Friday, 7 December 2007

Week 35 : Albion To Fort Bragg

Checking the map soon after Amy and I left the town of Albion, and noting that my next destination was likely to be the City of Fort Bragg, I wondered what was awaiting my faithful dog and myself. The name conjured up images of a large military camp, but whether this was fact or something out of an old episode of Sargent Bilko I couldn't decide. As we walked up the rugged and almost deserted North Californian coast I had difficulty envisaging giant runways, endless huts and all the other paraphernalia of a military encampment. As it turned out, I was right - but that discovery was seven days away.

As Amy and I walked through southern Mendocino County our constant companions were the giant redwood trees that give their name to this stretch of the California coast. A mature Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) ranges in height from 30 to 112 m (100 to 367 ft) and the diameter of the trunk measures up to 7.5 m (25 ft). The life span of the coast redwood is believed to be 2,500 years, but, as I explained to Amy, nobody is quite sure as they have managed to outlive anyone attempting to study them. Amy showed all her usual interest in my occasional road-side lectures, clearly illustrating how she often is mistaken for a dumb animal. "Coast Redwoods have the ability to sprout from the root-crown following death of the main stem", I continued. "So have I", her look seemed to say. "It is tolerant of flooding and its bark is resistant to fire", I continued reading from my handout from the Mendocino Redwood Company. "The distribution of the Coast Redwood currently totals approximately 1.74 million acres", I announced as we walked in the shade of these magnificent trees. "Over 350,000 of these acres (550 square miles) are in publicly owned entities such as state and national parks and other public preserves". Amy yawned as stopped to test the trees resistance to dog-pee. "The remaining acres of the redwood forests are owned by a variety of private entities, 1.2 million acres (1,875 square miles) owned by seven industrial timber companies, and the balance of 200,000 acres (310 square miles) owned by private non-industrial landowners". Amy seemed to come out of her lecture-induced stupor and for a moment I thought I had captured her attention with one interesting fact or another. But she has simply seen some critter or another running through the undergrowth.

By mid-week we had reached the small town of Mendocino. Whilst you might be forgiven for thinking this is the County Town it is not - it takes its name from the County rather than the other way around. It is home to just 824 people and was originally a small logging town called Meiggsville. With the decline of the logging industry in the first part of the twentieth century it fell into decline but eventually re-invented itself as an artists' colony and home to both a music and a film festival. As Amy and I walked the little streets that stretch out onto the headland which thrusts out into the Pacific Ocean, I realised that there was something familiar about the place. As I remarked to Amy, you felt as though you had been there before. It was only later, as I was reading a local guidebook whilst enjoying a pint of Newcastle Brown at Patterson's Pub, that I realised that this was where that never-ending TV series "Murder She Wrote" was filmed. I recalled endless days back in England when the TV set was turned on in the background in order to provide a little company when re-runs of the show would appear almost back-to-back. As far as I recall, the stories for all two hundred and odd episodes were the same, but the scenery was nice. And here Amy and I were - looking out at the same scenery. Any minute now, Angela Lansbury would walk around the corner and stop to give Amy a loving pat on the head. Any moment now. an antique Civil Way sword would be thrust into my back and the usual cast of characters would seek out my murderer. Finishing my beer quickly, we left town and headed north.

We headed north to more trees, more rocky coastal points and tree-lined gulches, more sandy bays and isolated lighthouses and we eventually arrived at what, in these parts, is something spectacularly different - another road. It had been getting on for two weeks since we had seen a decent road other than the Shoreline Highway which had been our second home for months. There were little streets here and there darting to the left and right, but none of these were a proper, grown-up road - a road which actually took you somewhere different to the relentless northern quest of the Shoreline Highway. The road in question was the Fort Bragg - Willits Road (California State Route 20). As we walked up the Shoreline Highway we were passing the western end of the road. If we chose to abandon the coast and follow it east we would finish up in Emigrant Gap, Nevada, within spitting distance of Lake Tahoe and Reno. Both Amy and I agreed to resist the temptation to head east. Before taking that momentous change in direction we has another two States to see, not to mention Fort Bragg.

