Friday, May 1, 2015

The Fort Bragg of Our Content

My lovely wife and I recently returned from a wonderful little road trip vacation.  The plan was to leave on a Saturday morning and motor over to Fort Bragg, on the California coast and visit an old school friend.  We were going to spend the weekend there, then slowly meander down the Pacific Coast Hwy for the next three days, landing in San Francisco on Thursday.  We'd spend a couple nights there, then amble over the bay to Oakland and spend the day and night with our kids and grand kids.

The plan was solid and we had a great time.  The End.

OK, there's a little more to the story.  There's always more to the story, especially when I'm at the wheel.  Are you kidding?

Back in our 20's and 30's we used to motor over to Fort Bragg three or four times a year.  Now we seem to get over there every three or four years.  Same numbers, different space continuum.  Thing.

Typically when we drive over to Fort Bragg we get on Highway 20 here, in Grass Valley.  And we stay on Hwy 20 until we get to our friend's house, which is right on the road about five miles this side of Fort Bragg.  Pretty easy, actually, and really hard to screw up.

I say typically because we started this journey with a minor detour to Sacramento, to hell and gone off the route and almost heading in the opposite direction.  Why?  Because my lovely wife wanted to return an item or two to a department store down Sac way.  What can I say?  It was the first day of a road trip vacation and we weren't in a hurry.

Actually, that diversion allowed us an opportunity to explore a little more of this state.  From the top side of Sac Town we hit Hwy 5 North, but rather than take that all the way to Hwy 20 at Williams, we chose instead to take highway 16 through the lovely Capay Valley.  That would hit Hwy 20 about seventeen miles west of Clear Lake and save us a whopping six miles. 

We picked up Hwy 16 out of Woodland, and the two lane road was a little heavy with traffic for the first few miles as we passed through the little towns of Madison, Esparto and Capay in rapid slow succession.  Once through the towns we broke out on an open two lane highway, cruising through the lush green countryside.  Wildflowers were popping everywhere, orchards, pastures and a few old barns flew by.

Traffic got a little bunched up again as we approached the massive Cache Creek Casino, which loomed like a large monolith in the middle of the countryside.  Or nowhere.  Take your pick.  There were about fourteen cars in it's two thousand space parking lot, I guess it wasn't the right time of the month for social security checks. 

We wound around into the low flung hills and soon were running alongside the now trickling Cache Creek, which is the sole outlet of Clear Lake.  There was a time, some 35 years ago, that we actually white water rafted the Cache.  It was also the scene of my first would be rescue.

The Cache is named a "creek", but back in better water days it can become a ripping current, good enough to attract a bevy of fast water enthusiasts.  A friend was familiar with the spot, had the gear and invited us along.  It wasn't a Class 5 torrent, but for our first taste of rafting we had a rollicking good time. 

Somewhere along the ride there was a small forestry one lane road that crossed the river.  There were two large, four foot diameter culverts that allowed the river to pass through the earth and concrete road barrier bridge.  At that time there was really no clearance between the top of the two culverts and the ripping water.

In the middle of summer you could probably walk through the culverts, that day all the water enthusiasts had to ford the bridge.  We oared to the side of the river about fifty yards up stream from the bridge where we casually lifted our raft out of the placid water and brought our gear (and beer) to the other side.  Then it was break time for a few.

I was near the bridge when I noticed a young woman in her late teens or early 20's in an inner tube having some trouble getting to shore.  She had ignored the signs (yes, there were signs) or hadn't seen them and was rapidly losing the battle of the river.  Since the twenty foot wide free flowing river was being channeled into 2-four foot culverts the water really got choppy and fast.  She was flailing in the swift current and having a difficult time trying to get control.

Then I watched in slo-mo horror as she lost the battle and got swept into one of the culverts.

"Holy shit," I thought, as I ran onto the bridge.

