Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Travel With My Uncle

By Paul Gerald

MAY 10, 1999:  My uncle spent most of our road trip on U.S. Highway 101 squirming in the passenger seat, but the problem wasn't that he was uncomfortable. The problem was he's a landscape photographer, and when you're driving down the West Coast there are way too many beautiful landscapes to take pictures of.

Let it be said here and now that the southern coast of Oregon is the most beautiful part of the entire West Coast, rivaled only by Big Sur and Carmel, California. It took us a day and a half to cover Oregon's 350 miles, since we were constantly stopping so my uncle could capture the waves crashing against the cliffs and the towering rock formations.

The best place we found came from my highly recommended guidebook, Road Trip USA. Following its suggestion, we stopped at a parking area that looked like nothing but in fact was the starting point for a quarter-mile trail. It led through the trees and out onto a point no more than 50 feet wide but 300 feet above the ocean. My uncle used all three of his cameras out there and kept saying things like "Man, oh, man."

When we got into California it didn't get much easier, as far as making time. The northernmost coast of California is Redwood Country. The original Drive-Thru Tree is on this stretch, as are such fascinating tourist traps as Trees of Mystery (with massive statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox) and Confusion Hill, where water runs uphill and other optical illusions seemingly come true.

But if you ever drive through here, take one of the scenic alternates off 101, such as the Avenue of the Giants through Humboldt Redwoods State Park or the Elk Prairie Parkway through Prairie Creek State Park. In Elk Prairie you'll often see a herd of Roosevelt elk grazing peacefully in the meadow. Numerous short and easy trails lead off the roads and into the trees, some of them more than 1,000 years old and 15 feet in diameter.

We departed 101 only because a smaller road was available: the pure-magic California State Highway 1. Whereas 101 turns inland and becomes mostly expressway, California 1 stays on the coast and becomes the kind of road featured in auto commercials. It's two lanes of wandering, winding beauty, with driftwood fences separating the road from open fields of wildflowers that lead to the rocky coastline below. My uncle was in full squirm at this point, and many photos were taken.

We spent a night in Fort Bragg, a town in Mendocino County that's like just about every town along the northern West Coast. That is, it's beautiful, it used to be a fishing/timber/whaling port, and it now owes its existence to the tourist trade.

Actually, the Mendocino Coast seems to owe its current existence to a particular wing of the tourist trade: the Romantic Getaway Crowd. Bed-and-breakfasts abound; the one we stayed in, the Avalon House, was in a gorgeous Victorian mansion. Our room -- the only one in the place, and apparently the only one in town, with separate beds -- had a fireplace and skylights and a view of the garden. In the bedside journal were entries from previous occupants: Mark and Sharon, Pete and Lilly, etc. Now there's an entry signed "Me and My Uncle."

The next morning, after a magnificent breakfast of omelets, fruit, and a variety of baked goods, eaten in the sunshine that came through the laced windows of the living room, we headed down the coast again and made it only 10 miles before we hit the town of Mendocino.

Many towns in California claim to be its prettiest, but in Mendocino the citizens are probably right. It was built in the mid-19th century by New England whalers, and they built it to remind themselves of home. Today the whole town is a historic preservation district, which means that aside from some power lines and some cars, it still looks like a New England village -- so much so that it's been used as such for TV shows like Murder, She Wrote.

In Mendocino the B&B's run in the neighborhood of $150 a night, but then again, in Mendocino you can walk from your Victorian-mansion accommodations to any number of great restaurants, or the beach, or a bunch of art galleries, or up a hill to watch for migrating gray whales. It's no wonder the place is such a romantic getaway.

My uncle may be a really great guy and a fine photographer, but the next time I come through here, I hope it'll be with somebody younger and more female.

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