January 2, 2012
Northern California is a very large place. I suppose if you are speeding down I-5 on a schedule it may not seem so big, but on US 101 and State 1 it is quite a long drive. Of course another factor is our wish to see the country and talk to the people and learn the history. That takes time. We just spent 2 days traveling south and we are still well north of San Francisco. We are staying in a campground near a town called Leggit, which is where we get off US 101 and on to State 1.
As we were looking at the map before we left this morning we saw a little loop that went back out to the coast and then back in about the center of the Avenue of the Giants, more about that later. But the loop was maybe 70 miles long and seemed a good way to see the country. US 101 was getting a bit boring so we decided to do it. We headed off west toward a town called Ferndale. To get to Ferndale we crossed an old narrow bridge called Fernbridge. There was a sign proclaiming that Fernbridge was built in 1911. We got to Ferndale a few minutes later and found it to be an extraordinarily well preserved Victorian town. All the downtown buildings and all the surrounding houses seemed to have just received a fresh coat of paint. We were intrigued by it but we were on a mission and so we just drove on through and stayed on our route. We started driving west again and the road narrowed substantially and was in disrepair and curvy and going up and up. At one point it went down to one lane because the other lane had fallen off the side of the mountain. A sign said, “Carry Chains”. The very few homes we saw were obscured by brush and the only reason we could tell there was a home was a mail box next to a rutted dirt road disappearing into the brush. A peculiar looking sign next to one of these dirt roads seems to have been the name of the estate. It read, “Ass Flat Half Ranch”. That one caused Lucy and I to give each other a quizzical look and then a simultaneous shrug. At the sign about carrying chains, we decided that it might be prudent to turn back. Maybe we should reconsider our route, and settle for visiting the little Victorian town.
Back in Ferndale, oddly enough, the first thing that caught our attention was the town cemetery. Not that either of us has a thing for cemeteries but this one was different. It was on the side of a hill and terraced and quite old. See photos below. There were graves with dates like “born 1850 – died 1917”. There were also a few more recent, even as recent as “died 2011”.
The architecture of the downtown was pretty amazing to me. See photos.
We stopped for coffee in a little restaurant called “Lost Coast Cafe & Bakery”. It was very small and quaint, see photos. The proprietor, Mario, was also quite small. He was about the same height as Lucy, who is 5’2” tall. As we entered, Mario was behind the counter taking an order from two men. We could not see Mario yet but from his voice we assumed he was an older lady. When the two men moved away we were surprised to see that Mario was a man. We ordered a cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake and sat at one of the 4 tables inside. There were also 2 tables outside. It was about noon and the place quickly filled up with mostly men in work clothes and muddy boots, who we later found out were probably dairy workers. They were ordering sandwiches and soup and the oohs and ahs emanating from the nearby tables told us that this was very good food. The sights and smells made Lucy and I wish we had come here hungry. Lucy, of course, struck up a conversation with Mario and that’s when we learned his name was Mario. We also learned he had bought this cafe 3 years ago and he was doing just fine. The locals seem to know him and his food. He said that in his first year he was having a rather lean winter, when some of his regulars suggested he open for dinner one night a week. He decided to do that on Wednesday nights with a family style, single meal, menu. In other words everyone had the same meal. He did so well on the first night that some of the regulars got up and helped him serve. He has been doing well ever since. In his words, “I am blessed and doing well”.
From there we walked down the main street about 3 blocks and discovered a gallery featuring local artists. The artist on duty today was a retired logger, turned photographer named Leon Porter. From Leon we learned a few things. For one thing Ferndale is a dairy town, which explained the workers in muddy boots, or was the substance on the boots a combination of mud and one of the less pleasant by-products of cows eating grass? We also learned that Fernbridge, circa 1911, is the longest surviving bridge in the area. It has apparently survived some earthquakes and the famous 1964 flood. No other bridge in the area has survived that combination of disasters. Hurray for 1911 bridge engineering techniques! When we told Leon we had stayed at the Loleta casino last night he got a grimace on his face and told us he lived just a mile from that casino. He said it was very unpopular with the locals around there, because it brought in lots of traffic and some unsavory folks to the area. He said the little area around Loleta used to be a quiet and pristine place, but no more. He was pleased to hear that we had cost them $95 for the privilege of having us sleep in their parking lot, but he was not hopeful that it would cause them to move elsewhere. He said they are now constructing a big hotel and a kick boxing / cage fighting arena. Harrumph! Anyway Leon is a very accomplished photographer and I bought a small print of Fernbrigde at sunrise.
After leaving Ferndale we drove back to US 101 and headed south. Soon we came to an alternate route called, “The Avenue of the Giants”. Referring, of course, to the giant redwood trees. This is another area that you really have to see to appreciate. I have included some photos to help, but if you can go there just go. If you are like Lucy and I you will skip all the touristy stuff and just drive through, stop and take photos, and just enjoy the majesty of these giant, ancient trees.