REPORT FROM THE COAST

I grew up in the “Go Down the Shore” city of Philadelphia and now live in the “Go to the Beach” state of North Carolina. Last week, we visited the “Drive up the Coast” state of California. It all amounts to the same thing, in one sense; an escape to sand and surf. But in my imagination, each implies very different things, namely: The Jersey Shore is people-dominated, rough and tumble, the stuff of reality television, with boardwalks, tattoos, fudge and criminality just around the corner, real or implied.

North Carolina is mellow, with soft sunshine beating down on vast white sand, gentle waves, with coeds seeking boys and retirees seeking shells. Fishing boats bob in the near distance, patiently gathering the next meal to be eaten off paper plates beachside, in a wooden establishment inevitably called “Fish Shack” or “Shrimp Shack.” The implication is that the nearby water, as warm as bath water in the Carolinas, is a harmless neighbor, hurricanes notwithstanding.

In contrast, California’s coast, with waves crashing upon its craggy rocks, is dramatic.   We may delude ourselves into thinking we control the Atlantic Ocean, with dunes and jetties, but the Pacific shows the futility of even trying. It’s epic. It’s massive. It’s awesome.

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A wedding enticed us to San Francisco last week. We decided to extend our stay beyond the event and drove north, first to Fairfax, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg in the wine country, then “up the coast” to Point Reyes. After a day there, we traveled the famous Route 1 North two more hours to Mendocino.

I’d approached the trip with several misconceptions. First, I thought all B & B’s implied bed AND breakfast. But I soon learned, in three out of four instances, we had B-Bed, but no B-Breakfast. We survived, and it allowed us to see several additional establishments, but seriously? B & B’s without the second B? I digress.

Mendocino, in particular, is a town I pictured (admittedly without any basis whatsoever) as sparkling, pristine and pretty. For better or worse, I imagined the wealth of Newport, Rhode Island fused with the brilliant sunshine and modern architecture of South Beach, Miami. I imagined BMW’s, Mercedes’s and an occasional Tesla pulling up to valet parkers in uniforms astride wine bars clothed in earthquake proof glass. What I got was gravel roads, old wooden structures and a whole lot of aging hippies.

I’m told the weekend crowd is closer to what I pictured, escaping from the city for fresh air and open spaces. But during a Tuesday-Thursday visit, our humble rented Chevy fit right in. Some shops sparkle with hints of opulence but much of Mendocino falls several levels below “hippie chic.” One speculates endlessly about which grey-ponytailed painters and potters are “real artists” and which just subsist on family trust funds.   Coffee and sandwich shops abound, and shelter employees and customers who live in the world’s largest remaining collection of psychedelically painted Volkswagen buses.

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I have nothing against the hippie culture. Though too young to have experienced the bulk of “The Sixties” and disinclined to partake of the remnants, my sympathies for the era are bona fide. “Hair” is among my favorite musicals.   Eugene McCarthy was my first political hero. And I’m happier listening to “Whiter Shade of Pale” than almost anything written since, though I STILL have no idea what the lyrics mean. Did the singer?

I’ve concluded that the beauty of Mendocino has little to do with its people. It’s about nature. The thrilling drive through redwood forests gives way to the Pacific Ocean. It alternately glistens or is bathed in fog. Wind howls as though a storm is coming, then switches to perfect calm.  My eyes are drawn to the ocean and I can’t pull them away.

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Another misconception of mine concerns cattle. Before our visit, if I took a word association test that said “milk,” I’d respond “Wisconsin” or “Iowa.” How many people know that California leads national milk production? If that same test included “ranches,” I’d respond “Oklahoma” or “Texas.” California is actually fourth in beef production, and second in total cows. To my surprise, there are cows on hills and cows on mountains. There are cows throughout wine country, looking as comfortable as connoisseurs, though presumably not partaking. In Point Reyes, there were cows on the beach! Seriously, how many readers knew of California’s bovine bounty?

In conclusion, I enjoyed seeing a part of the country I’d never seen before. If given the chance, everyone should see the northern California coast. Perhaps, someday, I’ll learn to either do more research before a trip, or squelch the tendency to reach conclusions without any basis. And, as concerns Airbnb, I’ll check the fine print.

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