We Agreed – It Was Better in the Dark

rolling hills in northern california

The Title Will Make Sense – 

It’s not what you might be thinking. Here’s the setup. We’re in Yosemite, and instead of staying in that exquisite park for another day, I decide the thing to do is explore somewhere else. Hence the trip to Tuolumne Meadows and Mono Lake.

However, that meant we had to continue towards Sacramento for our next house sit. We had one more night to fill, and I thought that Mendocino National Forest sounded splendid.   

rolling hills in northern california

The east entrance to the forest is about an hour northwest of Sacramento. The roads west of Interstate 5 go up towards mountains and pass through several areas with inhabitants.

The first one, with a few hundred in the population and maybe twenty stores, was followed by increasingly smaller villages. We got down to around 16 citizens in the last one. Farms and ranches dotted the area, cattle farms mostly. 

rolling hills in northern california

From afar, the eastern face of some of the hills looked striped as if tilled by design to follow the curves of the hill. Up closer, we saw that they were natural. The erosion seemed to pile up in long rows every few feet. Very strange. 

Mendocino National Forest Sign

Mendocino National Forest

It took at least an hour to reach the forest entrance, and we entered filled with anticipation. We’d found quite a few great campgrounds in National Forests and were looking forward to another one.

Mendocino National Forest

After driving quite a bit, we arrived at the area said to have several campgrounds and found two fellows camped in one site, trailers perched by a stream in a small valley. It was one of those campgrounds that are out in the open with hardly any trees. Since this was a forest, we thought we could find a better spot and kept driving. Our first mistake!

Mendocino National Forest

The narrow road crept along heavily forested areas, above creeks, and over a few passes. 

Mendocino National Forest

As you can tell from the photos, it was quite foggy which made it difficult for us to see the surroundings.

Mendocino National Forest

From what we could see, it was an enchanting forest. Once the fog lifted a bit, we did get some great vistas. 

Mendocino National Forest

This forest was empty! We didn’t see a single vehicle after we left the first campground or other campgrounds. I did enjoy finding this moss-covered rock pile, look at that heavenly sight! 

Mendocino National Forest

Our Home for the Night

Finally, a campground! Not only was it empty – it looked positively abandoned as if forgotten. With a light rain falling, and not too much time before dark, we took a short tour.

The area was gorgeous with tall trees all around, a lake and even ducks swimming by the shoreline, and we had it all to ourselves.

Mendocino National Forest

We chose a site with the most trees around it. We would need those to hang tarps since the rain had already begun falling. First, let’s build a fire so we can have a nice hot dinner.  Ah, no. That wasn’t happening. Anything kindling sized was sopping wet.

Jim got a fire-making merit badge some time ago, like five decades. But there was no way to get the flames going. We gave up on that idea and ate a cold meal in the car. 

Mendocino National Forest

Next – Put Up the Tent

That was not a joyful event. We turned the car towards the area and put up the tarps and tent in the light from the headlights. We were confident we could do this no matter the conditions and somehow stay mostly dry through the night. 

The trouble was we were soaked before we had a chance to get in the tent. What are you going to do? Spare clothes were about the only solution, and those would be wet soon enough. Just hit the hay and fall asleep to the pitter-patter of the rain.

Mendocino National Forest

We Woke Up at 4:00 am

– both antsy – so we packed up in the pitch dark using the car headlights again (thankfully the rain had stopped) and started back toward civilization.

I had the grand idea to take a different road since the map on my phone showed it would be quicker and would entail less backtracking. Our second mistake!

It turned out to be – let’s choose the words carefully – a giant %((%#&* mistake. What follows are a few recollections of the worst four hours we’ve ever spent together!

life-sized metal sculpture of a man

Let’s go backward on this one. When we finally got to pavement, after four hours, Jim got out and kissed the asphalt and got a mouth full of grit for his troubles. He hasn’t done that before or since. One right turn on a hard surface, and we felt some serious mercy. 

run-down house

Of course, right then a deer decided to run across the road, and we had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision, by inches. The deer saw the “deer in the headlights” look on our faces.

rolling hills in northern california

Even that paved road soon ended, and we had to endure 25 more miles on a twisting, bumpy, single lane county road. It was at least out of the woods, even though we weren’t yet.

