I recently joined an online forum for aficionados of Mercedes SLK cars. I happen to own an early model, a 2001 SLK230. It’s a sporty, two-door, four-cylinder supercharged roadster, with a six speed manual transmission, and a load of fun. It’s what got me across the country, and may someday take me to Mexico City. I just submitted this post to my SLK club, and thought I’d re-post it here.
After what seemed like endless days of gray, rainy weather, the morning dawned looking like it’d be yet another rerun of gloom. But by noon, the sky had mostly cleared, the pavement was dry, the temperature had reached the mid-60’s, and I could hear my SLK whispering softly from the garage,
“C’mon…it’s nice. Take me out! Take the top down and find a twisty road where we can let loose and strut our stuff.”
How could I resist? After just a few of those whispers, my will gave out, and by two o’clock, I was on the road, top down. Heading north through Redding, California on highway 273, I could see the lower Cascade mountains off to the east, crowned by the regal Mount Lassen. To the west, where I was headed, the coastal mountains that separate the northern tip of the San Joaquin valley from the Pacific Ocean beckoned me.
Before leaving, I had done a little research on Google Maps. Though it was virgin terrain for me, it looked promising: mountains, tiny roads, lakes and streams. Surely there would be some exciting driving ahead.
I turned left at Buenaventura Avenue, but hit a red light almost immediately. A white Buick Riviera with an elderly driver sat to my right. Ahead, the road narrowed to one lane in each direction. “I gotta get ahead of her, or this mountain road is going to be nothing more than an exercise in frustration,” I murmured to myself. I could see the opposing light turn yellow, and I depressed the clutch, engaged first gear, and got ready. Green! I let out the clutch, pressed the accelerator to the floor, and listened with glee as the whir of the supercharger rose to a whine. I jammed it into second and hit the first curve with gusto. Soon I was in third and the Riviera was just a bad memory.
Yes! I was now flying up the hill with the wind in my hair, no one ahead of me, and the road racing up to greet my tires. After a few sweeping curves, I crested the hill and hit Placer Road. There I made a left. Placer Road is a broad, two-lane country highway with gentle turns running through rolling hills. Though not a particularly technical or twisty drive, it’s pleasant place to zoom through with the top down. As I drove, the houses thinned out to be replaced with farms, cows, and open grasslands dotted with gnarled old oaks, still leafless from the winter. I could see their twisted silhouettes against the cloud-flecked sky, and felt glad to be alive.
This part of Northern California is the transition zone between the valley and the mountains. So there are wide meadows dotted mostly with oaks. It’s mainly cattle country, with little other farming. The terrain is hilly, and as you get farther from the valley, begins to get steep.
After a few miles of gentle curves, rises and falls, I crossed Clear Creek Bridge. I stopped to take a picture of the car next to it. The bridge was surprisingly high, and I’d estimate the creek was about a hundred feet below. By this point, Mr. SLK was happy. His engine was purring softly, and his suspension had just gotten warmed up. But he wanted more than Placer Drive. “Find me a twisty side road,” he softly begged me. “C’mon, we can find somewhere where we can really have some fun.”
Who was I to say no? So I got back in and drove on. Shortly I found Muletown Road. The sign warned that it was twisty and that the pavement would end in three miles. “That sounds like fun!,” I thought to myself as I pointed the SLK down the country road. I was not disappointed. The pavement, though smooth, was not wide, and there was no center line. There were some houses along the way, but it was mostly desolate countryside. Though a small and twisty road, I managed to keep the car in third gear, with about 2,500 RPMs, which meant I was keeping a speed around 30-40 MPH. At one point, I nearly planted it into an embankment, but a quick stab at the brake followed by a deft move of the steering set me back on course and I continued without incident. Off to the side of the road, I spotted a flock of wild turkeys and stopped to take a photo. I’d seen these birds many times around my home in Boston, but I was surprised to find them here. Camera shy, they quickly disappeared into the underbrush.
After a few miles, a sign warned that the pavement was ending. At this point, I also encountered a young family. Because I had learned to drive on twisty dirt roads, I wasn’t fazed by the idea of no pavement. But I asked the family if the road was public. They took one look at my car and said, “You won’t make it in that. If we have to go on that road, we take our large four-wheel drive truck. You’re probably best off just going back.”
“Makes sense. I guess I’ll follow your advice then,” I said, and turned around, the tiny turning radius of the car coming in handy yet again. God, I love this car! The ride back to Placer Road was all the better since I now knew what to expect. I hit the twisties with greater vigor, and soon I was back on the highway and continued on. After another couple of miles, Placer Road turned into South Fork road.
The road then narrowed and began to wind. Though I saw the occasional other car, they were few, and fortunately going the other way. I would have quickly caught up with anyone going the same direction.
Suddenly I saw Zogg Mine road, and it looked like Muletown road, only better. A dire warning was posted at the entrance: “Narrow Winding Road. Road ends in 4.6 Mi. Trucks Not Advised. NO TURNAROUND.” “Well, in my little car, that last bit shouldn’t be a problem,” I thought. “Sounds like fun, in fact.”
I turned right, and my next adventure began. I immediately crested a small hill, and then the road narrowed dramatically. The center line disappeared, and all I could see were hills, trees, grass, and the road disappearing off into the distance. “Yes! Pay dirt,” I thought with glee.
As I raced along, I could feel the suspension working overtime. The turns were narrow and banked, often the wrong way. As the turns shifted direction, the banking reversed. The road went up and down, and as I zoomed along I felt like I was on the back of a bucking bronco. But the SLK’s suspension ate it all up with aplomb, keeping the car firmly planted without shaking my teeth out.
Since my car is the 230 with only a four cylinder engine (not a six), it has nearly perfect 50/50 weight balance. Thus the handling is incredibly neutral and forgiving. It’s almost impossible to make the tires squeal, and even with the traction control off, it takes persistence to spin the tail. Incredibly, I was able to do most of this road in third gear, again maintaining a speed between the low 30’s and the mid-40’s. Since I didn’t know the road, I had to be a bit careful, but it was an exhilarating ride nonetheless.
As I got higher into the mountain, the trees got thicker, and soon I was driving under a forest canopy. The occasional house went by in a blur, but I was mostly alone on this wonderful country road. Soon, I saw a waterfall to my right, and then a babbling creek to my left. I stopped to take photos.
After a few more miles, I got to the end of the road, which rather suddenly turned into someone’s driveway. It was only by slamming the brakes that I managed to not end up on the guy’s porch. Jeeze, there really was no place to turn around. By then, the road was maybe eight feet across. Since the driveway was literally festooned with “No Trespassing” signs, I didn’t want to ask if I could turn around in the guy’s driveway. So I ended up backing up about fifty feet before I could turn around. “Man, that warning sign wasn’t kidding,” I thought.
By then it was about four thirty, and I knew it was time to think about getting home. I had promised to cook dinner for my elderly mother, and I knew she’d be hungry. As I headed back, I reflected back on the drive. It had been a perfect afternoon, with temps in the 60’s, top down, few cars on the road, and some really fine twisties. I counted myself a lucky man as I headed back along Placer Road, and then back onto the interstate.
Since I’m still stuck here in Redding, I can hardly wait for my next chance to explore more of these country roads.