Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | September 5, 2011

A BACK ROAD ADVENTURE June 13, 2011

In June I went up to Humboldt County to join the celebration of my dear friend Donna’s 60th birthday party (we went to high school together in Cleveland). Since the party at Grizzly Creek State Park was on a Sunday, June 12, 2011, I took that Monday off, June 13th, so I wouldn’t have to rush back the same day. I then decided, since I had the extra day, to take a lazy and circuitous route back winding my way through backroads down the coast and avoiding the 101 freeway.  This would mean using roads and going places I’d never been before, which appealed to me very much.  The key to achieving this was an obscure dirt road called the Usal Road which connects the southernmost paved road down the coast in Humboldt Co. to the northernmost bend of Route 1, which follows the coast in Mendocino Co.  In between is the King Range National Conservation Area and the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.  I had long heard that this road was only marginally passable and poorly maintained but a friend told me I would really enjoy Usal Road and that Usal Beach, near the Mendocino Co. end of the road, was incredibly beautiful. I needed no more convincing.
I left around 10 AM on a cold, overcast and wet morning. I drove through Ferndale and out from there to Cape Mendocino.  From Ferndale to the Cape the paved road was in terrible shape, full of potholes and drop-outs.  There was sparse but regular traffic and frequent stops for road repair crews all the way out.  Once I descended from the hills and started south along the beach below the Cape the road almost immediately improved, appeared more attentively maintained.

Then, as I started south along the beach a big blue hole opened in the dark grey clouds directly overhead, expanding into a gorgeous Pacific coast day; a pair of good omens if ever there was one.

Pushed out of the way, the fog sat as a wall across the water on the far horizon and perched on the surrounding hills threatening to slip onto the beach at the slightest provocation to retake the day.
A fence stretches out alongside the length of the road, separating it from the beach.  Wood posts are evenly spaced and nailed to the top of each post is a single penny to magick rot away.

I stopped at the south end of the beach road, just before it turns inland and rises into the hills within which nestle the tiny towns of Petrolia and Honeydew.
This is a place I have returned to many times over the years either with small groups of friends for parties, or for quiet days with one other person.  Often, like this morning, I go alone for solitary time with the sea, reestablishing a connection each time, slipping back into this landscape like an old flannel shirt. It is, to me, one of the most beautiful places on earth, made even more so as I get older by the abundance of memories it holds. Here we have partied long into the fire lit night.  Here too we have solemnly scattered the ashes of two beloved friends.  It is where I want mine scattered when the time comes.

We have collected shells and driftwood and sifted with our fingers the stones of the beach for agates. We have gathered low tide mussels from the rocks and cooked them in salty sea water and white wine over a driftwood fire.  There is a long lines of rocks to venture onto, stretching out into the ocean, wrenched further beyond the reach of the tides by the 1992 earthquakes which brought such destruction to Petrolia, Ferndale and Scotia.  Once, having forgotten the pot, we laid the mussels on driftwood up against the flames and ate them as they popped open, hot and steaming in the cool night air.  We’ve always talked of spending a night there, but I never have.  It is isolated and windy and in the 30 years I have been going out there I have only run into other people a few times.

on the hillside cows
lounging, gazing off to sea –
the windblown dune grass

There is a near-constant wind blowing out of the northwest across the beach and inland all the way down this stretch of coast, or at least the parts that I have walked.  At dusk, on certain unpredictable and indefinable evenings, as the sun sets and the sea and sky take on the aspects of a Frederic Church painting, the wind becomes an unaccountably warm caress which seems to stop time.  At such moments one can only stand in the sand, eyes closed, hat in hand and let the wonder wash over you like a gentle wave.

remnants of a fire
in the lee of that dark rock –
ashes to the sea

I stayed there that morning longer than I’d planned, shooting photographs and writing bad haiku, reluctant as always to leave. Once on the road again I made good time through Petrolia and Honeydew where, instead of taking my accustomed route northeast through the mountains to Rt. 101, I turned south.  Not long after, taking the left fork headed southeast toward Ettersberg instead of the more direct route which would have taken me southwest down Chemise Mt. Road through the King Range until it met Usal Road, I made my way to Shelter Cove Road where I headed west.

