Following a predetermined course has its merits, but diverging has its opportunities.

Every summer, as the rainfall nears next to nothing, we watch the Mad River near our house sink. The mouth of the Mad River moves farther north, searching for an easy place to push through the sand dunes next to the Pacific. Generally, the river meanders in a northwesterly fashion until, within a quarter mile of the Pacific, it makes an abrupt and illogical 90 degree turn north-northeast to parallel the coast until it deems it time to exit into the ocean.  The heavy winter rains bring the mouth of the Mad back to the south, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever seen the river flow straight out into the ocean without making the 90 degree turn first. From aerial photographs, it looks like it has happened, just south of the Mad River Beach County Park, but otherwise the trees and higher dunes suggest it hasn’t happened anytime recently [maybe 1964? Or 1955?].

Mad River Sunset

The name of the river comes from a meandering man, Josiah Gregg, once a school teacher, doctor, business man, author, reporter, prospector, and naturalist, who didn’t seem to plan much out. At the age of twenty-four, he had already studied law and surveying and been a teacher. His doctor recommended he move from Missouri to New Mexico to be cured of those 1800s-style diseases that don’t like dry climates. Apparently, on that move, he got the wandering bug and never really sat still after that. No doubt, he probably saw more of the country [and Mexico] than most of us have. He was a business man for a while, then a practicing doctor for two years until he joined the California gold rush.

Mad River Sunset II


The mining party he led set out along a gnarly river then cut west to the redwoods, ignoring the advice of the tribe they came across [and stole food from] to take a trail to the coast. They made horridly slow progress through the forest at two miles a day [since Gregg was a naturalist and naturalists aren’t fast people], but reached the Pacific in a record six weeks [when it should have taken 8 days, according to locals]. The area wasn’t well mapped, so they were the first to find the largest bay in the region, Humboldt Bay, by land [in 1849!]. Apparently, Gregg’s crew got sick of him measuring and recording everything, so at the mouth of a river on the coast, they marched off while he measured the latitude. Once he caught back up with his party, he threw a fit. They agreed on one thing, to name the river the Mad River in honor of his temper tantrum.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst part of the trip for Gregg, who died of starvation and fell off his horse before getting to San Francisco to report the location of the Bay. But thanks to his efforts, ships came up from San Francisco the next year to chart the Bay, and almost 50 species of plants are named in honor of Gregg. So imagine, if he and the Mad River had taken the straightest route, how different and lack-luster the story might have been!