Northern California, here I drift ...

Exchanging Venice beach for one called Manchester, Sasha Abramsky explores America's hippy coastline

A FEW years back, I read Thomas Pynchon's novel, Vineland. Like all of Pynchon's books, this is a long, allegorical story about either everything or nothing. More specifically, it is a rambling tale about Sixties refugees and dope-smoking communards, the evil forces of a constricting present ensnaring the liberated psyches of an optimistic, youthful past. The setting, the place of refuge, is Humboldt County in Northern California, a place where the down-home, common-sensical good cheer of traditional farming communities merges with the space-cake fantasies of America's psychedelicised, ageing revolutionaries.

I have to mention Pynchon because northern California remains, to an extraordinary degree, a totally surreal, Pynchonesque place, out of tune with America's increasingly harsh, conservative sensibilities. A pacifist in an abattoir, perhaps. Or a beatnik in a cocktail lounge. From the eerie fogs that swirl in off the Pacific, to the towering Giant Redwood trees that congregate in silent groves for hundreds of miles up the coast, northern California feels different.

Instead of the south's sunshine and citrus trees, the climate is more akin to Britain's and the orchards are full of apples and berries. Instead of bodies soaking up the ultraviolet rays, beaches such as Manchester are populated by enormous clusters of driftwood, bleached tree trunks and branches that are washed into the water when the cliffs collapse in winter rains, and are then washed ashore again in encores. Above the beaches are gorgeous meadows dotted with blue and yellow wild flowers. Generally, wellingtons and anoraks are more appropriate togs than bikinis and Birkenstocks.

Most of those who aren't busy farming generations-old homesteads or diving, wetsuited, into the cold ocean for abalone, are recent escapees from the bustle of LA and even from the beautiful, but urban, San Francisco: artists perched in studios in fishing villages such as Mendocino and Point Arena, overlooking spectacular rocky coves and the migration routes of whales; ex-corporate executives wanting a taste of the slow life, alternative lifestylers seeking a landscape as untamed, perhaps ultimately as elusive, as their dreams. Like Vermont, in the north-east, it is very liberal but, at the same time, very ethnically homogenous, or, not to put too fine a point on it, very white. Many of these people are so alienated from the tens of millions of Californians who live to their south that their main political ambition is to secede from California and to create a vast but sparsely populated 51st state, sandwiched between San Francisco and the border with Oregon.

In a car rented in Los Angeles, I spent a week driving the thousand-plus miles of the Californian coastline. My first night north of San Francisco, I stayed just outside a village called Gualala, in an old cedar-wood building done up, down to the ornamental orbed turrets, to look like a Russian palace (in the late 19th century, this part of the coast was largely inhabited by Russian immigrants). Spectacle doesn't necessarily translate into comfort, however, and, after a rather cold shower, I left the next morning more impressed with the gimmick than with the mod cons.

During the next few days, I drove northward, through tiny hamlets with names like Guerneville, Mendocino, Trinidad, some perched on gulches in the forest, others on cliffs above the ocean; through slightly larger towns such as the Victorian community of Eureka, which, if you look at a map, is the westernmost point in California, some 450 miles west of the southern Navy town of San Diego; and - tucked just beneath the Oregon border - the old timber centre of Crescent City. There, I ate battered salmon and chips in a warehouse-sized brewery/restaurant, the walls of which were decorated with original Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane posters.

At times, the highway ran along the coastline, at other points it headed inland, through the redwood forests. Scenic byways, such as the 33-mile long Avenue of the Giants, take drivers through pristine state parks, where one can stop the car, unwrap a picnic lunch, and wander deep into the giant groves where the rays of sunlight seem to hover, captured, many feet above the ground. At one stage, as I was driving along, a road-race of classic sports cars was in progress and I found myself staring at virile old open-top Fords and Jaguars and Porsches, as their leather helmet-wearing drivers roared past me around the narrow bends. I accepted their superiority and slowed down to let them pass by.

"Big-Foot" sightings are sprinkled throughout the mythology of this region, and cooky though they may seem, wandering far from the road between these monster trees, some of which measure over 15ft in diameter, it is not impossible to imagine something big and quick and not quite human suddenly darting out, snatching one's sandwich and polystyrene Coca-Cola cup and heading back into the protective foliage again.

Sometimes, long detours would force me miles inland, over curvy, bumpy back-ways. But the scenery was just too beautiful for me to get frustrated. It is hard to get too worked up about a mere 60 minutes when many of the trees surrounding you were already standing proud and tall 500 years before Columbus set sail from the "old" world.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies from London to San Francisco from pounds 339 plus pounds 45 tax return - staying over for a Saturday night - if the ticket is bought seven days in advance. American Travel (tel: 0171 722 0202) offers return flights with Virgin Atlantic during September for pounds 309 plus pounds 47 tax return.

WHERE TO STAY

Fodors travel guides include a series of books ranging from budget travel and luxury b&bs to fancy hotels. Bed and Breakfast International also has information (tel: 415 696 1690). So does the California tourist office in England - contact: ABC California, Box 35, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 4TB (tel: 01891 200278). Plus the Old Town Bed and Breakfast Inn (tel: 707 445 3951).

GETTING AROUND

Cars can be booked at the airport and local agencies. Adventurous bus trips are available from the famous hippie company, Green Tortoise buses (tel: 415 821 0803). Cooking is communal, and you sleep on the bus.

INFORMATION

Eureka/Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel: 800 346 3482). Fort Bragg-Mendocino Chamber of Commerce (tel: 800 726 2780). Humboldt Redwoods State Park (tel: 707 946 2263). The Drive-thru tree at Myers Flat (tel: 707 943 3154). Redwood Empire Association (tel: 415 543 8334). Russian River Visitors' Information Center (tel: 707 869 9009).

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