Five years ago I was living and working in Pasco, Washington. I would return to Walla Walla, WA every few weeks to visit family and friends, and to take my mind off of what had become a miserable job. Walla Walla was no more than an hour away, and one weekend I decided to head back. I hopped in my father’s enormous 1980’s SUV and started off down the highway.
No more than five miles down the road I noticed a small figure running across the road maybe 100 feet away. Two vehicles had just missed running over the little creature as they darted past at 70 mph. As I approached and slowed my speed, I noticed that it was a small puppy (and it could not have even been a year old). Eager to ensure its safety I pulled over, stopped the SUV, and walked along the shoulder of the highway as I neared this innocent pup. No cars were directly behind me, so I pleaded for the dog to come. Whether it was dazed, in shock or sincerely frightened to stiffness, I do not know, but I failed in my attempts to reach it as the second wave of mechanical death machines (cars) came screaming by.
I remember hearing a sudden and violent thump thump and immediately closed my eyes. There was no steel curtain that could have shielded my eyes, no blinders that could have kept me focused on the straight and narrow. That little puppy had been run over right in front of me and there was nothing I could do stop it. Defiantly and with many obscenities screamed at the vehicle and highway, I crawled back into to the car and made my way to Walla Walla and the relative peace of a place that felt like home.
I truly dislike telling that story, and I dislike remembering it all the more. However, it is important for me to convey the dangers of highway traffic and road walking. All too much along the California Coastal Trail the trail meets the highway. My first frightening encounter with Highway 101 traffic occurred as I left the beautiful Skunk Cabbage section of the CCT in Redwood National Park. I had to walk a mile or less along the road, until the junction at the Levee Trail near Orick. But this was the most intimidating and dangerous section of road I have ever walked.
From the Skunk Cabbage trailhead it was .25 miles to Highway 101. From there I turned right and stepped onto the narrow shoulder of the highway. On my left, blackberry bush thorns forced me to walk with traffic, not against. To the right the shoulder was no more than a foot wide and sunk into a little, grassy drain ditch. Above the ditch was a hill that had a grade of what was 30% or more (steep enough that walking along it was not possible.)
No more than a hundred yards along the highway, I reached a blind turn and heard the rumble of what had to be a truck engine. I knew it was big, and I knew I risked injury or death if the driver cut the corner too hard. So I put my back to the grassy incline, spread my arms wide and tight against the hill and silently pleaded for my life. The speed of the truck and the force of its movement hurled a gust of wind in my direction that nearly knocked me sideways. Frightened and furious, I continued at a marathon pace until I came to yet another blind turn. I had not completed the first quarter of a mile, and two blind turns threatened my safety.
After rounding the second blind turn, I encountered a small white car and again put myself up against the grassy wall of the highway shoulder. Seconds later came a truck carrying an attached bed that held 3 or 4 dirt bikes. The driver rounded the turn and slid his vehicle over so close to the shoulder, that I could not see the paint marking the road boundary. If I was walking on the pavement at time, I certainly would have been injured or killed. Inches separated me from life and death. I can not remember a feeling in my life of such utter vulnerability and chaos. Thankfully, I made it past the highway and onto the Levee Trail through Orick. But once I left Orick over a bridge, I would be forced to walk 3 more miles of highway to get to the RNP Information Center. I made it through this trial alive, but feeling much worse for the wear.
The next experience of fear and terror came while walking Highway 255 into Eureka, CA past Manila, CA. The forecast had called for rain, but the beginning of the day was mostly pleasant and filled with sunshine. I walked the Hammond Trail and continued along the unfinished portion of the Hammond Trail into downtown Arcata.
Note #1: This was a mistake on my part. I should have veered right after the bridge over the Mad River that marks the South Terminus of the Hammond Trail, which would have lead me to the beach and from there I would walk the beach to Manila or Samoa. I suppose I was taken in by the Hammond Trail and just wanted food in Arcata. An empty stomach will make me do stupid things. I would advise taking the beach to Manila and paying for a bus (which stops at Manila Community Center 7 days a week and will take you into downtown Eureka for $3.)
After the Hammond Trail ended in Arcata, I took highway 255 West to Manila, which would allow me to enter Eureka from the South near downtown and keep me off Highway 101.
One mile into the hike 255 narrows and has a shoulder only 2 feet wide (the shoulder was also slightly angled, making walking difficult). At the same time rain began falling extremely hard, and gusts of wind reached around 30 mph. Nevertheless, I continued walking toward Eureka in the defiant, sideways rain and miserable, cold wind. All the while my backpack rain-fly jerked back and forth, threatening to allow water into my supplies and shelter. My rain jacket was anything but waterproof at that point. After withstanding 4 or 5 winter downpours, it allowed cold rain water to seep into my under-layers. That walk truly was one of the most intimidating ventures I have undertaken in my life. I did not feel safe until reached the outskirts of Manila, where an abandoned factory and unused railroad bridge over the Mad River mark more space on the highway, a beach entrance and a bus stop into Eureka.
Note #2: Every rain jacket I know of eventually allows rain to seep through. Excessive rains strip the DWR (Durable Water Resistant) coating off of the Gortex material and leave it vulnerable to the rain. To remedy this I recommend NikWax which is a product that provides a new coat of DWR to gear. I use the Tent & Gear product on my jacket, tent, rainfly, pack and anything that I can.
I found myself at a new business in the small town of Manila called the Lighthouse Market and 3 miles from Eureka. I was far too wet, cold and hungry to continue much further. After drying my soggy, stinky clothes, I found a local bus that would take me over and past the dangerous Samoa Bridge. There I could wait for Dan, a trail angel, to get back to me about a place to stay for the night.
Needless to say I did make it across the bridge and to Dan and Amanda’s house without problem. But this was another traumatic experience along a highway during my CCT thru-hike.
I am currently in Petrolia, a wonderful little town and staying at the home of a kind trail angel family. I will not be able to continue through the Lost Coast section of the CCT due to multiple rivers that will be chest high and multiple landslides. It has been a rough year for all of California due to the intense rains and accumulations. However, I will address that in another post. I will also certainly be back to finish the Lost Coast section during summer months when the weather is not quite as defiant, because the people I have met here also embody the spirit of community and giving.
I tell you this because after the Lost Coast section, comes the longest section of highway walking I will have to endure to date. Nearly 20 miles or more of on-again off-again highway walking until I reach the Ten Mile Haul Trail near Ft. Bragg, CA. Wish me luck friends and be aware that we have significant work to do to get hikers off the highway and onto trail. We can all help by donating to Coastwalk and the California Coastal Conservancy, or by offering support in any way that we can to the organizations who work diligently to complete the trail.
We can also advocate for clear and direct action between the organizations tasked with completing the trail. If we cannot work as a team, we cannot finish this trail. Together we can ensure that no hiker loses his or her life because they were forced to walk a highway that is most certainly not their domain. Until next time. Happy Trails!
Derek “Toodles” Shanks