Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Asking For Adventure

After the month I’ve had, I’m seriously considering a name change. I asked for adventures and I’m getting adventures, but maybe I should have been more specific. Maybe I should have gone with, “Tranquil Adventures in Biodiesel,” or “Occasionally Eventful Adventures in Biodiesel,” or “Zen Adventures in Biodiesel.”

And while I’m at it, it might be a good idea to cut out that part on the homepage about sprinkling in a “little insanity.” It think I left the lid loose on the jar, and the sprinkle turned into a full-on pour, because after leaving Northern California and the calm of the redwoods, the stew of my life has been heavily spiced with my own insanity.

The sky was clear when I left Crescent City and headed for Highway 199 on Tuesday morning, January 16. I’d spent the night in a vacant gravel parking lot next to a ranger station near Tolowa Dunes State Park. I didn’t realize I was doing anything I could be busted for, but it’s hard to be familiar with all the bustable offenses in every new area, so you just do your thing, secure in the knowledge that if you are doing something bustable, a buster will show up and inform you that you’ve been busted. That’s what happened in the morning, when a ranger knocked on my door and told me that he’d caught me spending the night in the lot. It was keen detective work, and I wanted to ask him how he knew that this big orange and yellow bus with green liquid flames was the same one he’d seen the night before, but busters can be sensitive. So I smiled, knowing he was just doing his job, and told him the truth: I wasn’t aware of the law he was now telling me about, that RVs are required to park in private lots.

“If we let people park wherever they wanted, there would be motorhomes filling up every spot in the summer,” the buster said.

I looked out over the huge vacant lot and he followed my gaze. “Well, even in the winter there can be a lot of visitors,” he said. “I’ll let you go with a warning this morning, but your plates are in the system. Just make sure that you park in a campground from now on.”

Now a registered offender, I made my way to Jedediah State Redwoods Park. It began to rain, a drizzle first, which became fat, high-speed drops. Shaking the moisture off after a bike ride, I climbed in the RV and set out for the Oregon border. For about ten miles, it was a peaceful drive, set in the stunning scenery of the Smith River Canyon, with impossibly-colored turquoise water gliding flat in the channels and churning white in the rocky spots.

White turned out to be the theme for the day. It started with the water. But then white began coming from the sky, made its way to my knuckles and eventually reached my face. The snow hit hard after just a few miles, and by the time I was climbing the steepest grades in a 34-foot bus, the trees, the road and the shoulder were all covered in about five inches of fresh stuff. The snowplows weren’t out yet, so the best thing to do was stay in the tracks. Turning around wasn’t an option in a big rig; none of the side roads or turnouts even had tracks. And pulling off to the side to wait it out was sketchy. What if the freak blizzard lasted for a week?

Drawing on experience from years of driving in Montana winters, I cut the speed to about 10 mph and loped up the hills and around the sharp turns. The way up was tense, but solid. It wasn’t until the descent into Oregon that the rear wheels started slipping. I’d never experienced fishtails in a 30,000-pound vehicle and I hope I never have a repeat. It felt like trying to steer a taboggan. Finally, after an inch-at-a-time downward zig-zag next to sheer canyon walls and riverside cliffs, we reached the valley floor and the snow started to thin out. It was slushy and asphalt was showing, and I decided it was okay to pry my fingernails out of the steering wheel. Things were bound to be much easier at this lower elevation.

Things were easier for about thirty miles. And then, just outside of Cave Junction, Oregon, the patches of asphalt disappeared and the slush turned to ice. A line of cars formed behind me and stretched out in front and our entire procession slowed to walking speed. We slowly passed several vehicles sitting in the ditch at various angles on both sides of the road. My fingernails found their way back to the dents still in the steering wheel, and my heart resumed it’s double-time polka pace.

I was lucky enough to find myself directly behind a loaded semi with balding tires. I was doing my best to keep off the brakes, using the engine to slow down, but that became impossible when the semi driver lost control of his trailer. The box began to slide sideways, and the front of the rig slid toward the ditch. My heart slid into my stomach, and I put on the brakes. Now the back of my coach began to slide toward the ditch. It was a slow glide to the shoulder, and I thought something like, “Well, it’s been a fun few months, but it’s all about to come to an end when I roll into this ditch.”

But the snow on the shoulder was thick and sticky enough to hold, and I came to a stop behind the semi. I never imagined it would be so nice to have a change of pants on hand. The dry britches helped, though, and I stepped out on the ice to see if I could help the truck driver with his chains. About an hour later, we were ready to start the slow roll again. Eventually, the snow thinned again, and I reached Grants Pass and I-5 just in time to line up behind hundreds of cars waiting for the truck drivers to take off their chains now that the snow was slush again.

The going was slow for most of the trip, but I reached Eugene at around seven that night, with the entire state of Oregon still in deep freeze. It’s funny how a leisurely four-hour drive can turn into an icy, eight-hour tango with near catastrophe. It’s also funny how you sometimes get exactly what you ask for. I was hoping that this bioTrekker journey would bring adventures, but I’d also been feeling the desire to slow down a bit. The trip back from California was definitely adventurous, and I was forced to slow down. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was a pattern that would be playing out for a few more weeks.

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