North of the Bay: Redwoods and Sonoma with my Brother

Sonoma County, CA: September, 2019

I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in the northbound lane again, this time by car and with my brother. We had one last full day in the Bay Area and wanted explore the areas north of the city, mostly the coast and redwood forests of Marin and Sonoma Counties but with no real itinerary. I took the first exit after the bridge to avoid the traffic and monotony of the 101 and escaped via a squiggly two lane that crested the last ridge before the American cordillera took a deep breath and dove into the chilly Pacific.

Once we reached the ocean the road began to look like a polygraph test in map view, diving towards the cliffs to go around an inlet then turning almost completely around to head back to sea. Never were we less than twenty stories above the waves, but it seemed as though they could splash their spray onto the road if they crashed into the half-submerged pinnacles at the proper angle. The chartreuse hillside to our right contrasted the downslope beige and looked like the grasses above the Dover Cliffs. There were pull offs every thousand feet or so to allow for ocean viewing but by the time one was in sight it was too late for me to veer off of the twisting road, and some would only fit one vehicle and were already occupied by squatting photographers as stoic as their tripod. A Honda pulled behind me and glued itself to the back of the rental as if the driver thought I would even consider moving faster even if this weren’t my first time viewing this stunning landscape.

Eventually there was an opening for me to stop the car for a moment, at a place Google Maps called Bench With Nice View and I looked out to sea in a way that wasn’t a quick and panicked glance. Mike noticed a path that led from the small lot downward and we followed what looked to be a short but steep slope down to the ocean. After about five minutes of hiking a dusty single track through high chaparral, the water had ceased to get any closer despite us walking nearly constantly downward and in its direction, like the unattainable backdrop of an old video game. I stopped short at a random point along the trail and took a picture, and not a particularly good one.

“A back-up photo” I told Mike, “in case I forget to take a better one later.”

We finally came upon a set of switchbacks that lead down to a ridge between the edge of the continent and a boulder that shot almost eighty feet above the surface. The wind had picked up now that we were nearer the edge but I tiptoed across the ridge and climbed up the rock.

To one side was a small track down to a beach that was wedged in between the rock I had just climbed and another one similar, and with a back wall in the form of a sheer cliff. Waves crashed against seaward rocks and sprayed up at twice their height, the largest nearly swallowing the beach, giving us only a sliver on which to stand. We timed the water’s retreat and ran around one of the boulders to another dry, sandy cove, this one smaller than the first, looking a lot like a Mediterranean pocket beach but with a darker sea. There we remained for a bit among deafening waves that were increasingly encroaching. On the return jaunt around the boulder we did get wet feet in the rising tide, but the crisp but bright Pacific sun had dried out our shoes by the time we hiked back up to Bench With Nice View.

North of Stinson Beach the road left the shore and skirted Point Reyes National Seashore and the landscape began to look more like Northern California or Cascadia than it did Big Sur. Near Point Reyes, we left California 1 and followed the Bohemian Highway northeastward through bald rolling farmland alternating with dry eucalyptus savannah. I was getting a bit woozy from the winding road of the last few hours combined with the lack of sleep from the last few days and told Mike as such.

“I’ll drive some if you want.”

A nice brotherly suggestion but where to pull over? The road had the skinny shoulders of an Olympic marathoner and we hadn’t passed a driveway in miles. I then realized we also hadn’t passed another car in twice as long, so I broke in the right lane and we rotated position. Outside was windless and silent but for the dull hum of the car, and the air smelled like juniper.

Not long after Mike began driving, the landscape changed again, a cartoonishly sudden shift like a turned page in a picture book. Towering evergreens, their branches arched like a covered bridge, led us into a shaded, mossy temperate rainforest, and the bright open farmland in the rear view looked like the exit of a railroad tunnel shrinking behind us. We followed the Russian River past towns like Monte Rio that reminded me of New England but with more interesting foliage. Monte Rio Awaits Your Return said a summer camp-like banner above the road. The river was calm here, less than ten miles from where it runs into the Pacific, downstream from where it acts as the crucial water source for wine country, and kayakers slowly paddled beneath the cedar boughs.

Guerneville was a Bohemian place though not why the highway was called that. It was known for its artistic community, the ones to whom San Francisco proper was too exposed, or equally likely, expensive. The buildings on the main street spanned in style from prospector’s boomtown to Australian Outback. Murals adorned the sides of bars, galleries, and realtors offices, many housed in what appeared to be old warehouses, metal sided and windowless. The town ended quickly as we turned up the road to Armstrong Redwoods Natural Reserve.

