GARBERVILLE – Wherever you have a road, it seems, you have roadside attractions. Here in the redwoods, they line Highway 101 like so many squashed squirrels.
What do you think John Muir would've made of the Eternal Treehouse, or the assorted Drive-Thru Trees, or the Redwood Shoehouse, or the Trees of Mystery Gondola Ride or the One-Log House, or the World's Largest Chainsaw Carving – and all the tchotchkes sold alongside?
My guess is his response would've been short, caustic and utterly unprintable.
The redwoods, especially here on the North Coast, inspire great passions from poets and stark punditry from politicians. Driving down 101 from Oregon, waving to that giant Paul Bunyan statue in Klamath, I couldn't help but recall two famous dueling quotations about the redwoods. They stuck in my head like an earworm of a popular song.
John Steinbeck: "The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark that stays with you always. They are ambassadors from another time."
Ronald Reagan: "A tree is a tree. How many more do you need to look at?"
One could wax poetic all day about the redwoods, turn them into metaphors for (a) growth and change; (b) stability; (c) aspiration.
But who is the bard for the redwood roadside attraction? Who sings their praises?
Alas, they are scoffed at by the true-green environmental types, their owners seen as exploiters of nature, economic leeches out to turn a quick buck at the expense of gullible tourists.
Me, I see roadside attractions as mere guilty pleasures, harmless diversions, camp for would-be campers.
To better understand the plight of the proprietors, I pulled in to the parking lot of the One-Log House, south of Garberville near Richardson Grove State Park, to get owner Dan Baleme's perspective on life at the side of the road.
Baleme, 61, is a longtime businessman in the roadside tourism game. For years, he ran a drive-through tree operation in Phillipsville, along the Avenue of the Giants, until he lost his lease and set his sights south on 101 to a piece of land north of Piercy.
There, in 1999, he staked his claim for in-state commerce. The idea was to set up a little espresso stand and gift shop, be an enabler to the nation's caffeine addicts by selling mochas, frappes and, well, just plain coffee.
Baleme was savvy enough to know he needed a gimmick to get people to stop and spend. It had worked grandly with the drive-through tree at his previous locale, but this time he wasn't actively looking for a gambit.
Still, when a call came asking if he'd be interested in buying the One-Log House, hewn from a 2,100- year-old redwood and turned into a dainty domicile 32 feet long, 11 feet in diameter and 6 feet in height, he jumped.
He knew well the house's history, how it was chopped and built in 1946 and fixed up for the 1949 World's Fair, how it traveled the country afterward and then settled first in Leggett, then Phillipsville. Baleme knew, too, that the darn thing was popular and might attract traffic.
Because, remember, the first rule of roadside entrepreneurship is to get 'em to stop.
"The guy who owned it, his name was Bill, got cancer and had to move from the area," Baleme said. "I hadn't even got the landscaping done here. I moved it here at the same time the building was finished. It was easy getting it here. Three of the tires are originals. They just hitched it up and hauled it on over here. Piece of cake."
It took much sprucing up inside the house, which features a fully functioning kitchen, bedroom, living room, and two doors but no windows.
Baleme won't divulge the price he paid for the house.
"Yeah," he said.
Has it paid off?
Can you elaborate?
OK, so ?
"There are two things that draw people off the road: good parking and clean restrooms," he says. "Besides that, though, the espresso was the original plan for us to get people to stop. And it does. It does. But the attraction helps, too. Even in the off-season, we still have a lot of traffic."
So the $1 charged for each self-guided tour of the One-Log House adds up?
"We could charge more, but the whole thing is just to draw people here," he said. "What (the One-Log House) takes in just helps us maintain it."
It's important to keep the house looking spiffy, because nothing is so pitiful as a roadside attraction gone to seed. Well-meaning but clumsy tourists are always spilling sodas or shakes on the beds, he says, and reupholstering the chairs is neither easy nor cheap.
But Baleme wants tourists to know that he runs a first-class operation, right down to the restrooms inside the adjoining espresso bar. If there's one thing Baleme wants to impart of aspiring roadside attraction owners, it's to always keep the restrooms spotless.
"People never understand how much money is involved keeping the restrooms clean," he says. "I'm serious. That's probably 350 to 400 bucks a month just to have a restroom. Cost goes to supplies and the girls to clean them three times a day. So it's nice to have the log house that can pay for itself."
And if it doesn't work out here, Baleme has a Plan B: "The log house still has a license as a commercial trailer. I could drive it out of here tomorrow for a road trip."
And maybe stop at another roadside attraction.
Where: 705 U.S. Highway 101,
Hours:8 a.m. to 7 p.m.