Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Drive to the North: Day 1, to Covelo

North of the Bay Area and west of the Central Valley, California is trees, mountains, a lonely and beautiful coastline, and very little else. The population of this whole area, 15% of the area of the state, is less than 250,000 - less than 1% of the 37 million people in California. I've flown over it many times, fascinated by the wilderness. You can go a long way without seeing more than the occasional dirt road or ranch, whole valleys with just trees, trees and more trees.

This adventure started several years ago when, looking for a destination for an afternoon's flight, I chose Round Valley (O09). This is a rare populated area right in the middle of the wilderness, a circular plain about three miles across high up in the mountains. You'll never go there by accident - the only good road into it goes no further, so there's no such thing as passing through. I flew back there a couple more times, including the time we arrived by sheer chance on the day of the annual rodeo. We had a wonderful time that day, at our first ever rodeo.

A year ago I chose as another flight destination Shelter Cove (0Q5), a very isolated airport on the so-called Lost Coast, of which more later. The weather went from poor to terrible in the time it took me to shut down and secure the plane, and I was very lucky to get out again in just-barely VFR conditions. But still I was intrigued by the place.

Round Valley and Covelo from the air
Then just two weeks back I went to Garberville (O16), 20 miles inland from Shelter Cove. It was hot, over 100ºF, and I got out of the plane only to seek some shade to eat my lunch. On the way back I flew inland, towards the tiny, remote airport at Ruth (T42), buried deep in a steep valley, then back south over the totally uninhabited mountainous back-country. On the way I passed just east of Round Valley, the perfect position to take a panoramic aerial picture.

We were talking about my trip the next day, and Isabelle said, "Let's go there". So we planned a four-day, three-night weekend, staying the first night in Covelo, the only town in Round Valley. And the adventure began.

The drive to Covelo is straightforward, up 101 to the little town of Willitts, then route 162 into the Eel River valley and over the mountain into Round Valley. Route 162 has a strange existence. It fizzles out as a one-lane road in the hills to the east of Covelo, but continues as an unnumbered dirt road over the 5000 foot Mendocino Pass and down into the western borders of the central valley. Then it becomes 162 again and continues eastward to Chico. In this it is like route 190 further south, which is interrupted in the middle by Mount Whitney - the highest mountain in the Lower 48. I guess it's easy to overlook this kind of thing when you're a road planner.

We stopped three times on the way. Once was for lunch in a vineyard. Afterwards we visited the Saracina Winery, in Hopland. We had a long talk with the lady there - probably we were the only person she saw on a quiet weekday. She told us a lot about the vineyards in the area - the upper valley of the Russian River, southwards from Ukiah. They're separated from the sea by a mountain range, so the hot climate allows them to grow serious red grapes like Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah. We bought a few bottles, for which we were grateful later in the trip. Hopland is an interesting little town. Unlike Cloverdale and Geyserville further south, which look unchanged since the 1930s, it has a bit of a revival going on, with several tasting rooms, art galleries and so on. It's just the right distance from the Bay Area - far enough to seem to like a real outing, but not "are we there yet" too far.


Our third stop was at Willitts, to visit the home of the Skunk Train. Properly known as the California Western Railway, it was built a hundred years ago to connect the port of Fort Bragg with the main Northwestern Pacific line from San Francisco north to Eureka. When traffic started to decline in the 1920s, they started running gasoline-powered railcars. The story is that they smelled so bad, the locals called it the Skunk Train - and the name has stuck. It still operates as a tourist service on summer weekends, but keeping the line in good shape is a major headache and at the moment it is blocked by a landslide towards the coast, limiting the service to an out-and-back shuttle from Willitts. We had a long talk with the lady in the gift shop, who also turned out to be one of their diesel locomotive drivers.

The road follows the Eel River for a while before branching off down its Middle Fork, which drains Round Valley by a very circuitous route first to the east, then south, and finally westwards to the tiny settlement of Dos Rios where it meets the main river. For some reason the road takes a shorter, but very twisty, route directly over the mountain, climbing to 2000 feet at Inspiration Point before descending nearly 1000 feet into the valley. The view from there is, well, inspiring, with a panoramic view of the whole valley laid out in front of you. I've seen it from the air, but even so this view is spectacular.

