Mendocino

A gray morning with hardly a spot of sun. We have a forecast in place for as much as ten inches of rain, but in the last couple of days only a twentieth of that has fallen. Last night an electrical panel burst into flames in the neighbor’s garage across the road from us. Someone passing by on the road saw or smelled it first. I heard fire trucks, but the sirens soon stopped, so I assumed that they had driven out of my hearing range. Come to find out they had stopped in front of my house, about six vehicles altogether. Neighbors gathered, something we seldom if ever do, and watched the fire fighters work with foam and water to stop the spread. The flashing lights from all the trucks made the dark forest look so bright and Christmas-like for a couple of hours. And fortunately, there were no injuries and very little property damage. It made me consider, however, how quickly our lives can turn upside down on us.

My wife and I have been out exploring the north coast of California these past couple of days. We had understood that much wet weather was lying just ahead, the sort that produces indoor fever for me, so we decided to take the long drive to Mendocino County before the rains begin. We have been driving to Fort Bragg and Mendocino in the winter time for many years to see the rugged, empty coastline. An hour beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, the unspoiled nature makes me think I’ve slipped back a hundred years in time.

From Fort Ross to Fort Bragg, a fish and lumber town on the coast, is eighty-five miles of road with very little human intervention, with the exception of a few small towns that turn sleepy as soon as the tourist season dies out. Point Arena, Gualala, Manchester, Elk, Mendocino. We stop in Gualala in the early afternoon for a cup of coffee, but keep our nose to the road because we want to watch the sunset from Mackerricher Beach, to the north of Fort Bragg. The trip really is too much to do in a couple of days, and we know that every time we go, but when the urge comes over us, we just drop our reasoning abilities and allow the desire to see this pristine corner of America rule over our better sense.

The sunset was not a bright one. As we walked back across the coastal headlands, however, we watched a full moon come up overhead to our east and reflect in tide pools below the rocky cliffs. We have returned to this state park and campground for fifty years. Sometimes we camp, sometimes get a motel room, depending on the weather and time of year. This time we stayed in the motel we know best, overlooking the fishing boats on Noyo Harbor, and went down to eat fish in an old restaurant on the wharf. In fifty years, the fishing industry has been reduced to practically nothing, so the sight of loaded salmon boats is now only in my memory.

After dinner we drove back south ten miles to Mendocino Village to sit by the fireplace in the old Mendocino Hotel’s victorian parlor. The hotel was built in 1878 and looks today about the way that it did back then. To sit by the fire for an evening is one huge leap back in time, probably the time in which I should have lived if I’d been given the choice.

In the morning, a continental breakfast in our motel, and then a day of taking our time following the road back toward home. We stopped and looked over several of the small villages and parks. Perhaps on the next trip to Mendocino we will plan better and bring the truck and camper, so we looked for new places to stay with the camper. The mouth of the Gualala River has a campground buried deep in the redwoods, where I would like to spend more time enjoying the sights and natural wonders in this old-growth forest and river.

We called friends who live on a hilltop between Bodega and Sebastopol the day before, and arranged to meet them for an early dinner in another old-time California town called Occidental. In this day and age, such a town as this would not be built. The location is remote, but close enough for weekenders to come from Santa Rosa and other parts, to keep the local merchants in business. We ate soup and salad with our friends. They told us of their upcoming journey to Iceland and Norway, where their daughter moved with her Norwegian husband after the unfolding of the dotcom era in San Francisco. When we were sure bay area traffic had calmed for the evening, we left behind Occidental, crossed the Golden Gate an hour later, and found our way home. Plans are already in place for a late winter or early spring return for a longer stay.

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