We left Portland on Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend. Apparently traffic is bumper-to-bumper heading to the coast on holiday weekends, but since it was Saturday, our hope was that everyone would’ve arrived at their destinations already. We decided to get an early start just to be safe. Indeed it was quieter on the freeways than any other time during our 5-day stay – if we’d known how much time we would spend in heavy traffic travelling to and from wine country, we’d have opted to stay in one of the smaller towns down the valley. I heard one of the locals comment that even visitors from LA, which is known for crazy car congestion, complain about traffic in and around Portland.
The drive to the coast took us through wine country again, then onto the Salmon River Highway which eventually joined up with the Oregon Coast highway just North of Lincoln City. We stopped in Lincoln City for a cuppa java – one of the finest we’d have on the entire trip; whether it was the coffee itself or the fact that we sipped while gazing out onto the Pacific Ocean I’m not sure. It had been years since I’d been to the ocean, and never the Oregon coast. I felt the familiar call of the water, as I always did since leaving my home on Georgian Bay as a young woman. Why I chose to move to an inland city (a semi arid one no less) I really don’t know, but I knew this trip would have me longing again for a life on the water.
The Coastal Highway was, as expected, very scenic – Oregon’s coast is varied in its topography, the highway traversing a shoreline of rugged rocky bluffs, massive sand-dunes that were oft right next to the highway, and dense forests of shore pine, rich with Rhododendron understory. I marveled at the range of conditions in which these Ericaceous shrubs thrived here – from the rich fertile soils of the Willamette valley to lean, sandy (and likely salty) coastal soils. I remembered something I’d read recently about successfully growing Rhododendrons in less-than-ideal soil conditions – amend the soil with pine needles. Noting the masses of healthy-looking native rhodies beneath the pines, I understood why. I noted too how Mother Nature, the ultimate designer, had perfectly paired the fine feathery texture of pine foliage with the coarse leathery Rhododendron foliage.
We pulled off the highway at a particularly gorgeous ocean look-out and I took a few shots of the breathtaking view. Then I heard it – a sound I’d miss more than any other sound the ocean offered – the barking of sea lions. Adjusting our vantage point we saw them, camped out on the rocks far below, basking in the sun. From where we were they looked rather like slugs. Turned out that just up the road were the Sea Lion Caves, a very busy Oregon Coast tourist attraction.
Several hours later we crossed the border into California. Shortly thereafter the highway veered inland and before long we found ourselves among giant redwoods. I’d of course seen the behemoth redwoods before. I’d had the dizzying experience of looking up, looking waaaayy up, into the soft-needled crown of a single specimen or small stand, but never had I seen a whole forest. These horticultural giants were truly awe-inspiring. I wondered if maybe J.R.R. Tolkien was staring into an old-growth forest such as this when he created his beloved Treebeard and the other Ents.
Somewhere around Crescent City the highway met the shoreline again. We found a sandy cove where we dipped our feet, me for the first time, in California’s Pacific waters.
We spent the night in pretty Eureka on the North coast. Looking out over Humboldt Bay we watched a big orange sun drop beneath the misty horizon. My husband ate fresh oysters from the bay and I partook of a fine California Riesling – this would be the first of many California sunsets we’d witness in the coming weeks.
Continuing South the next day on U.S. Highway 101, fittingly called the Redwood Highway through this part of the state, our destination for that day was Napa Valley. The fastest route would have been to follow 101 all the way down, but hubby wanted me to experience the Shoreline Highway as he had when a 20-something young man. So at Leggett, it’s Northern terminus, we turned off 101 and headed West on California State Route 1. Though it’s called the Shoreline Highway, it is well inland at this point and to the East of heavily treed mountainous terrain. To get to the coast one must first navigate this terrain…………
I took a deep breath. I knew I was in for a wild ride. At first it didn’t seem so bad, but very quickly the road heads into dark foreboding territory. We were climbing, climbing, following the winding, twisting road, narrow and full of snake-turns and switchbacks. Though we were always aware of the steep slope on one side or the other, periodic breaks in the trees allowed us to see how far up we were. And just when I’d think we were through it all and we’d start descending, we were climbing again. At times it was so dark, the tree canopy so dense, and the road so narrow that my husband commented, “I feel like we’re on some kind of hobbit trek.”
