By Barbara Kaplan Bass
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We found ourselves at a crossroads: which route should we take from Humboldt down to Sausalito, the next stop in our California adventure? 101 would be faster, more direct and purposeful, but we had just come from communing with the Giant Redwoods, which left us—so to speak—peaced-out. And it was Thoreau who said, “The swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot.” We weren’t exactly “afoot,” but we were open to exploring, taking the slower route, Thoreau’s spirit of exploration and Robert Frost’s “road less traveled” were guiding our way: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.”
We chose Route 1, a winding two laned road that would take us along the Pacific Coast. It was about an inch and a half on the map, not much out of the way. The few towns mentioned sounded alluring: Shelter Cove, Westport, Mendocino. We looked forward to breathtaking views of the Pacific coast, opportunities to explore virgin territory. Feeling adventurous, and maybe a bit overconfident, we headed away from the highway and drove south to the sea.
As we descended into this northern coastal forest, we discovered that we were farther from the ocean than expected. We would have to wait to glimpse the Pacific. When I put the nearest town into our GPS, we had another surprise: no cell service. What if there were an emergency? As we drove on, we noted sparsely placed call boxes located in small pull-off areas. Suppose we needed help and weren’t near these links to civilization?
Engulfed by the forest, we saw the last of the afternoon light filtering hazily through the towering trees. Then we noticed that the road had no shoulder. We hadn’t seen another car —or a place of business —since we began our descent. We soldiered not so merrily along, no longer feeling to be intrepid explorers out for an adventure.
As the sun began to sink behind the redwoods, we also realized that there were no streetlights on Route 1. Once the sun slipped below the horizon, we would be driving in pitch dark on a two-lane road with no shoulders, no cell service—only the occasional call box. It was then that our fuel gauge light began to flash on and off. We’re out of gas?
My husband put the car in neutral and let it coast on the downhill slope. Our little adventure had become a scary trip into the unknown. In the 51 years that we have known each other, we have never run out of fuel. “We ‘re not empty yet,” my husband said, as we coasted into the next pull-off. He pushed a few buttons on the callbox and the Highway Patrol answered. Hooray! Wait, what? “You won’t come until we are completely out of gas? What if we hit empty and we’re not near a callbox? How long will it take to reach us?”
As I think about this, we may have overreacted. What was the worst that might have happened? Anyway we could have flagged a passing motorist after perhaps an hour or two, then waited for the Highway Patrol to show up—or just spent the night in the pull-off. But these possibilities only occur to me in retrospect. Back in the forest, things looked bleak. However, right before we began scratching our last-will-and-testament into the paint on the car door, and drafting a final farewell note to our children, two “angels” appeared in a late model Ford: Claudia and her daughter, Christine. “Can we help you?” Why is it that when someone is kind to me, I start crying? I had been dry-eyed, but when these two Samaritans stopped to help us, I broke down in sobs. They didn’t have extra gas, but they promised to follow us to Westport, the first town on the map, just twenty miles away.
Their presence calmed us enough to continue, still mostly in neutral, still panicking on every upgrade, checking every few seconds for Claudia and Christine in our rear-view mirror—but we finally made it out of the forest and were treated to the magnificent view of the North Pacific Coast. I would like to say that the view made it worthwhile, but it didn’t. I still get palpitations thinking about what could have happened on that treacherous stretch of highway—bandits , Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers—they all haunt by dreams.
When we coasted into Westport, our sense of relief began to wane: a few scattered houses and no downtown. We may have been literally out of the woods but not figuratively. We pulled up alongside a lone citizen walking along the road and asked if there were a gas station in town. “No gas station,” he said, “but there’s a pump outside the general store,” and he pointed across the street and down the road. “There’s not another pump for 40 miles. That’s why they call it the ‘The Lost Coast.’”
Gas was $4.99 a gallon, but who cares? Hearing the gurgle of fuel through the hose was pure music, worth every penny. We waved goodbye to Claudia and Christine, blowing kisses of gratitude, and headed toward Mendocino with a full tank, relieved and now confident we would survive.
And we can still say that we have never run out of gas. We also learned that an inch and a half is not always an inch and a half—at least not on a map—and that there are helpers out there when we need them.
I must return to Robert Frost here – a different poem, but an insight into our experience: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”
Barbara Kaplan Bass was a member of the English Department at Towson University for 43 years, teaching writing and American literature before retiring last June. She is now enjoying the luxury of spending time reading and writing and traveling. She is currently working on a book of essays—one for each year of her life—for her three granddaughters.