Sunday, July 06, 2008


I've been driving the wilds of Northern California for the past 4 days, scouting out locations and new roads for the Velocette Owner's Club summer rally, which I'm organizing this year. This will be my 7th turn as President, which entails sorting the logistics of a week's riding for 100 or so people. I've also planned rides for other clubs, like the AMCA - it's fun to fit the big puzzle of scenic roads and interesting locations together, to set the stage for a dramatic and memorable series of rides. We're spoiled for choice here, as there are so many good and remote roads with absolutely no traffic, and sometimes no maintenance either!
Our rally HQ is the Benbow Inn, just outside Garberville, which is 4 hrs north of San Francisco, and very near one of the last groves of Old Growth redwood trees (the world's tallest trees, but not the oldest; those are in SoCal, the Joshua Trees), the Avenue of the Giants. Some have stood for 2,500 years, and in the surrounding counties (which have all been logged previously), you can see quite a few Enormous Stumps, which could hold a small cabin easily - the Pacific Lumber Company tried hard to get ALL the old trees, as they are worth something like $1 MILLION each, but bitter negotiations have preserved two relatively small stands (relative to their former dominance of the region). There are still second and third-growth redwoods all over the place, but these ancient Methuselahs are really something special.
The first stop on my exploratory trek was Mt Shasta, 14,161' tall, a dormant volcano (actually 2 very close to each other) which still hisses steam and hot springs; we're planning on having a picnic at the end of the road (at 9,400'), overlooking the entire Cascade range and the Central Valley beyond. A summer of rampant forest fires have limited visibility below, but the mountain is far above the smoke. I picked up a hitchhiker named Jesus (and I don't mean 'hay-soos'... ), he was living in a campground and was going to bathe in Panther Creek (it had been 5 days...). I always say, if you see Jesus hitch-hiking, give him a lift, even if he's stinky.

A bit of hiking around above the treeline turned my thoughts to a dip in Lake Siskiyou, where the temp hovered around 85 by lunchtime... nice view of the mountain I'd say. But I still had a long way to go, and headed north again past Weed along Old Stage Road, which was exactly as it sounds; the stage coach road from Mt Shasta to Yreka, which became Hwy 99, then was supplanted by I-5 in the 1970's (I watched it being built, and rode my bicycle on the flattened earth skyway near my home before it was paved).
An intriguing road beckoned, which looked like a solid line on the map - most maps only use line width to indicate the importance of roads, but are poor at designating when a paved road turns to gravel or dirt, so actually traveling any unknown road is important... not doing so has been the bane of many a rally! Having been guilty of Not Exploring a road in the past, then adding it to a rally map, I am especially sensitive to cartographic disasters. My nemesis road was Mule Town, east of Red Bluff, which wasn't a road at all, more of an advanced trials course, yet to this day it appears as a solid line on AAA maps.... As it had been included on my Velo rally map in '01, I rode it on my '33 Velocette mkIV KTT, as penance, and thought I might get lost and die... the only other person encountered was on horseback, looking for a woman who had disappeared a few days prior in a Jeep... that's how the Velo got the nickname 'The Mule', as it survived!

I digress; encountering the unexpected is the joy of the scout - on Stewarts Spring Road (Forest Road 17), the eponymous Spring is not hot but a mineral spring, held sacred by the natives, which now has a funky resort complex built to soothe the body and soul. I had a vegan 'wrap' at their juice bar and watched the bathers in the creek. If you forget your bathing suit, it's ok. A very peaceful spot.
But, the Road beckoned.... Forest Road 17 turned out to have 37 miles of one lane, unstriped, infinitely bendy mountain pass, which has become a new 'tool' in the rally chest.
At the town of Etna (where we'll be camping in the City Park), it seemed a good time to stop for a chocolate milkshake and investigate the new brewpub... things are looking up in Etna, as the beer was quite good.

On the way out of town, I picked up hitchhiker #2, Larry, who was carrying an enormous bag of dog food, which swayed me that he was harmless. Larry is hard-rock mining in the Marble Mountains, which as you might surmise are mostly limestone, and not as brutal to extract from as our granite peaks. As we drove the 10 miles to his claim, he explained coming upon an old mine shaft, and that it had taken him 20 years to become proficient at identifying which ores carry gold, and how it might be disguised in copper or arsenic (and become red), or manganese (and become black). He had no power tools, and worked alone. As stalactites had grown inside the mine shaft, he reckoned it had been opened in the late 1800's. Now that gold hovers near $1000/oz, lots of prospectors have taken up the pick or pan.

