Return to the Lost Coast

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2003It is September 2003, and the chugging of my new VTEC VFR’s ABS, normally so subtle and elegant as to be unnoticed in all but the direst of conditions, gives me notice that we have taken a wrong turn. I stand up on the pegs, advice given to me by a former BMW stunt rider who, back in San Francisco, attempted to convince me the K1200LT handled really well in the dirt. “If you want,” Helli (last name withheld) had enthused, “you can get it sideways.”

You’d recognize Helli, for several years he was “the eyes” of a BMW GS ad campaign, his gaze lending intensity to the concept of adventure. I’m feeling that intensity now, but not Helli’s daring, as I navigate though 5 plus centimeters of loose gravel on a preposterously tight series of hairpins descending towards Honeydew, CA.

On the porch a well-worn general store a crusty old local looks over the bikes and after a bit of contemplation decides we’re worth giving the low down.

“They wanted to pave the switch backs, they keep offering, but it’s private land and we keep turning them down.  Keeps the place small and quiet.” He could have added secluded to the adjectives an attribute that attracts a strange mix of artists, xenophobes, and criminals.

A flight of punk meet hippy campers plays through the store arriving seemingly out of nowhere.  Cannabis cultivation is an industry in these parts and the local hiking guide suggests not straying to far off the beaten path.  As if to confirm my suspicions the old man looks at the group as he gets into his ramshackle truck, “They’re here for the horticulture.”

A short, and more importantly, paved ride later, all the sweat and cursing of the gravel descent reveals a priceless strip of rugged, undeveloped coast exempt from the suffering of Pacific Coast Highway traffic.  It is unspoiled, spectacular and near deserted.

Watching breakers roll against the beach’s boulders, I swear to return and see more of this “Lost Coast”.

Three years later, an impulsive “height of tourist season reservations be damned” act of impunity sees photographer Kevin Miklossy and I launch our bikes westward at Redway, CA (just off the California Sate Route 1 at Garberville), and down Briceland Road towards the coastal town of Shelter Cove.

The navigation on whimsy seems fitting.  It’s the sort of attitude that took us to the Lost Coast the first time, based on vague directions provided by a drunk Los Angeles scriptwriter in a Guerneville bar.  This time the detour is from our ’06 MotoGP route home to Vancouver and wisely forgoes Honeydew’s gravel switchbacks.

Briceland Road proves not to be your average touring fare.  It is a Gordian knot of narrow asphalt ribbon, more pothole than rippled and patch-worked pavement, holding the riot of carousel hairpins and corkscrew turns and steep descents together.  If you think the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca looks like a challenge, well, we’ve found its older, crankier, more battered-and-bruised siblings.  The roads in this area trace the south end of the King Range along its most fractured, fissured and faulted faces, and do not suffer fools gladly. 

This is not a place to drive or ride with cavalier abandon, though most of the locals do; cars crossing the “center” are the norm. Periodically it feels like we’re braving an onslaught of drivers coming home from a day of sport fishing and beer.

From the Whitehorn/Shelter Cove junction we begin a 17km descent to the coast.  The only other bike we encounter is a KTM 950 Adventure being ridden two-up in the opposite direction.  Even at a glance the KTM’s long travel suspension is coping with the road’s abuse much better than my VTEC VFR 800’s road oriented set-up.  I can only confess jealousy as the Adventure’s rider chucks through the twists with abandon – he has the right tool for the job.  Meanwhile I’m picking harried lines between potholes, gravel, overhanging trees, rock faces, and a precipitous drop, unable to find this road’s cadence.   Eventually the sun dappled Pacific and Shelter Cover are revealed.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t come on a Tuesday.  Not much is open on Tuesday in the summer.” The man behind the check-in counter of the Oceanfront Inncould genuinely be called an old salt, if one were a fisherman, which I’m not.

“What about tonight?” asks Kevin.

“Wednesday?  Well our restaurant isn’t open…  The golf course is having a barbeque, but you better shake a leg.  There’s the restaurant at the hotel across from the RV Park, but that’s risky too.”

“Risky?”  The query comes unbidden.

“Yah, once the place fills they lock the doors, and don’t let anyone else in till it clears out.”  I can’t help but raise an eyebrow.  Our host elaborates with, “Only restaurant open on Wednesdays so they make their own rules.”

