Nick & Sara’s Tour de West – 14

Fri, 18 Sep 09

Friday – and as much as I hate to admit it, it’s time to start turning east and making headway towards home if I’m going to be at work on Monday. It’s some 1500 miles to Boulder from Eureka, and although a lot of that will be interstate, that’s still a lot of miles.

So, we turn east just south of Eureka and seriously begin the trek home. The plan is to go from here southeast to Sacramento and pick up I-80 there, heading east on I-80 until we reach Salt Lake, then either continuing on I-80 back the way we came through Wyoming, or head south and pick up I70 through Colorado.

But before we get to I-80 we’ve go to get across the state of California – this involves, first driving a state road – CA Highway 36 across the state to Red Bluff, CA. From there we pick up I-5 South, which takes us to Sacremento and I-80.

I had *no* idea what a thrill ride I was in for.

It turns out CA 36 is, simply put, one of the most fun driving experiences around. You get to go through and experience the gamut of California terrain – from Redwood forests near the coast to mountain passes to ochre, sunburnt savannah in the interior. And the road curves, and twists, and dives, and in some places curves and twist and dives all at the same time.

Coming from west to east, you start out in Redwood forest – not the gargantuan specimens of yesterday but fairly formidable trees nonetheless. It’s a lovely, sunlight, cool but not cold morning, so Sarah and I motor along through the trees with the top down. The road is alternately brilliantly lit by sun and hidden by dark shadow in the corners – you get that strobe light sensation across your eyes that is both beautiful and at certain speeds alternately mesmerizing and annoying – a good pair of sunglasses is essential.

Once you’re through the redwoods, maybe 30 or so miles into the interior, you start to climb seriously as the road goes over several mountain passes of the coastal range of California. The road doesn’t just go up, though – it corkscrews up – literally – some of the curves almost feel like the 180 degrees. As fun as it is, this part of the road also feels a bit dicey – it’s narrow – barely 2 car widths wide and there is no centerline for much of this stretch. And you still have to deal with the strobe light affect and the shadows in corners caused by the interaction of sun still low in the sky and trees. There are a couple of times when Sara and I are cranking around a tight turn, with sunlight in our eyes and little visibility ahead of us – to find an oncoming car or truck seemingly taking up 2/3 of the road. I focus on the right hand shoulder of the road and try to stay as far to the right as possible, and hope that oncoming traffic is doing the same.

Up here in the mountains, it’s actually quiet cool – in the 50’s or so, so I have to stop and put Sara’s top up. After almost an hour of twisting, turning roads, too, I’m actually beginning to feel a little car sick – I’m making *myself* carsick! I have to pull over and take a little fresh air break when I find a wide spot in the road.

Then the fun begins. OK, it’s been fun up to now, but now the *real* fun begins. The final stretch of the road, from Wildwood to Red Bluff, once you start coming down out of the mountains, is like no other road I’ve been on. Apparently, the engineers, when constructing this road, didn’t bother with grading it at all – as a result, the road hugs the natural contours of the terrain – which is undulating small hills.. You crest the top of a 10-20 foot high hill and then dive back down into the next corner. At first it’s a little off-putting and nerve wracking – I feel like the car’s going to become airborne in spots – but as I get used to and learn to trust Sara’s suspension – and what the limits of the her suspension are, it’s a *blast*.

Driving on this road is not a push-the-gas-pedal-in-and-hold-the-wheel-straight kind of affair – there’ll be some more of that later. This is a full blown, all senses engaged, both hands and feet busy, full on sensory experience. Steer with one hand and shift with the other, gas and brake with one foot and clutch with the other.. everything is kept busy. Too busy to be taking pictures, unfortunately – so I don’t have a lot to show. Fortunately, someone else has taken some pictures for me, so if you want to see what I’m talking about, go to:

He does it east to west, though – so his beginning is my end, and vice-versa.

Highway 36 is also a lonely road, there’s a stretch of about 150 miles with literally 2 gas stations enroute. Silly me forgot to fill up before I left Crescent City, and though I *think* the 1/2 a tank I had when I left will be enough, the twisting and turning, braking, downshifting, and accelerating is taking it’s toll on my gas mileage and no I’m not so sure. I stopped at the first place I saw for gas – the “town” of Dinsmores – literally nothing more than a filling station and a general store, only to discover they only sell Diesel and unleaded regular fuels. Now, Sara’s a high-maintenance lady – she only likes the good stuff – premium unleaded – and since I still have enough in the tank to get to the next filling station (I think), I decided to forgo the regular gas for now.

The tank is down to under a 1/4 when I get to the next general-store-come-filling-station, in Wildwood, CA – again there’s not much more than the store there. But to my relief I see a “regular” and a “premium” pump. So Sara and I pull up, I hop out, grab the filling nozzle, and go to turn the activation crank on the old fashioned gasoline pump – and discover a padlock on the activation handle – huh? Do I need to go in and pay first and they’ll give me a key? As I’m standing their puzzling, the attendant from the general store comes out to the porch overlooking the pumps.

“Sorry, we’re all out of premium. Truck should be here sometime next week.”

Wonderful, I think to myself. “OK, how far is it to the next filling station?”

“55 miles,” comes the answer.

Sh*t. Sara’s onboard computer is telling me I have 75 miles worth of gas left – and that’s usually reasonably accurate, because it’s based on the actual mileage Sara has been getting over the last tank of fuel, *but* factors (such as lots of downshifting and breaking, significant uphill components to the route, etc) can significantly affect that…. “I know what you’re thinking, punk .. do you feel lucky today, well do you?”

I don’t feel lucky today. I rather, I don’t feel like pushing my luck that far. I throw a few gallons worth of regular in the tank, figuring, it’s not terribly hot out here, it’s supposed to be downhill from here to Red Bluff anyway, so the engine won’t be working that hard, and it will blend with the premium in the tank.

In the end, that seems to have been the right decision, since I notice no discernable degradation in Sara’s performance after that, and I make it into Red Bluff with a couple of gallons in the tank to spare.

Compared to whats on Highway 36, Red Bluff is a booming metropolis, complete with fast food joints, and full-service filling stations. It’s also freakin’ HOT – must be mid 90’s in the shade. I noticed the temperature climbing steadily since I’d started coming down out the coastal range mountains down into the more arid landscape of the interior, but had Sara’s top up and the AC on so didn’t realize how hot it had gotten – when I get out to fill the tank (with the “good stuff” this time) the heat just hits me.

Welcome back to the interior – can I go back to the coast now?

The rest of the days drive – south in I-5 to Sacremento then west on I-80 up over Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada to the Lake Tahoe/Reno area, is relatively uneventful. You can certainly make good time on the interstates, but compared to highways like 36, it’s well, boring.

P.S. I’ve since learned (on the internet, of course) that Highway 36 in California is ranked as one of the top places to ride a motorcycle in the country – and I can certainly see why. That explains the preponderance of motorcycles I saw on the road in between Red Bluff and Wildwood, coming out of Red Bluff. You’d think a road known for it’s driving experience would have a few more filling stations, though.