The nearest redwood trees to San Francisco are in Muir Woods, which becomes so crowded that you have to reserve one of a limited amount of entries several days in advance and even then traffic into the park can be like Yosemite in August. Armstrong, conversely, was nearly empty and is the last stop on a dead end road in the Russian River Valley and after one deep breath in the parking lot it was obvious how noseblind we had become to urban air.

The trees greeted us upon entering a wood-lined dirt trail, most about twice the width of telephone poles and just as straight, knobless, and uniform, but interspersed were true giants ten feet or more across and splayed at the base. The largest trees had bark that looked like weathered sepia-gray concrete with the texture of a hardened lava flow.  Redwoods are evergreens, though their needles are floppy and not at all sharp, and look more like shrunken palm fronds or verdant feathers than pins. However, the trees’ cones and upward-pointing-arrow shape leave no doubt as to their family despite the autumn-like rust colored twigs that had trickled all over the forest floor. Because of the shade, there was little undergrowth and the park was nearly wide open up to about fifty feet, and the trails can be seen from each other like the sudden visibility of a hike in winter.

These were Coast Redwoods, smaller than their more famous cousins but that is of course relative as they were still massive compared to trees elsewhere on Earth. The largest is the Parson Jones Tree – thirteen feet in diameter and taller than a football field stood on end -with vines as thick as normal trees snaking their way up the trunk like veins on a post-lift bicep. The most unusual is the Icicle Tree, another giant with a ten foot burl near the bottom that makes it look like an enormous totem of a bird of prey. Near Parson Jones, Mike asked for a picture and I stepped back as far as I could without tripping over the ankle-high wooden fencing.

“One second” he said and reached into his jacket pocket, unfolding a piece of paper that had block letters ‘ER’ in marker.

“What is that about?” I asked.

“Tree. Hug. Er.”

He pointed at Parson Jones, himself (our last name), and then the paper. I took the picture.

“Have you been carrying that around with you the whole time we’ve been here?”

“Hah. I made it this morning when you went to get coffee.”

This is why my brother and I get along so well.

Our parents wanted to do a video call while we were at Armstrong but the cell service in the valley and beneath the gargantuan redwoods was not even ample enough to call let alone transmit faces or trees, so we made a point to take plenty of pun-less pictures to send when we were back in the city. We reached the back of the grove and the path turned sharply to the right and uphill. Leaving the valley, the trees shrank and the late-afternoon sun began to show through the leaves, long and shallow – it was later than we had thought. We reached the high point of the trail and Mike grabbed his phone to take a photo, looking down at where we were walking an hour prior.

“I have service” he said “let’s try calling mum.” Mike always called her mum, endearingly I think.

He dialed, and for a moment we were able to see a blurry still image before it dropped off. Mike tried again and it wouldn’t connect.

The third time they answered and a grainy image of our parents appeared. We talked atop that ridge for a while – about the redwoods or what they were up to, trying our best to show the view, though the sun was moving closer to the tree line and illuminating the forest with pale light the color of an underripe nectarine. It seemed only right that we talked to mom and dad, the ones who instilled in us the desire to travel, while in our forty-first state, the one that brought us all into a four-way for the family lead. Mike’s phone quickly reached critical battery, and we had to hang up and descend while there was still light. We hadn’t seen anyone in about an hour and the dusky redwood grove deep in a high-walled valley was a place that would likely darken in a hurry.

Ours was the last car in the lot as we drove back toward the main road to find dinner, which, after plenty of deliberation was still undecided. When not traveling, food is second nature and often a bland sidenote of the day but the spontaneity of travel can have an adverse effect leading to overthinking. Choosing where to eat is so much more difficult when you care.

As such, I drove us eastward through the deep forest, which curiously ended just before Forestville, opening up to the wide and undulating Sonoma wine country. The shallow sun beamed lasers through the distant trees, and rows of grapes lined the road, sliding over the tiny hills like a thick-weaved green rug that had been ruffled. The oaks and eucalyptus delineated the border between vineyards, most of which were closed already despite it being about 7pm on a Saturday. The fertile bowl of trees and crops, the elegant fencing that looked boxy from above but wavy in profile, and the long gravel driveways leading to farmhouse manors all reminded me of the Bluegrass in Kentucky but focused on a different libation.

We reached Sebastopol, which unlike the nearby Russian River, has an etymology that has nothing to do with Eastern Europeans in particular, named when a gold rush-era bar fight was compared sarcastically by a passerby to a battle in the Crimean War. Today, this gold town turned apple town turned wine town had a center that was utterly bereft of people yet every storefront was occupied and tidy. On the outskirts, we found what appeared to be all of Sebastopol’s merrymakers in a peculiar lifestyle center called The Barlow. It was like an outdoor mall but for craft – several brewers, distillers, coffee roasters, niche grocers, the Yerba Mate tea company. Each occupied what looked like a Pacific Island marketplace – corrugated siding, rusted domed roofs, and garage door entrances – and had a packed patio, contrasting the tumbleweedy town center. Mike and I wandered around this unusual place and I bought some snacks and a Yerba Mate but the restaurants and breweries were far too crowded for a couple of traveling drop-ins.

Mike drove again and we settled on the city of Santa Rosa for food – the Russian River Brewing Company was nationally renowned, their Pliny the Elder IPA mentioned in the same hushed tones as Heady Topper and other holographic Charizards of the beerhead circuit. Dusk had turned to twilight as we left The Barlow, and we arrived in Santa Rosa to a parade of lantern carrying locals, the streets near downtown blocked off for some sort of festival. This made arriving at night without direction (Mike’s phone had died talking to our parents and mine, unable to charge, was rapidly approaching a similar fate) a challenging task.

If I ever needed to apologize to Mike for something it was the following comment I made when I was nineteen and he was just beginning to drive:

“Other cars aren’t so bad, but what I’m always worried about is running over a pedestrian without realizing it.”

“Why would you tell me that?” he shouted then.

Ten years later we still both retain the same phobia, an unhelpful fear of driving where people walk. Neither of us had any issue with the unforgiving cliffside roads of the coast or the pedal-stomping gunners on the 101, but among the lantern parade in Santa Rosa we would both grip the steering wheel like a guitar student learning the G chord. Mike calmly maneuvered the one-ways and no-ways of central Santa Rosa, looking for a place to park, a task also made infinitely more difficult by whatever was going on in town. When we found one on a side street several blocks away, we ditched the car, and now mercifully on foot, I promised that after dinner I would drive us back to San Francisco.

Like Sebastopol, the entire community of Santa Rosa was crammed into a few locations, in this case the park with the festival and the Russian River Brewery. The hostess informed us it would be two hours even for a duo of diners and so instead I bought a bottle of Pliny the Elder to go and we walked back down the main street. A man with a blonde beard and a guitar came up to us and asked for five dollars. When we said we had no cash, he made sure to clarify.

“I’m not a bum or anything, just looking to smoke something and play my guitar against a tree.”

I said I wished I had something to help him out with that but he said no worries.

Down the street from Russian River was a family style paella place, and they were about to close up but served us anyway. My paper bag-wrapped pint was not enough to dissuade, and fortunately so as our options for dinner seemed to be rapidly dwindling to elephant ears in the park. The paella was served in a dish the size of a barrel top and we scooped it onto our individual plates and still only made it about two-thirds of the way before asking for our check and directions. Our phones were completely devoid of life and my internal compass had become a flicked board game wheel after our zigzagged entry into the city.

“How do we get back to 101?” I asked the server, who couldn’t have been much more than fifteen.

This flustered him but he managed to at least point in the direction of the tables along the wall.

“I don’t drive but I know it’s in that direction.”

Good enough. I drove in that direction and about five minutes later we approached the ramp to 101 south. An hour later we once again crossed the Golden Gate and Mike guided me through the sleepy streets of San Francisco’s peninsula to the hotel.

I searched the room for cups and a bottle opener, since this was our last night in the city and the Pliny would could not make the trip home as I checked no bag. No luck on the opener however, as the best I could find was a coat hanger or the edge of the dresser, the former too flimsy and the latter out of the question as this was a nice hotel and not the side of a canoe. I looked out of the back window to the dimly lit but still crowded bar area and decided to walk down and see if they could help.

“It’s my last night here, do you mind opening…” I started to say but the bartender grabbed the bottle from me and held it up above her head.

“Check this out” she yelled to her coworker about fifty feet away. “The good stuff.”

“Where were you able to find this?”

When I told her at the brewery she said “Isn’t that pretty far up north?”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

The next morning I would drop Mike off at the airport early, his flight well before mine, and contemplate what I would do with my own last day in the Bay Area. It wouldn’t be the same traveling alone, though that is something I do often enjoy under different circumstances. Mike and I have been trying to plan a long trip together for years – across the country on back roads, up one coast or down the other – and though it never manifested for reasons of money, work, or simple lack of initiative, this week had been a short example of what a trip like that would be, a back-up photo of sorts in case the real one never materializes. But it will, Mike and I assured each other on our last night, as I drank the Pliny out of a half-pint hotel glass and we charged our phones. It will.

The September 2019 Norcal Trilogy:

Redwoods and Sonoma <- You are here

San Francisco

Carmel-by-the-Sea and Point Lobos

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