The rugged majesty of the Pacific Coast
She’s a rugged, unpredictable beauty, this south/central Pacific Coast – a one-of-a kind stunner who depletes your store of wows, oohs and ahhs even before you delve into her depths.
US 1 – the Pacific Coast Highway, combines the craggy peaks of Switzerland or Austria with Ireland’s windy, blustery seaside roads with the relentless, pulsating crash of the Pacific Ocean on California’s rocky coast.
It’s hard to fully describe this place, where the land seems to have reluctantly permitted humans to construct a narrow, windy road which snakes along the border from Santa Barbara north through Big Sur. It relents a bit to allow for San Francisco and southern Marin but then reclaims its rugged beauty in Sonoma north through Mendocino.
I’m sitting on an ocean view deck at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, huddled in layers against the chilly morning winds and listening to Mother Nature’s wails. They persist in the form of crashing waves on the shore roughly 500 yards down the hill, and in the whispering boughs of enormous pines that dot the landscape and stretch to the ocean’s edge. The cacophony is astonishing – violent yet soothing; background music in a purity of absolute perfection.
Here road signs remind drivers to “share the road” with cyclists, though my road bike remains disassembled in our car. I can’t fathom braving the blasts of ocean air that over the years have caused oceanside bushes and trees to bow in submission. Maybe I’ll ride later; maybe I wouldn’t at all in this place, at least not till summer.
Even as a driver, safely ensconced in our car as we weave our way north, it’s job enough to follow the narrow switchbacks of a roadway that seems to barely cling to the cliffs, periodically winding and plunging to the edge of a tiny cove here, a narrow inlet there, before rising once again to embrace the mountainside. To keep an eye on the ocean’s endless ballet, oncoming traffic AND an intrepid cyclist or two is almost too much, and more than once I am jolted from my trance to swerve back into my lane. Thankfully there were no other cars on the road – particularly none coming our way – and my driving transgressions are without consequence.
From where I sit in the early morning night I am witness to the violent beauty of the frigid Pacific Ocean. Slightly offshore, rocks that are barely concealed beneath the ocean’s surface cause breaks in the swells, and foamy eruptions of salt water explode into the air as the waves below continue on to shore. There, it’s a constant battle waged between water, wind and rock, and it’s the rocks that pay the price over time.
Nature has carved countless inlets into this coast, occasionally leaving huge rock offerings standing against the tides, edifices of Nature’s exception to the rule of removing anything in its path over time. These outcroppings of stone create fascinating variety along the coast as well as some of the most exciting collisions of waves crashing against them.
The sound is one of a hundred jet planes, eerily permeated from time to time by the crash of an exceptionally large wave. You can vaguely feel the waves’ effects on the land it pounds mercilessly, and it’s easy to feel humbly small here, a respectful and distanced witness to the natural fury of the ocean and its enormous domain.
After finding a great deal at the Seafoam Lodge (off season rates had no effect on the careful attention of the woman who checked us in), we were delighted to choose a movie from the 900 titles stacked on the office’s shelves for later viewing. Our host informed us that juice and muffins would be left outside our door around 8:30 in the morning, so along with the strawberries we picked up at a farmer’s market in Pacific Grove breakfast will be served.
We headed off to nearby Mendocino to watch the sunset and find a place for dinner. This is a town one has to work to get to, either by finding your way along Route One as we did, or by taking the slightly faster and less windy inland route. Neither way is easy nor quick, and the simple fact of inaccessibility has without question helped Mendocino retain its unique charm.
It’s an artist’s enclave, a hotbed of inspiration and creativity that manifests itself at nearly every turn. It must be brutal work, to create something worthwhile to compete with the natural palette so close at hand.
Abandoned water towers stand testimony to earlier years when humans had to work hard and plan carefully to create an inhabitable home for themselves here. Buildings erected in the mid-1800s are mostly stamped with the dates of their completion, and the timbered western-style structures are built both to last and to withstand the constant blow of winds off the ocean.
Blessed again by being here in the offseason, we are mostly alone as we sit in our car by the ocean’s edge, facing Japan and the fading sun against the horizon. A low cloud bank will rob us of a true ocean sunset, but when nature takes something away there is often a correlating gift, and we are treated to an incredible show of light as the sun cast its rays across the tops of the clouds, officially bringing the day to a close.
A simple dinner at the Mendocino Café gives us a chance to chew on a salad and recall the day’s vistas, views and miracles, and for the thousandth time Gabi and I take stock in the remarkable magic of this journey, this time together, and for the countless blessings that continue to embrace us.