Mendocino, CA to Eureka, CA – Sunday 21st August
The morning light reveals a hammock hanging between two redwood giants, ferns nestled in at the base and little else to distract. It is from this hushed oasis that we drag ourselves away from to explore the North California coast and the town Mendocino. Five streets wide and only marginally longer across, the town juts out on a headland into the Pacific Ocean and is as windswept as that entails. Located between Big River and Slaughterhouse Gulch, this historic logging town is less tourist town as it is one that acknowledges its place but gets on with life anyway.
We eschew the two hour self-guided audio tour organised by the local Museum of historic architecture, though whitewashed cottages with their lace filigree eaves don’t go unnoticed. Equally the many recommended coastal and forest hikes are not on our list. It’s a shame that we are too late, or too early depending on which way you look at things, to witness the annual whale migration. California gray whales give the town a swim-by on their way south to Baja in Mexico to get their mating on after months feeding off the Alaskan coast. That I would have been all over. A quick coffee and too-dry buttermilk scone and we hop back into the car to head further north.
One of the handy-dandy apps on Steve’s phone plots possible points of interest along the expected car journey. An portentously named Glass Beach is half an hour north up Highway 1. Magic and romance may come to mind but they should be banished, as this beach at Fort Bragg was originally the town’s dump. What is bizarrely now a tourist attraction was originally the rubbish dump, with fires often lit in order to reduce the size of the pile. This does not discourage the thousands of visitors each year who surely are drawn purely on the name. Local council even tried to replenish the glass remnants after wave action, and human intervention no doubt, diminished the glass supplies.
After hugging the coast most of the way, Highway 1 turns inland and we follow it to its conclusion as it hits Redwood Highway Route 101. That Highway 1 can end in such an unassuming town as Leggett surprises me. There’s a romance road trips inhabit in popular culture. Route 66 was a major migration route west for many years before it was immortalised in songs, novels, films and even a Pixar animation. From Kerouac’s coast to coast freedom fantasy to a Blues musician’s Faustian deal at a crossroads in Mississippi, road tripping in North America has a solid foundation. Dodgy stops such as Glass Beach are just a toll we pay along the way.
The Peg House Grill is little more than shed out the back of a convenience store with a large shaded patio area. Plastic stackable chairs and a repurposed hot air balloon as shade cloth belie the quality of food this no-frills joint pumps out. House made non-alcoholic root beer for Steve to quench his thirst and an ice-cold draft beer for me and we settle in to watch a troupe of traveling musicians set up for the afternoon. Bicycle-powered equipment, they each take turns preparing for the show.
Four sizeable Humboldt Bay oysters skilfully grilled with a garlic barbecue sauce so they are just cooked but not at all dry. A classic cheeseburger comes with a plastic tub of creamy coleslaw on the side both nestled in a paper basket with a green and white checked liner. We make short work of our modest order and I’m sure if we weren’t getting behind according to the spreadsheet gods, we would have stayed longer.
After a stop for fuel along the way, we arrive at Eel River Brewing in Fortuna just after 3pm. Triple Exultation Old Ale, Emerald Triangle Double IPA and Raven’s Eye Imperial Stout make it into cooler for later. A tasting paddle of their organic seasonal beers is a perfect pick me up as we sit soaking up the sunshine. Two cats, who clearly run the brewpub, prowl the perimeter of the beer garden.
‘Does it make you miss our cats?’ I ask Steve.
‘A bit but I don’t miss getting woken up at 5am.’
‘Where you guys from?’ I hear over my shoulder. Turning to see a small family group at the table behind us, I look straight at four faces staring right at me.
‘Oh, yeah?’ the younger bearded fellow replies. ‘Whereabouts in Australia?’
‘Melbourne? Victoria?’ With no looks of recognition I proceed, ‘Right down south.’
‘Fantastic. Your first visit to Eel River?’
We nod and sip our beer.
‘We live down the road in Loleta. This is our favourite spot. Beer’s awesome. Food’s great too. Burgers with all the fixings,’ he continues while the peanut gallery behind him bob their heads in agreement.
I’m not sure if we’re done or this is just the start of a conversation.