Further up the Forks of Salmon road I discovered a few smaller forest fires - the area isn't as bone dry as some in CA, so the fires were clearing the undergrowth rather than killing the trees; necessary, but smoky. It makes for dramatic photos and videos, especially when helicopters dip buckets into the Salmon River canyon, flying into impossibly narrow gaps between the trees.
At the town of Somes Bar, on Hwy 96 at the Klamath River, I picked up hitchhiker #3, Carla, a Native American woman, who claimed to be, with her siblings, the last pure Karuk Indians, who had 'lived in the region for 500 generations', which is probably about right - 10,000 years. And people are impressed that I'm 5th generation San Franciscan! Carla had been drinking a bit, but when I explained my journey, she directed me to a friend's place who 'had an old motorcycle', in Orleans (gotta love that name..).
The bike was the least interesting facet of Rob, living in his family's log cabin, built in 1936 from the trees felled immediately nearby. He dredges for gold in the Klamath River, and uses horses to plow the 80 acres legacy left by his mother. A big Belgian (17.5 hands) was the lead, and 3 wild Mustangs from northern CA made up the rest of the team - they had been purchased from the BLM (there is a large wild Mustang sanctuary few hours away).
Rob is a font of information about the area, and I've arranged to stop by on the rally for more chat. Carla gave me some native tobacco as a parting gift, but it was green and made me silly. Time for a motel.

Day 2; an early start, with the coastal fog at Eureka, to scout obscure connector roads which will keep riders of 40+ year old machines off the main highway. 'Locals' everywhere love to remove road signs, or shoot them to incoherence to keep us tourists out, so deduction and intuition become the scout's tools. I had been looking for Grizzly Canyon road for years, which connects Fortuna with Rio Dell and the redwoods, but had never had the time to explore the foggy little towns along the coast. No signs at either end of the road, but it's a good one, ranging from the flat floodplains of the Klamath river to the hills which skirt them.
A quick trip to the top of the Avenue of the Giants to confirm highway signs, and I headed inland again, to check the condition of Alderpoint Road, which I had heard was deteriorating badly, but is an essential super-rural CA experience, and a great route from the coastal forests to the dry and hot inland wilderness of Trinity National Forest. It passes through the hamlet of Blocksburg, and the school in the old photo below still stands.
From Ferndale, the way to Bridgeville (the terminus of Alderpoint Rd, and the first town to be sold on ebay!), is along Hwy 36, which is an emerald in CA's crown of motorcycle roads. Beautifully paved and constantly changing in elevation, scenery, and topography, 36 is on everyone's list of 'must ride' roads. But I've been over it many times, so I hustled to get to Bridgeville (14 miles in), when lo, I spy a '53 BSA parked at a gas station. Screech of brakes, gravel flung as I turn around to find the owner... who turns out to be Mike Cook, and in fact lives on the very road I seek! I explain my purpose, and he invites me to follow him to his home, 10 miles further along.

Blocksburg School

Mike lives up a gravel road, in a nice wooden house on a meadow, surrounded by Bay, Oak and Redwood trees. He also has a barn, which is full of his Triumph, Norton, BSA, Ariel, and Sunbeam S8, of all things. Vintagents are everywhere.

We soon discovered common friends, realizing we must have met at several points, so now our degrees of separation have shrunk to 1. He's offered to supply coffee to anyone on the rally who wants to stop by and see his bikes and a rural homestead.
And that's why you have to scout the roads, you just never know what you'll find.


The Creeper said...

Really enjoy the post, Paul. I loved the hitchhiker stories and the random meetings. You've got me curious about Mule Town. I need to know where that is! Couldn't fund anything useful via Google...



vintagent said...

Craig, if you grab the AAA map of Northern CA, Mule Town Road is near the towns of Ono and Igo (can't make this stuff up), just west of Red Bluff, and just south of Whiskeytown reservoir. Next time you're in the area, take a peek, but don't say I didn't warn you...