We had only been on the road for a short period of time – a week perhaps, just the time it took us to meander up to the very northern part of California. It is so beautiful up there – shades of highlands, or alpine pretensions with trees so large and tall they make you dizzy looking at them. The Redwoods are not so much trees as giants. We later returned to California to travel down south eastern gold rush towns. These are tiny picturesque places stuck in time so beautiful they are almost Western movie backdrops. Ghost towns and unfriendly hillbillies, moonshiners and meth cookers.
California has the distinction of containing the single most beautiful and terrifying place I’ve ever been to: The Forks of Salmon.
In northern California, if you turn off the main drag north south – the I-5, and head for the coast towards the 3, there is a small town called Etna. Etna consists of a large mural depicting the gold rush in stereotypes and flaking paint. Next to it is a large white wagon wheel. I wonder how long it has been there. There is, as usual, A Stop and Shop, a few houses with people who seem to live solely on their front porch swings. It’s a creepy dusty place. A malignantly threatening calm hovers over it like wings over the water.
If you head towards the coast on that tiny road, towards Sawyer’s Bar, Scott’s Bar, the marble mountain wilderness, down following the Forks of Salmon, and those dusty towns with their leatherette couches and fuzz of static television melt away, the road narrows to about four feet wide, it crumbles under your tires. Maybe that is how they got the wagon wheel in Etna, recovered it from the Forks of Salmon Road, when some poor pioneer got shaken off the mountainside. The road truly becomes treacherous. To one side there is a huge drop of thousands of feet: one slip and it’s curtains. To the other side a rock cliff face tries to push you off the carved stone road.
The view is almost worth the nearly dying. The mountains seem to drop into place. Trees rise up out of stone, each peak higher than the last. The salmon river crashing and frothing below. It’s as if God himself is caught in
the act of creation andyou are suspended within it – tiny and vulnerable, small and in peril,
awed and fearful you. Insignificant you! Your head spins, your mouth falls open. The spell is broken.
Wow, you say. Wow. The precipice seems to draw your forwards, drag you over the edge, tempt you like the lemming you know you are. You have to stagger backwards, force yourself out of the great abyss, just to sidle back to your truck and think well, I can’t turn back. After all, how much worse can it get? Oh it can get worse! It can get much much worse. Hair pin turns, roads which are falling apart, steep climbs and sharp descents. It was so scary that I didn’t think we were going to make it down from there.
I may or may not have sprinkled holy water on Beastie whilst crossing myself extravagantly. I did pray. Loudly. Profanely.
“Fuuuuck… Jesus help me… dear God please don’t let us fucking fall… fuuucking fuck!” I swear only God himself could have pinned that truck to the side of that rapidly deteriorating cliff face. There must have been whole herds of Angels holding up tires that were spinning off the edge of the fragile road, so we could get off that mountain!
A car appeared traveling east, but the road only wide enough for one vehicle to travel one way at a time. My heart sank. We both stopped. The young man in the tiny Impala refuses to back up to a wider bit of road. Obviously we could not sit there forever waiting for the other person to do something else, and I was so desperate to get off the mountain that I decided just to bite the bullet and reverse up to a wider bit of road. We backed up, back wheels spinning off crumbling road. He crawled past. Failed to thank me. I got out, screaming at him that he was welcome, chasing after his little car. Billy called me back, I jumped back into my pilots seat. I honestly thought I would rather just live up there. We didn’t need to get off the mountain, and told Billy as much. He ignored me and put the RV into drive inched her forwards trying not to fall off the cliff.
We got past the first section that leads up to Sawyers Bar. The views are almost to beautiful enough to die for. The Forks of Salmon River flows fast and heavy, foaming and bubbling far below as you wind through the almost switchback ascents and descents of the pass. Before I drove the Forks, I had no idea such roads actually existed in the supposedly civilized nation of the United States. These passes have no crash barriers, nothing stopping the unwitting traveler from entering them, or from crashing off the dusty crumbling path carved into the mountainside. To your left is a sheer rock face with a heavy overhang, to your passenger side as you drive forwards towards Eureka is a sheer drop, the soft yellow rock crumbling under your tires. It is really not something you want to do in a vehicle the size of Beastie. It is not something you want to do at all. Roads like this have no business existing. There should be warnings, there should be “proceed at your own risk” barriers. There is nothing to warn you, nothing at all to say that it is trecherous, narrow and dangerous and that large vehicles in particular should not proceed!
