POSTCARD FROM NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Part 3 – Fort Bragg to Carmel
We were far from having exhausted all the attractions Mendocino held, but Miki and Peter wanted to explore new territory, and as they caught me in an agreeable post-breakfast moment, we proceeded north along the coast. Just beyond Mendocino is Russian Gulch State Park, which, I was told, contained a waterfall worth a visit. Given that the sky was producing its own substantial waterfall at the moment, we decided to pass on this opportunity, and kept driving. We also did not appreciably slow down to inspect the Point Cabrillo lighthouse on our left, despite the beautiful 3rd Order Fresnel lens that I was told had been restored to full operation. We had just seen the lighthouse at Point Arena, and I guess we were a little jaded. In this way, we covered the seven miles to Fort Bragg in relatively short time.
When we arrived, Miki wondered, “How come we don’t see any soldiers around here?”
“Why should we see soldiers?” I asked, sounding confused, as I sometimes do in our conversations.
“Well, I thought Fort Bragg was a big military facility.”
“It is – in the Carolinas.”
“Oh…. never mind!”
Aside from the absence of soldiers, Fort Bragg also didn’t offer much in the way of excitement for tourists visiting in the rain. The museum in the center of town was closed when we arrived. There was a small co-op of antique stories, and Miki found some wonderful wrought iron hangers for pots to place on the outside wall of the house. Unfortunately for her, the capacity of our car was already maximized by the occupants, (who may have gotten a smidge larger during our travel), our luggage, and the wine we purchased in Napa. We consoled ourselves by driving further north to MacKerricher State Park outside of Cleone. From here, you can see ten miles of beach stretching in both directions, along with cypress and pine trees, seals lounging on the rocky shoals below, as well as an inland lake being visited by mallards and geese. The Park Service has lain out an impressive network of wooden ramps, allowing visitors (even handicapped ones) to make their way through some of the marshy areas in order to admire the scenery and the local wildlife. It was nice to see our tax dollars at work. Despite a chill breeze off the ocean, we made our way around the various observation areas, thoughtfully provided with plaques explaining to visitors some of the natural history they were witnessing. Peter, our chief photographer, was busy creating his own visual documentary of our travels, while I snapped various snapshots to refresh my memory in case of early senescence.
On our way back, we stopped at Glass Beach, on the north side of Fort Bragg. At the turn of the century, this beach was the local garbage dump. Since the majority of containers of the time were made of glass, the beach is filled with small, colored, translucent, smooth pebbles – the ocean’s way of dealing with the ugliness of man. We found ourselves transported back to our childhoods, as we wandered along the water’s edge, eyes downcast, picking up various glass baubles, filling our pockets with treasure. We noticed two elderly ladies carrying a plastic shopping bag, pursuing the same quest. I don’t know if kids today still play with colored glass marbles, stored for safekeeping in a cardboard cigar box under the bed. If they don’t, I’m sorry they no longer have the magic in their lives that captured the imagination of so many preceding generations since the time of the Pharaohs.
Our time on the North Coast passed all too rapidly, and it was time to wind our way back down towards home. We drove south to Elk, a tiny community of less than 300, where we paused to admire the coastal view. The people who stay in the few Victorian cottages perched on the cliff get the benefit of the serenity of a Buddhist garden (a number of Buddhas of various size and composition are scattered throughout the place), as well as a vista of dramatic composition: dark islands with giant, wave-carved portals, a peninsula filled with wildflowers and windswept cypresses jutting into the ocean spray, sandy beaches stretching to the north, and forests lining hillsides curving down to the Pacific below. It was easy to understand how the place attracted seekers of Nirvana.
Reluctantly, we departed Elk, making our way inland on Hwy 128, as it meandered through Navarro River Redwoods State Park. There is something about being in a redwood forest that is different from any other arboreal experience. Perhaps it’s the size and height of these towering giants, many already old when white men first set foot on this continent. Maybe it’s the quality of the filtered light, and how it is reflected in the milky pools on the forest floor. Or possibly, it is the soft, loamy fern-filled forest floor that cushions and silences the steps of the visitor, preserving the silence of the woods interrupted only by the thin whisper of wind from treetops. Whatever the reason, one would be hard put not to experience during a visit a sense of reverence, of peace, of the sacred. Filled with mystery of these ancient guardians of Nature, we consumed a quiet picnic lunch, departing the realm of this magical place, and reentering the busy civilization along Hwy 101. Traffic picked up considerably as we approached San Francisco, where we were treated to a spectacular view of the city and Alcatraz Island as we made our way across the Golden Gate Bridge. (Crossing the bridge during rush hour with three people in the car has the added benefit of avoiding the $5 toll imposed on other vehicles.) We drove along Golden Gate Park, and soon were passing through Silicon Valley, approaching the Monterey Peninsula close to sunset, and our destination for the night, Carmel.
