DECEMBER ON CALIFORNIA'S MENDOCINO COAST
One of my favorite Thanksgivings was spent walking a moonless unlit gravel road in Southwestern Ireland not far from the Cliffs of Moher, on a mile long trek to the town’s epicenter; a whisper of an intersection with two pubs. Back in a world where phones lacked fancy features, our only torch was the miniature flashlight attached to the key ring handed to us by our BNB host, which in broad daylight at check-in seemed an unimportant doodad, but later served as a pragmatic saving grace when we stepped out of the house at 6pm and realized we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces.
Eating bangers and mash by the fire, drinking pints of Guinness, and being pressured into quickly memorizing the words of “My Little Honda Fifty” by the local Irish musicians, we were invited to stay well past close, and found absolutely nothing lacking from a holiday where one’s only goal is to eat heartwarming food, be in loving company, and feel as if they may burst with gratitude.
The following Thanksgiving was spent aloft Manrola in a virtually tourist free Cinque Terre, eating white fish carpaccio (an indisputable improvement on the day’s traditional protein), watching the sun set over the curve of the earth and town dappled hills, painting the world an incredible mirror of alpine aqua blues and cotton candy pinks on sea and sky. The owner generously placing full bottles on the table at the end of the meal for a buffet style digestif. We cheersed shots of house made limoncello and grappa with the chef, who happened to also be the fisherman who caught all the restaurant's seafood, and again felt like our holiday was complete despite no inkling of tradition in sight.
The pangs of missing family on these days was compensated by the thrill of a tiny rebellion and omission of all stress and expectations; we were given the gift of holidays from our holidays. Quickly realizing that dabbling in seasonal transgressions is the gateway drug into full on societal and familial felonies of trading in Christmas and presents for far off destinations, we had yet to feel rebellious enough to give up the big day. This year we wondered though; how could we skip out on some of the prolonged season of merriment in exchange for a true holiday?
A quick late night google impulsively ended in a self declared off-season long weekend bullseyeing our December calendar, resulting in us pulling the kids out of school and ditching work, all in order to go somewhere else and forget our Christmas lists, seasonal to-dos, and merry obligations.
After a quick chastising from the school attendance office, we were off.
Less than three hours later as we gassed up the car under a large sign reading “Gateway to the Redwoods” we widened our eyes to the switchbacks on the map that lay ahead, impressed and thrilled it was going to take us almost an hour to go 19 miles. Five minutes of research on the Lost Coast prior to our arrival had landed me with an invaluable local plea which immediately and consistently served us well: if you can’t keep up at least 35-45 mph on the windy switchback roads of the Lost Coast and Mendocino Counties (I assure you, you can’t), pull over on one of the countless gravel pull offs punctuating the roads so the locals in both compact cars and massive tow trucks alike can whiz by with their eyes closed, pedal to the metal, giving you a blurred smile instead of the bird.
As we entered the darkened 46 degree microclimate of the redwoods we threw on our sweaters and caps and opened the windows for a hit of the oxygen rich perpetually damp redwood forests; an unmistakably grounding and intoxicating scent of both life and decay. After slaloming through lumbering pine covered hills and low lying straightaway tunnels of redwoods afloat fern carpeted forest floors, we were eventually birthed into the wide open Mendocino Coast. The golden light of the late afternoon winter sun illuminating our faces, the Pacific Ocean spilling open in front of us with pulsating cliff sides, sea arches and boulders protruding from its frigid waters.
Heeding advice from a friend who grew up on NorCal, "eat crab in months that end in R,” we searched until we found a gem of a fish market on our way in; Princess Fish Market in Noyo Harbour; a 100% female run fishing crew and market, headed by Captain Heather Sears, who, when on land, is fairly likely to be found behind the counter ready for a good chat about her boat, and what she and her crew have just brought in from the sea. Full of fisherwomen passionate about fishing, sustainability, and properly prepared sashimi grade seafood, this market is one to not miss.
In the mood for something local with minimal effort on our part, we opted for a complimentary cleaning of freshly caught dungeness crabs, a handful of local rock crab claws, and left with cups of homemade garlic butter, a fresh local sourdough boule, a lemon, a couple local beers, and bags of ice for the drive. We buckled up, and immediately sensing future regret, quickly ducked back inside the market for a quart of homemade smoked salmon soup (made by Captain Heather with her own house made seafood stock and freshly caught salmon right off the coast, smoked in house), serving as the perfect safety net for midnight travel hunger.