We stopped at a small community center, the road had opened out to something more akin to blacktop and civilization. I hopped out and went in alone. It was one of those small town, nowheresville amalgams of library, community center and seemingly someone’s residence. The two women that greeted me were unfriendly, overly curious and adamant. I was advised to turn back, turn around and go back the way I had come. There was no way I was doing that. The road looked fine at this point, I had just gone through hell to get that far, and I had no interest in heading back towards heat, and no desire to waste fuel doubling back on myself. I had very little cash, very little fuel, and my only economical, sensible option was to drive forwards. As the children pointed out to me later, I have had much better ideas.
So we did – we drove forwards. I don’t know how much difference this makes, but this was no family vacation, this was no pleasure cruise, no novelty trip. I was running for my life. Our lives. My husband had refused a divorce, it was complicated by the law of the country he resided in, and I was being beaten to within an inch of my life while I was with him. I was trying to disappear, to get safe, to start again. I didn’t trust anyone to comprehend the situation fast enough, to be discrete enough, to help rather than inadvertently make things worse for us. We were running towards safety. It just happened to not be particularly safe on the way there.
I did not understand the extent to which the road deteriorated rapidly and once I did, there was no way I was going to turn 26 ft of us around, there just wasnt the room.
To be fair, my error in continuing onwards did not take too long to unfold, within a few minutes we were both trapped in going forwards, and inching along the narrow tumbling road wondering if the back wheels could possibly make it over the pinhead turns whilst turning the front of the 26 ft rv to negotiate the path. There was only dusty rocky surface on the road. The RV was shake rattle and rolling, juddering to the point it felt like its very fabric was being dismantled by the rough surface.
Birds of prey swooped. I thought I saw the shadow of a vulture glide silently above. Bastards probably smelt the fear and a potential meal. Fish jumped thousands of feet below in the river. Wild flowers bloomed by the roadside. Small groups of houses came and went. I couldn’t believe people actually live up there, but there is an entire community that lives up on the mountain. I don’t suppose they are bothered very often. I looked to the map, we were about halfway to the cost- we had made it to Sawyers Bar. The mountains crowd each other out of the scenery, heavily forested, gigantic, jostling for position, dwarfing the twisting turning river beneath. I felt cradled within creation. I wondered if the people who live up here, as tough as they might be, ever consider that the rest of the world lives in neatly organized blocks and concrete, flat plains, or beaches, and not huddled into mountainsides, on roads which follow the only possible path, and even that is barely drivable. I wonder if they notice the mountains, or the rivers or the wild ponies. I wonder if they wake up, say hello to God, and carry on as if they are not living amongst the extraordinary, the epic, the immense beauty of nature. The Japanese Shinto tradition ropes off beautiful natural occurrences – waterfall and the like, to worship as expressions of the Kami. There is not a red rope long enough to cordon off the Forks of Salmon.
We made it as far as small campground, which appeared just after the road widened out a little, started to feel less scary. We were so grateful to see it, as it was getting dark, and dark plus that road was just not possible to survive. This camp had no electric, no lamplights, no bathrooms, just a water spigot and grass. We put money into an envelope, and pushed it into an iron ranger, hung the ticket on the rearview mirror and stopped to breathe. I reassured people it should be fine from here on in. I told them that we must be past the worst of it. I survived to never live that down. One day, maybe I’ll make up for my error.
Billy had wandered off and came back with a bunch of the most beautiful alpine mountain flowers, which I shoved into a tin can I cut in half. The photograph is long gone. The memories linger on quietly deteriorating like that road, crumbling into nothing but the vague warm feeling that once I had my family, my people, and now I don’t. Its all gone forever.
It was the first night we had really camped, camped without electricity, without bathrooms and camp showers. Without artificial lights. Without other people. We were alone in there, just us and the bears and the cougars and the chipmunks. The rest of the afternoon passed peacefully. The children headed outside to run and explore. I sat quietly looking out the window. I eventually recovered myself to the point that I managed to sit at a picnic table and stare at the blue sky. I remember thinking it was cinematically beautiful. Uncannily perfect. The greens were greener, the flowers delicately sprouting underfoot, there was shade, and a breeze. Heaven might well look something like the Marble Mountain Wilderness Area.
