North America | United States
February 17, 2009
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2004, Friday 23 April: Russian River, California

Pacific sunset at the mouth of the Russian River, California

"World's Top 10 Drives” - it’s a staple of the glossy travel mags and Sunday supplements.

Selections vary (a bit), but one road is always included: Highway One along California's Big Sur coast from San Francisco down to LA. Such articles will usually go on to list the drive's attractions - a rollicking, roller-coaster route, spectacular Pacific shoreline, sunsets, surf's-up beaches, and boho-chic towns like Carmel (where Clint Eastwood is a former mayor).

To be sure, it's all true and the drive's very nice. Nice in the same way that Mother's Pride sliced white bread is nice: soft, easy and undemanding in the bite - but a trifle mushy when you get it in the mouth. For something a little more challenging and hugely more satisfying, real adventurers turn right, not left, out of San Francisco and leave the glossy travel writers and fly-drive vacationers far, far behind. Heading north across the Golden Gate Bridge, up the coast towards Oregon, all you’re left with is superlatives. It's still Highway One, but this time the journey's through the older, tougher California of Cossack adventurers coasting down from Siberia, fur trappers forging through the old-growth forests and timeless, sheeting rain.

Keep on for a couple of days and you’ll skirt the mist-mantled Lost Coast, where float planes and jeep trails are the only way to get around; push on a few hours more and you’ll reach the Redwood National Park, where you can wander as a beetle through groves of moss-draped forest giants – the tallest living things on the planet. Strike inland, and the glacial peaks of the Trinity Alps rise even higher, surrounded by the forested ridges and valleys of the Klamath Mountains - home range for Bigfoot Sasquatch, crypto-zoologists and UFO theorists. These are mountains for people who don’t want to be found. You’ll be hard pushed to navigate a way through, and luckier still to find enough gas to get you across without your own jerry cans.

It’s all superb escapist stuff (so long as you don’t mind a spot of the wet), but hands up, I’m still a mere wannabe; the full drive is yet another entry in my impossibly long ‘one day I’ll be back’ list. All that I’ve managed so far is the first half day or so, a gentle three or four hours up to the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner. Still, that was enough to know the truth. Along the way, there was time to take in quiet, weather-boarded Inverness at Point Reyes, windswept Bodega Bay (setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Birds’ and eerie even in the sun) and the unspoilt beaches at Jenner itself, where you have to jostle for space with basking sea lions. The Big Sur can keep the newsprint, just head north for California’s soul and the real drive of your life.

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