Saturday 13 August 2016

A Drive to the North: Bandit Country, Redwoods, and Shelter Cove

For day 1, see here.

Our plan for the second day was to drive north from Covelo, taking the long dirt road that leads 50 miles northwards through truly empty country.

There is just one problem. The triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties account for a large part of California's marijuana production, worth billions of dollars. Nearly all of this is illegal, though enforcement is rare. The geography is perfect, with plenty of rain and plenty of empty places to hide in. The growers aren't in a big hurry to be discovered, so as a visitor the last thing you want to do is accidentally stumble across a plantation. They also aren't especially nice people. They do enormous damage to the environment, diverting streams, destroying forests and generally acting with no accountability. Legalisation, likely to happen later this year, will be a huge improvement, regardless of whether or not you use the stuff.

Violence is commonplace. Just two weeks before our visit, two growers right in Round Valley itself, no doubt stoned out of their minds, set upon each other. One is dead, his body found in a shallow grave, while the other fled to the other side of the country but has since been found. Our journey that day led through the tiny and oddly-named settlement of Kettenpom. If you look it up, the first couple of pages are all about a double murder, and double attempted murder, that happened there five years ago. The perpetrator, who was killed shortly afterwards in a car chase, had stolen money and dope from the victims.

But everyone we spoke to assured us that as long as we stayed on roads and didn't venture onto private driveways or hike into woods or fields, we'd be safe. The biggest danger, we were told, is the huge water tankers that zoom around blind bends way too fast - marijuana takes vast amounts of water, and we certainly saw plenty of those. We took bends very slowly, and way over to our own side of the road.

The first part of the drive was on the hardtop road through the Indian part of the Valley. There is absolutely nothing to distinguish this from the southern part - there is the same mixture of modest but well maintained houses, dilapidated shacks, and decrepit trailers surrounded by junk and rusting cars. Soon though the road changes, it starts to twist and climb and becomes a dirt road. It was well graded throughout and could easily be driven by any car, even my Audi TT.

There are "no trespassing" signs every few yards, nailed to trees and fenceposts. Many of them have a light green star as a background, exactly the same colour as the crop they are protecting. It really doesn't leave any doubt.

Middle Fork Eel River, from the only bridge that crosses it.
After many miles of twists and turns, the road descends a steep zigzag to a valley. And there, miles from anywhere in any direction, is a very impressive concrete bridge across one of the bits of the Eel River. It's the only place in the whole 35 mile or so length of this fork that a road comes near it, which gives an idea of just how empty this area is. Soon after, the road passes through what's left of the settlement of Mina. There's a nearby ranch, but that's all. Yet there was a post office - and presumably some people who wanted to use it - until 1938. What on earth did those people live on?

Next the road climbs to the top of a ridge, running along for several miles at over 3500 feet. The views in both directions are spectacular, tree covered valleys in the foreground, then successive mountain ranges behind them. And there is not a single sign of human habitation or existence in sight anywhere, in a few hundred square miles. It is very impressive.

The road becomes hardtop again exactly where it crosses the line into Trinity County. But the hardtop is in very poor shape, with many deep holes where it has disintegrated. Even in a normal car, the dirt road would be easier and a lot more pleasant to drive.

After 35 miles, the odd mailbox starts to appear, the first sign of any kind of civilization. One valley away is a smaller version of Round Valley, a tiny agricultural plain in the middle of the hills. It even has its own airport - private, but charted - with the odd name of Heller Highwater (CL45). I noticed it when I was flying over, but I doubt that they welcome visitors. It's very odd, the business of which private airports are charted and which aren't. In the backcountry there are numerous private strips, often shown on the USGS topological maps, but rarely shown on FAA charts. Which is a shame, because if the engine stops over the mountains, you need all the help you can get.