Then, after some initial confusion when I took the road out to Bear Harbor by mistake (I realized my error and turned back before going too far out of the way), I finally found myself on Usal Road.  The signs at the turnoff were so full of bullet holes they could barely be read, which somewhat accounted for my wrong turn. One sign, when deciphered, warned that the road was not maintained and travel is at your own risk.  Another bullet hole bedecked sign flat out said the road was “Closed to through traffic.”  Well I figured I was heading for Usal Beach, so I wasn’t really “through” traffic, I was more like “to” traffic.  Of course after Usal Beach I intended to continue south to meet Rt. 1, which more-or-less sort of made me “through” traffic after all.  It didn’t matter, nothing those signs had to say was going to dissuade me, the warnings only made it more attractive.

After starting off on Usal Road I quickly began to encounter an apparently endless series of big mud puddles of various depths stretching sometimes all the way across the road; I’d thought the road would be pretty dry by June but the rains this year had lingered longer than usual, a fact I’d conveniently managed to forget. However I had recently spent way too much money on truck repairs so I figured it was about to pay off.  With a new rear end, breaks and shocks, I felt totally ready to go four-wheeling. We’ll set aside the fact that I had not packed chains, a saw, an axe, a shovel or a companion, and concentrate on my having a sleeping bag and pad, small amounts of food and water, toilet paper and a cell phone with sporadic coverage.

I drove for miles on that pot hole filled, drop-off punctuated, narrow, twisting, alternately clay-based mud and dry dusty, steep dirt road. I traveled up and down the mountains through the deep shadows of the fir, oak and redwood trees and along the fern covered floors of the forests.  All colors of rhododendrons were blooming and the dappled shadows brought the forest to fervent life. From the high points I could often look through the trees to see the Pacific Ocean far below and off to the west.  I cranked up the stereo (Rory Gallagher’s BBC recordings) and had a hell of a good time bouncing along that road. For a while I passed the occasional driveway, almost always with a gate and a “Private Property” sign at the bottom, but I never once encountered another car or person the whole time I was on Usal Road – didn’t even hear anybody else. Outside of the noise I made the only sounds were birds and the wind in the trees.  I did encounter a rock slide which had been cleared just enough for a vehicle to squeeze through and some fallen trees from which enough had been carved to allow me through. I was also following fairly fresh tracks, so this was not virgin territory. Someone had been through here recently, probably over the weekend.

On spotting water ahead I would pull up close to it, get out and survey the often pond-sized mud puddle across the road to determine the best way to approach it.  Sometimes it didn’t reach all the way across and I would slowly make my way through with one side on more-or-less dry ground and one side in the water.  Other times, there just was no good way and the only thing to do was to back up, get a running start and power through sending broad sprays of muddy water flying into the air on either side. Doing this engendered a joy that transcended any trouble I might be getting myself into.  I was practically giddy with glee. Like being a kid and not merely stomping in the puddles on the way home from school but skidding through them with watery wings in my wake. As though I could transform myself into a speedboat and back again whenever I needed to.  Like a super hero with a very specific power who has finally found the perfect expression for it.  Or maybe it was just my inner redneck coming out.

This was easily the worst maintained and most enjoyable road I have driven since I lived on a mountain ranch in the mid-80’s.  I had my V-8 and my four-wheel drive and I thought I was ready for anything, always a feeling to be indulged with caution.

Just as I was becoming certain that I was getting to within a mile or so of the beach (I probably wasn’t even close yet; we all believe what we want to believe when we need to believe it.) I saw something ahead that looked like it might be a serious problem.
Before me lay a stretch of mud, no water just thick mud sculpted by the tires of previous four-wheelers into an imposing set of ruts and ridges.  On inspection it seemed to be composed of pure clay with a consistency such that one could probably make pots out of it.  The area it covered was three to four truck widths wide and four or five lengths long, way too much to power through.  Many of the ruts were a foot or more deep and there was nothing solid and dry anywhere on which at least one set of tires could make purchase; previous travelers had used it all up, steadily expanding the width of the disaster as they did. The mud stretched, squishy in spots, firm and forbidding in others, from the steep bank on the east side to the line of trees on the west side.  This was going to take more planning and forethought than anything I’d yet encountered.  I walked through it gingerly, analyzing the situation and decided that there was only one possible way across and it would be tricky.  I would have to line up my wheels on two narrow ridges between ruts, very close against the trees.
I had a go at it but when, a short way into the morass, I felt the tires sliding sideways into the ruts I changed my mind and slowly, carefully backed out, reconsidered, and then started filling in the ruts alongside the two likeliest ridges. Problem was that there weren’t any rocks or stones around, everything pretty much being clay beneath a layer of decomposing vegetation, so the soft rotting branches were all that was available to rebuild a firm roadbed – not particularly promising material.  Still I wanted to try and worked on filling the ruts for a while, then had another go at it.  But each time I tried I’d slide sideways again just past the part where I’d filled the ruts. After 20 or 30 minutes of this it was clearly time to re-evaluate the potential for success, what it would take, whether or not it was possible and whether or not it was even worth it.

