Tag Archives: redwoods

Landslide sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The long detour

I spent nearly all of April breaking in my new car with a 6500-mile road trip up and down the West Coast. I’ve done many similar trips in the past, but this one had a completely different feel to it. And that’s because the severe drought—which for more than seven years had parched California and gifted me with suspiciously perfect weather and unusually good road conditions—was over.

This year, California had just come out of one of its wettest winters on record. All that rain after such a long drought had brutal effects on hillsides and roadbeds all over the state. I quickly became accustomed to seeing signs like this one everywhere I went—to the point where I lost count of the number of detours, patched pavement, and in-progress landslides along my route. Over and over again I either had to make adjustments to my plans (I had to cut the Big Sur Coast out entirely, since Highway One has been closed there since February), or else take extra time to pick my way over some truly scary patches of pavement.

Landslide sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The state of affairs was so unpredictable that I got in the habit of checking road conditions on my phone a day or two ahead of each day’s planned route. On one cursory inspection, I stopped dead, my eyes widening at what I saw: Highway 101, my route through the redwoods, which happens to be the only route through the redwoods, was closed. Completely closed. No detour, the warning said.

No detour.

By this time I was familiar with the Norcal Coast—I knew that it’s pretty darn audacious of Highway 101 even to be there, what with the mountains that squeeze right up to the rugged, rain-soaked coastline. I remember driving through there in the past, marveling at the engineering required to put a road there in the first place, and being thankful that nothing had blocked my way and left me up the proverbial creek—yet I never actually looked at a map to see what kind of workaround a closure would require. Well I was about to find out.

Luckily, this little monkey wrench couldn’t have happened on a better day. This happened to be the shortest day of the trip, with just over 100 miles between hotels. And I only had one real plan for the day: to explore the Lost Coast, that rugged swath of coastline traversed only by primitive roads, where tourists feared to tread.

Nevermind—a massive rockslide just north of Leggett put paid to that plan. I still needed to get to Ferndale, though, if I wanted to honor my reservation that night and make it to the next leg of the trip. And since there was “no detour,” I scoured my maps to see just what that would mean.

Landslide detour map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Uh, yeah. This is what it means. It means crossing back east over the mountains on State Route 20, then a trek up through nearly the entire length of the Sacramento Valley (that little Highway 99 jog was just a break to save my sanity), then back over the mountains to 101 again on State Route 36. There are no east-west highways between 20 and 36, either. This was my route, the new plan. I added up the mileage of what I’d have to do the next day: nearly 400 miles.

I set an early alarm, asked the universe to refrain from any more surprises, and went to bed.

Landslide detour sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The next day was was both beautiful and harrowing. I got to see a broad swath of the state I’d never experienced before. And I also got hit with some home truths about this modern life we all take for granted—how easy it would be for nature to knock it all right out. As I wound my way over mountain pass after mountain pass, the roads got scarier and scarier. There were places where it was obvious the hillsides were trying their best to slough off their ribbon of road—and I just hoped the mountains wouldn’t win the fight on that particular day. The very worst came near the very end, a ten-mile stretch of obviously temporary, hastily repaired state highway. The pavement was so precarious, so narrow, that they didn’t bother with a yellow stripe. And at least half of the curves were completely blind, making it necessary to do that horn-honking oh-god-oh-god-here-I-come ritual before each one.

Landslide detour sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love mountain driving. I love curvy roads. And I love unexpected adventures. And my desire for it all is darn near insatiable. But by about the ninth hour of tortuous highway and the almost total lack of towns, services or cell signal, I’d all but lost interest in the adventure of it all. I just wanted to get there in one piece.

Lost Coast road sketch by Chandler O'Leary

When I finally did, I ended up a stone’s throw from the other end of that Lost Coast road that had been the original plan. I’d been to this spot before, and had always found that Capetown-Petrolia sign enticing and mysterious—what lay down that road, beyond that dark wall of trees?

This time, though, at the sight of all the warning signs they’d erected here (Chains required! No motorhomes! No services!), I just started laughing. Because after the day I’d just had, I could not have cared less. My curiosity had gone on strike—and in its place was a powerful desire to crawl right into bed.

 

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Mt. Rainier National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Our best idea

Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

Tomorrow is the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. All of America seems to be celebrating right now, and rightly so. In my opinion, our wildest pockets are our true national treasures, and our national parks, as Wallace Stegner said, our best idea.

Olympic National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Olympic National Park, WA

So since I’ve spent a good chunk of my sketching life in national parks both close to home…

Arches National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Arches National Park, UT

…and far afield…

Crater Lake National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Crater Lake National Park, OR

I figured I’d add my voice to the celebratory din, in the form of a little sketchbook retrospective.

Badlands National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Badlands National Park, SD

Beyond the centennial itself, I’m always up for toasting the parks. Not only do I think park rangers are the best people on earth,

Redwood National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Redwood National Park, CA

but I also sometimes think they’re the only thing standing between wildness and destruction.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM

And anyway, I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m a total park nut myself. It’s my goal to visit every NPS property before I die, including national parks, historic sites, national monuments, everything. (Actually, I’ve crossed a goodly chunk of them off the list already—

Guadalupe Mountains National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

—and I even have the stamps to prove it.)

Olympic National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Olympic National Park, WA

I know I have a long path ahead of me before I reach that goal,

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

and getting there won’t be easy.

Big Bend National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Big Bend National Park, TX

Yet I can’t tell you how grateful I am that the opportunity exists in the first place—

Rocky Mountain National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

that so many people have fought to preserve these wild places, and won.

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Saguaro National Park, AZ

Best of all is the feeling that no matter how long it might take me to get to each park with my sketchbook,

Glacier National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Glacier National Park, MT

I know it’ll be there waiting for me, as close to unchanged as humanly possible. Thanks to the National Park Service, the window of opportunity remains open.

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Drive-Thru Tree sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Towering guilt

You know, if you think about it, a place that lets you pay money to drive your car through a hole cut into a centuries-old living redwood tree is kind of the perfect illustration of the bad side of American culture.

The first time I was (literally) in this neck of the woods, the guilt won out, and I passed it by. Then, earlier this year, the side of me that plans trips around things like Wall Drug hijacked my internal monologue, screaming, “You HAVE to stop! This is EXACTLY the sort of thing you love! They already drilled the tunnel, so you might as well!” And so I gave in. And you know what?

I loved every second of it.

Sorry, redwood tree. I’ll go plant a sapling as penance.