Locals call it “Mendo”. I know that because my sister lives there now—really she lives in Little River but it’s also “Mendo”, because just up the road the town rests on the Northern California coast-line. I can love this place like I love San Francisco, because it’s in my blood. The town of Mendocino has not changed under the heavy layer of years like the City has because of strict zoning laws. I can walk it now and visit the exact same store in which I bought a brown paisley scarf in 1966.
A lumber town built by greed, it’s a white-board folly of turn-of-the last-century’s gingerbread style. There’s a church with a steeple topped by angels, a venerable hotel, and an art center, all still standing and unchanged. No sprawl, no mini-mansions, no freeway. Highway 1, a winding two-lane roadway looping around the Mandelbrot Set coastline, will never be widened. My sister’s retirement settlement is finely-manufactured homes tucked into the redwoods off a country road—you wouldn’t even know it was there.
After our family moved from The Farm—our five-acre place outside of Pleasanton—the annual summer trip to Hermosa Beach ceased. Instead, we took up camping. That helped ease the sting of 1) moving into Livermore into a tract-home of 1400 square feet and 2) no longer driving eight hours to the beach. Thus began several years of renting a camping trailer and driving to Van Dam State Park at Little River, roughly 150 miles north of San Francisco. The park sits in a ravine carved into the hills, ending at a beach. The beach in Northern California is not the same as the beach in Hermosa; it is not for swimming except for those who wear a wet suit like the abalone divers, but it’s wadable and the setting imaginary.
Leaving the heat of Livermore summers, we bring our winter coats and jeans for our stay on the cool coast. We have a favorite camping spot in the park, and the station-wagon is full of girlish glee when we arrive and our spot is available. There is a stream through the park, and we can walk through nettles and blackberries to it and scan for the tiny fish that live in it. There is a trail winding deep into the ravine called the Bog trail through damp clumps of skunk cabbage, and another climbing up the hillside through fairy-worlds of moss and redwoods and spears of sunlight.
There is also a trip into Mendo, just a mile or two north. We walk through the town, visit shops and browse, watch the waves crash along the cliffs below the town. We visit the Art Center with its odor of linseed oil.
I’ve been back to the town several times, and never tire of visiting there. The town lies a distance in from the coast itself, and one may now walk the bluffs along a trail, wind-blown and salty, to watch sea lions sunning on the rocks, and to be scrutinized by ravens. The restaurants are tasty but expensive. The B and B’s are quaint and friendly. There’s a beautiful cemetery on a bluff above the town, shaded by a eucalyptus grove. (I love a good cemetery!)
Just north of town is another state park—Russian Gulch. The Russians settled the northern California coast more than a century ago. In the park is a blow hole. Not that the Pacific Ocean spews up from it, so it’s not really a blow hole but a circular opening in the bluff penetrated by the sea via a submerged channel. It’s quite large and encircled by a wooden fence for the obvious reason of preventing anyone from falling into it. Depending on the tide, its bottom will be filled by churning sea water or bare wet sand.
(I wrote a drawer-novel set in Mendo that I mean to get back to, and the blow-hole is featured in it.)
After several camping summers there, the family decamped for further north, to the realms of Shelter Cove and the Lost Coast, Prairie Creek and Crescent City. But Mendocino will always be my go-to place, if not in person, certainly in my heart.