Hugging the Coast: An Odyssey of Recovery
One morning two weeks ago, I woke up thinking that I needed an adventure. I needed to get back on the open road, to drive somewhere outside my everyday zone.
A month earlier, the world had been brightening. We seemed to be on the cusp of finding a way to contain and control the Covid crisis. I had begun to meet friends for coffee and champagne, to hug again, to contemplate making my first international journey since the autumn of 2019. I felt like a pilgrim opening my arms to the sun after a long and dreary winter.
Then a succession of bad news storms blew through. The surge of the Delta variant. Wildfires. Climate change.
These undid me, disoriented me, knocked me off the path. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t find my bearings. Maybe shaking things up with a road trip, I thought, would get me back on the way.
I decided to go to Mendocino, a coastal village of some 850 souls about three hours north of San Francisco. I had visited Mendocino 33 years before, on a multi-day journey up the Pacific coast, and had been blessed with serendipitous surprises and unexpected epiphanies.
So on a mid-Monday morning I drove to Mendocino. As I explored the town, I fell under the same spell that had enchanted me three decades before, a sense of New England-meets-California in the architecture and the atmosphere, a place where my past and present seemed profoundly intertwined. I again loved the mix of galleries, boutiques, and offices, admired the glistening tomatoes and plump peaches at the local market, inhaled the musty magic of a lovingly crammed used book store, and stopped at the wooden, white, high-steepled, oh-so-Connecticut Presbyterian church.
But after a couple of hours, I realized that, with a three-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of me, I needed to stop exploring and head home. And afterwards, when I sat in my study trying to make sense of the journey, no revelations came. No serendipities had surprised me, no epiphanies had emerged. My compass was still askew.
I spent a week trying to forge something out of nothing, then finally listened to my heart and admitted that I needed to go back. I had been too impatient on that visit, I realized, had been too fixated on recreating the experiences of 33 years before.
I needed to make a new pilgrimage. And this time I would do it right.
Last Sunday I awoke at 5:00 a.m. and was on the road at 5:30. I stopped at my local Peet’s and bought a latte, an orange juice, a water, a bacon-cheddar cheese-egg sandwich, and a butter croissant. Now I had time and provisions—the staples of any good pilgrimage!
The night before, when mapping my trip, I had again planned to go to Mendocino along inland Highway 101, which was almost twice as quick as the alternative, coastal Highway 1. But after waking up, something in my soul was telling me differently, and I impulsively decided to drive the coast-hugging route instead. I would pass through tiny fishing villages, with the ocean at my side. I liked this a lot.
And so, my mindset was different from the beginning.
Setting off in darkness, I drove through San Francisco toward the Golden Gate Bridge. As I approached the bridge, the car plunged into fog so thick that I could barely see a few feet in front of the headlights. On the bridge, the spires of the southern tower simply disappeared into the fog. It was an act of faith to believe that the top of the tower was really there, and that sense lent the whole bridge a feeling of magic, as if it could all disappear into the mists at any moment.
As I drove slowly and steadily over the span, toward the barely visible base of the northern tower, Van Morrison’s song “Into the Mystic” leaped into my mind. That’s exactly what I’m doing, I thought, I’m crossing a bridge into the mystic!
My mystic meanderings continued on the winding two-lane Shoreline Highway in Marin County. As I steered the serpentine turns of this road, which I had driven dozens of times, it seemed an entirely new place. Familiar landmarks such as the Green Gulch Farm and the Pelican Inn weren’t where I thought they should be. There was no land to the left of my car, only pearly mist. Was this earth, or sea, or cloud?
When I reached the Bolinas Lagoon, I stopped to take some photos. As I stepped out of the car, the silence resounded in my ears and the wetness flicked my face and filled my nose. One area of the lagoon looked like a Piet Mondrian canvas, two large blocks of white-gray bisected by a thin line of black, thicker on the right end and tapering to almost nothingness as it moved to the left.
In another area, three cottages flickered across the water, spectral, as if in a dream. Birds flapped off the still surface, leaving a trail of drips, then faded into fog. On the opposite shore, the misty veil would lift, revealing stands of shaggy green pines, then descend again. The whole scene seemed to be a dream. Into the mystic!
As I continued to drive, tracking the bright yellow highway-dividing line as it vanished into mist, I lowered the windows, opened the sunroof, fired up Van Morrison on my iPhone, and began to sing. Wildflowers bloomed, the sweet scent of wet bushes and boughs filled the air, black and white and brown birds chirped and dipped and winged out of sight, and a trio of tawny deer materialized, ears pricked, and stared gracefully at me. I felt like I was moving through an ink-and-brush painting as it unscrolled. What wonders the world bestowed!
