Who knew you could wake up one morning with a sense of uneasiness simply because no sea lions were barking?
As it happened, the discomfort was temporary. Yapping and growling soon resumed, carried by a sea breeze from a rocky island to the oceanside house my wife, Lisa, and I were renting. But such were our confrontations during two weeks on California’s Mendocino coast, about four hours north of San Francisco.
It’s a place of crashing surf, gorgeous sunsets and moonsets, redwood forest behemoths, speeding seabirds and, yes, congregations of sea lions. And once you get there (there’s no fast way to do that), it’s replete with trails, views, local food and a variety of activities that require you to spend no more than a few minutes in your car again.
We didn’t set out for Mendocino, known over the years for redwood logging, marijuana growing, artists in abundance and ultimately for being what author Doug Pine calls a “contentment-obsessed place.”
But we did have two goals: After the never-ending, snow-packed Minnesota winter of 2014, we vowed to find a March destination this year that didn’t involve freezing temperatures or the expense and complication of international travel. Second, we had numerous friends and relatives in California we wanted to see, but we didn’t look forward to looping around the state for one or two thousand miles and repeatedly packing and unpacking suitcases.
So, after a weekslong online hunt up and down the coast on Airbnb.com and similar websites, Mendocino it turned out to be. A three-bedroom cabin called Carol’s Cove a couple hundred yards from the Pacific, 3 miles north of the tiny town of 1,100, turned out to be idyllic.
To our friends and family, we said: We’ve got the bedrooms and the kitchen, bring some food. Stay two or three nights. Deal.
As a result, we got a place where we came to feel at home, a cabin as cozy as a Minnesota North Woods lake place but with sea mammals, surf and pelagic cormorants. Rocky headlands became familiar as we returned again and again to watch mesmerizing waves, spouting gray whales migrating north and screaming black oystercatchers flying among the rocks.
Inland, we traipsed to forests of redwood behemoths, second-growth trees after the originals were turned into post-earthquake San Francisco, but still huge.
Nearby sat Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, a small red-roofed building put up in 1909 and still operating, its third-order glass Fresnel lens sending a beam as far as 14 miles out to sea and lighting up our neighborhood regularly.
Our visit coincided with a full moon, so I spent two clear mornings hiking in the dark for 15 minutes across a brushy meadow to take photographs as the moon dropped into the Pacific Ocean beyond the lighthouse. I don’t think I’d ever been alone quite this way in the awakening dawn — just me, a blinding light every 10 seconds and a harbor seal slowly waking up on a rock nearby.
It was fun to play host so far from home to our California connections. We learned of a few treasured places they knew about, like the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens 5 miles up the road at Fort Bragg, where we watched a seagull harass a seal harbor trying to eat a 20-inch fish. But we also could show them new finds like a good walking path up Big River or a Mendocino Community Theatre production.
One of our favorite destinations turned out to be Russian Gulch State Park, 2 miles from our cabin, where trails take hikers along the bluffs, down to a beach or back into the redwood-Douglas fir forest.
A half-dozen times we walked less than a half-mile in the other direction to the sea lions at Caspar Headlands Reserve.
At a rock just offshore, hundreds of the mammals flopped about and raised a racket louder than the competing waves. Some adopted dignified poses to catch the sun; others were more ungainly as they draped their fat bodies over one another or lurched across the rock; in the water they were much sleeker as they dove or hooked up and “rafted,” floating as a collection.
We spent one afternoon renting an outrigger canoe at Catch a Canoe in the shadow of famous Hwy. 1 and paddling up Big River. In several miles we paddled past sunning seals, a variety of ducks and remnants of massive and decaying lumber operations.
That laid-back feeling
But you find more than nature in Mendocino. The town, founded in 1850 as a logging center, is a historic preservation district, walkable and quaint. It holds galleries, a community theater, restaurants and distinctive wooden water towers that are still used to supply water to homes.
There’s also marijuana. After a century as a conservative lumber area, Mendocino County was discovered in the 1970s by artists, free spirits and entrepreneurs who started growing marijuana by the ton.
Medical marijuana is legal in California, so we dropped in on the Leonard Moore Medical Cannabis Resource Center, where with a doctor’s recommendation you can buy locally grown cannabis. The main attraction for us was that the local house strain of pot bore the same name as a granddaughter, and the clerk was happy to give us a five-minute lecture touting the medicinal properties and locally grown nature of the pot on hand.
We didn’t have a doctor’s recommendation, so we bought the T-shirt instead.
The county has passed a pot-grower-friendly local ordinance, trying to permit and regulate the growers and, in return for fees that have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the county sheriff, educate and protect them.
Federal law takes a different view, so growers remain in a limbo. And some residents remain opposed to the pot-friendly attitudes, worrying that big-time crime is being drawn into the area as the demand increases for pot that is legal to use but still illegal to grow. You hear warnings to steer clear of remote mountain roads.
Like Napa used to be
One place you receive a benevolent assessment of the pot growers is at the wineries in Anderson Valley just up winding Hwy. 128 from Mendocino. Festival time creates one big happy family for farmers of all stripes, the woman running the tasting room at Bink Vineyards in Philo told us.
Some people will tell you that Anderson Valley, becoming known for its pinot noirs, Gewürztraminers and sparkling wines, is like Napa Valley used to be. I wouldn’t know about that, but in our one-day experience in early March, we were just about the only people sticking our heads into several wineries and tasting rooms.
At Lula Cellars, an apologetic winemaker handed us a bottle gratis because he had to close to film a commercial.
One measure of Mendocino County folksiness: At the end of our two weeks, I wanted to pick up a couple of bottles of wine from Bink, but we expected to pass by on our way to San Francisco too early in the morning. What did they suggest, I asked via phone a few days beforehand.
No problem, Valerie told me. She would just leave the bottles behind a wooden sign outside the door. Would I be so kind as to sign the credit card receipt and slip it under the door?
I would and I did. So on one of these spring Minnesota evenings, I’ll open a bottle of wine and listen really hard for sea lions barking.
Dave Peters is a special projects editor for Minnesota Public Radio News and a frequent traveler in the American West.