Monday, August 15, 2011

Away to Mendo

Where the river meets the ocean below the village of Mendocino
 And away to Mendocino we go again. Along California’s northern coast, this is a place that my husband and I visit at least twice a year. We pack our overnight bags, our dog and my husband’s dive gear and off we go. The trip easily takes five or six hours from our house in Santa Cruz (it is almost two hundred miles) and it is not a fun drive. It takes at least thirty minutes to get to San Jose over the coast mountains via the dreaded accident-studded Highway 17.  Onward to San Francisco, through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, and then through the heavy traffic of Santa Rosa.

Golden Gate Bridge
The mercury in the thermometer begins to seriously rise and by the time we get to Cloverdale, it is often 95 degrees (35 Celsius), a huge difference from the 65 degree temperature (18 degrees Celsius) when we left Santa Cruz three hours ago. We always stop at Cloverdale and fortify ourselves with sandwiches and cold drinks for the remainder of the trip. Sometimes it is too hot for the dog’s feet to walk on the asphalt so we carry him to the graveled side yard to relieve himself. Cloverdale is the last stop on the four-lane freeway. From there to Mendocino, a one and one-half hour slow drive, there is a two lane winding up-and -down road that makes me car-sick EVERY time. My husband does not suffer from car-sickness. Neither does the dog. I suffer alone. Usually as we crest that last hill and twist through that last turn, and finally see the ocean again, I have a gut-ache, a head-ache and a severe lack of cheerfulness. And still I come at least twice a year.

Winding road

Coastal redwoods

Why do I willingly submit to a horrific bout of car-sickness at least twice a year? Obviously Mendocino is a magnet for me. Lest you question my intelligence, let me tell you that I am not the only one affected by the pull of this area. Thousands of visitors from all over the world make their way to this quaint village by the sea every year. Originally settled by loggers lusting after the huge redwoods, Mendocino was created in the middle of the nineteenth century. The big redwoods were cut, milled and loaded into ocean-going freighters. Trucks replaced ships, logging became more regulated and the logging industry required fewer workers. Mendocino went into a slump. In the 1950’s, it resembled a ghost town. Enter Bill Zacha, a multitalented high school teacher from the San Francisco Bay area who envisioned an artists’ haven. He began to rebuild Mendocino. He bought run-down properties for as little as fifty dollars down, and spruced them up to attract renters and businesses. It worked. The picturesque houses and commercial buildings remained standing. Artists began to settle in the town and the surrounding area. Mendocino attracted several big movie productions with it pristine appearance and willingness to work with the film companies. Some of the two dozen or more movies shot here include: "East of Eden", "Island of the Blue Dolphins", "The Summer of '42",  "Cujo", "Overboard", "Wired" and "Karate Kid III". The long-running TV mystery, "Murder She Wrote" with Angela Lansbury was also filmed in Mendocino.

Tourists began to make the drive to see the location where their favorite films had been made, to see the quaint Victorian houses on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, to walk on the headlands surrounding the town and make their own discoveries in the art galleries and unique shops of the main streets. My husband and his friends have been coming to Mendocino for over thirty years to camp and dive for abalone, a delectable sea snail that lives underwater. When I accompanied my husband and his friends on a June camping and diving trip many years ago I received my first introduction to Mendocino. I can proclaim that it was love at first sight!

Flower garden in the village
Mendocino is the most beautiful place on earth. Easy for a prairie girl from Saskatchewan to say, right? Well, since my very first trip years ago to Mendocino, I have been to a few other places. I spent two weeks in Scotland (gorgeous), ten days in London (interesting but not beautiful), a week in Hawaii (nice but not stunning) and two weeks in Spain (another gorgeous place). None of those locations can unseat Mendocino in my personal (and biased) hierarchy of beautiful places. The picturesque houses, the high wooden sidewalk, the blooming flowers everywhere, the cleanliness of the town and roads, the view from the main street out to the ocean and backed by redwoods, the sheer dramatic drop from the cliff tops to the ocean, the rattlesnake grass blending into the flowing golden grasses on the headlands moving in the chilly salty air all add up to a splendor I have not witnessed anywhere else I have been.

The headlands: rattlesnake grass in the foreground
Click for more detail
Perhaps the isolation of the town and the tininess of the town remind me of my childhood in Saskatchewan. Perhaps the long view to the horizon on the Headlands and the waves of golden grass also remind me of the Prairies where I grew up. Perhaps it goes back even farther. Perhaps, because of my Scottish lineage, and the resemblance of Mendocino to Scotland’s coast, there exists in my very genetic material, in my DNA, an inherited attraction to the scenery of Mendocino. 

Village of Mendocino
Today Mendocino is a village of less than 900 residents. It is possible that its population triples during the day when visitors crowd into its shops, galleries and restaurants and remains double at night when all the beds in the bed-and-breakfasts and inns are tucked up with sleeping travellers. You can eat fish and chips in a family-type restaurant, or duck breast in a tres French restaurant.You can buy almost anything there from groceries to art works to estate jewelry to hemp clothing to homemade jams to books and so on and so on.  The coffee shop just off the high street serves a diverse group. Dreadlocked men and women in ragged hippie clothing sit side by side with very proper tourists from England, young parents try to chug their lattes while they rock the designer strollers their fussing tots sit in, campers from the parks smell of wood smoke as they catch up on the world news in the papers and some people just sit there and simply watch the people passing through. The coffee shop is a microcosm of life in Mendocino; all kinds of people with many languages heard, different ethnicities observed and yep, some wild wardrobes displayed.

MacCallum House: our wedding planner
The strongest reason why Mendocino is such a magnet for me is very personal. The appeal of Mendocino is forever cemented in my mind by its association with a life-changing event that occurred there several years ago. On a chilly June evening, on the edge of the cliffs of Agate Cove at sunset, our wedding took place. We drove to the edge of Mendocino with a Justice of the Peace and a photographer, and at 8:00 pm, we exchanged vows with only the JP and the photographer in attendance. We were in Mendocino a day before the dive band of friends and family were to arrive. The next afternoon as the divers began to drift into camp, we told them we had married the night before. We celebrated the first days of our marriage with these dear friends in the most beautiful place on earth. This may be the main reason that keeps Mendocino in my mind as the place I have to visit at least twice a year, regardless of the car-sickness, traffic or heat. To me, Mendocino is a sacred place, sandwiched between redwoods and ocean, carpeted by golden grass, paused in time and seemingly untouched by modern cares.

Agate Cove~ our personal wedding chapel.


  1. Mendo is a very special place for several reasons! (waterman)

  2. Well, I enjoyed the short pictorial story. You have a talent that is beyond just having a remarkable memory. It has been years since my last trip to that area of California. In fact 37 years give or take a few months. Road trip, may this year. Keep writing I'm waiting to purchase that first novel.

  3. I like the pictures of the town.


Alright, let's get this straight. I CRAVE feedback and I am thick-skinned. I thank you in advance for your words!