Shortly afterwards the road leads to the tiny hamlet of Kettenpom, with its general store. This gained notoriety in the double murder of 2011, when one of the non-victims raised the alarm by showing up there gushing blood from an attempt to slit her throat. The two non-victims were only involved because one of the actual victims had managed to make a 911 call before dying. But the nearest presence of the Trinity County Sheriff's Department is a couple of hours away over the kind of road we'd just driven. So they called the nearest neighbour (half a mile away) to "pop round and see if everything is OK". Which it seriously wasn't, and the already-double murderer made a serious effort at finishing them off too. The latest twist to the still unfinished saga is that the surviviors are now suing the Sheriff's Department. It's an exciting life out there in the middle of nowhere.

Kettenpom - sinister truck not in shot!
I like these country general stores, making a living on the needs of a few dozen local residents and the occasional tourist (extremely occasional on this road), filling their need for booze, tinned food, and expensive gas. We stopped to go inside, but just then a big black pickup arrived and two very sinister looking guys got out. The looks they gave us, as they spat on the ground and hushed the sullen pitbull that remained inside the truck, suggested that they were very interested to know who we were and why we were there, and anyway would much rather that we weren't. It seemed wise to oblige them, so I still haven't seen what's for sale in the Kettenpom General Store.

The end of the road is a few miles later at Zenia. The general store there has closed - maybe the competition from Kettenpom was too much. But amazingly there is still a post office, and it was even open - though we didn't have anything to post. And to prove what we had achieved, there was a sign showing the distance to Covelo as 51 miles. It had taken just under two hours, including stops.

Our next planned stop was the Avenue of the Giants, a stretch of road through the Eel River valley completely surrounded by Redwood forest. The road is the original two-lane US 101, now bypassed by a modern highway. The obvious way to get there was straight to Garberville then north on 101. But some studying of the road map and the topo map showed there was a more interesting way, with more dirt roads that would take us straight to the central part of the highway.

So, passing an intriguing looking car, loaded up to the gills and surrounded by way more Chinese people than should ever have been able to fit inside it (what on earth were they doing in the deeper wilds of Humboldt County?), we set off on yet another just-barely hardtop road. Our initial aiming point was Fort Seward, on the Eel River.

A word about the Eel River. Pretty much every stretch of water in Humboldt County is called the Eel River. My personal suspicion is that "eel" is a word in one of the local Indian languages meaning "river", just like the several River Avons in England ("avon" is a Celtic word for river). They are distinguished by modifiers like South Fork, North Fork, Middle Fork and various other Lesser Forks. Isabelle says it reminds her of all the Hounslow stations on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, of less than fond memory.

The old Northwestern Pacific main line passes through the Eel River valley. Mostly it is all by itself, with no accompanying road. Trains haven't run there since some natural disaster (a flood, I think) did tremendous damage in 1996. It must have been a magnificent line to travel, back in its day when it was the only way to get from San Francisco to Eureka. Before it was built, as late as 1914, the only way was by boat up the coast - what a pleasure that must have been during a Pacific storm.
Our picnic spot in the Eel River valley.

Fort Seward was a whistle stop on the railway. It started life in 1861 as a military fort, against the Indians, but the fort didn't survive its first winter. While the trains were running, it was a busy little place, with a sawmill and a post office. There isn't much left, though we didn't get a chance to look round since even the roads were marked with light green "no trespassing" signs.
View into Eel River valley.

We did manage to find a trail that led down to the river. That was where we ate our picnic, in complete tranquility, sitting on the vast gravel banks with our toes almost in the water, FJ happily standing guard over us. The Eel River (all of them) has tremendous variations in its flow - in the winter it completely fills the valley, but in summer it's relatively just a trickle - one one-hundredth of the flow. Occasionally it floods - in 1964 the flood left a huge trail of destruction, washing away whole towns.

Thus refreshed, we set out for the Avenue of the Giants. The road was the usual mixture of graded dirt and gravel, and past-its-best hardtop. The views down into the valley and across the hills were magnificent.
The drive through the redwoods is very impressive. They are... well, giant. The road has been threaded through them and you are always under their very dense canopy. Under them, the only thing that grows is ferns. There is an excellent visitor center with a very impressive display of the local wildlife.
From there we drove along a side valley to the "Giant Tree", which claims to be the biggest redwood alive. It's certainly pretty big, once you find it - it's on a long loop trail through the woods, which isn't really signposted. From there we had two choices to complete our journey to Shelter Cove. One was to continue along the same side valley, leading eventually to a dirt road down the coast. The alternative was to go back to 101 and take the much longer route through Garberville. But we'd had enough back roads for the day, so we went for 101. Even so we ended up on a long, just-barely hardtop road going past the airport in Garberville, where I'd been a couple of weeks earlier. On the map it looks like it would be reasonable to walk into town (if it wasn't 104ºF), but the reality is different - it involves a long descent down into the valley, then a long climb back up the other side.