Two kayakers were on the bridge at the time and had also witnessed her getting vacuumed up.  There were also other folks on shore who had witnessed the culvert suck up the lady and all eyes were on the white water flow shooting out the other side.  It seemed like a minute, but was probably only ten seconds when she was finally spewed out the other side.  She was gasping and flailing and bobbing and weaving, like a disheveled human yo yo, out of control and being swept down river by the swift moving water.

I looked at the kayak guys.  Surely one of them would dive in and rescue the lass.  I thought.  They looked the part.  They had on helmets, wet suits and the whole bit.  You know, gills, fins.  I was wearing Levi cut off shorts.  Sure, I had just joined the volunteer fire department back home, but this was different.  I had no experience with white water rescue.  Surely one of kayakers would take the finger out of their asses and rescue this girl.  Surely.

Our inner tube gal was now about twenty feet downstream and still gasping and flailing, clearly in potential of drowning.  There were literally a dozen people on the shore and bridge, just watching, in horror, I hope.

My lovely wife, by this time, had come running up on the bridge.  I turned to her, exasperated, and said, "Nobody's doing anything!"

Now each kayakers respective fists were up each others collective asses.  I figured they would be the guys.  They're on rivers all the time.  They got helmets and stuff.  Fins.  Gills.  I go to a river once a year.  Maybe.

About ten seconds had elapsed since she had emerged from the gushing culvert.  I looked at the fast flowing water and dove.

As I dove I said to myself, "Dive light you stupid mother fucker.  You have no idea what's under the surface."

I did dive light.  It was as horizontal as it could have been.  Belly flop aerial style.  My hands were out in front, primarily to protect my head should there have been a boulder you know, like, right there.  Fortunately, there was not.  As a matter of fact, my hands hit gravel as did my stomach.  Instead of launching into a mad, frantic breast stroke to save the maiden, I stood up in ankle deep water and sprinted towards her instead.  I dove from a height of about six feet into a depth of about six inches.  Uh, whew.  I could have become a rescue case myself.

By this time our damsel in distress had managed to flail towards the bank, and when I got to her she was sitting in shallower, calmer water, still gasping for breath.  We sat there for a minute, then I walked with her to the shore.  A ranger was by a few minutes later to check on her.  Amazingly she was fine.  Shook up, but fine.

Moral of this story: Books and covers. 

Once we hit Hwy 20, we climbed up and around the scruffy hills and ambled on into Clear Lake Oaks, the first of many meth addled looking towns along the north shore of the lake.  Which is full of water by the way.

The north shore of Clear Lake, probably much like the rest of the shores, is really nothing to speak of.  It's not very colorful, not very panoramic.  There are a few nice, newer homes along the lake shore, but most of the structures on the lake or otherwise look like they were built in the 1950's and 60's by folks on gas station attendant pensions.  Painted plywood additions appear to be a dominant remodeling factor among the residents.  That and cardboard. 

How do you compliment a single woman from Clear Lake?

Nice tooth.

There is a Frosty Freeze that has been there forever it would seem.  Or at least as long as we have been making the Grass Valley-Ft. Bragg trek.  The only other really noteworthy mention about the north shore of Clear Lake is the little town of Lucerne, which has a big sign and touts itself as the Switzerland of America.  


I've never been to Switzerland, but I've got news, from the pictures I've seen Lucerne looks a lot more like a Breaking Bad town situated next door to El Centro, Ca or El Reno, OK.  Switzerland?  They must be on meth.  What on earth could they possibly be smoking when trying to compare their town with Switzerland?  How could they possibly think the scrub oak infested rolling little hills look anything like the majestic looking Alps.  The only snow Lucerne's little mountains would ever see I surmise would be what's in the bowl of somebody's pipe.

There is a lovely little town in north Washington state that is reminiscent of the Alps.  Germany.  Switzerland.  It's the lovely little Bavarian looking town of Leavenworth, just like the federal prison town in Kansas.  Only a world apart, trust me.  Leavenworth, WA, is definitely worth a visit.  It's quaint and charming and the Cascades are very reminiscent of the Alps.  Leavenworth, Kansas, on the other hand, is neither quaint nor charming.  And there are no mountains.  For miles.

