Saturday, February 3, 2007

North, East, West, South--not necessarily in that order

And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I'll rise with it til I rise no more

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea

Kate McGarrigle

Russian Imperial Flag
Fort Ross State Historical Park
Sonoma County, California
Taken 1/30/07

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that news, as in what we read in the newspaper or see on TV comes from the four points on the compass. Of course, etymologically the two are not at all related, but still.

Tuesday morning, I packed up the Volvo, had a last breakfast of granola and coffee at the Highlands Resort, and hit the road, heading west at first on California 116, then north on California 1. I’ve mentioned before that California 1 gets cited routinely as the most scenic highway in the US, and Tuesday morning, it lived up to that promise. I lived in California long enough, and have spent enough time since leaving the state in 1975, to know that mornings like this are rare. Blue skies, blue water, clear vistas, beautiful as they are, usually fade out under fog, overcast clouds, or rain. But not Tuesday morning.


I don’t recall exactly, but I believe it’s ten or twelve miles from Guerneville to Jenner-by-the-Sea where the Russian River flows home to the sea. In that dozen miles, there were three spots where traffic was stopped for construction. The joys of summer travel. Oh, wait. This is January. In time I reached Jenner and turned north on 101, heading for home. I passed one gas station in Guerneville, where regular was selling for $2.61 a gallon, and another at Jenner with gas at $2.64 a gallon. Driving north, past one more construction zone, I began to worry about the amount of fuel in the tank, Theoretically, I should be able to make it to Mendocino, or even Fort Bragg, but theory doesn’t cut it when the road goes up and down and in and out, cutting into your mileage figures, and the state doesn’t bother to put up signs telling how far it is to the next town. Half way between Jenner and Fort Ross, I made up my mind that I’d fill the tank at the next station, no matter what the price. Paying a few cents more per gallon was worth the peace of mind on this road with no shoulders and few wide spots for getting off the road. I was also getting a bit peeved over the fact that every turn in the road gave a new and ever more glorious vista, but no place to pull off and take some photographs. The few wide spots I saw were all on the wrong side of the road and all right at blind curves. No way would I cross the double yellow line when a semi might be right around the rock face in front of me.

Russian (née Slavyanka) River Meets the Sea
Jenner-by-the-Sea, California
Taken 1/30/07

I’ve called this section “South” not because it was the beginning section of my trip home, and therefore north, but rather because of Fort Ross, the next wide spot in the road north of Jenner. If you don’t know your California History, you may not be aware of the significance of Fort Ross. I will assume you know enough about US History to at least have heard of Seward’s Folly. Shortly after the Civil War, Secretary of State Seward arranged for the US to purchase Russia’s holdings on the northwestern edge of North America. Congress balked, and it took two years, and apparently some bribes by the Russian Minister to the US, for the purchase to actually go through. The purchase of Alaska in 1868 ended Russia’s North American land ownership. What you may not know is that the Russians had expanded well beyond Alaska.

The Spanish began their expansion into what was then called Alta California (as opposed to Baja California) largely in response to the Russian fur traders coming to the area in the 1700s. Mission Dolores, also known as Mission San Francisco de Asis, was founded in 1776. The California missions, which were built approximately one day’s horse-back ride apart, spread from Mission San Diego in the south to Mission San Francisco in the North. Just to be confusing, I suppose, the mission in what is now the City and County of San Francisco has traditionally been called Mission Dolores. Mission San Francisco is two days (by horseback, or approximately 50 miles) north of the Golden Gate in the town of Sonoma. Today, most people refer to the latter as Mission Sonoma, as it would be way to confusing for the tourists to call things by their proper names. What does all of this have to do with the Russians you ask? Well, allow me to enlighten you.

In 1812, while the English and the French were fighting for supremacy in Europe, and Napolean, just coincidentally was besieging Moscow while the British were burning the White House in Washington DC—gee, isn’t history fun—a ship landed on the rocky coast of what is now Sonoma County, and a group of Russians and Alaska natives disembarked and proceeded to build a stockade and houses. It seems that the Russians were looking for agricultural land to supply their outposts in Alaska, and in as much as the Spanish had, at that point, advanced no further than Mission Dolores, you could say that Spanish California extended no further than the Golden Gate and Russian California began just north of that natural boundary. Both of the Spanish missions north of San Francisco were built in the 1820s, Mission San Rafael being officially “founded” in 1822, ten years after the establishment of Russian Fort Ross, and Mission San Francisco de Solano (Mission Sonoma) in 1823, after Mexico declared its independence from Spain.

The Russians remained at Fort Ross, and even established other farming communities along the Slavyanka River, but when they were able to arrange for the Hudson Bay Company to supply the Russian settlements in Alaska, California became almost a handicap—too far away, and too small to bother with. After trying unsuccessfully to unload their California property to the Mexicans, in 1841 they concluded an agreement with a German fellow you may have heard of, Johann Sutter, who bought the Russian property lock, stock and barrel. Sutter, of course, is the man behind Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, and the person who owned the land where gold was first found, leading to the California Gold Rush and the 49ers, not to mention the 1850 admission of California as the thirty-first state, a “free” state. And that is why today, the Russian Imperial Flag flies over a California State Park, and why the Slavyanka River is today called the Russian River—the southern boundary of Russian North America.

By the way, I filled my tank in Fort Ross at $2.85 a gallon.

