Highway Travel 101

A single number would occupy our waking lives for the next two days. The number of horror out of Orwell's 1984, the number of Dalmatians that make a fur coat, the number of every joke college syllabus, the number on countless books that proclaim collections of songs, poems or lists. It was a number that would take us 1400 miles, first to San Francisco, and then the final stretch to Los Angeles.

U.S. Highway 101 is the west coast highway. Beginning in the misty temperate rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula in the most north-westerly corner of the U.S., Route 101 takes you down the meandering estuaries of the Washington coast, hugs the glorious Pacific coastline of Oregon, continues through the redwood coast of Northern California, before heading inland toward San Francisco, and then back onto the coast at Santa Barbara, finishing in L.A.

Tree Hugging and Sustainability

Washington coast - remote and stunningAs we left Bill Gates Land in mid afternoon, we travelled back down Interstate 5 for the short distance to Olympia, where the turning for the 101 began. This was the only stretch of road on the trip where we actually doubled back - the rest of the journey was in a 3400 mile loop, which kept things nice and interesting. Immediately on hitting the 101, we entered a land of fairy tale forests. Utterly deserted for countless miles at a time, the road twisted through the most green and lush pine forest I'd ever seen. I had always thought coniferous trees were rather dull compared to their hardwood counterparts, but this evergreen kingdom, moss-laden and dripping with the moisture of far too much rain, was simply beautiful.

Some nice logging for you...It continued in this way until we reached the lumber port of Aberdeen on the coast, by contrast ugly in both physical terms, and what it represented, as an icon of what many consider the rape and destruction of all the beauty surrounding. As we began to head down the winding coast road toward the Columbia estuary and the border with Oregon, the evidence of logging frequently marred the otherwise perfect landscape. It was the unrestricted and unsustained logging of such woodland that brought the original "tree huggers" here, and to Oregon in the late 1960s. After years of campaigning and protest, a compromise was reached, and the world's first sustainable forest cultivation began here in the early 1970s. We saw plenty of signs at the road stating things like "Cultivated 1971, Re-Planted 1971, Next Cultivation 2002" and so on. Comforting evidence, at least, that sustainability was going on. But this thought saddened me, regarding the subject of human nature. If the tree-huggers had not come and kicked up a stink, the logging companies would have carried out a slash and burn policy of deforestation, working from hill to hill, levelling every tree and leaving only wasteland in their place, without caring a toss.

South of the Columbia

Mouth of the Columbia RiverIt was an hour or so before sunset before we reached the Columbia river separating Washington from Oregon. At the Pacific, the river had widened to a significant estuary, so crossing it via the four mile long bridge was fun. The oldest town in Oregon, Astoria, lay at the far end. It had been one of the places I had been looking forward to visiting, as the charm of its idyllic setting by the sea, and the old Victorian clapperboard houses has been popular amongst film-makers (the setting of The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop to name but two). Time was against though, as we had many miles to cover in few days, and intended to carry on reducing those miles until at least dusk. Astoria would have to wait until next time.

We overnighted in a bizarre place called Tillamook, a dairy and cheese centre, of all things, some 50 miles south of Astoria. The Tillamook Inn had to be about the dingiest motel we'd yet stayed in. Looking like it had been knocked together in a hurry during the war (perhaps to house the National Guard in their defence of Oregon against the only Japanese attack on the U.S. mainland through the whole war). Still, it had HBO, and as luck would have it, we caught an episode of The Sopranos six months earlier than our Limey compatriots.

Oregon coast - miles and miles of this...The next morning began with a wonderful mix of sun and a thick mist. The smell of dew pervaded the cool morning air as we left Tillamook, passing through lush vales of pasture and woodland, before the 101 took us back to the coast. The road tightly hugged the steep wooded slopes that dropped straight into the rocks and tumultuous white water below. More brown trousers. Around mid-morning, however, we got a surprise. Just past a small resort called Yachats (did someone, perhaps confused by its pronunciation, just mis-spell Yachts?). An electronic warning sign at the side of the road said that road ahead was closed...

Oregon Bob

The road ends here... well at least until noon...Not quite believing it, we had a look on the map. There was no other way through, and the diversion inland and back again to the coast would add at least a hundred miles to our journey. Just as we stopped before the bridge/tunnel combo that seemed to be the end of the line for the moment, we learned that, in fact the road would be open at midday, just an hour away. So it was the perfect excuse for a wander around this remote and unspoilt part of the Oregon coast, as feeling pressed for time, we probably wouldn't have done so otherwise. We walked up to an old lighthouse, looking out over the rocks and the surf trying to smash them up, before heading off into trail in the wonderfully peaceful woods that we thought would bring us back out at the car, but threw us out about a mile back up the main road. But were it not for this error in navigation, we'd have never met Oregon Bob.