The trek along Clear Lake's north shore is around 25 miles, and averaging 45 MPH it takes seeming FOREVER.  The saving grace are all the festering sociological gawking opportunities that abound.  It's like looking at Wal-Mart shoppers for miles.  Once past the lake it's another twenty some miles until you hit Highway 101.  Meth o mania is finally in the rear view mirror.

North we flew on Hwy 101/20 into Willits, a nice highway town which touts itself as the Gateway to the Redwoods.  Which it is.  Traffic on the highway got a bit boogied up just south of town.  Apparently they are working on an alternate route for the highway that will go around the town.  Currently the highway goes right through the town and right under a charming neon sign.  The alternate route makes sense, but then most folks heading north would miss the charming neon sign and the second of Willits's four traffic lights.

That's where Highway 20 heads West.  It was there we turned and pit stopped at the whatever fast food joint was on the corner.  Travel note: we have found fast food restaurants usually have the cleanest and most accessible bathrooms, if that's all you need to do.  They have food too if you're hungry.  But no gas, typically, except for inside their patrons intestines.   

It's only about 20 miles from Willits to our bud's house, but it always takes 45 minutes to an hour to get there.  Slow go's and lots of turns.  Always a Winnebago.  And every once in a while a fully loaded semi.  At Willits, however, my lovely wife took the wheel and I got to look at the trees and play with the radio.

Thought I was going to say something else, didn't you?

I knew we were heading into a nostalgic time warp weekend when I happened upon The Coast radio station, KOZT, 95.3.  The Coast is out of Ft Bragg and they were playing Albatross, by the real Fleetwood Mac.  Then they launched into Crystal River by Mudcrutch, an offshoot of Tom Petty's.

Holy cow, a song I liked that I'd never heard before by a group I'd never heard of.  I was in melody mania.  Some of the guitar solos were very reminiscent of Jerry Garcia.    As if reading my mind, Franklin's Tower  by the Dead came next.  The set was finished with Sunlight by the Youngblood's, one of my lovely wife and my songs.  From way back when.  All that and no Top whatever before a commercial.  Radio like back when.

It was about this time we rolled right past our buddies place.  What the heck.  What's another four minutes for a turn around when you've been on the road four hours?  Right?

Our Bud and I go back a long ways. We've known each other for over 45 years.  That's pretty damn scary. Eighth grade Spanish.  Or was that seventh grade?  See, it's been so long.  The stories we could tell, and do tell.  But I can't tell you because then we'd probably need an attorney.  Another old pal also showed up for the weekend, or the night as it happened.  Put him in the mix and we'd probably need the entire team at Boston Legal to keep us out of trouble.  Suffice it to say, nostalgia reigns when we get together.  And conversation is so easy when draped in old friend's arms.  It was only yesterday...

Our buddy is currently a bachelor, there's a novel right there about his love lives.  Being a bachelor, his kitchen is not quite as equipped as a culinary purist might prefer, unless, of course, we wanted a peanut butter and fish stick souffle.  We ventured out for dinner instead.

Mexican food was the order of the eve, and rather than bouncing into the main drag touristo burrito eatery, we had a long term local to guide us.  He guided us to "Los Gallitos", an extremely unassuming little hole in the wall in a strip mall next to CVS.  Next door was a laundromat.  A tourist would never know this place existed.  Unless, of course, they spilled some red wine on their favorite sweater.

"Los Gallitos" makes the best darned Mexican food this side of the Napa Sonoma Mendocino county line.  And they make it "to go" too.  Which is a good thing since they can only seat about twenty people at a time. We got seated and were treated to some great food and dandy repartee (as well as great service) by a couple young gals who weren't afraid to mix it up with our special brand of madness.  A grand time was experienced by all.  And if it wasn't, we tipped well.

"Los Gallitos" gets our vote for favorite undiscovered gem in the big city this time around.  Stay tuned for "The Fort Bragg You Never Knew Existed", next on your favorite blogorama.