Past the Nowheres of America

NICK ROLLED IN AROUND 1:30 p.m. at the train station in downtown Portland. Wearing a plain white t-shirt and shorts he looked happy as hell to be out of dodge – the past week had been rough. We picked up his bike from the checked luggage counter, threw it in the back of the car and then dipped out of the station parking lot, over the Burnside bridge and into a little Deadhead pub in Hawthorne for sandwiches and drinks. He ordered a double gin and tonic, I ordered a 12oz glass of beer. I was driving, I guessed.

Our bellies full of food and excitement, we blasted out towards Highway 26. About ten miles out we shifted to the 6, and finally onto the 101 Coastal Highway. Around us clouds crept over the pine-tree hills like fingers running through hair. We took the road fast, and corners even faster it seemed, ’cause we didn’t want to set up our tent in the dark. But as we plowed South the night fell, along with the fog, and we slowed our pace trying to see where the road was.

Just past the small town of Florence, Ore., there is Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park – and there were plenty of campsites to be had for a mere $17. We set up the tent by lamp and car headlights, staked it down and then jetted back into town for burgers at A&W. The guy taking our order says we might have to go out the backdoor after we eat. Why, I ask, what time do you guys close? “Nine o’clock, only probably not any more,” he says, understandably surly. It was 8:45. But we weren’t the only customers, and we were starving enough not to really care whether this guy got off a few minutes early.

We bought firewood, chips and beer and headed back to the campsite. Glistening stars above, we blew our outside world concerns into the embers of the fire. Three drinks each and a couple makeshift pillows was enough for us to knock out until the grey morning light. We had eggs and bacon at a little house-turned-diner called Pauline’s Place – a few genteel local couples eyeing our unshaved, unshowered appearances confusedly – before we were on the road again.

Nick and I marveled as we barreled down the 101 how much of the country is really just small towns and nowheres. Indian reservations and trees, trailers and coastline. Old town centers trainwrecking with Targets and Wal-Marts. As we sailed to the fringes of Eureka, CA, a couple scrungy guys sat with a sorry piece of cardboard reading, “Get us out of this shit hole.” All I could do was wish them luck.

We saw a curious number of groups of hitchhikers as we drove through Humboldt county – supposedly famous for it’s huge crops of marijuana. I felt like I was back in the 60s as we rolled past their dusty faces, back when the roads were filled with rucksack wanderers. But who were these kids? Where were they trying to get to?

Our destination the second night was Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we got there just early enough to set up camp and enjoy the scenery before darkness fell. The trunks of the trees were massive, one base sometimes giving life to three or four separate trees. Just across from our site six guys in their thirties and forties rolled in on touring bicycles and set up camp – I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a wuss for driving. But cycling the West Coast would’ve been an entirely different kind of journey…it was enough to have our bikes for urban touring this trip.

We rose pretty early the next day (Nick feeling a bit hungover) and rolled out towards San Francisco. The redwood forest sprawled endlessly around us for miles and miles until we hit the grassy rolling hills that are so characteristic of northern California. Somewhere in between we paused just to soak it in – to take in a moment of stillness, of not driving. We stood there feeling entirely free and far away. We breathed. We belted up and took off.

(Next: San Francisco)


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