(Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)

Beauty with hairpins: Highway 36

California road can thrill a (good) driver

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2007

FORTUNA, Calif. -- Two hundred sixty-five miles north of San Francisco on US Route 101, fog blows in on summer afternoons, dropping temperatures into the 60s, obscuring the western facades of workaday storefronts, and casting a gauzy shroud over the rodeo arena in the community park.

As tidy and bustling as it is, no one would mistake this town of 11,000 , many of them loggers and farmers, for a tourist destination. But among drivers -- that is, those who drive for the sheer joy of it -- Fortuna is known as the western terminus of California Highway 36.

Certain roads are famous for their scenery, others for their hairpin curves. Highway 36 has both in near excess. Starting out among coastal dairy farms and redwood groves, the ribbon of two-lane blacktop gradually winds through the Coast Range , into the Trinity Mountains of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and down into the northern Sacramento Valley.

This western leg peters out in diesel fumes and chain motels at the city of Red Bluff on Interstate 5 . Continuing east, the road climbs into the geological junction of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges and Lassen National Forest. The eastern leg, while still scenic, lacks the cliff-hugging thrills of the western one.

After all, not much beats cornering a narrow uphill turn to find a tractor-trailer roaring at you, piled high with logs as big around as tabletops, while the road's outside shoulder drops off into a river. Guardrails? They just complicate the survival of the fittest.

On a recent trip to Humboldt County, my husband and I left Fortuna in a rented Chevy Malibu (not our first choice, but it handled fine), bound for Red Bluff, 140 miles away. A gray sky hung over the highway, but by the time we were midway through the farming towns of Rohnerville, Hydesville, and Carlotta, sun was dispelling the coastal fog and spangling the mist of irrigation jets in roadside fields.

Dairy cows grazed near a gargantuan redwood stump that stood as a memorial to the forest that once covered the valley. Mountains rose beyond the settled flats, their slopes a patchwork of clear-cuts. In Carlotta, the highway began a long tango with the Van Duzen River, a broad stream braided around sand spits. We began a similar twining dance with a steady stream of semis barreling downhill, loaded with the next generation of redwoods bound for sawmills.

At the same time, groves of old redwoods grew closer together as the highway climbed into the Coast Range . Writers use words like "majestic" to describe these trees, but to stand in a grove of them is to be rendered minuscule and dumbstruck. Where roadside pullouts allowed, we stopped to lay hands on their collision-scarred bark.

In Bridgeville, the hills rose higher and drier as the road climbed in a series of steep switchbacks. Driveways twisted uphill through scrub, sometimes miles apart. Around one bend three mule deer -- a doe and two fawns -- cantered across the road and clambered up a 45-degree slope, their coats the same tan as the bare hillside soil.

At the top of a long and dicey ascent, the town of Dinsmore shimmered like a mirage in the 100-degree noontime sun. A market, a gas station, porta-potties , and the Post Office were clustered on one side of the road. Pickups filled the sizzling parking lot. Half a dozen touring motorcycles were parked in the shade across the road. In front of the gas station, a man was loading supplies into the back of his truck.

Richard Falk explained that he drove an average of 150 miles a day to maintain the water systems at three regional ranger stations. "I've lived out here since '92, but I'm from Eureka," he said, squinting in the sun. The biggest city in the county (population 26,300), Eureka lies about 15 miles north of Fortuna on the coast. Falk said he now makes his home atop nearby Buck Mountain, elevation 5,100 feet, and doesn't miss the ocean.

The motorcycle riders, a group of fortysomething men, sauntered out of the store, talking and laughing. After donning their gear, they struck out in a rumbling procession to ride another twisting stretch of heaven, vanishing below the sharp curve that marked the start of the downhill journey.

We headed out in their wake. Miles later, in the middle of nowhere, we pulled over to check out the Olive Branch Thrift Shop. Inside, Betty Elgin was sorting through piles of used clothing. Elgin, a local pastor, and some of her flock had fixed up this abandoned grocery store to collect clothing and supplies for people in need. "Nothing in here costs more than $5," she said, beaming. "People come from as far as Bridgeville and Hayfork, an hour away over the mountain."

For the next five miles, the Malibu hugged the inside of tight downhill curves. The logging trucks had thinned out, making the switchbacks feel more like a carnival ride and less like Russian roulette. We also lost the company of the Van Duzen , which had turned due south.

At the bottom of a long hill a sign welcomed us to "Beautiful Downtown Mad River -- Don't Blink or You'll Miss It." A stand of conifers shaded the Burger Bar, an RV-turned-takeout-cafe, where we ordered sandwiches and bought raffle tickets to support 11-year-old Hayley Hermes in her bid to become Rodeo Princess. The raffle winner would claim $300 cash "or one-half beef cut and wrapped." While eating lunch in the 98-degree shade, we read a sign next to our picnic table that said "some moron" had broken into two stores. An appeal for information ended with a clue: "The moron smokes Camels."

East of Mad River, the highway climbed into Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where "S" curves tightened into hairpins. Dark conifers marked the tree line, and rock ledge poked out of sun-baked soil. A road sign announced "Rat Trap Gap, 25 mi." As the dashboard gauge registered an outside reading of 101 degrees, the conifers gave way to charcoal trunks tilting on burnt slopes -- the wreckage of some Camel-smoking moron?

On the descent, grassy hills, gold in this dry season, gradually replaced the ruined forest. Cattle had carved zigzag terraces into the sere slopes. An oak-lined creek threaded through the hills. The town-line markers for Wildwood and Platina, about 15 miles apart, flashed by the window without noticeable clusters of settlement. As the temperature kicked up to 104, the road flowed past fences shimmering in dry heat and cows huddling amid clumps of trees.

Ten miles west of Red Bluff, Highway 36 skirted the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, a.k.a. the World's Fruit Basket, and the scenery changed in a blink. Thundering flatbed trucks piled with redwood logs were replaced by semis hauling closed trailers across a plain dotted with orchards and tin-roofed sheds. At Interstate 5 we swooped off the ramp into Red Bluff's sprawl of malls and motels. The trip had taken all of three hours.

As we navigated scorching pavement in search of a Starbucks, I knew a chill fog would soon be settling over Fortuna with its hardware store, its Denny's, and the bleachers in its rodeo park. French roast or no, I wished we were there.

Contact Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, at janeroybrown@verizon .net.

If You Go

Highway 36

Northern California

250 miles west to east through Humboldt, Trinity, Shasta, Tehama, Plumas, and Lassen counties .

Western terminus: US Route 101, Fortuna .

Eastern terminus: US Route 395, west of Susanville .

Highest elevation along the route: 5,700 feet.

Most exciting section for fans of winding mountain roads: the approximately 140 miles from Fortuna to Interstate 5 in Red Bluff.

Tips: This is a rural ride with lots of countryside between stores and gas stations. Town names on the map don't mean that stores, bathrooms, or gas are available. Fill the tank before starting out and top off in Dinsmore. Bring plenty of water and snacks, a first-aid kit, warm clothing, and hiking boots in case of emergency. Check the spare tire. Wear seat belts. Timid drivers, turn back.

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