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Published: February 26th 2015
The journey from Portland, Oregon, to the Bay Area is further than I had expected: more than 630 miles if you take the briefest route possible along the boring I-5. That's Land's End to John O'Goats plus a few detours for cheap coffee and Ginsters Pasties. We hired a big American SUV (Toyota Rav 4) for two days, enough time to visit some iconic landmarks en route - or so I thought. After stopping overnight in a motel whose rooms reminded me of that scene in the film of No Country For Old Men where Llewelyn stashes the cash and almost making it to Crater Lake (the off-road route was a dead end and the on-road route was closed due to snow), we parked up in a supermarket car park in Arcata, north California, and tried to sleep. We didn't, not really, but at least it was cheap. The following morning we drove the remaining 300 miles to Oakland, nearly pulled into oncoming traffic whilst trying to refill the petrol tank, then dropped the car off whereupon we both breathed a heavy sigh of relief. E did all the driving and did great so all thanks to her that we are
in California and still alive.
If there is one thing I will remember the car journey for it is the landscape. The US is a vast country with constantly changing environments and the move from the Pacific Northwest to central California was a stunning lesson in how quickly this can happen. As we travelled inland from Portland towards Crater Lake we entered into dropped valleys and rivers flushed with crystalline blue water. Had I not seen it with my own eyes and someone used that description in recounting their own experiences to me, I would believe it to be hyperbolic. It isn't though. The sharply undulating creases of the Cascade Mountains stretch further than my small island upbringing could conceive. What the first Europeans felt when they first arrived in this beautiful part of the world I cannot imagine. The grey, deep green, and murky brown world of the Pacific Northwest is the msot beautiful landscape I have yet seen. Though I would not describe myself as a spiritual person, this is the closest thing I could describe as being a "spiritual homeland".
Following the 99 then turning onto Highway 101 and crossing the artifical, non-existant, manmade state
border into California proved a sudden and significant change. If Oregon is autumn in all its dramatic gloominess then California is bright and passionate summer. Leaves became more vibrant in their green and water became deeper in its blue. The sun stood proud in the sky rather than skulk behind a wall of cloud. Sharp undulations relaxed into steep but rolling hills. Driving south out of Arcata we followed the 101 through forests of Redwoods, which are the biggest fucking trees you can imagine. They have a reputation of being large of course but it is hard to completely fathom until you see with your own eyes a trunk wide enough for a lorry to drive through, grown tall enough that your head needs to hinge backward into the spine to see the canopy.
We listened to "California One" by The Decemberists and it was perfect.
And the road a-winding goes
From golden gate to roaring cliff-side
And the light is softly low as our hearts
Become sweetly untied
Beneath the sun of California One
There was a moment, though, just before we hit Arcata, where 101 met Pacific Ocean. It was just after 6pm and the sun decided to diminish itself in one last blaze of glory. Magnified by the horizon's invisible curvature, the sun looked gigantic as it sank into the sea
and it looked more beautiful than anything I have seen in my life so far. A furious orange hole in a blue, pink, and purple silk sheet of sky. It didn't look real. The sunset looked like the work of surrealist oil paints or an overly zealous Photoshop session. Several cars had pulled over into lay bys along the road so, frustrated by trying to glimpse them between cliff-edge trees, and so E could watch it without having to focus on the highway ahead of her, we joined them in parking up. Climbing down from full circle to mere pinprick-on-the-horizon within minutes, the sun disappeared but the sky remained imbued with the afterglow. I watched and could almost believe this may as well be the end of the world and it would be the most perfect way to go.
But it wasn't, and we continued driving.
Arriving into the Bay Area, Californian cities are exactly what I expected them to be. Oases of skyscrapers surrounded by primary-coloured single storey buildings, wide highways, and plenty of murals. Skilled and aesthetically accomplished though they are they can seem lifeless compared to the mountains, Redwoods, and sunsets that we had experienced
in just 48 hours. A lot can be said about the humans that inhabit the West Coast but only one point could truly be made of the landscape here: awe-some.
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