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The ‘coast road’ is for ‘The Birds’

BODEGA BAY, Calif. — The schoolteacher in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” is talking with the newcomer in town.

“Did you drive up from San Francisco by the coast road?” asks Annie Hayworth, played by future-Bob-Newhart-TV-wife Suzanne Pleshette.

“Yes,” says Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren).

“Nice drive.”

Nice, indeed. That is, if, given this column’s accent on movies, you’re a fan of “Beauty and the Beast.”

One of the most scenic roads I’ve ever driven. And one of the scarier, too.

But, then, nobody forced us to return to Oregon on Highway 1 — aka “the coast road” — after a recent trip to the Pacific Grove-­Monterey area to see friends and watch Stanford-Oregon.

But She Who Likes to Wander and I are fans of maps’ “squiggly lines.” Freeways are fine if you like speed, billboards and fast-food franchises that begin repeating like cartoon backgrounds. But if you like a little adventure with your travel, you have to be willing to go where the curves take you; for example, in 2009 to an accidental discovery of Walden Pond outside Boston.

Thus, after stops for quilt shops and friends, we showed up in Bodega Bay at last light, hoping to see some places where Hitchcock had filmed his 1963 horror-fantasy film featuring seagulls and crows dive-bombing people.

“You want birds, then you’ll need to get out on the spit — and with the fading light, you’d better hurry,” a woman at the visitors’ center said.

She thought we wanted to see birds, you know, the Audubon kind. No, I explained, we wanted to see birds, the Hitchcock kind.

There wasn’t much left in the way of recognizable film spots to see, she said, but if we hurried we could see the schoolhouse where the birds trigger an early dismissal for the kids.

We found the school, which, more than a half a century after the movie was filmed, was in fabulous shape.

But no jungle gyms. No crows. It’s a private residence now, surrounded by lots of trees and houses that weren’t there in the 1960s movie. (By the way, that second half of that kids-running-from-the-school scene was shot in Hollywood with children on treadmills being harassed — as you might have suspected — by superimposed crows.)

We hung out with an Alfred Hitchcock cutout at the corner market and passed on dinner at The Bird Café. We were already three hours behind schedule to get to Mendocino, 100 miles to the north, where we had nabbed a nice Hotel Tonight rate at the nearly 150-year-old MacCallum House Inn.

What I’d imagined as two hours of blue-to-orange sea vistas, thus, became three hours of white-knuckle driving in the dark. And worries about running out of gas. Cell coverage was nowhere to be found.

We finally found gas in Jenner (pop. 136), just north of the Russian River.

But the Hitchcock stop, combined with darkness, added a touch of high anxiety to the trip that the winding road only increased.

At times, we were taking hairpin turns at 15 mph.

We found ourselves high over the coastline — and with no guardrails, it had the feel of Disney­land’s Thunder Mountain.

But, of course, there were cattle guards. And signs warning us to be on the lookout not only for cattle but horses, tractors, deer, falling rock and slides. At one point, we even came across gates, apparently used to close the roads, perhaps during storms slamming into the headlands.

Every mile felt like 10. At one point I was averaging 12 turns per minute.

Would we stay on the road? Would a night clerk still be awake when we arrived in Mendocino — if we arrived? Would birds start tapping on our car’s roof?

Let’s be honest: most of the “angry birds” scenes in Hitchcock’s thriller are fairly hokey. But the one at movie’s end, at night, when Melanie hears the sound of fluttering wings and soon realizes the birds are trying to get into the house: That’s scary.

Because it’s often the what-might-happen scenes that frighten us more than what-is-happening scenes.

The radio later reports that the birds are attacking other communities and the National Guard may need to be brought in.

Meanwhile, in real time, She Who Loves Mystery Theater turned on our satellite radio. Just our luck: Tonight’s story was about a man and woman who, while driving on a stormy night, take a shortcut and hear on the radio: “Be on the lookout for a woman who has escaped from the psychiatric hospital.”

Suddenly, in my headlights, it darted out onto the highway: a deer. And, 10 miles later, another.

Both jolted my heart as if I were Jack Nicholson getting shock treatment in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

On the radio show, the couple runs out of gas and suddenly a woman is pounding on their car, demanding to be let in. She claims she isn’t the escapee but, of course, we suspect otherwise.

As we twisted northward, one hour became two, two became three. It was the scariest drive I’ve been on since we tried to take that road along the Rogue River to the coast. (Warning: Don’t, especially in the winter.)

Finally, about 9 p.m., we entered Mendocino, where our hosts at the MacCallum House welcomed us warmly. Upon learning the history of the 1882 inn, we were pleased to note that the most tragic thing that ever happened here was the house being knocked off its foundation by the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

That said, the Mendocino area was a main setting for the TV show “Murder She Wrote” and less-­gruesome flicks such as “Summer of ’42” and “The Russians Are Coming.”

In the morning, I awoke early, poked around the artsy town and walked out to a bluff that juts into the Pacific like a giant jigsaw puzzle piece.

A gorgeous seascape, bathed in actual light.

No seagulls attacked me. No crows waited ominously on wires. All we needed to do now was survive six more hours of twisting turns before we’d be back on I-5 at Grants Pass.

Despite some breathtaking beauty along California’s coast, I’ve never been so glad to see a freeway in my life.

Not that I’m giving up on the squiggly lines.

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