'Motorist Dies in Fiery Crash'

Made a quick trip to Topeka this morning to help my wife on an errand. I've driven between Manhattan and Topeka so many times I know every inch of the route by rote.

Comfort, ease. Predictable.

Earlier this week I experienced the antithesis. On my road trip west I planned to spend a night on the Pacific Ocean. Prior to departure, I Googlemapped a ballpark route home, picked a spot and made a reservation.

Shelter Cove, California. It was perfect. Head south along the coast from my brother's place on Puget Sound. Overnight on the Pacific, then eastward home through redwood country and the Sierra Nevadas.

On the map, it looked simple. 21 miles off the Pacific Coast Highway to Shelter Cove. Hell, that's Manhattan to Paxico. I envisioned a road curving through trees, sand dunes and breaking through to the beach. Should take 15-20 minutes.


Postgame, I did the research I should have done pregame:

Because of the very steep terrain on the coastal areas surrounding Shelter Cove, the Pacific Coast Highway builders decided it was too difficult to build the coastal highway along this stretch known now as the Lost Coast. As a result, Shelter Cove remains very secluded from the rest of California and is accessible by boat, via small, steep mountain road, or by a small airfield.

Read that last part again. About how to get there. Emphasis on "small, steep mountain road." I have two travel-related phobias. Tall bridges and small, steep mountain roads.

This one started out innocently enough. Beautiful, in fact. The road's carved in and amongst the redwoods. Quickly, though, it eases uphill into the King Range. Switchback hairpin turns with no guardrails. One-way narrow lane access at a couple of points. You go from an elevation of 500 feet to more than 4,000 feet and then down to sea level. In three miles.

Lemme say that again. Sea level to 4,000 feet. In three miles.

On the last day of Spring 2010, my "view from the precipice" was quite literally, a view from the precipice.

At one point, a boogered-up, weather-beaten sign warned, "Switch to low gear. Steep grade." Gee, thanks! It may as well have read, "Pucker up your sphincter, dude, it only gets worse."

The locals drive through there like... well, probably much like I drive from Manhattan to Topeka. It's a muscle reflex. Did my best to ease over at wide spots (and I use that term generously) to let them whiz by, as they, no doubt, muttered epithets about flatlanders. I visualize going over the cliff. The headline in the North Coast Journal would chronicle my demise:

"Motorist Dies in Fiery Crash." A King Range lifer would offer color for the otherwise routine news account:

"Turns out this yahoo was from Kansas. Wish I could say I'm surprised," he lamented with a sneer. "All we need now is a South Dakotan to go over the edge and we'll have a victim from each of the Great Plains states. Morons."

The GPS in my Droid assures me I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. But I'm not removing either white-knuckled fist from the wheel to confirm.

I'm OK if I can see the road in front of me. But when the road is so steep, narrow and curvy that it disappears over the front of the car, my palms get sweaty.

More than an hour and 21 miles after leaving the PCH, I finally reached the coast and could breathe again. Turned around to see from whence I came. Only from the beach, looking up, can one fully appreciate why the PCH planners skirted this section of the coast.

It takes your breath away. (Assuming you have some left after the drive to get there.)

The innkeeper could sense my lingering tension. He'd seen my type before. "Helluva drive, huh?!"

I asked him if there were any easier ways in and out. He pointed out the door to a landing strip, immediately adjacent to the beach.

One day I will return to Shelter Cove, California. I want to share it with Jackie.

She can drive.