Last night we saw an ad for "The Hills Have Eyes." John scoffed. "That's such a stupid premise for a movie. Some family is off on vacation and so they drive down a dirt road out in the middle of nowhere..." He stopped in mid-sentence at my apologetic grin.
See, we had a minor problem coming back from vacation. We had a map. If we hadn't, we'd have just taken 101 south. But noooo. The map said there was a road due east through Mendocino National Forest that would lead to I-5 and back home. "Look, honey!" I chirped, pointing at the ROAD on the MAP. "We could skip all the Bay Area traffic, and I bet it'd be gorgeous!"
"Hm. 101 to 580 would probably be faster," John was reluctant.
"Oh, c'mon." Then I uttered the fateful words that are always heralds of doom, the phrase that should entitle anyone in the near vicinity to slap the person that utters it, the five words that killed the cat, gave Pandora such a bad reputation and are no doubt used by lemmings to egg each other on as they jump off the cliffs together: "Where's your sense of adventure?"
So there we were, up at the border of Mendocino county, heading due east along a windy little, two-lane highway. John's telling me stories about the region. Tourists who disappear because they wander off the main roads into marijuana crops. A guy who bought a property cheap because the previous owner was a murderer, and who had found at least two bodies since moving in. Grown men whose bladders had exploded due to the lack of rest stops.
John kept up a steady stream of disturbing "true" stories and the road gradually changed from a two-lane highway, to a twisty little two-lane road, littered with debris and plunging straight down into the treacherous ravines of the Eel River on one side. "Are you sure you're reading the map right?" John said as the road narrowed down to ONE lane.
I checked my MAP, showing a ROAD, for the 5,276th time. "Yep."
The road came to an Indian reservation. It was gorgeous and not equipped for through traffic. On the far edge of tribal lands, John couldn't hold it any more and had to pull over.
"Great," I muttered as he got back in. "First we take their lands, then we come out in the middle of nowhere and urinate on what they have left. Mark up another point for the White Man's record of sensitivity."
The paved road turned into a dirt road. It was still clearly a ROAD on the MAP, though. We felt adventurous. We went on.
Four hours past any crossroads, high in the mountains, hours away from any towns, having traveled for two hours on dirt, we finally came to a sign. "Road closed."
"Gee," said John mildly, because swearing seemed useless. "You'd think they could have let us know a little earlier."
We were 20 miles from the other side of the forest, where there was a town and a telephone marked clearly on the map. We were four hours from the same if we backtracked. We decided to see if maybe the sign erred on the side of caution. It didn't. Around the bend, the little dirt track with sudden death on one side suddenly became coated with ice as it went down the mountainside, offering no opportunity to prevent one's car from sliding over the edge. Since the road was not wide enough to turn around, we drove backwards for 15 minutes.
That's when we ran into the convoy of all-terrain Jeeps, fully equipped for a backcountry, off-road, week-long expedition. A group of eight sportsmen in hunting gear were stretching their legs. As we pulled up, dressed like tourists, in our little four-door sedan with the car seat, pre-schooler, and suitcases piled in the back seat, their eyes grew steadily wider. John, whose sense of timing is both cruel and impeccable, rolled down the window, leaned out and said, "Which way to I-5 from here?"
The look on their faces sustained us through the long, tedious, 25mph crawl back to 101, during which John did not ONCE snipe about my map reading skills. Even though I suggested that the whole thing was his fault for angering the tribal ancestors.
However, I am forbidden from reading a map or uttering the words, "sense of adventure" ever again.
Comments and travel recommendations to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.