Point Arena Light House
Mendocino County, California
NOT the Westernmost Point in the Lower 48
Taken 1/30/07


Continuing north on California 1, with a full gas tank and no worries, I continued to be struck by just how beautiful the area was. I hadn’t traveled this part of California in over thirty years and by the time I reached the Sea Ranch, a housing development between Fort Ross and Point Arena, I had decided that I would have to devote a minimum of one week just to photograph the Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino County coastline. My mantra became “One week of blue sky, warm weather, and a sports car.” I repeated this over and over. Mind you, the Volvo handles as well as or better than most cars I’ve owned, but oh to be driving this road with the top down. I began to wonder how many millions of dollars it would take to be able to retire at the Sea Ranch—with that sports car, of course. It was a magical journey, with turkey vultures soaring just overhead, and waves crashing into the cliffs and sea stacks just off shore. I fell in love with the California coast all over again.

I had spent so much time at Fort Ross that it was now past lunchtime. I had intended to eat in Mendocino or Fort Bragg, but when I saw the turn off to the Point Arena Light House, I knew I couldn’t pass up this photo op. Point Arena bills itself as the western most point in the lower 48 states. I’m not quite sure how they get away with this, as Cape Mendocino looks much further west on my maps. Actually, looking only at the longitude, my house in Smith River is further west. Nonetheless, I took the four mile drive out to the lighthouse and got some good shots. Unfortunately, by this time, the blue sky had been covered over with gray and the temperature was beginning to drop. In short, it was beginning to look like a typical coastal day. Returning to Highway 1, I noticed the Rollerville Café and the Lighthouse Pointe Resort. Figuring that any food would be better than another hour of hunger, and attracted by the sign warning that this was the last restaurant before Hawai’i, I pulled into the parking lot and stopped for a late lunch.

If you’re passing by at lunchtime, I recommend the Rollerville Café. The menu was fairly extensive, with three different specials, but I ordered off the regular menu—fish tacos. I had my choice of breaded or sautéed cod, and went with the waitress’s recommendation of breaded. As a side, I choose green salad with blue cheese dressing. The plate came with two fully loaded soft shell tacos and a large green salad topped with sliced strawberries. This seemed a novel touch to me, but the added sweetness enhanced the salad and actually worked well with the blue cheese dressing. The tacos were delicious—among the best I’ve had. (Not as good as those served in Gold Beach, Carl, but still very tasty.) I assumed that the strawberries were placed in the salad by the kitchen staff, but apparently not all customers make that particular leap. My waitress asked if I had noticed them (how could I not?) and then informed me that several customers had asked if she knew there were berries in their salad. I suppose spontaneous generation of salad strawberries is possible in this or some other universe, but in my experience, sliced fresh berries just don’t appear without some sort of human interaction.

Cabot Cove, Maine as seen in TV's Murder, She Wrote
AKA Mendocino, California
Taken 1/30/07


The Navarro River was deep green as it flowed to the sea, and I had to stop and take some pictures. More pictures once I’d crossed the river, and even more as I continued north. My original intent had been to stop in the coastal town of Mendocino, have lunch, do the tourist thing, and pretend to be in Cabot Cove, Maine. In case you didn’t know, the exterior shots for the tv series Murder, She Wrote were filmed in the California coastal community of Mendocino. Having eaten at the first restaurant since Hawai’i (the other side of the sign I mentioned earlier) I no longer felt the need for lunch. Having spent so much time at Fort Ross, then Point Arena, I no longer felt the luxury of having time to play tourist, so rather than drive into the town, I continued on north to Fort Bragg, the largest seaside community in California north of San Francisco.

There’s a special spot in my heart for Fort Bragg. The second time I saw the Pacific and played on the beach was at Fort Bragg. We were living in Colusa at the time, and Fort Bragg is the western terminus of California Highway 20, which passes through Colusa about midway between the coast and the Sierra. I was ten or eleven at the time, and the one thing I remember is trying to make sand angels on the beach (like snow angels, only in sand). I’ve only been through Fort Bragg one other time, back in the early 1990s, and didn’t realize how much the town had grown, but as in Mendocino, I looked at my watch, promised myself a trip back, and pressed on.


About twenty miles north of Fort Bragg, the highway turns inland to cross the coastal mountains toward its northern terminus at Leggett, site of the famous “Drive-thru Tree.” Crossing the Eel River, I stopped to get pictures of the bridge, upriver, downriver, and the rocks on the cliff above the river. Once on US 101, I drove without stopping till I got home about 8 p.m. Smith River isn’t the northernmost town in California, but at 3 miles south of the state line (as the crow flies), it comes close. Smith River is officially located at 41.92833 degrees north. Dorris, California, in Siskiyou County (the next county east of Del Norte), is at 41.9675 degrees north. The state line is 42 degrees north, the same imaginary line that separates New York State from Pennsyvania.

Both Bear and Gypsy seemed happy to see me home, and it was good to find that blazing campfire at the end of the winding road.

1 comment:

Carl said...

Thanks for the great trip, Bryan. A stay at Sea Ranch used to be an annual event for a group of Sacramento friends, and I remember sunning on the deck during President's Weekend, after freezing for weeks under the valley fog back home. I used to imagine retiring to a place like Bodega Bay, after Mendocino prices skyrocketed. When that possibility was approaching, everywhere near the ocean had skyrocketed out of reach. In 2004 Steve and I discovered Del Norte county was still a possibility, and had something Mendocino didn't, redwoods. Now we're here and loving it. Some friends are hoping to rent a place in Sea Ranch this May, and I'm really looking forward to being there again. Thank you for the history lessons and the stirred memories.