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Viva Americana

Viva Americana
Driving through Northern California

17 January 2016


I’m listening to David Bowie’s last album as I type this. It’s an opus of destiny, a starman who may have seen some spangled inkling of where he was going, and by god, did he ride that blackstar.

The wild jazz beats backing his sky-wrenched vocals summons up visions of the open road, grayswept skies and swift breaks into choruses of blue. Of rolling hills, of the excess and endless summer of Americana. Small town hearts, subtle in the landscape pass by, as redwoods rise unchallenged into a stand of sentinels.

Northern California in winter is a misnomer. At most, there are days of fog, wafting down like a heavy wool blanket in the early mornings but the sun can be counted on to burn through. 

We are road tripping from our base in Cotati, some 60 miles north of San Francisco. Most visitors to this part of California would head up the 101 further north to Healdsburg, with its picture perfect streets and rows of tasting rooms. Wine country at its most convenient.

But today, we are eschewing the vineyards to drift along the Bodega Highway, just off Sebastopol. Our destination is Freestone, and the start of the Bohemian Highway, a lazy affair on a long and winding road. Freestone is nothing more than a gateway, step on the accelerator and you’re through the town. But for day trippers, it’s a must-stop to stock up on cheeses from Freestone Artisan Cheese and gorgeous configurations of bread from Wild Flour Bread.

From here, it’s a sun-drenched hop to Occidental. And yes, if kitsch facades and fonts from the 1950s can typify Western stereotypes, then this was no occident. 

The Bohemian Highway continues from here past Camp Meeker, with its echo of summer camp hijinks still laughing through the tall trees and onto Monte Rio, which sounds like a carnival, or a bustling thoroughfare, at least. 

It couldn’t get any sleepier. 

Here, it’s not uncommon to spend a day sitting by the swift flowing Russian River, now much reduced in winter, to cast a line or two. We had biscuits and gravy at Lucy’s Diner, a most stalwart institution, and by far the centre of the town’s activity.

From Monte Rio, the erstwhile 116 peels west towards the sea and the cliff-hugging town of Jenner. Sleepy even in sunlight, its possible to see glimpses of how this coastline has remained throughout the years. Why, even Jack London and his team landed at the mouth of the Russian River in Jenner back in 1911. 

And from there it’s a winding, stunning drive down to rock-strewn Bodega Bay, still banking on its brief moment of fame as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds" back in 1963.

The next day, we are heading north again, skirting Healdsburg in search of redwood trees. The Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve is a delightful grove that is perfect for wide-eyed Asians who get cricks in the neck, staring at the heavens for treetops that rise out of sight. 

That being said, Armstrong doesn’t have many old growth redwoods, although the dense understory of tanoak, sorrel and ferns that surround the trees in the canyon dapple the light, creating an atmosphere of age and grandeur.

It is on to the vineyards next, and our pick of the lot goes to Iron Horse Vineyards, not just for their impeccable champagne flight (five champagnes for $20), but for their gorgeous view.

The view at Iron Horse Vineyards

There is something to be said for driving in America, though. 

For starters, they drive on the other side of the road. Their big left turns are our big right turns; their windscreen wipers are our indicators; their mph is our kmh. And in proportion with their oversized (read: excessive) meal portions at any given diner or restaurant, their roads – and cars – are longer, wider and faster.

Our trusty rental – a pocket-sized 1.4-litre Hyundai Accent hatchback – rattled bravely on the US 106 N and CA 116 freeways at 70mph alongside monster 3- and 5-litre SUVs and pick-ups.

Small island-city expressways are well-lit at night because they are short and light pollution is de rigueur. But, not having any lights at all is frightening. Carol attests to having had muscle cramps as she gripped the steering wheel and kept her eyes peeled on the reflectors on the dividing lines to prevent her from crashing into oncoming and overtaking traffic, slicing into the side of a mountain or careening off the Northern Californian coastline.

There is no denying, however, that what we drove through was nothing short of beautiful country.

A friend in San Francisco asked what it was in the US that we really, really wanted to see and if we managed to see it.

Without hesitation, we said, “Wide open space.” 

We hung out for a while in Sebastopol, a quirky town with a wannabe hipster-contained area (The Barlow) and end our little roustabout with a pigout session at a recommended diner, Sax’s Joint in north Petaluma. 

It’s a 50s style diner, which means it’s all of two years old. But we were after a very large slice of Americana, so out came the triple omelette, the proverbial milkshake, the mammoth biscuit and grits. 

Yes, even grits.

Waiting to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, the snarl of traffic throttles the shout of viva Americana rising from our hearts. This is the post-holiday crawl, the end of wide skies and everlasting wines. Herein lies the city, with all its angular tantrums, ruled lines and soaring prices.

And after everything else, we’ll never forget how the trees rise like inscrutable druid circles, searching for secrets, as ziggy stardust continues to sprinkle us with wonder.

Text & Photos: Marc