Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Road Less Traveled, part I

Caveat: I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted, but I’ve decided to throw chronology to the wind and simply post events both current and since my last post, and try to be more habitual. Thanks for your tolerance!

A wrong turn so often takes us down a road we probably wouldn't have chosen but that, once there, we're glad we didn't bypass.

Some of you know that I took a 2-month long road trip this summer. It didn’t go unnoticed that, after living in Alaska for 16 years, I finally decided to make the pilgrimage down the Al-Can during the record highest fuel prices the US has seen. There’s no need to get into my motivation, but it was an excellent opportunity to collect a complete set of fuel economy data for Ellie May, my trusty road-trip steed. A 1994, 4-WD, extended cab Toyota pick-up truck, complete with beater camper shell ($35!), and loaded to the hilt with myself, living-out-of-the-truck gear, the dog, and the occasional passenger, I was amazed at how she performed against her industry rating of 19 mpg hwy/16 mpg city. Check out the data.

I’d been on the road for nearly two weeks during a searing heat wave that had no intention of easing it’s grip on the parched earth of southern Oregon and Northern California. Those of you who know this area of the Pacific Coast realize that it’s beauty is typically shrouded in dense fog and its cliff-lined shores are pummeled by winds that turn a day of beach-going into an inadvertent beauty treatment as the sand sloughs any exposed skin layer into the sea. Yet, even the coast was burning with 90°F+ (32°C+) temperatures. As I continued southbound, the highway wandered inland where the heat intensified.

The sea-foam green body of the Eel River winds back and forth beneath Highway 101, aka the Redwood Highway, and it teased me with its siren call to cool off in its luscious waters. Ah, yes. But each time I spied an access to the river, I had already passed the turn-off. Getting a bit impatient, I elected to hop off at the next exit, regardless of its name or destination. As luck had it, I spied a side road complete with a group of trucks parked at what certainly appeared to be a trailhead.

Towel – check. Swim trunks – check. Water – check. Dog – check. I nearly danced down the path toward the river, delighting in the refreshing calm to come. Suddenly, the staccato shout of gunfire erupted from somewhere deep in the trees. Kids with toy guns, my immediate assumption, was dispelled as a shower of leaf debris fell around me. I stopped – “Hello?”

“Blind man! Blind man! Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” echoed throughout the woods. “Hello!” I shouted again. One by one, a small group of men appeared from the woods, dressed in camo gear and eerie black combination hood-face shields, and assembled around me. One came forward and lifted his face shield. The others followed suit, though they stayed back a bit, forming a semi-circle around me. They were adults but for a couple of young boys, that were maybe 10 or 11 years old.

“Uh, I’m looking for the river, but I guess I took the wrong path.”

“Are you aware that we’re firing live 300 meter per second rounds?” the group leader demanded. Don’t quote me on that velocity, but that’s what I thought he said. And no, I wasn’t.

“Well, I suspected something was up when the leaf shrapnel fell on me. Look, it’s hot, I’ drove down here from Alaska, and I just wanted to cool off in the river, but it’s no problem, I’ll just go back the way I came - ”

Suddenly friendly, the group leader interrupted me. He explained that the Eel River was right down the path, not 5 minutes away, the waters were safe, and that I should go on down. He explained that I would be perfectly safe down there. It was extremely unlikely that I would encounter anyone else (no kidding?), and that I should enjoy my swim. Then he described our safety plan.

“When you’re ready to come back, just be sure you wait right below the top of the river bank and call out ‘blind man, blind man!’ Don't move until you hear me yell ‘clear, come up!’ before you come back on the trail.” One of the men had brought out a cooler they had stashed somewhere, and he offered me a pop and a pork sandwich. Though I declined, I appreciated their hospitality.

I admit I was a bit wary, but Alaska is a gun state, and I didn’t feel threatened by these guys at all. I just never expected to come upon a scene like this in California. Wasilla? Kenny Lake? Sure, but Humboldt County?

Thus briefed, Bijou the Wonder Dog and I skipped down the path and off to the peace of the river where, surprisingly, the gentle flow of the river buffered any sounds from the highway in the distance or from my personal guard unit in the forest above. To be continued….

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