After an impromptu and most welcome day off at Kathy and Dick’s house near Arcata (thanks Warmshowers!), we stocked up with 4 days’ worth of food supplies in Eureka and set off down the monotonous highway. The lands here were flat, but the skyline to the south suggested that a dramatic change was just ahead: the steep and tangled ridgelines of the Lost Coast.
Highway 101 bent its way east to skirt around the impenetrable forested valleys and peaks. We hung right at a turn-off for Ferndale, from where we’d heard the northern inroads would begin.
Dick’s map of the region had shown it criss-crossed with dirt roads and trails, but most of these were on private land, leading to dead ends. One thoroughfare alone seemed feasible for a full traverse of the southern part of the region: Usal Road was its name. But we couldn’t find any up-to-date information on the internet about its condition or existence. In any case, there seemed to be a single paved road that we could follow for the first couple of days, and a couple of tiny settlements. We’d worry about Usal Road later on.
Ferndale was easily the oldest-looking settlement I’d seen in the States. Roadside billboards and information signs proclaimed it a ‘historical Victorian village’. It seemed curious that a British historical period was being used to describe the age of an American town. Europeans, of course, grow complacent to their existence at the bleeding edge of a lengthy and tumultuous history. A building a few hundred years old hardly seems remarkable. I grew up in one. But a single century represents two thirds of California’s history. There are few visible reminders of ages long since past. So Ferndale’s old town, whilst barely out of childhood in European terms, was indeed a rare antique in the Western States.
The road out of Ferndale was a warm-up for things to come; a solid climb on narrow and often crumbling asphalt that took almost two hours to summit. Many a time I found myself out of the saddle in first gear, chortling at the ridiculous grade as I manoeuvred the bike through the switchbacks at a snail’s pace. But my legs had had their baptism of fire in Ethiopia, and a sustainable pace was just about possible to find.
With a couple of hours’ light left in the day, the road emerged from the trees and onto a rolling grassy plateau. Traffic had dwindled to an occasional pickup truck rumbling past, but the lands were fenced off for grazing and the ‘No Trespassing’ signs seemed to be multiplying voraciously.
Despite the vistas, a feeling of confinement to the road, much like rural England, replaced the open wildernesses I’d grown used to along this awesome coast. The valley drained out to the west, revealing the Pacific Ocean once more, with the sun hanging low above the western horizon, and I began to wonder whether we’d find a place to sleep amongst the steep slopes and fenced-off land.
At the bottom of the valley there lived a big wild pig. She appeared as if from nowhere as Ben and I stood on the bridge above the small creek, wondering whether to tackle the next seven miles of sweaty uphill before dark or to scout for a spot on the valley floor. Too distant to make out what kind of animal she was at first, Ben wondered if it might be a particularly docile bear. But the hairy black bundle of meat was ambling towards us with too much purpose for a bear.
Soon enough she was sniffing our food-stocked panniers. It was the moment that the pig began biting at his bags’ fabric at which Ben decided that the time had come to leave. Unfortunately, the persistent porker had other ideas, and chased Ben down the short stretch of flat road at the bottom of the valley, snorting and grunting in a way which left Ben not sure whether he should be amused, afraid, or a little of both.
Having outsmarted the hapless hog by parking himself in the middle of a cattle grid, Ben eventually returned to the bridge. Suddenly hearing voices of merriment from afar, we realised that there might in fact be people inhabiting the valley. We’d seen only three buildings, and no sign of life. But the entrance to the driveway was festooned with yet more ‘Private’ and ‘No Trespassing’ signs.
We weighed up the options. “Why not go and ask about camping up at the house?” I suggested. It would be a chance for Ben to try his hand at the direct approach to finding a sleeping spot on private land. So he set off down the gravel track towards the cluster of trees and buildings a few hundred yards away, while I stayed on the bridge to keep watch for marauding pigs.
Asking around in a relatively upfront way had worked wonders crossing Europe in 2007, and had quickly become the established modus operandi for getting ourselves into interesting and memorable situations. In that way, we’d had the time of our lives, paid for an average of 1 night’s sleep per month whilst crossing the continent, and I had gathered an endless string of fond memories.
Some mysterious cocktail of intuition and experience hinted that tonight would bear similar fruit, and soon enough Ben had reappeared from the trees, his shouts of “come this way!” carrying on the wind. And in that way we found ourselves in the middle of Mike and Joyce’s Mothers’ Day celebration in the back garden of a wooden abode which was filled with antiques and memorabilia of a time when the Lost Coast wasn’t so lost; eating and drinking our fill with the last dozen or so remaining residents of Capetown, a once-significant staging post for horse-drawn coaches travelling between Ferndale and Petrolia. Whiskey and wine flowed freely, and there was plenty of spit-roasted beef and ham (and cake) left for two ravenous riders.
It was a far cry from the scaremongering stories we’d heard of paranoid pot-farmers with shotguns roaming the hills like surreal computer-game baddies. One lady we’d met had cycled into the region a few weeks previously, and promptly hitch-hiked out again, too afraid to continue. Exactly what she’d been afraid of had never quite been made clear. On the road, I’ve found that you’re treated as you expect to be treated; the manner in which you approach a stranger is a strong cue for how they should respond to your approach.
“We see a lot of cyclists coming through here”, said Mike over a particularly large bourbon, “but they never come and talk to us. They just camp down by the bridge, or on the river bank. They think we haven’t seen them, but it’s so obvious from here. You guys are the first cyclists to come up the drive since two years ago, when a guy called Edward from London spent the night here. But we’d really like if it people would make themselves known to us. We’d welcome anyone in – let them stay the night, eat with us, camp in the garden – if they would only come and ask!”
“So,” he continued with a flourish, “thank you so much for asking – for letting us make you welcome here!”
(Shotgun added last-minute for irony.)
There it is, from the horse’s mouth, and a theme that has recurred time and time again on my travels: you are positively encouraged to impose yourself, your fascinating stories, your refreshing and unexpected presence, on the settled people of this world.
It troubles me that so many others had passed this way with enough suspicion to ignore these people, passing up the option of spending two minutes making a simple enquiry, instead sleeping furtively on their land, disappearing the following morning to continue their journey of discovery and exposure to the land and its people – without so much as a “hello” or a wave to those who lived here.
Would you go knocking on a stranger’s door in search of a place to sleep? If not – why not?
My U.S. Pacific Coast ride is kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe..