Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Ukiah

Rabbiting across Highway 101 in Hopland, it looks much the same as 40 years ago. A two-lane north-south thoroughfare, lots of traffic. One basic goal: don't become roadkill.

It's a different story when you tack across the valley. Old River Road runs parallel to the highway, featuring light traffic, excellent pavement and a graceful alignment that feels like a throwback to an earlier era.

As for the river passing through, no one ever mentioned which river it was. Imagine that! We kept to the highway, and you can't see it from there. Even without a sign, I can guess. Over a mile wide, this  valley has to belong to the Russian River, largest in Sonoma County. Its watershed covers hundreds of square miles. In winter it often rages and floods, wreaking havoc downstream. In summer or years of drought, it evaporates to a trace, sometimes to nothing. Essential, temperamental, connecting every place nearby to every other: Guerneville to Healdsburg, to Ukiah. Even Dry Creek runs into it. And, of course, all of yesterday's rain.

A dozen scenic miles north, on the main drag in front of Safeway, there's work to do. Food gathering to be precise. Down goes my foot to look across the street like the guy said. In a strip mall, a Natural Foods Co-op! Aisles of scrumptious-looking things! For decades this was a scruffy, struggling, white bread town. More liquor store than co-op...

Cooked basmati rice, BBQ tofu from the deli, and a perfect tree of broccoli. Dehydrated lentil soup. A chocolate bar with peppermint. Pocket food for tonight and tomorrow.

The guy at the espresso bar fills my bottles, saying there's a "great view" from out there on Orr Springs Road. Yeah, it's a big climb. Even the Internet doesn't know exactly how big. It only tells me to turn left near Mendo Lumber, after the crossing under 101. From the turn, it's 12 miles.

A quiet road, the last turn of the day, flat terrain at dusk. Everything comes together in euphoria- for a couple of minutes. Then it begins, the pushing. For two miles the odometer ticks very slowly, without a break. Is that really my lowest gear? It is. Views, yes, awesome views but not reassuring: massive hills, topped with grey clouds.

After the first section, the road levels off for a couple of minutes. The lungs and lower back are grateful. Another steep section of ~2 miles, similar to the first. With ~15 pounds of stuff, in December, no regrets on the food.

Now it's dark. That animal instinct to find the den and curl up in it is strong in December. First I have to do this. The road rolls up and down, probably on a ridge. Water vapor is all around, and right down on the pavement. The headlight beam is getting swallowed by mist. It's the opposite of a view.

Cars do travel this remote road; to the houses out here, and the hot springs. Even they are moving slowly. A white fog line on the right, until there's not. A faded yellow dash roughly marking the midline, except when it's gone. The surface is worn to extreme, with many patches and bumps, rocks and gravel. I check to make sure the rear blinkie is blinking. Far too late to turn back and the room is paid for, anyway.

The road starts tending down, beginning a descent. Orr Springs lies at the bottom, somewhere, 4 miles away. I want to move the speed at which it is possible to identify and avoid road hazards. That's  approximately zero. On a bumpy hairpin when the white line disappears, I refuse to have thoughts of the cliff that must be just there, outside the beam of light.

It takes so long to get down, I'm convinced it will never end. Therefore, when my eyes pick up a winding pattern of welcoming lights along the river, beckoning here for food and warmth, like the entrance to Middle Earth it seems truly incredible.

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