LEGGETT You've got to be exceedingly lactose tolerant to do this job, but even I was starting to feel a little nauseated by the cheesiness of pulling off Highway 101 merely to drive my car through a redwood tree.
But, I figured, what's another 10 minutes tacked onto a long road trip? Why not view this with the acute eye of a cultural anthropologist, observing the odd rituals of some curious tribe tourists?
Besides, maybe some yahoo would get his car stuck in the tree. Might be good for a few laughs at the expense of the poor sap. Gratuitous mockery, by the way, is another hazard of this job.
OK, so there are three roadside drive-thru (note the bastardized spelling) tree locations to hurtle your automobile through: The Shrine Drive-Thru Tree in Myers Flat; the Klamath Tour Thru Tree; and the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett.
I chose the Chandelier because well, it was the closest, right there where 101 and Highway 1 meet. Plus, I'd heard it was a gorgeous tree (well, as gorgeous as a redwood can be with a gaping wound carved through of its trunk) featuring branches 100 feet up that cascade down on each side like chandeliers.
When I pulled up to the ticket booth to plunk down my $5 entrance fee, I saw a motorcyclist in front of me and a blue minivan pulling up behind.
Scoping things out, it seemed my best chance of witnessing a tree-stuck vehicle on this lazy Sunday afternoon would be the bloated minivan. I silently congratulated myself for picking my company's hybrid Honda sedan instead of the Hyundai SUV for this trip.
At the booth, ticket taker Lori Wellborn carried that blank expression of sheer, utter boredom you often see on the faces of CalTrans toll takers. But she was pleasant when I start chatting her up. Her spiel seemed recited by rote.
"The property's been in the Underwood family since 1922," she said. "They carved the tree in the '30s. The current owner is John Stevenson, a nephew of the Underwoods. There's one remaining Underwood living on the park land.
"It gets pretty busy about 300 cars a day from when school gets out to when school starts again, sometimes into mid-October. The rest of the year, like now, is pretty quiet."
Great. Fine. Fascinating, even. But what I really wanted to know about was the fools who get their cars stuck in the tree.
"It happens occasionally," she said, and we shared a knowing chuckle. "It's rare for a car to get stuck so bad they can't get out. Usually, it's just a scratch. You have to really work hard to get stuck.
"Most of the time, the big SUVs figure it out the hard way. Or we'll have to tell them they aren't allowed to go through. But we can't stop people. We don't have monitors. The gift shop, but that's set back from the tree. But we can watch, and we laugh. It's entertaining."
I pressed for details. I held up the blue minivan behind me, but journalistic thoroughness could not be rushed.
"A summer ago," Wellborn continued, "we had a guy carrying one of those bulbous trailers, the short ones, you know. He got the car through, fine, but he kind of wedged the trailer in. They unlatched the (trailer). Oh my God, it was a really busy day, too. So they rounded up four guys just to go in and shove the thing out. It was amusing."
Ha-ha, yes. I thanked her and jocularly said, "Well, I gotta drive through a tree now."
She nodded and waved the blue minivan forward.
I wended my way down the dirt road to the tree. When it appeared, it was as towering and massive as it looked on the website, maybe more so. The motorcyclist had long since passed through and I saw his machine parked next to the gift shop. I had a clear path and kept it steady 5 mph (the speed limit).
Approaching the tree, I leaned left and looked above the side mirror. Plenty of room, and I again smugly congratulated myself on driving a compact car. I straightened up, took my foot off the gas, and nosed the hood into the meat of the trunk.
That's when I heard it rrrrrppptttt. A hideous screech, like a cat being run through the dryer (not that I'd personally done that, but, you know ). I slammed on the brakes. My right side mirror was wedged into the inside of the varnished bark.
I sat, paralyzed, for maybe 10 seconds, assessing the situation. Rivulets of sweat trickled down my ribcage. I gingerly put the car into reverse and inched backward. Bad idea. The collapsible side mirror ground deeper into the tree, and I slammed it into park. All right, I decided, I needed to move forward and turn the wheels left for the mirror to collapse to the inside and not snap off.
Looking in the rear-view mirror, I saw the driver of the blue minivan, who later identified himself as Emadul Huq, of American Canyon, laughing a toothy laugh. I backed up and the mirror swiveled in on itself, and I was clear to complete a totally humiliating 10-foot drive.
Parking next to the gift shop, I assessed the damage. Two hairline cracks on the black plastic of the mirror, which was a tad bent, too, but no damage to the mirror itself. When I looked up, the motorcyclist was smirking at me. He took a bite out of his candy bar and kick-started his engine.
Oh, the shame. Oh, the embarrassment.
I had become the yahoo I had come here to mock.
Can't say I didn't deserve it.
Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree
67402 Drive Thru Tree Road, Leggett
Hours: September through May: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; June through August: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 north to Williams. Go west on Highway 20 toward Clear Lake. At Willits, go north on Highway 101 to the junction with Highway 1. Turn left at the sign for Drive Thru Tree Road.