By the time I reached Point Reyes Station, a rhythm had been established and this seemed just the place to pause for a little pilgrim’s rite. At the bakery I bought some peach and cream scones, lavender tea pound cake, and a sourdough baguette. Then I stopped at the market to pick up some creamy Formagella cheese, and ambled on to the coffee stand for another latte. Back at the car, I lifted this fare to the sky, then took a ceremonial sip of the latte and a big bite of the scone. Scrumptious! Now my pilgrimage could proceed, properly blessed.
It just got better. As I approached Tomales Bay, slanting sunlight lit the bases of a dozen pine trees whose tops were still layered in fog. As I neared these, the surrounding mists suddenly melted away and the world was splashed in brilliant sunshine. A deep blue sky bright with cotton candy clouds shone overhead. On my left, Tomales Bay sparkled with a blue and brown sheen before layered hills of piney green.
Yellow wildflowers lined the road on the left and golden hills studded with evergreens rolled away to the right. Then a bend in the road revealed a postcard-perfect scene: a green finger of land curving into the shimmering bay, with a sailboat in the foreground and a dozen weathered wooden cottages behind.
I continued through timeless, time-worn fishing villages, with half a dozen or a dozen homes perched right on the water, a general store, a café, and the occasional hardware store, art gallery, and post office. I passed two almost mythical oyster outposts I had been meaning to visit for years, the Tomales Bay Oyster Company and the Hog Island Oyster Company. Then I happened upon a pristine river-runs-through-it scene: lightly rippled blue-green-brown water sheening between banks green with dense bushes and tawny fields beyond. I parked the car and let the layered silence wash over me and through me. Taking out my journal, I jotted, “This place is so peaceful. Tranquil. Soul-soothing. Mind-settling. I feel like I’m in heaven.”
About a half hour later, after I passed Bodega Bay, dramatic coastal vistas opened onto black craggy rocks and glistening half-moon beaches and endless white-waved ocean. Roadside signs saying “Coastal Access” appeared here and there. Whenever I passed one of these, I would crane my neck and see a paved road leading to a parking area with half a dozen cars. These were tempting, but somehow none of them pulled me in.
Then I saw one that did. The road that intersected the highway just beyond this Coastal Access sign didn’t end in a parking area. It wound around a tree-shaded bend. This looks intriguing, I thought, and made a hard left turn onto the narrow roadway that led between wind-sculpted pine trees. Ahead I could see a trio of cars parked on the dusty side of the road.
I didn’t know what I would find, but something was calling me there.
I found a place to pull over and park, stuffed my bread, cheese, and orange juice into my backpack, and followed the trail of cars to an opening with a sign that said “Bonham Trail to Cooks Beach.” A tree-lined, sun-dappled, dirt-and-rock path descended steeply. I followed this and after a few minutes emerged onto a pocket beach with everything I could want: sand, sun, waves, driftwood. The beach was demarcated by massive black and brown rock outcroppings on either side and was so compact that it would take about three minutes to walk from one side to the other. Three people were there, two reading on lawn chairs and one simply sitting in the sand and smiling.
I found a spot on a rock at the far northern side of the beach, took out my baguette, cheese, and juice, and watched and listened as the water crashed and roared, white-frothed and fanned across the sand. Tearing off chunks of the bread and sandwiching the cheese between them, I feasted on the waves and the rocks, the sun glinting off the sea, the smell of salt and seaweed, the oceanic symphony.
I stayed there for an hour, or maybe more. The light shifted, the air sifted, the clouds scudded and sailed on, the seagulls soared and screeched.
Eventually the readers folded up their chairs and left, and the sitter rose and walked away, and then it was just me, alone with the driftwood and the seapods and the blue-sea, white-cloud day. I lay in the sand and it warmed to my bones, the waves crashed and the gulls cried, and I opened my arms and embraced the sky. Then the beach cradled me and I let out a long sigh.
After a while, I opened the map on my phone and checked my route: Mendocino was still an hour away.
I contemplated the ride and closed my eyes, let all the cares that had accumulated like waves over the past few weeks just crash away.
The map in my hand said I had an hour still to drive, but the compass in my heart said I had already arrived.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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Have you found a way to reset your compass in these unsettling times? We’d love to hear your experience! Please share it in the Comments section below. Thank you!