That came only after sliding around on curves, nearly hitting a pack of dogs chasing us from a farmhouse, driving at the edge of a steep hill around construction equipment parked right on the road. You know, that kind of road.

a narrow dirt road

Okay, Back to the Beginning

When you start driving at 5:00 am you expect it to be dark, right? Most places we’ve been you can get a reading on the direction, even in the dark. Not here. Lights off and you can’t see twenty feet!

Just follow the signs, though, and we’ll be alright. This had been an out-of-the-way campground on forest service roads, and they just had little number signs which were almost impossible to see.

We didn’t know there is a rule that says forest service signs must be 1) small, 2) vague, 3) on the other side of intersections, and 4) well hidden. Oh, and of course non-reflective. These are placards at best, four by four items on sticks a foot tall. 

This video indicates what it was like for the first hour or so. 


The Only Good Thing 

about the first two hours? The dark. If we had seen the steep drop-offs and the sharp curves in the light, we would have – perhaps you can guess what we might have done, hence the post title. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a map with these roads marked, and good luck with that, they have a way of looking real, a vision full of hope. Mountain Road 5 was not. Real that is. That was what we were looking for, and looking for, and looking for to no avail.

When we finally found it, we felt some relief. That was after innumerable twists and turns, ups and downs. Slow roads at best, pot holes, washboard surfaces, significant areas washed out in the rain, and fallen tree limbs across the road. 


I got out of the car for that water crossing; I was utterly terrified! It doesn’t look so bad on the video, but it was jagged, deep, and I was sure a tire would fall off, or the car would get stuck in the middle.

Did we turn around at that point? No, my phone map said a real road was coming up soon, so we kept going. Our third mistake!

Jim kept at it trying to dodge the massive holes and bumps on the way, our car thumping and scratching the bottom. Eventually, we arrived at the spot where my phone said we would find the road.

That’s when we saw our future in full Technicolor – we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by canyon walls all around and not a road in sight!  

metal sculpture of an alligator in miseryWe Found the End of the Line!

There was no road, only a high mountain where there should be a road, oh, and a river between us and the mountain.

The road was on the other side, and there was no way for us to get there!

Of course, we had no cell service and couldn’t call AAA or anyone else. We imagined all sorts of terrible scenarios; we couldn’t help it. It was quite scary. 

metal sculpture of an animal head

There was only one thing left to do. When you know your future involves backtracking, and the daylight lets you see how terrible the road is, and you know it’s destroying your car, and you’ve already spent hours getting to where you are, and you know exactly what’s involved in getting back to your starting place, one tends to the morose, right? 

mendocino national forest

I didn’t know it was possible to be in shock quite that long. It was a cold, slow, never-ending kind of a shock to the point of numbness, and boredom. Now a real shock at least has the option of some excitement. Not this one.

Short of tumbling off the road down a mountain, there was no excitement to be had. 

We counted 18 hours without seeing another human. This was one time it would have been great to see someone. Anyone. But there wasn’t a Boy Scout in sight, as Randy Newman sings in the Naked Man.

metal sculpture of an octopus

The After Effects

We’ve passed the turnoff for this area on Interstate 5 several times since then. Neither of us has been able to look that direction. We can laugh about a lot of things: ticks, spotted fever, lots of things – even elections. This one is still not funny to us. Maybe that will happen after we get the bumper fixed, but it hasn’t happened yet. 

life sized metal sculpture of a wagon and horses

But, and this is important, we did get to the next house sit on time. (Neither rain nor sleet and all that.) We didn’t know it was possible to have that much trouble by 11 am.

If you’re ever over that way and see a sign for the 5, the Mountain Road 5 that is, go the other way. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble. We’ll be glad to share what it looks like up there. Believe me, we know.

What’s Next – A lot of travel

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