California Pt III: Into the Forest

Fort Bragg is a dull, flat city so I rode about 30km up the road to Westport, a coastal village, and camped the night at a commercial campground. The host gave me a significant discount for being a biker, so there was value for money.

Ever since Big Sur, tourers had warned me about two things I’d encounter in the coming days of cycling: Leggett Hill and vagabonds. The climb, and the settlement of Leggett below, marked the entrance to Humboldt State Park. The park is home to some of the tallest trees on earth and the town of Garberville, known as the capital for cannabis growers in the United States, and part of the reason for the proliferation of drifters. More on that to come.

I rose early in Wesport, intending to tackle Leggett Hill before forecast rain hit. Waiting for my phone to charge in the campsite bathrooms, I met a dude called Kelly who lived at the grounds. He’d moved to California from Springfield, Illinois. He worked at a thriving dirt-moving business whose clientele were primarily (if not exclusively) weed growers.

Also, he signs of his emails as K-Bone: what a dude.

 

Before veering inland into the redwood forests and their accompanying hills, I caught a rare glimpse of the Lost Coast, so-named because it’s usually obscured by heavy fog.

When Leggett Hill had previously surfaced in conversation, it was usually accompanied by, “…and you’re doing it the hard way as well!” This, as I was to find out, was not because of Leggett itself, but the shorter, steeper climb that lands right before the bigger incline.

This took the buoyancy out of my legs, and while Leggett’s gradient wasn’t hysterically cruel, it was long. What’s more, the forest blocked the view, so I was just rolling through the trees with my woes.

Managed to snap something on the descent.

The bottom of Leggett Hill marked the conclusion of Highway 1. Goodbye old friend. You hurt my legs – even when I asked you to stop.

I was recommended a campground outside Leggett, and arrived there as the weather soured. Opposite the campground is a grocery store and grill, called The Peg House, and there I met a man eating a salad.

More intriguingly, he wore motorcycle gear in the style of a raider from Mad Max, and the motorbike in the parking lot continued the theme.

Well, he went about putting the fear of God in me about vagabonds and tweakers this close to Garberville, advising me to keep a weapon on hand when I slept, because the drifters would jump the tent, stomp my head and take all my stuff.

I was shook. The campsite was deserted, save for a couple of tents with no visible owners. The rain was really coming down as I pitched my own tent, all the while pondering a horde of ice addicts and toothless wayfarers descending on a helpless Cranbrook boy.

Returning to The Peg House for a padlock, I inquired about the relative safety of the area, and was told – with not a little indignation – that nothing interesting had happened at the campground in years, and she herself lived right next to the site. I returned to camp justly embarrassed at taking cues from a slightly deranged man in Mad Max getup.

At the campsite, I met three kids who had driven from Idaho in a matter of hours with only $200. They were looking for work and had no intention of returning home, possessing no love for their fairly conservative homestate. The final straw was spending two nights in jail for possession of weed. They were fairly common in the area at this time of year, part of a wave of ‘trimmigrants’, who move to the Emerald Triangle in Spring, looking for harvesting work.

The Emerald Triangle is the counties of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity. These counties produce the bulk of California’s largest cash crop. Vagabonds and hippies are prevalent in the triangle, especially around its unofficial capital, Garberville. The Mad Max man had exaggerated the extent of their influence, but it was certainly a bad idea to free camp within 20km of the town.

The ride into Garberville along the 101 traversed the Eel River, with infrequent traffic and dense redwood forests catching the sun through the morning fog.

In Garberville I decided that climbing Leggett Hill and enduring a night’s camping in the rain earned me a decent hotel, so I picked a slightly more bourgeois establishment at the end of town. I then set about redecorating the room with my soggy camping gear and turned up the heat.

The populations of Garberville and its surrounding settlements are almost exclusively employed in the growing and distributing of cannabis, or the garden supply business. I spoke to a grower in Garberville while we were doing our laundry, and he explained that the cops basically turn a blind eye, unless things start becoming indiscrete.

The dense redwood forests that I’d been riding through were filled with enormous commercial operations – some legal, others not. The grower I met dealt in bulk and had lost track of the street price for an ounce.

 

Since I started planning this trip, I had been anticipating the ride along the Avenue of the Giants, the original north-south highway that’s since been superseded by the 101. It cuts directly through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, so the road is lined on both sides by the biggest trees on Earth.

I suppose I’m not the most nature-loving person, rarely plagued by a feelings of the sublime or transcendent, but the Ave of the Giants really did it for me. I would catch myself staring up at the canopy – sometimes 100m above me – with my mouth agape, veering onto the wrong side of the road. Luckily it also happened to be a very quiet and serene stretch of road.

Riding a little under 40km, it took me a good five hours because it was so easy to plant your bike and just wander into the forest. I ended up camping at Burlington Campground – once again the only hiker/biker in the place.

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The next day’s cycle concluded the Avenue of the Giants, and took me to Arcata, a town a little north of Eureka. I had been told by numerous people that there was nothing for me in Eureka, which by all accounts is a pretty rotten sort of city. After the Avenue of the Giants ended, it was back to 101 and pretty unpleasant, with traffic getting heavier as I approached more urban areas, and not much of a view to boot. After 75km, I stopped for a coffee and WiFi in Eureka, and the city played by the script and screwed me.

Getting ready to cycle the remaining 10 miles to Arcata, I realised I’d caught a flat. If it had happened two hours previously, I would have fixed it myself, but I just was not in the mood, so took it to a bike store and they fixed it for five bucks!

Unfortunately they only got one of the staples that had caused the puncture, and on the way to Arcata I noticed that I was again riding on rims. With an exasperated, ‘Fuck this shit’ on loop in my brain, I rode the flat through mud to the hotel and had it dealt with the next morning at a local bike shop.

Arcata is a nice town, with a college on its outskirts and vaguely hipster vibes. Lots of hobos though. I had a top five burger from a place called Toni’s; I thought I might have ruined it by drinking ¾ of an oreo thickshake before the burger arrived: nah ay – inhaled it.

That night’s sleep was at Elk Prairie Campground in the Redwood National and State Park, where there is an equivalent road to the Avenue of the Giants. I tackled it the next day on the way to Crescent City, and found it very pleasant, but didn’t quite experience the same Road to Damascus moment as in Humboldt.

In the small town and large truck stop of Klamath, I met a hitchhiker called Michael, who was heading home to northern Washington. He invited me to hang out with him if I end up going to Seattle. We swapped some stories and had a yarn, before he went to look for a ride to Portland, and I cycled the remaining 20 miles into Crescent City, which was mostly just a big hill.

 

That marked the final cycling leg of my tour of California. I checked into a cheap motel, and woke up bright and early the next morning to catch a bus to Klamath Falls, Oregon: the second state on my journey.

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