We headed into Fort Bragg the following day, and quickly we discovered that this was not the military base that we expected. There is a massive US Military Base at Fort Bragg, but that is Fort Bragg North Carolina. The one link between the two is that they were both named after Confederate Army General Braxton Bragg. But Fort Bragg in California had closed down by the 1870s leaving only the name and a thriving saw-mill and logging port behind. And now, of course, most of the logging industry is gone as well and Fort Bragg is building a new identity as a tourist town. It had been a long week and Amy and I were looking forward to a few days' rest and relaxation. Fort Bragg seemed like a good spot. Amy was particularly keen as it was one of those wonderful American "dog-friendly" towns. So we booked into a small dog-friendly hotel and settled down to discover what delights were on offer.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Week 34 : Manchester To Albion

Amy and I left the small township of Manchester behind us and set forth in search of Albion". I realise that this sounds like the opening sentence of some early Victorian social reformers' account of his quest for the soul of the nation, but bear with me. The Manchester in question is the small township of Manchester in Mendocino County, California. Albion is a town some 25 miles further north up the coast. And Amy is my six year old soft-coated wheaten terrier. Together we are 34 weeks into a five and a half year virtual walk from Los Angeles to New York. Together we are sampling some of the delights of rural America without leaving the discomfort of our own cold, grey home.

One of the things about walking along this stretch of the Northern California coast is that there aren't many choices to make. There is only one decent road - Highway 1 - which heads north in one direction and south in the other. As long as you keep the sea to your left you can't go far wrong. It can get a bit boring at times but there is always something interesting to distract your attention.

Take, for example, the proceedings of the Irish Beach Architectural Design Committee. Irish Beach is a "second home and rental development" located about four miles north of Manchester (remember, this is Manchester California, we're not talking about Salford here). Such developments are springing up all over coastal California as city-dwellers go in search of idyllic country retreats. Government planning laws in the States are nothing like as strict as they are in the UK, but this does not mean that you can build what you want. In place of the Local Planning Department sits the Architectural Design Committees - collections of local citizens who decide what you can build, where you can build it, and - in some cases - what colour you can paint your front door. So the next time you get fed up with your local bureaucracy, have a read of the Committee Minutes and the extended discussions about the design, size and location of the sign outside the office of William Moore and be thankful that you are not a resident of this particular piece of the Land Of The Free.

A few miles further north is the Inn At Victorian Gardens, a very select little establishment which caters for the type of guest who likes good food, fine wines, tasteful furniture, spectacular coastal views and a generous dollop of American eccentricity. If you have a few minutes to spare, take a look at their website and, in particular, the Flash Presentation. It's a mixture of soft-focus, grainy art-photos and verse. For example, describing the overall ethos of the Inn, the poem states : "Time is taken / from the hands of an antique clock / and shaken out like fine linen / to remove its kinks". By the time you have read it all you are not sure whether it is rather good or just plain tacky. Fearing that she may have been "shaken out like fine linen", Amy was not keen to stay, she we kept on walking.

The next little town we came to was a small town of some 200 inhabitants and the wonderful name of Elk. Originally it had been called Greenwood, but then someone discovered another place with the same name somewhere else in the State, so they changed the name to Elk. Elk was a lumber town, its fortunes were built on the destruction of the great Redwood forests to the east of the coastal strip. The timber was cut at the steam-driven sawmill in Elk and then shipped out from the wharf. When the redwood ran out, Elk went into decline and by the 1930s had become a ghost town. It only began to slowly come back to life in the 1960s and 70s when this part of the coast was beginning to open itself up to recreational use. Now it has a generous collection of small hotels, inns and - for some unknown reason - massage parlours.

Our final destination for the week - the small town of Albion - was also a lumber town. The town was founded in 1853 when a retired English sea captain, William Richardson, built a saw mill there, the first saw mill on the Redwood Coast. Like most of its neighbours, the town has now lost its timber trade, but a lasting reminder to the power of wood in this part of California can be found in the wonderful wooden bridge that carries the coast highway over the Albion River. The bridge was built in 1944 when steel and concrete were in short supply. It is the last remaining wooden bridge on the coastal highway and has now become a tourist destination in its own right.