So I needed to get from Eugene to SF Bay this past week, and the weather people on the talking-head-box in my hotel room said on Tuesday "If you want to get over the pass on Hwy I-5 into California, you better leave tonight or wait till Friday, because it will see 3-5 inches of snow..."
I didn't want to deal with slipping and sliding in my new bus, or have to buy tire chains, which would certainly be legally required to cross the mountain pass in snowy weather. So, never having even been to the actual west coast shoreline (in over 10 visits to Cali and Oregon from the East) I decided it was time to go down the US-101.
I left Thursday about noon. My bus desperately needs new shocks (NAPA could not tell me the part number when sunny, then it started raining for days) and I had to drive slow, lest I bounce myself out of my lane on the narrow roads I followed to the coast (Oregon Hwy 126) and then south on US-101. It was raining. Not too hard, but enough. That was the first time I drove it in any significant rainfall. Wow, the brakes respond slow! Like the drums fill with water. It takes a second or two to even feel them engage, then of course it stops slower than dry. And it would pull to the right for some reason. I thought I noticed that a little bit the first day I drove it, then not so much. The fog thickened as I got to the coast, making driving even more nerve-racking. The sun set, and driving through one construction zone after another, with old barely visible paint on the road, and no paint in some construction sections, became insane. I could not tell the difference between road and shoulder in some places.
I was driving 20-25 miles an hour. I remember one section where construction had the road down to one lane, with traffic controlled by a stoplight. I stopped at the red with a line of traffic behind me, and put on my hazzards; I waved people around, but only one car (two back from me) passed. I only wait 4-5 seconds for drivers to get a clue (too many nimbits out there) so I started going, as the light quickly changed. The guy directly behind me with the annoying high-beam projection headlights stayed on my tail and ran the redlight. I tried to just find a turnout, but the fog was so thick, you couldn't see off the side of the road with my lousy headlights (they need upgrading - first thing when I get my tools).
Finally the car passed me (by then the others who stopped at the last light had caught back up) and it was a new Mustang. Should have guessed by the headlights. Its taillights are very unique. "Damn Mustangs and their annoying headlights blinding everyone else" I thought. Didn't even register that is what cops drive....
Shortly after, I tried to find a place to just stop and park. Driving was too dangerous. But I couldn't see the roadside. After passing a place with a brown road-sign (recreational information sign) I drove a mile, managed a U-turn in the fog, and headed back. I almost drove into a ditch trying to turn across the hwy to the road on the other side. Don't remember, but I think it said no overnight, but I moved on. That's when I decided "F@#$ the rules." The next brown sign (I almost drove off pavement again trying to turn in the thick fog) was another shoreline overlook point (but it was so foggy, I thought I was at water level, hating the salt-mist that would then be covering my bus, but it was 800 feet up). Literally, visibility was less than the length of my bus: 26-foot.
I parked, walked around in the misty rain and fog for a minute looking for toilet facilities (none), did my duty in a plastic bag in the bus
, hopped in my hammock that I have hanging in the back, fired up my binger (Oregon, remember
), and went "aaahhhhh" after driving through hell for 9 hours.
Then headlights. Just a pickup with a camper-top. Drove right out. Then another. I didn't flinch by that point. Mustang taillights. Still didn't register in my head.... Then he parked behind me, and the spotlight came on. I tucked my glass in the shadows and opened the back door. Very nice younger guy told me I could stay a few hours but couldn't spend the night. I told him at one point "I was sick of driving 25-MPH though fog on roads I could not see." He said something about staying a few hours and leaving when the fog lifts (it was maybe 7:00pm and the park was open until 10:00pm), and I replied (sincerely, with a defeatist tone) "It won't lift until morning." He said something like "you can't stay here but if you don't feel safe driving, don't". I looked him deep in the eye and said "no, I do not feel safe driving in these conditions, but I don't want to break the law and wake up in the morning to go to jail, or even just get a ticket." I wasn't going to say "and I just burned a bowl and should not drive for a while."
He said "well, I'm the only one patrolling this section, so just leave in the morning." Great! He left, and I slept fairly well. Funny, I woke to pee in the middle of the night, and the fog had lifted, and the stars were out...Hell if I was going to leave then!
Left just after sunrise, and drove a few hours, napped again at a beach, and kept driving south on US-101 through the famous Mendocino and Humboldt counties and the Redwood parks. Stopped for some Mexican food somewhere along there. It was really good. Blackbeans and Guacamole. Had it all in my bus ready to cook myself, but sitting in a building with other people around is oftentimes worth it.
I was planning on making it to Sacramento that night. I didn't want to drive US-101 into SF on Friday evening. Traffic can be from hell. Pollution the same. I took Hwy CA-20 East and cut past Clear Lake back towards Hwy I-5. Going was still slow, due to my shot-out shocks and poor roadbeds.
Just past Clear Lake I passed an RV on fire on the roadside. One truck had stopped. I stopped to see if I could help a fellow traveler. Maybe he had stuff that needed to be hauled, or people that needed a ride? Just one guy in the RV, his friend driving the truck, and the fire quickly consumed the RV in the 2 minutes that had passed, and no one was getting anything out of it. It burned to the ground.
Glad I have a skoolie
. He said it was the propane fridge. It was recalled, and he just paid $2800 to have it fixed, and picked it up from the shop that morning... The emergency vehicles showed up, the smoke stunk like burning plastic and was making me sick, so I left. I went 2-3 miles and decided I needed a break, because I had been driving like 10 hours, and was still sick from the plastic smoke, and pulled over into a deep-pocket roadside pullout. I was about to park it there for the night, but the trucks were very noisy passing on the mountain road, and their headlights were right in my windows.
