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Midnight Rider

Taking the long way home-- driving the coastal highway after dark

By Stephen Kessler

FINISHING DINNER with friends in San Francisco, I consider whether to spend the night in the city or make the long drive home to Gualala Ridge--some 120 miles, two and a half hours or so on a normal day but usually less than that after dark, when fewer cars are on the coast road. If I set out no later than 10 o'clock and cruise north across the Golden Gate into a clear night--no ferocious storms or fog to obscure the stars or the highway, and no sneaky California Highway Patrol parked in the dark on Valley Ford Road to cite me for doing a safe but illegal speed--I can be in my own bed by 1 a.m. and have a whole day ahead of me in which, who knows, I might even get something done. Otherwise it means a morning in the car and losing the most productive part of the day. Doing it now, in the dark, when I wouldn't be sleeping anyway, seems like a sound idea.

My dinner companions give me that you-must-be-out-of-your-mind- to-want-to-drive-that-nauseating-road-this-time-of-night look, and maybe I am, but they haven't mastered those 10,000 curves as I have over the years, and they don't appreciate the meditative solitude of moving smoothly by moonlit headlights through country that smells of grass, of stinky herds, of oak or eucalyptus smoke, of skunk, but finally of crashing surf and the fresh shock of ocean air and the oxygen-rich infusion of redwoods' breath. A decaf espresso is all the stimulant I need to keep me perky for the trip. The night is wide, the bridge glows golden in its orangey light, and quicker than you can say San Quentin I'm streaming into Marin.

Beyond the neon of the car dealerships, fast-food franchises, cheap motels, and upscale shopping malls; past the streamlined architecture of the industrial parks and office complexes and retail outlets and the rosy arches and funny blue domes of Frank Lloyd Wright's great Dr. Seuss­like space-age Civic Center; skirting the landfill and zooming into the rustic darkness of Sonoma County and taking one of the Petaluma exits through the ranchlands of west Sonoma toward Bodega Bay, you know you're beyond the suburbs by the pungent stench of cow dung that, even with the windows up, is more intense at night, the cool dark air conducting that funky aroma into the car as surely as essence of crushed skunk and making you grateful, by the time you get there, for the salty tonic of Bodega's fishing harbor and the increasingly bracing ocean-and-mountain freshness above Jenner.

Yes, you still have to watch for those random cattle out for a sleepwalk, but the highway from the Russian River north has a cosmic desolation at these hours that induces a heightened sense of perception. You can reduce the loneliness a little by playing your favorite tapes or tuning in some radio show beamed over the water from Berkeley or San Francisco, but sometimes it's best to let the sound of the motor be your mantra, or to open a window, if it's not too cold, and hear what the wind is singing.

It's true that in the dark you don't see the ospreys, redtails, kites, and kestrels lacing their gorgeous predatory choreographies through the sky, and if the moon's not up, you may miss most of that oceanic expansiveness to the west. But even if you can't see it, you can sense the immensity out there; even if fog is forcing you to creep along following the line with your low beams, grateful for those little reflectors, you can feel the vastness of the space you're traversing, and it humbles you in a different way from the awe you may feel when faced with the view in daylight.

So maybe you're visually stymied or deprived as you climb the switchbacks of the Jenner Grade, or maybe over your shoulder you catch a glimpse of the Pacific reflecting the splendor of the heavens, and maybe the hour of strenuous cornering ahead to Mendocino County is a little daunting this time of night, but look, there's scarcely a trace of traffic--hardly a log truck or lumbering Winnebago or flabbergasted tourist turned incompetent by the vistas; at worst perhaps some hot-rodding mountain man roaring up behind you in a monster pickup, so you pull over at the first chance and let him pass, or the headlights of some tanker truck coming the other way on the run down the coast from Fort Bragg. But mainly it's just you and the hardcore, frequently washed-out, cracked-in-places, rock-strewn, cliff-skirting, gravity-testing, giddily dangerous pavement, and you get into a groove and you drive.

Alert for deer, which are constantly appearing when you least want to see them, you may be surprised by creatures you seldom meet in the light of day: waggling raccoons, those stealthy black-masked bandits; the occasional owl that swoops out of nowhere just to give your adrenaline a jump; the tawny, compact, long-legged bobcat; a silver fox with its elegant tapered snout and feline quickness of foot and fluffy tail. Or once in a while, if you're really lucky, late, a certain unmistakable sinewy shape bounding with confidence across the road, long tail trailing a loping gait--the puma, cougar, California panther, a mountain lion by any other name is equally magnificent: one such sighting is a lifetime gift.

Sometimes you can smell the eucalyptus spice as you pass that huge grove at Kruse Ranch, or redwoods' oxygen refreshes you as you take the hairpins over various gulches and around the public campsites. Benny Bufano's moonlit totem pole is always good for a gasp at Timber Cove. And even the charred snags of cypresses and pines at Salt Point Park as you pass them in the dark seem to exude a spooky perfume you'd seldom get a whiff of during the day; although their crispy Giacometti skeletons may be more visible in the daytime, the other cars and the long spectacular views and the brilliant light distract from those ghostly figures, signature of the wildfire of '93.

I remember vividly the night of that fire because I was driving back from SFO after a weekend away and had to take a detour via Healdsburg and over Skaggs Springs Road to Stewart's Point--a route about whose blind curves and shoulderless, tortuous twists I have no romantic illusions.

But the Shoreline Highway is another story, practically civilized by comparison, full of sensory subtleties, nocturnal mysteries, midnight nuances, a drive that is more like dozens of different drives, depending on the weather and your mood and your state of responsiveness and your stamina. It's grueling in a way, exhausting. You can't relax, your arms and legs are constantly in play, especially if you're driving a stick, but it's a vigorous workout. And by the time you reach the Sea Ranch and its straightaways, a few lights glimmering in the windows of that discreetly subdivided countryside, you're elated and relieved to be nearing home.

The silhouette of the ridge above the Gualala River as you cross the bridge into Mendocino is like the profile of a lover awaiting your return, coolly reliable, keeping the fire alive.

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From the November 2-8, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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