As grateful as we were, we were woefully unprepared for boondocking. A few flashlights were found, their cheap dim bulbs burning through the dollar store batteries in minutes. We turned on the little handheld tape recorder Billy had bought with him, and hand cranked the little emergency radio, bringing in only fuzz and the occasional smatter of Rush, Heart and Whitesnake. Radio Boys Radio Hour was born – an ad hoc radio show, recorded on small tapes, with me as the special guest, and the kids and Billy pretending to call into Station Familytime. The dark was punctuated by the sounds of the old Martin, and the four of us singing Tom Thumbs Blues in the blissful cool night mountain air. When you are lost in the rain….I still cant listen to that song without my heart breaking into a million dusty pieces: it is mummified, sanctified, almost obscenely sad. Morning came and night went fast. We had no food in the RV, were not set up for boondocking in the wilderness, and we had to get off that mountain. So we did.
Apparently the locals use CB radio in order to avoid getting stuck in a standoff, letting each other know who is coming upstream, and who is heading down, and which mile marker they are at. We were a 26 foot aberration. I wish I could apologize. I wish I had taken note once I had reached the post office. I am burning up in embarrassment at the memory. To be honest, it was the heat that drove us to drive out there – Weed was hot. The town was killing me. I needed to the coast and the cooler weather. Billy really should have known better than to take that road, as used as he was to driving the USA. I think perhaps he wanted to scare me, or impress me.
The road started to head downhill at a rapid pace, the road deteriorating again, in both width and repair. What comes up must come down and down we came at a rapid pace! If you look at the map, trace a route from Etna, California, to Eureka California, via the Forks of Salmon, Sawyers Bar and Somes Bar, you can see how the road jaggedly twists and turns. In theory it looks pretty rugged. The reality is treacherous. Areas are named reassuring things like “Murderers Gulch”, and the reality is somewhere towards the terrifying end of awe inspiring. I was not entirely sure the brakes on the 2001 26 foot class C camper were up to this rigorous descent, which was not entirely reassuring. We had tred on the tires, but that vehicle was never made with that kind of driving in mind.
Once it does become more level, opens out into one decent lane of blacktop, then a lane either way, goes from sandstone cliff face, to trees comfortingly growing on both sides of the road, houses that look like someone other than a ghost lives in them, once that happens, then only occasionally does the road deteriorate back into a more dangerous state. Finally you get out to Hoopa, where there is thankfully gas and candy bars, and people staring at the idiots who just came off the mountain in a 26 ft RV. I started to laugh hysterically, for no reason. The kids reappeared up on their seats after huddling together with the blinds down so they could not see the danger outside. Billy turned on the music, Dylan was still on the CD player singing about Idiot Winds and blood on saddles. I screamed along as we hit the 299, windows open, wind blowing through my hair and blowing those words right outta the camper into the road outside and the ether. Somehow those words are still blowing around out there, waiting to come to land.
By the time we tipped out at Eureka, some 47 miles later I was still laughing hysterically, crying, desperate for the overwhelming emotion to just stop, but it still kept coming. Billy and the kids looked at me concernedly. I carried on laughing. We found a Denny’s, and decided that we needed coffee and eggs. So I sat in Denny’s crying with laughter. It turned out Denny’s was in a part of town where strangers, especially those crying with laughter like some crazed woman, are not particularly welcome. I managed to gulp down the coffee, and started to cry instead. It was only then I realized my hands were shaking. At least it is cooler in Eureka. Cooler but grouchier.
There is one vital fact. The coast is cooler than inland. That burning hot Yreka sun is tempered by the cooling influence of the ocean. There is rum and a sea breeze. Things coalesce, move slower, softer. It smells clean, of salt and beachy air. At least we were at the coast. At least we were together. We had made it off the mountain without any damage, apart from a scraped awning that was now not able to be pulled down, from where we hugged to the cliff side a little too closely and dragged it along the rocks. We had no idea right then and there sitting in Denny’s where we would be sleeping that night, we nad no idea where we were headed to next. The mythical destination of Eureka had been achieved and it was now onto the next spot, somewhere to sleep that was safe, and hopefully had campground showers. As always there was the road. At least there was always that. Right then and there, it was enough.