There is no “off season” in Carmel, a fact we were soon to experience. The tiny city of 5,000 that once boasted having Clint Eastwood as its mayor is the host to innumerable meetings and conventions, as well as a steady stream of visitors from around the world. Drawn by its idyllic location, year-round pleasant climate, abundance of good restaurants and galleries, tourists provide a continuous stream of patrons for the local businesses. You may remember my mentioning in Part 2 of this Postcard that I had lost my folder in Napa of our advance reservations. Included inside was the dinner reservation I had made for our night in Carmel. I have been in this town a number of times over the years, as it is the site of one of our annual medical meetings, and knew a number of the local restaurants. I was fairly sure I had made reservations at Casanova’s, a popular Spanish and Italian eatery. When we arrived, however, they had no record of us, and the place was jammed, even though it was a Wednesday night. The hostess apologized, but was willing to accommodate us on their veranda. Evenings in Carmel tend to be cool; however, there was a heating lamp for our comfort, and we were reasonably warmly dressed (besides being quite hungry), so we accepted. It turned out to be a very good choice. Inside the restaurant was quite noisy, but we had the outside all to ourselves, as well as the entertainment of watching those walking by. (In Carmel, people watching can be quite entertaining. You’re as likely to see men in Pendleton wool shirts as ladies in mink coats sporting the latest trends in plastic surgery.) Despite our location, our service was very attentive (even more so when our Peruvian waiter discovered Miki’s Chilean origins), and the food was very, very good. Even Peter, who lives in Paris, was impressed with both the food and the presentation, to the point he took a photograph of the coffee service, as he had not seen it so elegantly done.
We stayed at the Best Western on the edge of town. This has the triple advantage of avoiding parking hassles (always a problem in Carmel), lower rates for bigger rooms, and the convenience of having a great French bakery across the street for starting out the morning properly fortified. The bakery also makes great deli sandwiches, which are useful carryouts if you were to spend the day (as we did) at Point Lobos State Park just down Hwy 1, and before Big Sur. If you arrive in early, you’ll be rewarded not only with a parking space, but also an opportunity to follow one of the volunteer docents around the trails as they point out the various flora and fauna of the area. The water is a more distinct shade of blue here, the most photographed tree in the world, the lone torrey pine on the point, still attracts every shutter bug that passes by, though much of the scenery I described earlier is reprised with subtle variation. We found a wonderful picnic spot overlooking one of the many coves near the end of the trail, and proceeded to enjoy yet another memorable meal together. After lunch, Miki wanted to do nothing other than find a good place to sit and watch the surf roll in. Peter and I, on the other hand, still needed to stretch our muscles before getting back into the car for the drive home. We climbed up the cliff trail behind us, and were rewarded with finding a small cove in which several seals just gave birth to their pups. It was an amazing sight, watching these animals lying on the sand below us. Beyond the cove was a field aglow with California poppies, reminding me of the phrase I learned in Norway “where the earth laughs with flowers.”
Just off the shore was a small island, almost completely covered with cormorants and other fishing birds. This was a fitting place for the end of our holiday.
On the way home, as a final treat, we stopped in Santa Barbara (actually Montecito) at my favorite restaurant (and probably the best bargain) in Southern California – the Montecito Café. Located inside the Montecito Inn, the historic hotel built by Charlie Chaplin to serve as a hideaway for the movie stars of the 20’s and 30’s, this always-popular place serves a variety of daily specials as well as standard fare at amazingly low prices. The food is always outstanding, the service good, and its worth going just for the desserts alone. Be sure you reserve your favorite on arrival, for it may be gone by the time you order it. (As you can tell, I live by the motto “Life is short and uncertain – eat dessert first.”) We were not disappointed, and hopefully, neither are you, as I end this Postcard.