A quick 35 minute drive north on the 1 landed us at a coastal cottage on the outskirts of a blink of a town, which could have just as easily been chosen with our eyes closed pointing anywhere on the coast of Northern California; its location picked solely for its view of the ocean, semi off grid location, and amenities; a potbelly wood burning stove in the living room and a hot tub perched on the westward facing deck overlooking the ocean and sprawling beach below.
We found ourselves staying just a handful of miles south of the southern entrance to the Lost Coast, where the Pacific Coast Highway suddenly cuts inland for 75 miles, leaving the land west of the highway largely unpopulated, buffering California's longest undeveloped shoreline wilderness, including the Lost Coast Trail; 25 miles of jaw dropping shoreline, and one of the most remote wilderness hiking trails in the lower 48. Those not intrigued by a multiple day coastal hike, where one must time their hiking hours perfectly with low tide in order to have a safe and accessible trail can opt for getting a gist of the Lost Coast by car (preferably a 4x4) via a more northern jumping off point complete with hours of narrow, bumpy, windy, sometimes unpaved country roads rewarding travellers with a glimpse of the expansive remoteness of this untouched and heart-racingly wild land. Filling the car with gas, water and food, a day can be made of the Mattole Road loop, which has been named one of the most scenic remote drives in the country.
This impressively determined breed of adventurous traveller we were not however, and found our speed of adventure accurately aligned with the potbelly stove found already stuffed to the brim with newspaper, logs of wood, and a box of matches within arm's length. A dunk in the hot tub followed by the flick of a match, a quick boil of an inch of water, and we found ourselves picking crabs with the house aglow, damp hair air drying by the fire, the white caps of the moonlit surf and the sounds of the crashing waves just outside our window, the game cabinet excavated and spilled open across the coffee table.
Sheer curtains gave way to early young risers and we found ourselves grateful for an unexpected dawn wakeup, as we were able to get our first glimpse of the sleepy pastel sea from the large north facing window without being forced to bear the brunt of near freezing dawn temperatures. Akin to a splash of cold water to the face, we willed ourselves into a rousing cliffside walk in pajamas with mugs of hot coffee in hand for courage, enveloped in woolen cottage blankets, taking our second cup al fresco and double time at the house's cliffside picnic table. Shivering off sleep with a blast of briny wind followed by a scalding hot shower just as the sun crested the pine covered hills east of us proved the best way to shake off our cobwebs and buff our spirits.
After a proper breakfast (bowls of salmon chowder and toasted leftover sourdough), we were off for the day; there seeming to be nothing and everything to do. Letting our instincts and curiosities guide our way through the day meandering up and down the coast, through beaches, bays, tide pools, cliffside walking trails overlooking napping harbor seals, breweries and wineries, through vernal green grassy topped headlands and sea stacks jutting out of water so blue it looked like it made a wrong turn and ended up in the Caribbean. We spotted starfish and anemones in pin drop quiet tidal pools in one cove, then came across stomach dropping powerful waves and sea arches as far as the eye could see in the next, leaving us consuming the sea in all manner of forms, each moment better than the last, finding restoration in the sun's rays, the spitting skies and fog caked hills alike.
And perhaps the pinnacle of one's time here in Mendocino county; the nights. Turning inward, scooting home early in time for the gift of another sunset in the hot tub, eyes peeled for breaching whales, watching families of quail skitter across ice plant gripped cliffs, followed by a home cooked dinner of local king salmon and lingcod fish collars from another trip to the fish market, with a quart of clam chowder at the ready for breakfast. After dinner, sitting by the potbelly stove roasting a slovenly amount of crispy blackened marshmallows to sandwich between graham crackers and milk chocolate squares; an evening with music from a phone in a cereal bowl speaker, dancing in the kitchen, board games, rotating soggy socks and waterlogged boots atop the potbelly in the faint hopes they'll be dry by morning, and the biting Pacific wind howling against the house, shooing away the day's rainclouds, giving way to the star of the show; the luminous mouth-gaping Milky Way with a full cast of constellations aglow, best enjoyed through the house’s telescope, or as we prefer; head and index finger straight to the sky with mouth agape, or equally as great, from one more indulgent dip in the hot tub, where the largest worry is one's questionable ability to will their fingers into working properly in the bone numbing cold after a pre-rinse; joyously cursing and clumsily fumbling with the salt rusted master lock on the hot tub cover in 35 degree weather. Brutal coastal winds and a half clothed family encouraging a speedy unlocking; a crisp and clear reminder that these may very well be the holidays we'll remember most.
While the West Coast is absolutely inspiring to experience, the importance of seaside safety cannot be overemphasized for those who are visiting and unfamiliar with its inherent dangers and precious flora and fauna. Please always educate yourself on on sneaker waves, coastal, cliffside, and wildlife safety before your visit.