My map showed a gravel road just about where I was that led into the state-forest, with several campgrounds back in the woods. I drove a few more miles, and found "Walker Ridge Road" heading north off of CA-20 at the very top of a mountain pass. The only road I saw for miles... I turned, and it was a really nice, wide gravel road, and a brown sign said "Walker Ridge Hunting Access Road" and another said "Indian Valley Reservoir - camping closed." I drove 150 feet and there was a big wide opening on the left with a structure and lights at the back - another RV I guessed. Another 150 feet down the road was a pullout on the right, and I was thinking "just park there" when a semi-truck came up the Hwy CA-20 and his headlights shined right in my windows, and his motor ground loudly as he pulled his load up the hill. Move on! There had to be a quiet spot just 1/4 mile down the road, and it was such a nice, big, smooth, RV friendly road (with campground on it even!) that I didn't hesitate to keep going.
It immediately started uphill. No problem?
It was already slowing, but it does that on hilly driveways, so I didn't worry. It got just a little steeper, the bus started slowing a little more, then the road turned to the left. And banked to the inside of the turn just a bit...
And the bus came to a stop and I thought I felt the tires spin and the rear-end start to slide. STOP! was my first thought. "Juice-it! Those double, tall rear tires will stick!" was my next. Years of 4-wheelin in my 1984 Nissan King-Cab 4x4 pickup (best truck ever!) taught me to trust my first instinct. Wait till daylight, my instincts told me. But I couldn't just leave it there in the roadway. So I put it in reverse and started backing down, head out the side window to see, but all I could see was mostly shadows. My headlights suck (like kerosene lanterns hanging on the front), but the backup lights are like birthday candles.
I could tell I was heading slightly toward the ditch at the inside of the turn on the side of the road, and tried to compensate with the front wheel, but that only brought the front closer and closer to the ditch. I was moving 1-foot at a time, trying to go as slow as actually possible. Then the front tire went in the ditch. Done. Motor off. Wait for daylight.
Stepping out, my foot stuck to the ground with mud 1-2 inches thick. It would stick to your shoe, and you could walk around 2 inches taller. Drag your feet, and it still sticks. But it was liquid enough that the tire tracks from my front tires slid sideways across the road. I could not tell that as I tried to back up. The slope in the turn of the road was too much. The other side's shoulder was 100+ feet down an 80-degree embankment, so...
I assessed the situation, and as far as I could tell, even if a very big 4x4 truck came behind me and tried to pull me out, my back-end would slide in the ditch also. It was already starting, since the tires spun when I was going uphill. The bend in the road and the drop-off on the other side made it impossible to pull it back strait. The only thing I could think of was the heavy tire chains that I didn't want to buy (I was guessing $100 per tire for 6 tires to buy good heavy chains, since a pair of cheap tire-cables for my 2x4 pickup was $60) to keep from sliding off the snowy roads... ironic, yea? Or a dump-truck full of rock-gravel and a shovel. Or maybe a monster 4x4 tow-truck with 60"-tall tractor-tire wheels.
I slept on my slanted bed, trying not to slide off all night. No cellphone signal - just enough for texts. It occurred to me if someone was back in the woods and came driving out, they would come around that blind-turn going downhill, see my bus, slam on the brakes, skid on the mud, and go flying off the roadside, probably rolling sideways down the embankment. At dawn I got out and set up pylons in the road uphill with dead sticks to slow traffic before my bus. I texted my mom on the East Coast and told her to inform the CA Hwy Patrol that I was blocking the road in a dangerous fashion, and that I needed chains. My phone battery was about dead. "They came looking for you, but didn't see you." How could they miss me? You could see me from Hwy CA-20.
The guy in the RV at the bottom of the hill said he had chains, but they were tow chains, not tire chains. He would drive me to town later if I liked. But he said the ground dries fast, just wait 4 hours. Sure enough, by 9:30am, the 2-inch deep bubble-gum-mud (that's what we cavers call it) was dry-crispy on top, and solid enough to jump on a ridge of it (created by the rolling/sliding tire) without the ridge collapsing. Amazing! Desert sand-gravel with no organic material mixed in, I guess.
I collected palm-sized rocks and 1-inch rock-gravel in a spaghetti strainer I found by the Hwy while waiting to see if cops would come by again, and spread them out behind the rear tires and the front-passenger side tire on good roadway. By that time the road under the bus (out of the sun) was drying. I dug the other front tire out of the mud it sank into, put 2x6 boards behind it that the RV guy lent me, and the bus backed right out.
A forest service guy stopped to pee while I was waiting for the cops by Hwy CA-20 in the early morning, and he told me not to feel bad, he has seen many people stuck there. A couple came out of the woods in a 4x4 pickup and said they live back there. They see this all the time. One time, 5 vehicles at once were stuck for weeks, including a CHP car and a tow-truck. No wonder the cops wouldn't come back there!
Wow, what a trip! But now my bus "feels" like "my truck." It is my daily driver, but it felt "foreign" or just like a box I was inside of. Now it is more like an extension of me, like my Nissan is. Driving it on the interstate, I might as well be in my minivan. Funny how things like that make you look at how lucky you are (my RV didn't burn to the ground with everything I own inside, just stuck for a few hours in mud) and how tragedy can lead to better relationships...
Hope you were entertained by my story! Wanted to take pictures, but my phone was under 15% battery life at daybreak, 4% by the time I was backing it out of the ditch. If that didn't work, I would really need my cellphone then...