If you say Northern California, the first thing most people think of is the Bay Area. While the San Francisco Bay is a wonderful place, it's not really that northern. In fact, look at a map of California, and you'll see that big ol' bay is just north of center. So it's no wonder that the real Northern California has a bit of an identity crisis.
Upstate California, that's what they're calling it nowadays. In other words, everywhere north of the Bay Area and Sacramento to the east. It's easy to find on a map, just look for the place the eastern border takes a sharp turn to the North, and draw a line straight across. There you'll find a place so remote and separate from the rest of the state that it's tried to secede from the masses of effete city dwellers on more than one occasion-and not without reason. It's forestry/agriculture economy and spread-out fiercely independent population is starkly different than the densely populated, high-tech cities of the rest of the state.
Out here is the real Wild West, where outlaw growers face down the federal government's FBI, DEA, and sometimes ATF in a trade that is at least partially sanctioned by the state, in the form of loose medical marijuana laws, a.k.a. the voter-approved proposition 215. It's not like this is a hot, new place to grow the devil's lettuce, it's been going on since the '60s and beyond, but it is the intersection between the perfect climate and millions of sparsely inhabited acres that are incredibly hard to police. Finding a lush, green plant up here is like finding a piece of hay in 10 haystacks.
So, the Emerald Triangle, comprised of Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt counties; this is the holy land for stoners. Though the only thing most potheads know about Humboldt etc. is da kine kush, brah. The whole story of the area is far more complicated than that, but it's also far too long for a magazine article.
The view while speeding along the Ferndale Bridge.
Fleeting hints of blue skies on the Humboldt coast.
Southern Mendocino could really just be considered an extension of wine country.
I start with Trinity County, because, for the on-road motorcyclist, it's strictly a transit. There are three state highways crossing its vast reaches, 299 and 36 going east-to-west, while the 3 spans the length of the county, north to south. There are a few other smaller, bumpier roads, but to be honest, I was afraid I was going to get shot for intruding where I wasn't wanted. 299 is the major thoroughfare, with easy turns, good views, and despite a large truck and motorhome population, there are ample passing opportunities. If you like a more challenging ride, try the other two roads. An old lady in a restaurant told me to avoid them because they "aren't very good roads," and what she meant (to me, anyway) is that they are awesome.
Trinity is its own animal; tough, independent, and rebellious. While the rest of the Triangle is on the hippiesque side of flowers, essential oils, and veganism, it tends toward the right wing a bit more in Trinity, with more guns and red meat. Shotgun-blasted road signs (every one of them), tell you everything you need to know. Still, it has very friendly people just the same. On my trip through the area, the waitress at my lunch stop warned me nonchalantly about a wildfire burning to the west that would probably delay my ride. So I took the other road. That's right, paved roads are a scarce commodity around these parts.
Weaverville is known for being one of the gold rush towns of the area, as well as forest fires. A quarter of Trinity's tiny population lives in Weaverville, but the funny thing is I can't figure out where the rest live. I didn't see another cluster of dwellings in the days I spent out there. Clearly people out in these parts want to be left alone, and Weaverville is just a convenient place to get groceries and growing supplies.
Its very small population lives in a land of East Coast-style green mountains, covered in conifers and cut through by mighty rivers. To me the message was clear: enjoy the roads and the views and move along. Unlike the rest of the Triangle, this part is not all about tourists staying and spending time and money.
So, the "not good" roads the old lady in Weaverville told me about ... she was half right. SR-3 is awesome, no two ways about it. It's a slalom run with good visibility and great views. It connects with the 36 in the south of Trinity. I'd ridden 36 from the coast to Red Bluff once years ago and had a blast. Going the other way after a long day of riding is a different story. See, the 36 is tight and twisty at its western end in Humboldt and gets gradually less challenging as you go east. So running it the other way when you've already got a few hundred under your tires and you'd just like to be done is less than ideal, but still a world-class ride. Going west on the 36 (or the 299) will take you into ...