The plan one fine September day was to leave Davis in the late morning, head north on U.S. 101 through the impossibly magnificent California redwoods and make it to the southern Oregon town of Brookings before all the pizza parlors closed.
Well, if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.
To reach U.S. 101, we headed north on I-5 to Williams, then westbound on Highway 20 around Clear Lake to where 20 links up with 101 just north of Ukiah. In no time at all, you’re looking at trees in excess of 300 feet tall. It’s a magical experience that never grows old.
Over the years, it’s become a family tradition to visit the Drive-Thru Tree in the tiny Mendocino County hamlet of Leggett and do the unthinkable by actually driving through a giant redwood tree.
The tree in question sits in a secluded hollow just down a gently sloping hill from Leggett. Halfway down the hill you stop at the small guard station and pay your five bucks to the nice man who warns you to “take those side mirrors in” so they’re not snapped off as you squeeze tightly through this living tree’s opening.
Given that five dollars covered all six people in our Honda Odyssey, that works out to 83 cents a head. A cheap thrill indeed.
On this stunning late afternoon, with the sun barely making its way through the branches of the many massive trees, there was actually a line of cars waiting to see if they’d fit through this one special tree in what has to be one of the greatest touristy photo ops in the world.
The young couple immediately in front of us, with the Manitoba plates, was seriously distressed that their oversized pickup truck was simply too wide and too tall to complete the journey. Seemed like a long way to travel for such complete and utter disappointment.
Our kids, of course, wondered if the Manitobans would get their five Canadian dollars back to spend in the nearby redwood-themed gift shop.
As per family tradition, the Red-Headed Girl of My Dreams is the designated driver on these tree-piercing adventures. My job is to stand on the “exit” side of the tree gesturing madly to the right or left to keep her on course, given that there’s only a half-inch of clearance on either side of the van and it wouldn’t be pleasant for us or the proprietor if we became hopelessly stuck halfway through.
“Leggett Fire Department Unable to Save Family Stuck in Tree,” is not the headline we hoped to generate from this trip.
As I took my assigned position and began to gesture my sweetheart that she was lined up perfectly and should begin to coax the van forward at the assigned speed limit of half-a-mile-an-hour, we heard a very loud, very unmistakable and very sickening “PFFFFFFFTTTTT” coming from the vicinity of the left front tire.
Turns out someone, for unexplained reasons, had driven a large bolt into the side of the Drive-Thru Tree, leaving about an inch of the bolt exposed in the path of our left front tire. The rest, I presume, was pure physics.
Even though my sweetheart was traveling substantially below warp speed, the tire was gashed and shredded as surely as if someone had slashed it with a hunting knife.
The Honda Odyssey, containing the Red-Headed Girl of My Dreams and our four young offspring, was blocking the entrance to the World’s Greatest Tourist Attraction as a long line of cars formed behind them and young Manitobans raced to the rescue.
If we had a dollar for every time we heard someone exclaim “Wow, that baby really blew,” we could have retired on the spot.
But given that it was already 4:30 in the afternoon in the middle of Absolutely Nowhere and cell service was likely to be spotty at best inside a tree at the bottom of a hollow, I imagined it was time to let go of those thoughts of pizza in Brookings as I wondered aloud what sort of wild animals occupied these redwoods at night.
Fortunately, in addition to being the designated driver at all Drive-Thru trees, my sweetheart is also adept at changing tires, and in less than 15 minutes she and the Manitobans and a couple of do-gooders from Grants Pass had the mortally wounded tire tucked safely into the back of the van and replaced it with one of those “temporary” spares the size of a Fluffy doughnut.
My very important job was to man the cell phone, even if I wasn’t sure if I should be calling tire stores or pizza parlors.
After prayers to St. Jude, the patron saint of tourists stuck in Drive-Thru trees, I managed to connect with a kind woman at Triple-A to explain our dilemma.
“What is your location sir?” she asked through the static.
“The Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett,” I said with considerable embarrassment, hoping she wouldn’t think this was a crank call, given that she probably was located in New Jersey and had never seen a 300-foot redwood tree.
“I don’t have a listing for Drive Thru Tree, California,” she said with concern. “Can you pinpoint your location? Are you off the road and safe? What is the ZIP code there?”
“I don’t believe the tree has a ZIP code,” I offered. “It’s a tourist attraction. It’s a tree you drive through and take a picture of and put it on your Christmas card, but we blew a tire and it’s going to get dark and the kids are hungry.”
At that point I suspect she had several supervisors listening in, doubled over in laughter, but she soldiered on, trying to find a tire store anywhere near “Drive Thru Tree, California.”
She reached tire vendors and gas stations in Willits, Laytonville and Redway, but none of them had the tire in question and all were going to close in 15 minutes anyway. Nobody wanted to stay open for someone who blew a tire in a Drive-Thru Tree.
She finally reached some kind-hearted folks at Hummel Tire in Fortuna, 80 miles to the north, and they had the exact Goodyear tire we needed. They, too, however, were about to close.
Given that the Fluffy donut is not exactly a racing tire, our estimated time of arrival in Fortuna was at least 90 minutes out, barring further misadventure.
“No problem,” came the heaven-sent voice from Fortuna. “We’ll be waiting for you.”
And indeed they were. All five employees of Hummel Tire, including the two owners, were standing out front with wide smiles on their faces as we pulled in, ready to do whatever was necessary to help six people they’d never met before and most likely would never see again.
The spirit of the Good Samaritan is alive and well in Fortuna, Calif.
And, as we were to find out several hours later, pizza parlors in Brookings stay open much later than one might think.
— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]