Ultimately I decided that I would pretty much have to fill in the whole length of at least two of the ruts if I was going to get across, and that could take hours that I didn’t have; evening was not far off.  Plus, there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t run into something just like this, or worse, another quarter-mile down the road.  If I truly got stuck on that road there was no telling when someone else might have come along to help me out, or if they’d have been able to.  Spending the night back there sounded like fun initially but then I gave it more thought.  The cell phone didn’t work where I was and I had no idea how far I’d have to walk before I might pick up a signal.  Even if I was able to call for help, getting a tow truck out there or a rescue from the forest service or sheriff would probably have been more expensive than even I could imagine. So, reluctantly, I surrendered to logic, turned around and headed back to Shelter Cove Road, exercising good sense for what was probably the first time all day.

Returning to the main road was a lot quicker because I now had a sense for what was in front of me and I presumed that I could make it through everything I encountered since I had already done so once.  While I was disappointed at not being able to get to Usal Beach and connect to Rt. 1, I nonetheless had one hell of a good time trying.  This was the first real four-wheeling I have probably done in this truck since I bought it in 2005.  The truck showed it too, it had the appearance of having been painted by Jackson Pollack on a bad hangover morning.  Mud had been exuberantly sprayed across the body from the wheel wells on out and the wheels themselves caked with mud; I didn’t want to look underneath.  I viewed it as a badge of honor and decided not to wash it off until I’d had a chance to show it off.
If I’d had one of those testosterone pumped rigs that sit three feet off the ground with the oversized tires that look like they belong on a tractor, I would’ve made it.  But what can you really do with such a vehicle when you get to the other side? And how often does one encounter one’s personal muddy Waterloo?  I suppose one of those Transformer things from a Michael Bay movie is what I really needed, but as with most things one thinks one really needs, no such thing truly exists.

Even though I was unable to accomplish what I’d set out to do, this had been more pure fun than I’d had in a long time.  I came home from that trip and especially that day, exhausted, energized and ready for more.  It carried over into a good mood that lasted for days.  I rode around town in that mud-splattered truck for two or three weeks until even I was tired of looking at it and washed it off.

06/14/2011 – 09/05/2011
Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. WOW! I’ve always wanted to travel that part of the coast. What an adventure. Thanks so much for sharing this experience. The photos of the beach and ocean make me long to experience that kind of solitude…….

  2. I just finished the backpacking 50 mile trail and I’m still intrigued by the remoteness of the area and only feel like I’ve just begun exploring the Lost Coast. I photographed much of the area and hope to come back for a 4th visit. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences here and glad to see you held on to that badge of courage for as long you could!!

    • Thank you. I’ve never done that extensive of a hike (50 miles) on the Lost Coast. There are whole stretches of that area I’ve still never been in and would love to see, which was some of the motivation for the trip in the story. I lived in Humboldt County for 18 years and considered the Cape Mendocino area to be my “backyard.” I was really looking forward to exploring the Usal Beach area, maybe next time. I took a look at your blog – those are incredible photographs! The fog/no fog example is amazing (keep propagating that impression that the Lost Coast is very foggy, it discourages visitors and keeps it less crowded). I have a long poem written about a hike along the beach from the mouth of the Matole to Punta Gorda and back, if you are interested I can send it.

  3. I’d definitely be interested in reading it, so would my girlfriend. (do you have my email address from comment email?) We love the area and it’s been an annual trip for us for the last 3 years. I’m favor of keeping the place lost so I never reveal exactly where a photograph was taken, landscape photographers will flock to where a great one was taken and make it a frequent destination. Some don’t care enough for the place and trample nearby plants and leave trash accidentally or intentionally. Us outsiders have to do a good amount of research to make our trips worth while and that keeps us respectful of lands we visit.


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