peak became visible, marching along off to our right. Shortly after that, we suddenly became aware of Mount Shasta itself, its peak a white glimmer floating in a blue sea, still 150 miles ahead of us.
For those of us from back east, the scale of the American West can be difficult to fathom. The idea of being able to see any mountain from 150 miles away would be preposterous; and yet, even our tallest mountains are not even half the height of Shasta, itself not even the tallest of the Cascade Range. Furthermore, Shasta rises from a fairly flat, low valley, making its prominence seemingly all the higher. But it isn’t the height of Shasta that takes one’s breath away. It’s the size. Shasta is truly an enormous mountain. I wonder how many Mount Mitchells could fit inside. And even with all that, Shasta was merely a waypoint on our trip; we did not even stop to take photos. Not that we could have if we’d wanted to, because no sooner had we passed by Shasta’s feet at the town of Weed, than we began to notice the smoke.
Ah yes, a California wildfire. This one was relatively small, having burned “only” 22,000 acres by the time we passed through. Either side of the Interstate was scorched, the ground literally black and gray with soot and ash. Here and there, it continued to burn and smoke. We passed burned out houses, skeletal cars, and planes and helicopters scooping water out of the river. I later found out that I-5 had actually been completely closed just the day before. In one sense, our timing was fortunate, but in another sense it was lousy, because we had been planning to spend the night camping in a National Forest just north of the Oregon border. And that region was still ablaze. I could see the area our campsite would have been in, or rather, I would have been able to see it if not for the smoke. We had no choice but to press on in search of another possible place to spend the night.
In the end, Google Maps revealed that there was an unmanaged campground in a national forest about 30 miles southwest of Grants Pass. This was still some two hours ahead of us, and our arrival would be well after dark. It would also take us 60 miles off our intended route. But any port in a storm, so we set ourselves in that direction. Upon leaving the Interstate at Grants Pass, a small argument broke out about possibly finding a motel for the night instead, since we had no idea what awaited us 30 miles ahead in the now very-dark woods. Fortunately, Chatchai is even cheaper than I am, so when it was discovered that no motel could be had for less than $100, it was finally agreed to press on and stick to the original plan. In the end it was a good choice. We arrived at a small campground populated by noisy twenty-somethings making s’mores and found an out-of-the-way corner to pitch our tent. By this time it was after 10 PM. While setting up the tent, I happened to gaze up and realized the Milky Way was visible. My breath was taken away for a moment. Those of us who live in cities often forget that the stars even exist, let alone that there are such a countless number of them, and that they come in more than one color. That night I drifted off to sleep with the sound of singing frogs in my ears.
We awoke around 8 AM to a bright, beautiful day. In daylight we could see that the campsite was actually nestled up in a rather beautiful little valley. Incredibly, I forgot to take any photos. I will strive to do better going forward. I looked at the map and suggested to Chatchai that, since we had already come so far out of our way, perhaps we should alter the plan and continue by taking US 101 up the coast instead of taking I-5 up the central part of the state. He agreed. En route, we passed through a corner of Redwood National Park and were rewarded with views of some truly spectacular trees. Our route required us to cross back into California near Crescent City, and we stopped at the entry port. The man asked us about whether we had any fruit, then waved us on our way. After a right turn at the coast, we re-entered Oregon and began slowly making our way up some rugged, hostile coastline. Sea stacks and arched rocks stood foggily offshore, pounded by crashing waves, and when we stopped to take photos we could hear the barking of unseen seals at the bottoms of the cliffs.
At Brookings, we stopped at the cheap-ass traveler’s best friend, McDonald’s. Say what you will about their food, but they have the convenient waystop thing dialled in. Clean bathrooms, free wifi, and cheap caffeine are just what one needs to get the day started. The clean bathroom is especially important considering the restroom facilities that are typically available at free Forest Service campgrounds. Let’s just say they are generally unspeakable at best, so let’s leave them unspoken. I took the opportunity of downloading a bunch of offline maps while I was on wifi. Connectivity out here is already spotty and I expect it to get worse as the trip wears on. In fact, as I write this, I have no service and will have to upload tomorrow — probably from a McDonald’s. I decided I wasn’t going to bring anything on this trip that I would be really upset to have stolen, so my already-once-burgled-and-recovered MacBook received a reprieve and stayed at home. Instead, I have the $99 Black Friday Special Lenovo IdeaPad, never even opened until a few days ago. It is no speed demon and the keyboard is suckily small, but typing on this sure beats trying to use the iPhone.
After leaving McDonald’s, it occurred to me that I would really like to save my GPS tracks on these trips so I could go back later and figure out where the hell I’d been. After a few years (or a few months), I’m never really certain anymore. I find myself asking, “haven’t I been here before?” but alas, I have no answer. I downloaded three apps, two of which use GPS and the third uses cell towers to guess the position. Unfortunately,while the GPS ones give more accurate results, they randomly stop tracking without telling you they quit. My guess is it might have something to do with resource constraints on my now quite old iPhone 6. The third one gives approximate locations but it seems robust, and I guess that will be good enough for my purposes. A long digression to say, I hope to post my tracks on here so you can check out exactly where I went.
While making our way up the coast, we stopped at two lighthouses. One, Umpqua River, is the oldest in Oregon, dating from 1857 or thereabouts, although it was damaged and rebuilt in 1891. The other, Heceta Head, was now a state park and quite an impressive production. We spent about an hour walking up to it and enjoying the sea views.
Along the way, we passed a lot of spectacular scenery and it occurred to me that I really wish I had a dash cam so that I could just record the whole drive, with the idea that maybe later I could do a highlights reel. I will have to make a decision tomorrow morning about whether to return to the coast or head to the central part of the state. If I take the latter road, I will visit the only Fry’s in Oregon and see about getting a dash cam. [Editor’s note: I did not take this route, so no dash cam yet]
Just south of Coos Bay, we passed some spots that I am sure I visited several years ago with my friend Travis, when we took a random drive up here for no particular reason. Chatchai and I stopped and got pizza in Newport, then continued on up 101 a few more miles until we crossed the 45th parallel, where I stopped and took a selfie. Shortly thereafter, we left 101 and headed towards camp. This place is out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a 13 mile gravel road at the end of a 20 mile road to nowhere. At some points, the road got so narrow that both sides of the car were being swept by underbrush, and at other points there were deep ruts with mud lying in the bottom. I must say, the woods were dark, very dense and even claustrophobic, and I felt some unease about how far off the beaten path we were straying. Chatchai is afraid of woodland ghosts and doesn’t like being isolated, and I could tell he was becoming very concerned. Fortunately, when we got to camp it turned out there were already two other parties here, much to Chatchai’s relief (and privately, perhaps, a little to mine as well). There’s a little lake here, and lots of shiny, flowering plants that I hope are no relative of Poison Oak because I’ve been all in them.
And with that, I will end today’s journal. Here’s hoping for another restful night, free of the baleful influences of Sasquatch, bears, or woodland spirits.
[Editor’s note: this was indeed posted from the McDonald’s in Tillamook. Last night was mostly uneventful but cold. In contrast to Saturday night, last night was dead silent. That is, until we were awakened in the wee hours by four eerie cries. They were over before I was fully awake, and though I waited some time, they did not repeat.]