Round Valley from Inspiration Point
It's a short downhill drive from there to the long, straight main road through the valley. There are a few shops and such along it, but we didn't find our hotel - the Golden Oaks Motel, the only place to stay in the valley. It turns out to have a very large and conspicuous sign - but facing north, which is to say never the direction people will arrive from.

The motel is pretty basic, but clean, modern and in good shape. It's as good as you can expect in an out of the way place like this (I gave it five stars on Yelp). Once we were checked in, I set off again to drive to Mendocino Pass. Isabelle had had enough of FJ's creature comforts, so I went alone. It was a very pleasant drive. The first few miles are on a twisty hardtop road that eventually meets the main river again. Then, even more in the middle of nowhere, is the Black Butte Ranch, a campsite, modest resort and general store.

From there the road is dirt, climbing steadily up the flank of a side valley. It rises 3500 feet in a few miles, yet it never seems particularly steep. It was freshly graded and could easily be driven in a regular car, though that may change depending on rainfall. I'd hoped for a panoramic view across to the Central Valley from the summit, but the mountains are too convoluted for that. The best views are back westwards towards Round Valley. It is possible to continue eastwards, eventually hitting the eastern hardtop section of route 162 to Willows and Chico. The round trip just to the pass took me over two hours, so it would be a slow way to travel, though certainly faster than the alternative for the rare traveller who really needed to get from Willows to Covelo.

It was dinner time when I got back to the motel. There are exactly as many dinner choices as hotel choices: one. The North Fork Cafe, right on the central crossroads in Covelo, had good reviews. It has about a dozen tables, of which a handful were occupied when we arrived. As far as we could tell, we were the only non-locals - everyone very obviously knew everyone else. We had a very pleasant server, and a very enjoyable meal of baked halibut. After some discussion we tried a couple of fairly local red wines, which were both very drinkable. Some vines are grown in Round Valley itself, but there are no wineries there - these wines came from the upper Russian River valley, that we had driven through earlier.

We'd parked just behind another FJ, very smart in the recent dark green colour. Someone had obviously spent a lot of money on it - the suspension was lifted with good equipment, and it had after-market metal bumpers and a winch. I asked inside whose it was - it turned out to belong to the cook, who had just bought it from a friend. It is the perfect car for the area - robust enough for any of the available dirt (or worse) roads, yet comfortable for the inevitable long drives to civilization. But then, I would think that.

After dinner, the night was yet young. We crossed the street to a bar (you guessed - there's only one of them too). We'd been there before, when we walked into town from the airport. They made a good margarita (this time - not when I was flying!) and best of all, they had a pool table and it was empty. We played a couple of games, then a local guy (a fantastic looking Indian, who could have taken a star role in any old-fashioned Western) offered to play. He won - I'm sure he has played a lot more than either of us - but I put up a decent fight.

And speaking of Indians (Native Americans if you want to be super politically correct, but since they call themselves Indians, I see no reason not to)... the Valley is home to a reservation for the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT). It occupies the northern half and up into the hills, while the southern half is owned by white ranchers and farmers. The dividing line passes just north of the main crossroads, although the hotel is Indian-owned. The story is very typically sad. Until the white man arrived, the Valley was home to the Yuki tribe. They had a one-off unique language, unrelated to any other (just like Basque). One of its unique features was that counting was in base 8 (like octal) rather than base 10, because they counted using the gaps between their fingers rather than the fingers themselves.

The Yuki were rapidly corralled into a reservation, so the ranchers and loggers could take their land. Then later the government did the same with several other tribes, and moved them all in with each other. This must have been a tad uncomfortable since some of these tribes had been enemies for generations, not to mention having no language in common.

But then the ranchers and loggers wanted more land, and the government took away 80% of the reservation they had created. Only a few square miles of Round Valley were left to share amongst half a dozen or so tribes, or what was left of them after multiple forced migrations and epidemics.  Inevitably, the individual tribal identities and languages died out. The last native speakers of Yuki died last century, and the only remaining memories are in obscure anthropological journals. The "Round Valley Indian Tribes" is a convenient invention to hide this sordid history.

Anyway, after all that, and dinner and pool as well, it was time for bed.

The story of the next day's long, long drive through absolutely nowhere at all is in Part 2...

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