Saturday, December 2, 2023

Why Highway 128 Encapsulates the True Northern California Experience

The verdant green, the windy road, the pavement nestled in the shade [Photograph by Eric Lee Burch]

From Cloverdale to the sea. From ridgelines, valleys, vineyards and Redwoods which follow the Navarro River to where the pavement meets Highway 1. It’s one of my favorite sort of mainstream drives. I say “mainstream” because its a well-traveled thoroughfare for tourists coming up from the Bay Area and points elsewhere, for the exact reasons I described above.

At the same time though, it’s also a very meditative drive.

Fond memories, of course, also go hand-in-hand with the road. I don’t recall too much when I was younger; a few mental clips here and there. It was in the late 1980s through early 1990s, when my mom worked for a delivery service called BigFoot Transportation, which was contracted by Airbourne Express. Mom’s route for a while was inland Mendocino, Lake and portions of northern Sonoma County. I convinced her to switch to the coast. I was on independent study at the time, so I had free time to help her. It was fun. More bonding. 128 was how we reached her seaside routes. Man, I loved that time!

After I got my license at 16, my friends and I would occasionally do the Willits-Ukiah-Boonville-Fort Bragg-Willits loop. Usually late at night. It was kind of our thing, our form of freedom from the perils of teenaged life. One night still stirs in my recollect too. Four of us; two cars. It was well after midnight and snaking through the Navarro woods was almost otherworldly. But the coast blew our minds. We stopped at Little River’s parking lot to soak it all in. And by that, I mean there was a super bright full moon with a few clouds above. Maybe it’s just a weathered memory, but I swear I’d never seen the coast that bright before or sense. It would have made an incredible scene from a teen movie or something. By the time we reached Fort Bragg though, my friends in the other cars raced through the empty Shoreline Highway and I wound up getting a speeding ticket trying to keep up.

When I surfed a lot more and really got into photography too, 128 became a nice alternate way to get home from the south coast, where I spent a lot of time. Again, the road was almost a meditative experience.

What’s funny though is that I rarely ever shot photos on Highway 128 itself.

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One afternoon, during the Pandemic, I was on the coast looking for something new to photograph. The afternoon light was beautiful and I had so many options, yet I wanted something different, so I continued south to 128 and decided to keep going. It had been almost 10 years since I’d traveled through here. It was calling though!

Eric Lee Burch is an eighth-generation Mendocino County resident who spent 15 years as a photojournalist and graphic designer for The Willits News, Lake County Record-Bee and The Ukiah Daily Journal. His work has also appeared in the Willits Nickel & Dime, The Mendocino Travelers Guide and 101 Things to do in Mendocino County. Though Burch lives a somewhat quieter life these days, he continues to write and shoot photos; capturing the essence of Mendocino County and California’s north coast. Check out his Substack if you would like to read more of his musings.

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  1. Anticipating having to drive 128 these days during normal hours is like setting up an appointment for a colonoscopy or root canal.

    Simply not looking forward to doing it.

    Too many crazies on that road…

    • Exactly like all those city people who don’t know how to drive and use turn outs and have consideration for other drivers who live out there I completely agree stupid drivers

  2. Great article.

    Highway 128 was the start of many vacation trips to Mendocino since the mid 1970’s.

    Once I got off Highway 101 the vacation started.

    Remember many years ago there were 3 areas to camp along the way when the redwoods started, just Dimmick now..

    Then of course Hendy Woods. Young and poor it was a great cheap vacation spot.

    Now older, wiser and enough $ to live/retire in Mendicino is just the icing on the cake.

    I cruise Highway 128 now for the memories, Fruit at McGowans (the mexican guy who worked there for decades), wine at Husch and going to the “new” Navarro Vineyards when it opened in 1974. Now I need an appointment to get in there! Camping by the river. Sunbeams piercing through the giant trees, Relief from the heat. Wild clover under the redwoods.The original Booneville Restaurant. Talking on the Bucky Walters phone booth.

    All just cloudy memories now!

    • Having made numerous trips on 128 & 20, enjoyed them all. Patience & appreciation helps one enjoy the ride. My Grandparents lived here & we now love every day living on this beautiful coast. ❤️

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