Enjoy the Journey

This winter break our family embarked upon an eight day, 800-mile road trip from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, California. We only booked lodging for the first and final few nights, giving ourselves plenty of flexibility along the way. Armed with Spotify and Google Maps, we hopped in a rented Ford Explorer and hit the open road.

The four of us are rarely under the same roof these days, let alone in the same vehicle. This road trip wasn’t about any particular destination, but rather spending time together and enjoying the journey.

On the first day we made our way from Portland to Highway 101, and started our southern excursion along the Pacific. The Oregon Coast did not disappoint. The beaches were wide and walkable, with enormous cliffs and rock formations. The ocean churned and rolled, and we marveled at this seemingly infinite coastline. We took our time, stopping frequently for photos, sandy strolls, and even a tour of the Tillamook cheese factory. We enjoyed starting our days with Dutch Bros. coffee and smoothies, which was always better than the hotel coffee. One of our favorite stops in Oregon was a little-known viewpoint where a dear friend spread her mom’s ashes. We visited the bench installed in her mom’s honor and took in the scenery at this spectacular spot.

Northern California experienced historic rain, wind, and flooding during our visit. Sadly, the day we planned to venture through redwood forests coincided with the worst of the storms. Hotels handed out flashlights with room keys, weather alerts pinged our phones, and there was an abundance of travel advisories.

Wednesday morning we woke with a difficult decision: weather the storm in Crescent City, California or continue venturing south? Road closures wreaked havoc on our itinerary, and we were forced to cancel the Newton Drury Scenic Parkway and Fern Canyon hike I had planned.

Despite these setbacks, it wasn’t yet raining or blowing so we decided to head south as far as weather would allow. We were due in San Francisco the next afternoon to return the rental car and check into our final hotel, and hoped to keep those plans if possible.

I was a nervous wreck venturing into redwood forests in the midst of a windstorm. Call me crazy (my family does) but watching giant trees swing and sway with the gusts was terrifying. As predicted, the winds picked up throughout the day and scenes like this did not allay my fears:

Travel was slow as we waited out multiple delays while cleanup crews cleared debris from the road and drivers circumnavigated fallen timbers. My family did not share my misgivings about our plan to continue onward, and the kids even Googled “likelihood of death by falling trees” from the backseat of our rental car. The statistics brought me no comfort as I knew our current situation drastically skewed the odds.

One of the delays was especially lengthy, so we ventured up a side road to a trailhead rather than waiting it out with the growing line of parked cars on the highway. (Because hiking in a wind storm is safer than driving in a wind storm? Please don’t ask me to justify this flawed logic.)

We almost got high centered dragging a rogue log under our SUV before arriving at the trailhead, where half the family refused to exit the vehicle due to terrifying wind gusts. When Clark and Maggie returned to the car about 30 minutes later they showed me a few incredible redwood snapshots:

Do I wish I saw these trees in person? Yes. Would I have been terrified? Also yes. Clark said they heard trees crashing like dominoes in the distance, so it was really best I remained in the car and knocked out the daily Wordle.

That afternoon we cruised into civilization AKA Eureka, California. Most of the town was without power, but the brewery was lit up and open for lunch. Clark popped two quarters in the parking meter, which bought us over three hours to make a game plan. The kids played a little pinball, I ordered a beverage, and we regrouped.

It was now raining sideways outside, but life was buzzing without concern inside the restaurant. Also without worry about the weather: my family. They wanted to keep pushing south. I was not only outvoted, but they also asked me to stop wearing my raincoat in the car because apparently it made a “low-key annoying” swishing sound when I thrashed around the passenger seat in fear for my life. (It was a very open and honest lunch conversation.)

So, onward we went.

And, I must admit, it was magical.

The Avenue of the Giants is a 31-mile scenic byway off of Highway 101, and one of the few redwood roads that wasn’t closed due to the storm. Rain pelted its way through the forest canopy, but the wind had calmed and we found ourselves alone on this scenic stretch of titan trees. We transformed into tree huggers and trunk climbers as we gaped up and around in awe.

We live in Alaska, where it seems like our things are always the biggest version of things. (Except squirrels. Our squirrels are pitifully small.) Well, it turns out Alaska trees are pretty small too because look at the size of these redwoods!!

We emerged from the Avenue of the Giants with renewed energy and pressed south a bit farther than we should have. We ran out of daylight and found ourselves without cell service in a remote area of northern California, and crept in pouring rain along a dark, debris-filled, hairpin-curved winding road for hours before finding lodging. Thank goodness for Clark’s driving skills and the reflective pavement markers that kept us on track. The wipers and headlights were on high, as were our nerves. For once I wasn’t the only stressed out person in the car! It was such a relief when we finally found a hotel, where we checked in and promptly collapsed onto the beds and cued up the latest Knives Out mystery on Netflix.

The next morning we made our way to San Francisco, and after the previous evening’s stressful drive we were more than happy to drop off our rental car and utilize public transportation. From cable cars to classic street cars and modern city buses, we used them all to explore the Golden City for two full days. We saw the Golden Gate Bridge without fog, listened to sea lions bark at Pier 39, ordered fresh crab in an oceanfront restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, dined on wonton soup in Chinatown, and watched the Bay Bridge lights. On our last night in San Fran the boys went to their first pro basketball game while Maggie and I wandered around Ghiradelli Square.

Sam was thrilled to meet up with an old friend who now spends summers and holiday breaks in the Bay Area (I’m looking at you, William!). They resurrected their hilarious high school Instagram vlog with a San Francisco travel post that made me laugh out loud. These two met in middle school and are now both college freshman. I cherish my lifelong friendships and it makes my heart happy to see my kids forming some as well.

As we lined up for the ferry to Alcatraz Island Clark looked at the kids and declared, “This better be the only time I see either of you in prison!” (It was obvious he’d been sitting on that dad joke for days, so we lovingly chuckled and tried to keep the eye rolling to a minimum.) Dad jokes aside, our Alcatraz excursion was a highlight while in San Francisco. The ferry ride provided exceptional views of the city skyline, surrounding bridges, and Alcatraz. Once on the island, the cell house tour was incredible. It was powerful to stand in the prison’s showers, dining hall, and cell blocks while listening to stories from the guards and inmates. Kudos to the National Park Service for this personal and intimate historical experience.

Our trip came to a close with a brutally early morning flight from San Francisco to Anchorage, with a brief refueling stop just north of Seattle at Paine Field. What a great place to spend a layover. The entire airport (all two gates) felt like a luxurious Alaskan Airport lounge!

The trip is over, but the journey continues. By Sunday afternoon we were back on familiar pavement, wheels down and back to temps so frigid that my car’s battery was dead in the long term parking lot. Back to reality. Back to chores, jobs, work, school, and regular life, but now rejuvenated and ready for it!

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