Part 2: CALIFORNIA: On My Mind

As I settle down to pen these impressions on my all-too-short time in Northern California, I’m acutely aware that this will be a subject (and a state) I’ll long return to. My hopes – my expectations – for The Golden State were unquestionably high from the very outset of this idle adventure across the pond, but nothing could prepare me for the visceral, emotional reaction I was to experience in such a short period of time. Like an ancient mariner, Califia lulled me to her rocky, grey-sanded shoreline with her siren song and has consumed me whole. 

My three days in Northern California would first take me from the heart of San Francisco to Tiburon, a rush-hour journey that fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition to not only see – but to cross – the Golden Gate Bridge. My window seat aboard the British Airways 747 that had transported me from a rainy, miserable Heathrow Terminal 5 had already afforded me a spectacular birds-eye view of the bridge and the Bay Area as I flew into SFO, but I was impatient to get up close and personal with this legendary structure.

Set against a sunset canvas of uninterrupted cornflower-blue sky and rich, verdant hills, the bridge, with its distinctive industrial orange colour, looked magnificent – every bit the larger-than-life iconic symbol I’d dreamt of since errant boyhood.

Tiburon itself sits on a small peninsula that looks back towards the city of San Francisco with Angel Island State Park and the infamous prison, Alcatraz, geographical stepping-stones in-between. The pace of life here fits perfectly with its comfortable, affluent, relaxed ‘vibe’. Hotel prices for the Bay Area are not for the faint-hearted or easily offended and staying at The Lodge at Tiburon (where I spent this first night) could certainly give cause for a grown man to weep should he be possessed of a cheese-paring disposition. But the hotel is very nicely appointed, the grounds being particularly lovely around sunset. Reception and restaurant staff were very friendly, and my overall impression was extremely positive. It was also here that I lost my Guacamole virginity. 

For this first leg of my ‘across the pond’ adventure, I was blessed to have the company of my very dear friend, Shanel, who, as a local of the state, was perfectly placed to aid and advise – to point out and elaborate; to patiently answer my endless stream of questions.

One of the things that really struck me as I went first from San Francisco to Tiburon, then further north to Rohnert Park, Ukiah, Willits, Fort Bragg and Mendocino, was an unshakable feeling of familiarity; perhaps better expressed as a profound sense of comfort. California is the furthest west I’ve been, yet I felt closer to my home in England than anywhere else I’ve travelled to. This, coupled with the state’s pervading sense of pride and community; of progressive attitudes not mired in political dogma and conventional obedience, but in simple humanity and shared experience, was both palpable and inspirational. 

But back to my gambols. Tuesday morning was kicked off with a lovely walk down to the Caffe Acri for a wonderful breakfast. From that vantage point, and with the early morning sun warming the surroundings, the views across the bay to San Francisco, Alcatraz and the GGB were simply spectacular. 

No self-respecting Englishman with a penchant-cum-addiction for coffee could spend more than a few hours in the US without quenching his thirst at Starbucks, and mine was suitably, well, quenched at their Commercial Blvd establishment in Rohnert Park. One of the joys of Starbucks in the US as opposed to their UK cousins is the cleanliness. At home, tables are often sticky and the service slow and impersonal. In the US, customer service and satisfaction prevail. It was also at this point of my journey that I was introduced to the charming appellation, “Swamp Donkey.” I’m told it just adds to the local colour LOL!!!

For reasons of decency and fragile ego, we won’t dwell on my abhorrent mispronunciation of Ukiah. Suffice to say, Shanel promptly corrected me – and didn’t make me feel the least bit foolish LOL!!! But the city of Ukiah was, indeed, our next call – and my first opportunity to visit that uniquely American Xanadu…Walgreens. Now, anyone who knows me reasonably well will testify to my inexplicable love affair with this company, and the E Perkins store didn’t fail to disappoint. From Walgreens and its extensive men’s toiletries aisle, we made our way to a place I’d only heard of in hushed tones and quiet corridors; a mythical place I thought had been born solely out of legend…In-N-Out Burger. This being my first visit, I left the choice of fare to my esteemed chaperone who “Chose wisely.”

One feature of this region that would be particularly unfamiliar to British eyes is the growth of Cannabis Dispensaries. A good number were pointed out as we made our way around Mendocino County, including Ukiah’s The Compassionate Heart. Whilst in California, and cheerfully falling victim to their relaxed attitude to most things, I will freely admit to enjoying a Root Beer sucker (lollipop) and a steady supply of Key Lime Pie Gummies, all fortified with a little THC. When in Rome, and all that…

Since first discovering the music of The Beach Boys at the tender age of 7 years and 50 weeks, I have always wanted to dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean. So, after leaving Ukiah and Willits (where I got to see the second Reno Arch, now situated over S Main St), we headed out towards the coast and Fort Bragg. 