It's a long, twisty road across the mountains to Shelter Cove. The mountains rise very abruptly from the sea, so the road drops 2000 feet in just the last couple of miles.

Shelter Cove is essentially a runway surrounded by houses. The runway was the first thing to be built, while the developer tried to sell the building lots around it - there's a picture in a bar showing the state of things in 1964, with just the runway. Before then, it was a tiny fishing port, with a sheltered beach forming a decent natural harbour - there is still quite a bit of fishing activity. It's still a tiny place, with a permanent population under 1000. It has several hotels but they're all small with maybe 50 rooms between them. We'd chosen ours, right on the beach, because it had a good restaurant - the only one there. Except it didn't - they'd told us the previous day that it was "temporarily" closed.

That left two choices, a bar and a take-out pizzeria. We visited the bar, which supposedly served food, but we didn't see any evidence of it. They did make a good margarita though. All the other customers were locals, fishermen for the most part. When we went to the bar, two guys who were having a very quiet conversation conspicuously moved out to the terrace. We would have liked to have our drinks there ourselves, but we didn't dare follow them.

There remained only the pizzeria, at the opposite end of the town. It was a bustling place, with people sitting at the few tables and a long line. It was a long wait for our pizza - long enough to go for a walk along the cliffs - but well worth it, with an excellent crisp base and perfect toppings as well. If there's only one place to eat in town, you really can't count on it being good - but luckily it was. We took our pizza back to our hotel room, and opened one of our bottles of Saracina Malbec to go with it. It was a very pleasant (and inexpensive) evening, and we didn't regret the hotel restaurant at all.

I'm still intrigued by the question of just who would own a home at Shelter Cove. The houses around the airport are big, but you'd have to be retired, or not need to work, to live there permanently. It really is a long way from anywhere else. It's a 5-6 hour drive from the Bay Area, too far for a weekend place. The only towns close enough are in the Eureka area, but that's not an especially wealthy area and anyway Shelter Cove would just be more of the same. Isabelle's theory is that it's a retreat for the growers and dealers from inland, but I'm not so sure.
For the next day, see here.

A Drive to the North: Lost and Found Coasts, with some Wine

For previous days, see here and here.

The Shelter Cove General Store - if you look carefully you'll
see that the truck on the right is carrying everything
including the kitchen sink!
Shelter Cove is right in the middle of the so-called "Lost Coast", the 50 mile stretch of coastline which is completely inaccessible by road. The mountains rise directly and almost vertically from the sea to 2000 feet or more. When Route 1 was built along the California coast in the 1930s, it was decided that this part was too hard. A few miles north of Fort Bragg, Route 1 gives up and turns inland to twist over the mountains and merges with US 101, which joins the coast at Eureka.

After my flight to Shelter Cove, I was looking at maps and realised that in fact there is a road which runs close to the Lost Coast. The southern part is called Usal Road, running from Shelter Cove to Usal Beach and then a few more miles to join Route 1 where it departs from the coast. One of the goals of this trip was to drive Usal Road. From the map, it looked as though it should have fantastic views of the ocean and coast from high up on the mountainside.

First we wanted to visit the Sinkyone State Park. (It's pronounced "sinky-on", named after the local Indian tribe). This has to be the most remote State Park in the country. It's reached by a steep, rutted dirt road, descending from 1200 feet to sea level in just over a mile - a ruling gradient of about 20%. I was very glad we had FJ.