Making “their own rules” seems a hallmark of the “Lost Coast”.  There is a sense of the frontier even here in Shelter Cove, one of the areas’ largest communities.  Tourists and other outsiders are welcome here, but only provisionally it seems.  The received impression is that locals like this small pocket of the geography, with its black sand beach and uninviting coastline, “lost”.

Area lore says the “Lost Coast” earned its title thanks to the original builders of that motorcycle Mecca, the Pacific Coast Highway. Confronted with steep and rocky terrain extending right to the Pacific, the builders chose a more inland route.  Keep in mind; these were the folk who though it a fine idea to build a road north of San Francisco on seismic and washout susceptible ocean-side bluffs.

Cut-off except by boat and dangerous mountain road the communities along this portion of coast atrophied and eventually were dubbed “Lost”.  Now tourists (eco or otherwise), fishermen, real-estate speculators and the occasional motorcyclists willing to brave a treacherously twisty road have rediscovered the area.

It’s a sprint to unpack the bikes, cart the luggage up the stairs to an 80’s nautically themed room complete with zebra print duvet and antique brass telescope, and change out of our riding gear.   Once done, we set out across the airstrip to the golf course.  Luckily no international flights are inbound to the buzzing metropolis of Shelter Cove this evening, lest we be delayed in meeting our meal.  The fog rolling in off the Pacific likely has something to do with the lack of air traffic, it’s the first in five days in a rare run of sun, and the locals seem almost relieved by its return.

One of the golf club’s employee’s has set up a barbeque, for $12.00 you get a plate-sized rib-eye to taste, or close enough, with sides of a baked potato and pasta salad – after weeks of restaurant food on the road it tastes like home.  The cookout is intimate yet raucous, more reminiscent of a community hall potluck or a BBQ with the relatives than a Golf Club.

While waiting for our steaks and an inept game of darts over drinks, it doesn’t take long to spot the local color in the over-populated Club.  Between turns of throwing pointy weapons at an innocent target, I listen-in as one local gentleman tells a freshly resident newly-wed couple how he came to Shelter Cove.

“I came up from Phoenix with my trailer, once I got in here I’d be darned if I was going to drive it back out.  So I stayed here for the summer.  Then I just kept put for the winter.  That was thirteen years ago.  Now I figure the truck is too beat up to tow the damn thing out.  It’s caught me.”

The newly-weds from the City (San Francisco) seem suitably impressed by the long-timers tale.  They are in the middle of having a pre-fabricated summer residence assembled.  Till then they are staying at one of the lodges.  The world has found the Lost Coast and that could undo its charm as more “mainstream” residence move in.  There are few pockets of North America still remote enough to feel “stumbled upon” when you find them.

One hiking guide for the area warns; “At ocean side beaches or on coastal trails, never turn your back on the ocean; large ‘sleeper’ waves can occur at any time, sweeping the unexpecting into the ocean.”  Like its environment there is a dual nature to the Shelter Cove.  Already their pre-fab house is running “a few weeks” behind schedule, and there are problems shipping in additional construction materials due to the area’s limited access.  One wonders if the newly-weds will tough it out.

The next morning, over a greasy breakfast outside the local R.V. Park’s cafeteria, the only place to get a decent one according to the hotelier, we chat with a KLR 650 rider.

“Those are not bikes for these roads,” he gestures towards my VFR and Kevin’s V45 Magna, “but if you’ve got an enduro there are tons of trails in the area.  You can run all up and down the coast.”  We take the rider at his word.  Still, earlier this morning waking to a view of the ocean crashing against the rocks below the hotel room’s balcony and a V-formation of pelicans suspended in the fog made traveling a road we’d normally snub worth it.

Ascending out of Shelter Cove and near impenetrable fog, we pull off at the summit.  Gazing across the cloud top, from this vantage you’d never know that the coast lies below us, it and Shelter Cove are lost to us again leaving us with a taste of its seclusion and rugged beauty.  Riding back towards Highway 1 and better known destinations I’m thinking about what the KLR rider said; I may not be done with the Lost Coast quite yet…  but next time I’ll come equipped for adventure.

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