I made my first of what I hope will be many visits to the Pacific shoreline at Pudding Creek Beach, a beautiful cove with rocks jutting out on both sides, accessed beneath a wonderful wooden trestle bridge. Watching the waves come crashing in was quite the emotional experience. I’ve always been drawn to the beach and the sea…but there was something wonderfully mysterious, unique and overwhelming about this vast expanse of blue ocean. There was, in the most real and tactile of ways, a physical connection to the beach, the water and the great state of California, more generally.

Pudding Creek Beach. Photo Credit: Mark Blasdale

MENDOCINO, HE WROTE – With my toes enlivened by the healing waters of the Pacific, the last port of call this full and amazing day was to head the ten miles south along SR1/Shoreline Highway to the picturesque town of Mendocino. Famed as the filming location for such movies as East of Eden, Forever Young, and Overboard, as well as the popular television series, Murder, She Wrote, Mendocino is the kind of place one can easily – and quickly – fall in love with. 

The Sweetwater Inn and Spa is situated on Main Street, close to Mendocino Bay and the Mendocino Headlands State Park. Punctuated by two popular restaurants (one Italian – Luna Trattoria; the other French – Café Beaujolais), the Sweetwater Inn has that relaxed, uninhibited air that seemed to permeate much of the area I visited in Northern California. The spa itself is clothing optional and it was definitely a first for me to be sat naked in a hot tub, gazing up at a night’s sky full of stars and their attendant constellations.

For the uninitiated, breakfast at The Sweetwater Inn takes the form of jumbo muffins which are left at your door in a befitting wicker basket by what one can only assume is the Muffin Fairy. After breakfast, I took a stroll along Mendocino’s Main Street, taking the pathway at the junction of Main and Heeser that leads out to the Headlands. Having someone with local knowledge is essential for the first-time visitor as there is a cavern – a vast circular hole in the rock with the blue ocean at its base – that is not readily visible and thus, could have been easily missed had I not had Shanel to steer me in the right direction.

This Wednesday brought with it the sad realisation that later that day, I’d be saying “Goodbye’ to Shanel as she headed home, and I checked into the Hilton Garden Inn, Santa Rosa in readiness for my flights the following day to Portland and Reno. But before then, there was work to do…

The short story – LULLABY OF THE GIANTS – was conceived to coincide with my trip to the Pacific coastline of Northern California; my own love letter to the mighty Redwoods of Anderson Valley and the Sierra Nevadas that form the most picturesque of backdrops to Lake Tahoe.

The story of an Eden destroyed by Man, only to be reclaimed by the Ancient One, ‘Lullaby’ will hopefully add a little something to the environmental debate; helping to change the selfish behaviour of those people whose passion for greed so clearly harms our beautiful planet.

Leaving Mendocino, we took a leisurely drive through the Anderson Valley towards Philo, gazing in awe at the mighty Redwoods that dominated the landscape, stopping at the Roederer Estate for an informal wine tasting before entering the cathedral-like Hendy Woods State Park to walk amongst those mighty giants of the coastal forest. Here, I also got my first sighting of Poison Oak!!!

On our way out to Ukiah/Mendocino on the Tuesday, and on the journey down to Santa Rosa (on the Wednesday afternoon), we passed through the small town of Geyserville. I’d made a couple of hastily written notes about the Edenic scenery surrounding this – and other – towns of similar size and situation in my notebook. It was therefore a shock (to say the very least) that sitting down to a complimentary breakfast the following morning, I heard that overnight a wildfire had broken out and that the residents of Geyserville were subject to compulsory evacuation orders. The Kincade Fire, as it was called, began at 9.24pm on Wednesday 23rd October and wasn’t completely confined until fifteen days later. It destroyed almost 78,000 acres. Millions of PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) customers were without power – including Shanel.

A late lunch was had at the Victory House in Santa Rosa, but there was an air of melancholy (certainly as far as I was concerned). I’d had such a wonderful time that I was more than somewhat reluctant to say goodbye to it all. But time is a cruel mistress and before long, I was checking-in to my airport hotel and waving like an idiot as my friend drove off in the direction of home.

There was, however, one last moment to savour. It occurred in the early hours of Thursday morning as I lay in bed. From out of the darkness came the unmistakeable elephantine bugle of a passing freight train, shattering the stillness of those predawn hours and was, I assure you, the perfect farewell to a perfect stay in God’s own Eden.

Photo Credit: Mark Blasdale

My time amongst the Coastal Redwoods was just one of a hundred magical memories I took with me from California. I’ve been to many places – and fancy myself quite the traveller – but there was something about those forests, the energy and vibrancy of the people, their uninhibited attitude – their willingness to let everyone live their lives how they see fit – everything resonated with me. To quote Shanel (albeit completely out of context…largely because this deserves inclusion, but I’ll be damned if I can work it in by more legitimate means), “Everybody will be hitting my pool noodle.”

Next up: Nevada (with a sprinkling of Oregon thrown in for good measure).