It is well worth the drive though. The trail arrives at the coast at a place called Needle Rock. Once, this was an active port, shipping logs for the construction of San Francisco. But now, all that is left is a visitor centre, an old barn, and a primitive camp site. It's a beautiful and tranquil place, with magnificent views up and down the coast as far as Shelter Cove a few miles north. When we arrived a group of elk were ambling along the coast.

Needle Rock, surrounded by strange-looking seaweed.
We had a long talk with the warden - he probably doesn't get to talk to many people. He told us a lot about the way the marijuana industry works, and the damage it is doing. He lives there for a month at a time - just as well, it would be a terrible commute. Amazingly, his wife's car, which was also there, was just an ordinary VW Golf. I would not like to try and get that up and down the trail.

Shelter Cove from Sinkyone.
When we mentioned our plan to drive the Usal Road he said, "Why on earth would you want to do that? It's a terrible road, much worse than the trail down here. It's long and you can't get above 5 mph."

"I thought the views would be magnificent," I replied.

"There aren't any. It's in the trees the whole way, and anyway it's mostly on the wrong side of the ridge."

There was another guy there, talking with the warden, who was three quarters of the way through the round-trip walk along the Lost Coast - he'd spent four days so far, and was expecting to need another two. There is a hiking trail which goes from Route 1 in the south, all the way to the Mattole estuary in the north, the next place accessible by road. It's 50 miles from end to end, and there are long stretches along the beach which are submerged at high tide - so careful planning is needed, or in the worst case you can drown. The southern part goes up and down the mountains - there's a great blog about it here. It's only for the seriously fit.

We did a much shorter walk to see the eponymous Needle Rock. The northern coast is studded with rock formations, often, like this one, pyramidal in shape. But this one had a nasty accident - in the 1906 earthquake, whose starting point was close to here, its top fell off, a ten-foot high chunk of rock which now sits in the water next to what's left of its parent.

We drove back up the narrow, twisty trail to Four Corners where the Usal Road departs to the south. Despite the warden's disparaging remarks, we thought we'd give it a try. FJ has dealt effortlessly with plenty of challenging trails.

Usal sounds like it ought to be an Indian word. But actually it's short for USA Lumber, who logged this part of the coast and created the road.

The first mile was easy enough, dirt with a few ruts but mostly driveable at 10-15 mph. After that things got rapidly worse. The ruts were continuous and up to a foot deep, so we were mostly travelling slower than walking pace, gently dropping the wheels one by one into a rut then climbing out again. Even at that speed it was uncomfortable, especially for a passenger, and taking a lot of concentration. A quick calculation showed that it would have taken four or five hours of this to reach the other end. Finally after about three miles we looked at each other and agreed, "Enough". We had seen nothing but trees the whole way - very pretty trees, it's true, but not the magnificent coastal views we'd hoped for.

FJ resting at our picnic spot after the traumatic drive
along Usal Road.
We turned around and found an idyllic clearing where we ate our lunch. After that, 15 more minutes of the painful trail took us back to Four Corners, from where we could take the much longer but still faster and much more comfortable road back to the coast.

The first part of the route is through the hamlet of Whitehorn. Something we noticed here and everywhere else on these little roads is that nearly every single house has a solid wooden fence in front of it, completely blocking any view into the surrounding lot. Sometimes the fence seems to go all around the lot, but often it's just alongside the road. There is an obvious explanation - but really, every house? Is everyone here growing illicit pot? And even if so, is it really a good idea to draw attention to the fact with a massive - and expensive - fence?

The long way round back to the coast is very long, and it ends with the very twisty mountain crossing at the northern end of Route 1. Just when you think it's over, at the point where it rejoins Usal Road, it suddenly dives back inland again for the next few miles. Finally it reaches the coast just north of the tiny settlement of Westport.

From there on it is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, even more spectacular than Big Sur and with a lot less traffic. Every bend and every bay is breathtaking. The sand is dark, almost black, and the bays and headlands are dotted with rock formations.

Eventually it passes through Fort Bragg, the only real town along the whole coast from San Francisco to Eureka. It's an unlovely place of strip malls, car dealers and such, but it does have the only Starbucks on the whole coast, which made a welcome break.

