2000s Archive

Mendocino Here I Come

Originally Published August 2002
Head north across the Golden Gate Bridge and you're off and running on a weekend odyssey of nonstop food and wine, water and woods.

Driving north from San Francisco, up to Mendocino on a two- or three-day jaunt, is America's best urban escape. That isn't only my opinion. I can prove it. Consider this: Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and you're there (okay, except at rush hour), sailing through the mountains on a curvy highway flooded with light even when the city you just left is shrouded in fog. What other big city gives you such instant access to nature? Not L.A., where, by the time you get to the desert or the mountains, you might as well have run the Indy 500. Not New York, where the shore eventually appears but only after 500 rest stops clogged with trucks and McDonald's. Not even San Francisco on other routes out of town, where clutter is just as troublesome.

And this: What other circle route—up the coast road, clinging to mountains that would just as soon dump you into the sea, back on the inland trail through redwoods and wine country—takes you past beaches for picnics and oyster stands for lunch, country inns set above the ocean boulders and a Zen retreat with its own organic farm, vineyards hidden in the hills and an orchard where you can pick up the tastiest preserves this side of Provence?

So here I go again, this time in a rented convertible. Once off the bridge, I race up 101, the freeway, but soon turn off onto Highway 1, the nice, slow, winding road that leads over to the coast. It's 150 miles up to Mendocino, but I'm not in a hurry, so I pull off just before the ocean at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center to spend the night.

The driveway is a long, slow hairpin slide through eucalyptus down to the bottom of the valley. All is calm below in this secret, shady world that Alice herself might have stumbled into. I find the office and pick up not a key but a number, for the combination lock to Hope Cottage, a one-room haven at the top of the mountain that is accessible only on foot. It takes me 30 minutes to walk up. And it's hard work, since I'm carrying a small bag and groceries for the night. Once there, though, I'm in Marin County heaven, a lofty paradise looking down to Muir Beach on one side, over to Mount Tamalpais on the other.

The cabin has a tiny kitchen, a big stone fireplace, and, on the wall, a photo of movie-star-glamorous Hope Wheelwright, who built the retreat back in the 1950s. A sign on the fence outside warns hikers that the occupant of the cottage is "On Retreat." And I guess I am. After watching the sun drop into the Pacific, I make a small dish of pasta, light a fire, and climb into bed, falling asleep to the crackles and thumps of prowling animals. In the morning, I descend for a walk through the vast vegetable gardens that provide Green Gulch with one of its reasons for being. Glowing leaves of sun-soaked lettuce are a beautiful contrast to the brooding forest colors in the glen. Green Gulch also supplies Greens, the wildly popular vegetarian restaurant overlooking San Francisco Bay that turns much of the bounty produced here into lunch. For my midday meal, I join the others in a communal breadline but climb back up the hill later for another night in my fortress of solitude.

After breakfast, I set off for Mendocino on an eight-hour ride of dips and curves that comes with its own carnival cast of characters. First stop: Bolinas, the wonderfully wacked-out coastal village where residents are still somewhat stuck in the '60s. They're famous for tearing down highway signs pointing the way into town, so the simple act of showing up feels like sneaking into a club you don't belong to. Today, belly dancers on top of a flatbed truck are wiggling and throwing kisses, just behind a hollowed-out Cadillac with trees sticking from its trunk and foliage where the motor ought to be. Folks are in a more welcoming mood; it's the Fourth of July.

A few miles up the highway, I skip the turn for Inverness and the Point Reyes lighthouse—some other time—but can't pass up a container of Fromage Blanc from the Cowgirl Creamery, in Point Reyes Station. Farther along, in Marshall, I pull off the road for farm-raised oysters. I gulp down six small sweetwaters and a half dozen belons while chatting with the owners of Hog Island, one of a handful of seafood companies along Tomales Bay. While I'm there, a couple pulls in to buy fresh oysters to take to their son's birthday party—an annual tradition, they tell me.

Next: coffee along the Marshal Dillon main street in Tomales. But this town isn't Dodge; scones and latte lurk behind its movie-set façades. Parallel parking, a skill that doesn't pop back quite as fast as riding a bike, makes me nervous. My screaming-red Mustang is now threatening the paint jobs of a rust-colored Porsche Carrera and a silver Audi Quattro.

Crossing the Sonoma County line, I zip through Bodega Bay, forgoing the take-away crab at the Tides Wharf but paying fleeting homage to Hitchcock's horror classic The Birds, which was shot on location here (but at the old Tides, now long gone).

Just a mile and a half to the north, the Children's Bell Tower honors a local boy who was killed in 1994 by highway robbers while on vacation in southern Italy. When his parents made the unimaginable decision to donate their son's organs to Italians in need, Italy went to pieces in a collective outpouring of emotion. Schools and churches across the country donated the bells; the big one in the center was blessed by the pope. The tower that resulted stands humbly off the road, like a Buddha. When the wind picks up, and the bells softly tinkle, there is no more powerful monument anywhere. It packs the same punch as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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