Tuesday, May 18, 1999
Tom walked the dog, showered, shaved, had free-but-rotten coffee in the motel lobby, and thumbed all their tourist lit before I got up. “What’d you find?” I eventually mumbled, squinting at the light. The drapes were transparent.
“Some good things.”
I wasn’t up to complex words yet.
“Couple things better than last night.”
It was too early to apologize again.
“And there’s a good place in Mendocino. For breakfast.”
I had to think: “Didn’t we already pass that?”
“It’s only ten miles..”
He’d made up our minds.
Actually, I was curious about Mendocino. Despite our guidebooks’ warnings, as we’d chased down a place to stay, the town had seemed interesting. It looked even better in the morning—uh, late morning—light.
The restaurant Tom had picked overlooked the main street. It was kind of a glassed-in porch on the second floor, its back wall hung with movie posters. But not the ones you’d expect, bought at some discount decorator outlet. These were a mix of classics and gore. I asked our waiter if the films had been shot there.
“Oh, yeah,” he grinned. “And there’s more posters near the kitchen.”
I went to look. Same Time, Next Year. Johnny Belinda. East of Eden. Summer of ’42.
“They use it a lot for New England,” the waiter added, something soon repeated at the local museum.
That was a small white house just across the street. A hundred years earlier, it had been home to the city’s founder—well, first non-indigenous settler. Its front room was almost filled by a model of what the town had looked like at its financial peak, as an 1890’s lumbering center.
“We were built on a shipwreck,” the museum historian explained. “Early on, the Spanish used the California coast as a safety net. They’d sail to China, load up, then turn around. But this was before they’d really mapped the Pacific, so they’d simply head east again till they bumped into land. Then they’d go south.”
To ‘Me-hi-co,’ as he pronounced it.
“Anyway, one ship didn’t make it. Actually, lots of them didn’t, but this particular one wrecked in our cove. And a wealthy San Francisco businessman—which is to say pirate—sent one of his underlings—on foot, if you can believe it, leading a pack of mules—to see what he could salvage. By which I meanloot.”
As intended, the tourists laughed.
“Only by the time he got here, the local tribes had already stripped the wreck. Legend has it the natives wore silk that winter. And this young assistant, afraid to go back with bad news, noticed the redwoods.”
I hadn’t seen any redwoods. Which are kind of hard to miss.
“Now San Francisco needed lumber—because the gold rush had everyone building. And since this assistant had been bright enough to find something he hadn’t been sent for, he was put in charge of the logging. Within twenty years, it made him a millionaire.”
He was also a practical man in other ways, at one point marrying his fiancee’s sister. Seems he’d gone east to bring his intended wife from Boston—they’d been courting by letter—and discovered she’d died of the flu. But her younger sister hadn’t, and she was as good as any redwood.
Things boomed again when San Francisco burned in the 1907 quake, then business flattened. In the 30’s depression, the town dipped further, and for years afterward was mainly a cheap home for artists fond of painting the sea. But in 1970, faced with the oddity of looking much as it had forty years before, the town had itself landmarked—the first time a whole California village did that. Almost immediately, it was further preserved, on film. Because, coincidentally, Hollywood’s backlots were disappearing, and the industry needed nearby locations.
While I was in the museum sipping free hot cider––‘Your donation requested’—I also came across a postcard titled The Jessica Fletcher House. The name sounded familiar, and I flipped the card expecting to read the history of some minor poet or artist. Nope, the Angela Lansbury character on Murder, She Wrote. Mendocino was sometimes Cabot Cove.
Though as our guidebooks warned, the town was art gallery and gift shop heavy. And loaded with retirees. Wealthy ones too—in an Irish-speciality shop, I overheard one great-grandma telling her friend, “I think I’ll get this for the big house.”
After Mendocino, we’d planned to follow a series of barely-marked roads heading north, hoping to stay as close to the ocean as possible. But we were advised against it.
“My husband and I drove that route once,” a woman in the Chamber of Commerce reminisced. “Maybe twenty years ago. When we got back, we had to wash the Mercedes three times.”
“We only have a pick-up truck,” I assured her.
“Not only that,” a woman in a wine shop added. “People who live in that area are very private, if you know what I mean. They plant… well… special gardens. And carry guns.”
The area was nicknamed The Lost Coast.
So we stuck to the main road, not wanting to end up with shrunken heads. Still, some hours later when traffic began thickening, we slipped onto a side road that had been winding around us. On the map it was labeled Avenue of the Giants.
Not Jack-killers—Redwoods! Drive your car through ’em! Carve a house out of ’em! Wonder how they survived Mr. Hearst!
Of course, we stopped the truck inside one. We just had to—it was written. And I took pictures: Of Tom. Of the still-living tree. Of the dog-who-absolutely-wouldn’t-look-at-the-camera. Then I started shooting the forest. Generally, I hate doing that—making big things small. I always feel dumb when something that once looked terrific comes out looking so lame. But this place could make a fool look like Ansel Adams. I only stopped snapping when I noticed a sign:Poison Oak.
After the forest, our port for the night, Eureka, was nothing to shout about. To be honest, it was Fort Bragg with coffee stands. And I’d botched the motel reservations.
“You have to say ‘You-reeka,'” the friendly desk clerk explained. “Or they mix it with Yreaka. Why-reeka.”
An hour away.
“You-reeka,” she repeated. “Why-reeka.” And wasn’t happy till I aped her.
Though she did find us a quiet room, away from the highway. And Tom discovered an historic restaurant: The Samoa Cookhouse. “The last working company town cookhouse from the days of Big Lumber,” he read from the Rough Guide.
It advertised huge portions of Tom’s favorite—red bleeding meat. Though as we pulled into their parking lot, it also presented the sign: Bus & RV Parking. Never a good omen. Still, on the way there, we’d passed the place our motel clerk had suggested, eerily dark, and hung with a hand-painted banner: Steak Marsala with Mushrooms and Marsala Wine Sauce—$8.95.
The Samoa Cookhouse once seated thousands, but now only served several hundred at a time. The long tables had managed to survive, though the tough-guy benches in the photos had been replaced by as-uncomfortable chairs. And the food with sawdust.
Okay, it wasn’t that bad (Tom made me say that ’cause he felt the place had character). The grub was at least warm, and there were mine loads of it. Though the waiter kept endlessly repeating, “All you can eat… All you can eat,”like he knew it was an inedible challenge. And there were fewer than two-dozen people trying.
We ate fast, and moderately cheap: $12.95 each covered soup, salad, pork chops, roast beef, ham, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, waxed beans, cold slaw, applesauce, sour cream, horse radish, coffee, tea, soda, milk, apple pie, cherry pie, whipped cream, and ice cream in the two most popular flavors—chocolate and vanilla. Far better than the food though, and some of the immense people shoveling it down—no staring, this was NRA country—were the old pictures hanging on the walls: Grinning black-and-white lumberjacks. Circus-sized saw blades. Caravans of floating trees. And shots of increasingly high water from the Great Floods of 1912 and 1915.
It must’ve been neat back then. Before cholesterol.