California, Here We Come
One of the most luxurious cars of our trip—a black Packard Twin Six—was the chariot that carried us into the land we’d dreamed about for months, the golden state of California. Its owner had stopped and actually begged us to accompany him on the hard drive over snowy roads through the Siskiyou Mountains. He carried us as far as Redding, California.
That was one of our most luxurious rides. The next ride was among the most important of our entire 48-state journey. South of Redding we had hardly started walking when we were picked up by one of California’s “native sons.” During the rest of the day he provided us with the equivalent of a month’s university training. California was a completely new world to us, and R.E. Skinner helped us discover it.
The Sacramento Valley opened on both sides. We drove through groves of lemons, oranges, and olives, then down through the rice belt where tens of thousands of wild geese blackened the sky. Near Maxwell, Mr. Skinner pointed out the largest lemon grove in the world. Our benefactor taught us the difference between fig, plum, apricot, almond, walnut, peach, cherry, pear, orange, and lemon trees and how to distinguish between the Thompson seedless and the wine variety of grape. Our self-appointed teacher made us get out and examine the leaves of the eucalyptus, live oak, and pepper trees, and showed us the difference between the varieties of palms. Our instructor-host introduced us to a dozen types of trees we’d never seen before. Our mental horizons expanded with every passing hour.
Throughout that journey, the famous valley of the Sacramento spread on both sides of us like the spilled contents of a cornucopia. Fields and orchards of growing food were strewn all the way from the distant snowcapped Sierra which we could faintly see in the east, to the low mountains in the west, which shielded this treasureland from the Pacific Ocean, our next and ultimate western goal.
That morning, as our California odyssey had started, we had told our benefactor that San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean were our immediate objectives. In late afternoon, a highway sign at a crossroads caught Win’s eye: “San Francisco, 40 miles.”
“Are we that close? Just forty miles from the Pacific? I can’t believe it,” shouted Win.
Our friend slowed the car, then stopped. “Boys, I’ll let you out here if you say so. But I think it would be a mistake.” With the aid of a map he explained that he was going on to the Valley of the Moon and the Jack London country around Sonoma.
“It’s something you just shouldn’t miss. ” His gentle yet persuasive manner was almost like that of a father. “Besides, if I were in your shoes, before heading for San Francisco I’d certainly take the Redwood Highway up through the Big Trees. There’s nothing like them anywhere else in the world. You can get your first glimpse of the Pacific at Eureka. The Big Trees are worth the trip.”
We followed Mr. Skinner’s suggestions almost to the letter. The Jack London country, under his guidance, was uplifting and exciting. And the Big Trees, which we reached on our own several days later, were worth half a dozen such trips.
One ancient redwood, thirty feet through at the base, was so hollowed out by fire that fifty men could have been quartered within it. Near the foot of this giant we passed the night, prepared to seek shelter inside it in case of storm.
On through Fortuna and into Eureka we finally made our way, after four days of slow traveling through marvelous country. A large bay spread before us.
“It’s time for a shave,” suggested Win, on seeing the water, and I unpacked our single razor after we’d made our way down to the edge of Arcata Bay.
I took my turn first. “Something’s wrong. It won’t lather.”
Win tried with the same result.
“That’s salt water,” he reasoned. “We must be closer to the Pacific Ocean than we thought.”
“The Pacific Ocean?” A friendly garageman echoed our query. “You just go on past Arcata a few miles, and there it is. You can’t miss it.”
We soon caught a seven mile ride, out of Arcata, with Roy Carr, who spent the entire distance telling us about his wonderful girl friend, Teddy, visiting out here from Texas. Just as he dropped us in front of the house where his girlfriend was staying with the Gibson family, we saw the Pacific Ocean stretching before us. But how to get down? An enormous cliff separated us from the shore.
In a roadside ditch just beyond the Gibson house, a tiny stream of clear water was trickling its way Pacificward. Here was a good chance to finish shaving. Two girls left the Gibson dwelling and, almost at once, disappeared down a concealed path which apparently led along that cliff to the shore below. Hastily cleaning our single razor, we found the path and within five minutes were wading gleefully into this western sea.
It was so exciting we had only partly noticed that those two girls, who had emerged from the Gibson house and who had unconsciously shown us the way down that cliff, were still there up the beach a ways, watching these crazy newcomers make fools of themselves. Upon seeing them we went up to explain our behavior. We quite definitely noticed them now. The older one—she told us her name was Helen Gibson—had long flowing hair as blond as the sea sand which stretched all about us. She was fifteen; her younger sister Louise was thirteen. They weren’t used to all this expanse of water themselves, Helen explained. They had just recently come from the deserts of Arizona.
For probably an hour we talked with the girls, telling them much about our trip and learning from them exciting things about Arizona. It was almost dark when they said they had to take off for home. Win and I headed along the beach until it came close to the road. A dilapidated shack was set back a short distance from the dirt highway. Even though it was still early, we decided to call it a day. There was room on what was left of the old floor to spread out our blankets.
But we couldn’t sleep. “Francis,” Win said to me, “I feel the day isn’t over yet.”
I had the same feeling. Rolling up our blankets in the darkness, we made our way out to the highway, wondering whether we should continue on north a bit farther, or turn back toward now-distant San Francisco.
A car swung around the bend, its lights caught us for a moment, then it turned off toward the beach. Within a minute, two girls came running toward us. One of them was Helen Gibson; even in the darkness I couldn’t miss that long blond hair.
“We recognized you when the car lights caught you.” Still out of breath from running, she added, “This is my older sister, Thelma. Louise is in the car. And our cousin Teddy from Texas. And Roy Carr. We’re going for a party on Clam Beach. Won’t you join us?”
Win and I exchanged glances. Our day was certainly not over. For two or three hours—all of us forgot about time—guitar music and song and laughter filled the evening air over the Pacific beach as we sang and roasted marshmallows.
The next day was Sunday. “Why don’t you come up to our house tomorrow and have Sunday dinner with us?” Thelma Gibson suggested. “We get back from church in Arcata a little after noon. I’m sure mother won’t mind. “
“Why don’t you come earlier, and go into church with us?” Helen Gibson interjected. “Mother really won’t mind, if you do that.”
That night Win and I slept on Clam Beach. Next morning Win scrounged around to discover some vegetables in a deserted garden near that shack by the road. They were soon cooking in salt water from the Pacific over a little fire there on the beach. The ocean water seasoned them perfectly. Here we had had our first view of the Pacific, we had waded in it, had tasted its waters in our breakfast stew, but had not yet taken a swim in this newly found western sea. That omission was remedied immediately. There was just time to get up to the Gibson house as the family was leaving to drive to church in Arcata.
With Helen and Thelma Gibson we sat in on a Sunday school class which preceded the worship service. The black-garbed minister presided at both, and his Sunday school lesson was on the prodigal son. Helen and I exchanged amused glances. Was the minister thinking, we could sense each other wondering, that Win and I might be prodigals?
The minister even accompanied us back for Sunday dinner at the Gibson table, and it was sumptuous. Following chicken and generous trimmings, we young people all rode in Roy Carr’s Ford up the coast to see the Trinidad lighthouse and whaling station.
From our encounter with the Pacific and the Gibson girls we headed southward again, toward San Francisco.