Beyond Fort Bragg, the next place is Mendocino - which is more fancy tourist trap than real town. After that, there really is nothing but tiny hamlets right down to Marin County.

But our destination for the night was Boonville, inland on Route 128. This initially follows the gorge of the Navarro River, deep in the redwoods with 2000 foot mountains on either side. It is really a beautiful road, equal in every way to the more famous Avenue of the Giants but with hardly any traffic.

After the redwoods, the road turns into the Anderson Valley - really just the upper part of the Navarro Valley. It's famous for its wineries, which thanks to the influence of the ocean breezes blowing up the valley can produce wines very comparable with the Alsace region in France. But that was for the next day.

The garden of the Boonville Hotel.
At Boonville we'd booked a room at the best hotel in town, the Boonville Hotel. One reason was their restaurant, so were disappointed to learn that on Sundays they have a single-serving table d'hôte dinner, which was sold out and anyway we were too late. We went across the street to a small tapas-ish place called Aquarelle, where we ate and drank well.
Next day the plan was to take a look around some wineries before going back to the coast for a gentle, scenic drive home. Only problem is, we prefer red wines, and not pinot noir, and the Alsace-style wines of the Anderson Valley are mostly either white or pinot. Since the wineries open at 11, we spent much of the morning at the hotel, taking advantage of our little terrace looking out over their beautiful garden. They grow a lot of their own fruit and vegetables for the kitchen, in a superb mixture with flowers and other decorative plants. The hotel is a real pleasure, marred only by their eye-watering prices and the little problem with the dinner.

Our first call was at Roederer, owned by the famous French champagne house. Their regular champagne is OK, no comparison with a good French champagne but eminently drinkable. The big surprise for us was the identical champagne, but bottled by magnum (a double-size 1.5 litre bottle). It was a completely different wine, much more rounded, much deeper, and really comparable to a French product. We bought a magnum although I'm not sure when we'll drink it.

We visited a couple of others, but we weren't really impressed. The grapes for the deeper reds (Syrah, Zinfandel) are trucked across from the warmer inland valleys. It's de rigeur in California for a winery to make some of everything. Even if their local climate is totally unsuitable, they have to make available everything from Sauvignon Blanc (cold) to Syrah (hot) and everything in between.

At Point Arena.
Point Arena lighthouse.
From there we drove back to the coast at a place called Elk, and then gently southwards. It's impossible to resist stopping at practically every bay and every twist and turn in the road, the scenery is so magnificent. But there was one problem. I hadn't seen a gas station in Boonville, though there must surely be one, and by now FJ with her famously unfrugal appetite was getting seriously low. Just as we pulled into the parking lot for the Point Arena lighthouse, the low fuel warning lit up. That means at best 20 miles before running dry. I was very grateful for the 5-gallon can on the roof, the first time I've ever actually needed it. My new siphon pump worked a treat, and we managed to transfer all of it without spilling a drop, never mind the usual experience of getting it all over my shoes and trousers.
Manchester, California, from the air.
The harbour at Point Arena.
Just before that we passed through Manchester, California. It's a bit of a contrast to its counterpart in northern England (or even New Hampshire) - the population is under 500, and there isn't even a gas station. I have a picture of it that I took from the plane on my flight to Shelter Cove but even that makes it seem bigger than it really is.

Of course a couple of miles after using our emergency gas supply, we found a gas station, in the village of Point Arena. We were very happy to see it. From there we planned to have lunch at a famous chowder house out at the fishing port on the estuary. And indeed we did, but honestly it was a disappointment - more potato soup than chowder, with a handful of gritty, chewy clams. But the onion rings were good, even though each one is enough to harden the arteries of a whole football team.

Pelicans at Jenner.
The beach and Russian River estuary at Jenner.
And then, more coast, as lonely and as hauntingly beautiful as ever. We passed through a string of little places that I'd only ever flown over previously, like the vastly etiolated retirement and second-home community of Sea Ranch. The further south we went, the busier the road became. At Bodega Bay we turned inland to join 101, and the urban route back home. It had been a wonderful journey.

On our way home!

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...