pages fly away 8

From Clear Lake State Park, I took Soda Lake Road to the 29 and then followed that north until it met up with the 20.  Just past Blue Lakes, beyond a bison ranch, with a small herd of buffalo grazing out front, it turned into the 101.  In Willits, I stopped at a Dinosaur gas station and filled the tank with gas, and also got a turkey sandwich and large coffee.  The Mountain Bluebird had been getting great mileage so far, and even filling three quarters of a tank only set me back thirty dollars.  I was getting into Redwood country.

Just outside on Laytonville I came upon the first of many unusual attractions that line the Redwood Highway.  It was called Area 101, and I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be, perhaps a New Age amusement park or marijuana dispensary.  The sign showed a spaceship beaming down hearts.  There were statues of Buddha, Jesus, Mother Mary, Saint Jude, Ganesh, and an Eastern Island head, or Moai.  Paintings depicted multi-limb goddesses, mountains and streams, penetrating eyes, all that hippy-dippy stuff I know so well, being something of a latter-day hippy.

Next up were some more conventional curiosities; redwood carvings of loggers and bears, an eagle, and Indian chief, a tree house built out of the stump of an old redwood.  Then it was Confusion Hill.  Signs start appearing miles before you reach it.  Mystery.  Fun.  Is Seeing Believing?  The Mountain Train Ride.  The Gravity House.  I stopped and took a picture of the world’s largest redwood sculpture carved from a chain saw, bears standing back-to-back, six of them in total, three stories high.  Then I got a drumstick from the snack bar and went to see the Shoe House.

Just south of Garberville was another attraction, opposite the south fork of the Eel River.  This was the Legend of Big Foot.  The first footprints of Big Foot, the elusive ape-like creature reported to stalk the deep forests of North America, were captured in plaster casts in Humbolt by a logger in 1958 and measured sixteen inches long.  From there, the stories spread.  At the Legend of Bigfoot, the depictions of Bigfoot, or the Sasquatch, ranged from those of an upright ape to something that resembled a hostile, bushy-eyebrowed caveman.

A few miles down the road, right around Phillipsville, I got on State Route 254, or the Avenue of Giants.  Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, sometimes reaching up to four hundred feet.  They have less girth than their cousins, the Sequoias, and slightly shorter life spans.  The Avenue of the Giants runs through the Humboldt Redwood State Park, a small road that winds like a river through a tunnel of these ancient trees. 

The sun was high above as I went snaking through the forest.  Sometimes it got tangled up and lost in the branches.  Then there’d be a gap, and light would come streaming through, like a rogue beam reaching the bottom of the ocean.  At one straightaway, I happened upon the Immortal Tree.  It’s a thousand years old, had once been three hundred feet tall, and had survived floods, forest fires, a lightning strike, and the loggers’ axe. 

It was scenes like the ones I was seeing that had inspired me to move up to Humboldt County in my late twenties, not knowing a soul.  There was a fantasy I was chasing about getting back to the land, finding a hippy girlfriend, starting a band.  I’d driven up to Arcata and camped on Clam Beach for a week before finding a cheap apartment on the grounds of the university.  I’d signed up for a few classes, prerequisites for a teaching degree, and then went on to endure one of the rainiest, coldest, most depressing seasons of my life.  It had felt like I was a sea captain at a school for cadets.  I’d wandered through the redwoods alone and only managed to score a few gigs, before moving on.

Before reaching Arcata, I had to pass through Eureka.  A port city and lumber town, the many Victorian mansions still standing bear witness to a time of great prosperity.  Driving through on the 101, however, you get the impression of a town with a rough edge, fast food restaurants, rampant homeless, and an underlying drug crisis that gives off a sinister vibe.  It was the same thing I’d discovered living in the region years earlier, freedom turned to anarchy, recreational drug use yielding to psychosis.  A shirtless man was lying beside the road, face down.

At Arcata, I pulled off at Humboldt University and went looking for my old apartment, in the dungeon, or basement side of campus apartments, not far from the library.  I’d drank a lot and suffered from loneliness during those rainy months.  There was the apartment now, just one room, a sliding glass door, and a bathroom.  The sites where hard times went down are sometimes the best to revisit.   Don’t say I didn’t pay my dues, you get to say.

In the town plaza I found the same assortment of freedom fighters and lunatics, still holding their ground, sitting in a big circle, banging on drums.  Half of them were students from affluent suburbs, diving deep into alternative living, letting their freak flags fly.  The others were the resident aliens, those who’d gone so far into the lifestyle that they couldn’t return from it, many of them homeless, camping in the area, getting a buzz on while the sun was shining.  They traded stories for hits from a pipe, credibility for shots from a bottle.  I was just like them, a grizzled old-timer, banged up badly by life, needing just one bright moment a day, someone to listen to my story, to keep me afloat.

I walked around, looking into the bars, the Alibi Room, Everett’s, the Jambalaya, where I’d finally worked my way up to hosting an open mic, before leaving town to drive a truck and raise money for my first record.  That day I’d played my new song, Ghost on the Roam, and the room had gotten silent, maybe for the first time ever.  A breakthrough had occurred in the form of a break down, but when it was all over, what were left were memories and songs, like jewels in the bag of life.

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