“Yeah, like through Mordor,” I muttered. If you aren’t familiar with Tolkein’s mythical realm of Middle Earth, then suffice it to say that Mordor is a very bad place. I don’t know how long we actually drove through this – it was only about 26 miles, but the going was slow and it seemed like hours. We finally emerged from Mordor about a half hour north of Fort Bragg, drove up around a bend and there stretched out before us, was the spectacular California coastline in all her windswept glory. Never had I felt so elated to see the endless expanse of water.
When we reached Mendocino, where we’d planned to stop for lunch, it was so full of tourists (yes we too fit that description) that we decided to wait. I needed to get out and stretch after the white knuckle drive I’d just endured, so we opted to have coffee and wander around the historic little town. I asked the young girl in the coffee shop where their washroom was – she informed me that due to the drought, all their wells were dry and the only available washroom was a public one down the street. I went in search of the facilities, passing numerous expensive shops and boutiques – in my ignorance I still thought of Mendocino as an old hippie town. There was a line-up for the ladies’ room – standing in line gave me the opportunity to take some photos of pretty gardens nearby. Vegetation here, both natural and garden, differed from that further up the coast.
Still waiting in line, I noticed a young man with long hair and a beard (which was as long as his hair), wearing cargo shorts, work boots and walking a beautiful bloodhound. “Must be a local,” I thought to myself, still showing my naivety (as if I had any idea what a local Mendocino-ite might look like). “Nice dog,” I remarked. He looked at me warily and muttered something – everywhere we’d been people were so open and friendly and this man’s guarded response was a marked contrast. “Is that a Bloodhound?” I persisted. At that the bearded fellow opened up completely, informing me that yes she was a bloodhound, that she was in heat, the second phase of her heat to be precise, and she was really………..well to put it a tad more delicately than he did, apparently her sex drive was extremely elevated. He was looking for another bloodhound to breed her with but the only one in the area belonged to the local police chief or sheriff or whatever and blah, blah, blah……..the guy was harmless but I was now a little uncomfortable with the conversation – fortunately by this time I’d progressed to the front of the line and could politely dismiss myself.
When I exited the washroom Mr. Mendocino was nowhere to be seen. I heard the sound of acoustic guitar and soft voices – a few yards away under a shady tree, a group of young people were playing guitar and singing old Neil Young tunes. I guess it was still a hippie town – young and old. I smiled, remembering my own youth and my first acoustic guitar, singing Mamas and Papas or Joni Mitchell tunes around a campfire – I was barely a teenager…………..and such a wannabe hippie.
I found my way back to the car where hubby was waiting, wondering if I’d got lost. We took a stroll, coffee in one hand, camera in the other, and explored scenic Mendocino before heading out on the road again. The gardens here were quite unique – picket fences, roses, heathers and other old-fashioned garden elements spoke to the vintage of the area, and spiky upright plants like Echium, Phormium and tall stiff grasses spoke to its coastal locale and lent structure to the softer elements.
We continued our drive south on the #1 until it met up with #128 which would take us back inland, through more redwood forest on more winding roads – but nothing like Mordor. As we left the giant Sequoia forest behind, the landscape and vegetation changed quickly – we were entering wine country, more specifically the Anderson Valley Appellation (appellation is a fancy word for wine-growing region). We stopped for lunch in a little town called Boonville (yes that’s right; a little town out in the boonies called Boonville). It was hot here, like all wine growing regions, and like all small towns associated with wine growing regions, there were lots of great places to eat. We found a casual salad and sandwich place – I had one of the most flavourful salads I’d ever tasted; arugula, mango, grilled chicken breast, fresh cilantro…………mmmmm I can still taste it.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Napa Valley where we would stay and explore for the next 5 days. I won’t bore you with a play-by-play account of our stay in California wine country – I’ll just say it was fabulous; fine wine, great food, stunning scenery, beautiful gardens………………..
After 5 days of hot weather, daily wine tasting and other overindulgences, I was ready to move on to the next leg of our journey – back to the coast. I was so looking forward to fresh seafood, the smell of saltwater and walks along the beach. Join me next time for more garden pics from the California coast.Til then, Sue