Cruising California

I said goodbye to my brother-in-law Jerry on Saturday, and set off in my trusty Subaru, heading (ultimately) to Whidbey Island, Washington. For anyone who doesn’t know, Whidbey Island is one of many islands in the Puget Sound, which is in Washington State, on the west coast of the United States. It’s a pretty large island, about 55 miles long, so it’s easy to spot if you want to look for it on a map.

But it’s a long way from Arizona to Washington. I wanted to drive along the California coast, starting north of Los Angeles, however, my schedule didn’t allow for much sightseeing.

California is an interesting state because the geography changes so much from the southern end to the northern end. I entered California on Interstate 10 from Arizona, and at first, it was a continuation of the Arizona desert, minus the saguaro cactus.

Interstate 10 turned north as I went by Palm Springs and Indio, and I stayed with it until I steered onto Interstate 215 and then used some smaller highways that kept me east of the congestion that is Los Angeles. I followed California highway 138 until I was north of Los Angeles and joined Interstate 5, heading north.

I made my first night’s stop in Gorman, California, a town along I-5. I was very tired and made my first major mistake along my cross-country journey. I put my car keys down inside the car while I unloaded my bag to take into the motel. I even thought about the possible consequences of doing this, but it didn’t prevent me from doing it: I pushed the lock on the car door and closed it.

As soon as it clicked shut, I knew what I had done, and I just leaned against the locked door that I now could not open, and mentally chastised myself for being such an idiot. One of the few drawbacks to traveling by myself is that there is no partner, friend, or spouse who has another key to the car. The only key was locked inside, and the only human who really cared about this was me, on the outside.

But, one of the advantages of age is that I also knew it was futile to waste time scolding myself for it. I would just be upset and the door would still be locked, so I picked up the overnight bag and went inside to the motel desk.

The young man who was tending the desk was very sympathetic, but no direct help. He suggested that I could call the service station across the road, although they would charge me about $80. He asked if I was a AAA member, and I remembered that I am – I just was so tired and I use it so infrequently that I hadn’t thought of it yet.

I called the AAA and they answered the phone promptly and asked how they could help. Interestingly, and a sign of the times here, I guess, the first question she asked was “Are you in a safe place?” I said I was, I just couldn’t get into my car. She took my information – name, membership number, location – and said she would check to see who could come out to rescue me. In a short minute, she said that they would send a local contractor, Edmunds Towing, and he would be there within the hour and call me when he arrived.

I went back downstairs and asked the desk clerk if he knew Edmunds Towing, and he said, “That’s the outfit across the road.” And sure enough, just as we finished, a pickup truck with Edmunds Towing painted on the side pulled up and my phone rang.

He was very efficient and I had my car keys back in short order, there was no charge, and all in all, it was not a terrible experience or a huge hassle to resolve. I did give him a gratuity, but it was $20 versus $80, so I was still well ahead and was able to get a peaceful night’s sleep, which I value also.

The next morning, I was on the road by 7:30 a.m., driving north on I-5, which goes north through California’s Central Valley toward Bakersfield. This is an agricultural area in California, but it still looks pretty dry.

I had avoided Los Angeles, but if I wanted to use Highway 101 and get closer to the northern coast, I couldn’t avoid San Francisco. I used Interstate 580 to go through San Francisco and Berkeley, toward Petaluma. It was crowded and crazy, but my Google Maps GPS worked like a champ, and I came out on the other side without incident. Whew!

I drove on Highway 101 for a while, and then turned off onto California 128 to get to Highway 1 that runs right along the ocean shore. It was slow going because I wound through tight curves in the mountains between the Central Valley and the coast. It was gorgeous scenery.

These trees were from the surrounding area. Pretty soon after I passed this pile of logs, I started going through the woods where they may have been cut:

These are commonly called Redwoods, but their botanical name is Sequoia Sempervirens. As a species, they are among the tallest trees, and possibly the tallest, in the world. The tallest known redwood is the Hyperion, which is 379 feet tall, about as tall as a 35-story building. Sadly, they are an endangered species due to over-cutting, but attempts to prevent their extinction are underway.

Mendocino is on the coast of California, further north than Big Sur or Monterey – they will have to wait for another time. I had chosen Mendocino both because it was north, and as a nod to Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Canadian musicians who wrote and sang a beautiful song, “Talk to me of Mendocino.”

Mendocino is a charming little beach town with buildings that are mostly late 1800s, but “new” Victorian buildings have filled in, too. I sat on a bench and let myself be soothed by the Pacific Ocean waves roaring as they came in and swooshing as they pulled out to sea again. There is no other sound like it.

I had a late lunch in the Mendocino Cafe and strolled through the shops along the two main roads in the small town. It was nice to be out of the car and breathe the ocean air.

I spent the night in The Surf Motel, a quaint little motel near Fort Bragg, a few miles north. It was one of the old style “motor courts” that popped up along two lane highways in the 1950s. All the rooms opened directly onto the center court, cars were parked directly in front of the rooms, and in the center was a lovely garden with a gazebo.

The next morning, I continued along Highway 1. There was really no choice, the mountains separated the coast from the interior Highway 101. The road twisted and turned, ran along the ocean, and up and down hills for the entire morning.

Eventually, Highway 1 rejoined Highway 101, continuing north, but the driving was faster and I made good progress.

By now, I was getting hungry again, and I pulled off of Highway 101 to a tiny town called “King Salmon.” It was a small town filled with tiny houses, tidy trailers, and a few larger buildings, and one cafe: Gill’s Seafood Cafe.

It may have been a tiny town, but Gill’s Seafood Cafe was a happening place. It was not a tiny cafe, and it was filled with people who all knew each other. One of the staff was the owner’s daughter. Gill is their last name, and the cafe has been there for 27 years. It is basically diner food, but with a seafood emphasis, and it was good, and I would recommend it if you are ever there! I didn’t know it while I was eating there, but King Salmon turned out to be a couple of miles south of Eureka, California, so now you have a general idea of where to find it.

The final leg through California was through more redwood forests, and generally conifer covered hills as I approached Oregon.

I was also quite taken with the sunny roadsides filled with Turk’s Cap Lilies growing wild. I don’t know what their botanical name is, that’s what my grandmother called them.

Shortly after, Highway 101 joined Interstate 5. It was faster, but less interesting. I focused on driving, however, and made it all the way through Oregon and into Washington State. When I reached Lacey, Washington, I stopped at my friend Julie’s house, where we had a nice visit and I spent the night.

The next morning, I drove two hours, from Lacey to Port Townsend, where I took the ferry to Whidbey Island, which had been my home for 23 years.

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