Oregon Bob - Blackpool's millionth tourist.As we walked back down the main road, a highway worker was standing by the side of the road with a slow sign. As we approached he said, "Hey, well you guys are gonna just have to slow down, you're walkin' way too fast..." Well, after that opener, we got chatting to the guy we dubbed "Oregon Bob" (after his brother Nevada Bob, who has a chain of Golf Superstores), and it emerged that the road beyond the bridge and tunnel had suffered some bad rockfalls over the winter. Whilst they'd cleared the rocks away some months ago, they were now working throughout the night to spray the rocks above the road with wet concrete, so that it wouldn't all happen again next winter. Well, being a geek I thought this was fascinating enough, but when he asked us whereabouts in the UK we were from and so on, he made the remark, "Yeah well you guys have got some pretty weird cities over there." In response to that, and perhaps somewhat inspired by his rather concerned tone with that last remark, I said, "Yeah, like Manchester...", to which he then informs us that his sister lives there with her husband. Hmm, relatively Small World, we think. Then Tim asked him if he'd ever gone to Blackpool (for non-UK residents - a tacky seaside resort in the North of England). Yes he had. And, yes, he thought it was terrible. Well this was too much. In a remote part of the Oregon coast, and we meet a local born and bred Oregonian about his job who's been to Blackpool. Now that's Small World, with a sense of humour. So as you can imagine, this was a real hit, and we carried on chatting for some time - somehow ending up on the subject of cable porn (which also seemed a strangely ironic thought - advanced technology, brought to the remote and naturally beautiful parts of the US, for the purposes of auto-titillation). Anyway, we had to get on, we had a schedule etc., so we said cheerio to Oregon Bob, and by the time we'd gotten back to the car, the road was open. And yes, they really were spraying concrete onto the rocks above... Fantastic!

Dunes, Beaches and Big Trees

Shortly after hour hiatus at Yachats, the road flattened out and we entered the area of Oregon Dunes. Here stretches a mini-Sahara for tens of square miles, just some quirk of geology or something. You could only catch a glimpse of them from the road, but one thing we did notice was that, in true American style, there were stacks of signs for dune buggy hire. Hmm, nothing like exploiting natural features for a bit of mindless fun, eh? The road continued for most of the afternoon through a regular series of rather pleasant looking seaside village resorts and the odd more-industrial looking port, though nothing of any significant size. And then within an hour or so of the California border, the landscape seemed to open up into a jaw-dropping blend of simply gorgeous looking beaches back-dropped by towering rock mini-mountains and headlands. The sky was a clear blue now, and these vistas had to be some of the best I'd seen on the trip. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of it, for which I should be shot (excuse - I was driving, Tim was asleep, and we had a schedule - ridiculous!). All I can say is, if you're going to travel this route, the fifty miles north of the border with California, is worth it just on its own.

Amongst the giants...And so once more, after a four day break, we passed back into California. And within an hour or so, we were able to witness yet another superlative, this time on a world scale, proprietory to this state. When somebody mentions California, most people will think of sun, movies, hippies, oranges and prunes. But you're also likely to think of Redwood trees. At over 300 feet, Sequoias (to use their botanical name) are easily the tallest in the world, and even before we'd pulled off the 101 into the Redwood National Park, we could already see a few of these giants in the woodlands next to the road, standing proud over the pines that made up the majority. In the national park are several "Avenues" that you can walk through. They're about six or seven of them, and they represent spots where particularly tall trees grow. We walked through one of these Avenues, and being the only two souls there, and being that quiet time of day approaching dusk, I became a treehugger, a hippy. To walk amongst these absurdly tall, pencil straight trees, with the air utterly still and quietGarden gnome (not to scale) was semi-religious - I was at one with the Earth Mother, or rather, could get an inkling of why some people really did go in for that sort of thing. Even Tim, who had not expressed a huge excitement about pulling off to "look at some twigs", was noticeably humbled by the silent might of the Sequoias. Just to dwell on the human nature thought again, though, they were lumbering Redwoods commercially up until the 1960s, despite being aware of their world heritage status - that the world's tallest trees grow only in California.