Last week LP and I ventured into Northern California. We had three nights in Mendocino, north of San Francisco on the coast, and then routed back through Stinson Beach for four nights. It gave me an appreciation for the unique, overlooked contours of this huge state.
California is 60 per cent larger than New Zealand in landmass with about nine times our population. I know that most people could probably place San Diego, Sacramento and San Jose on a map, would know that there's a lake in Tahoe and may have used the words "Silicon Valley" in conversation. But I bet that when you think of California, your mind goes to something more aligned with Full House or Disneyland than coastal highways and soaring redwoods. This international cultural focus kind of makes sense when you consider how the population of California is aligned. Of its 37 million inhabitants, 22 million are crammed into its bottom corner in Southern California and another 10 million live within a few hours' orbit of San Francisco.
Maybe it is my history as a great indoorsman, but I've always credited California as a being a place of urban, rather than rural, exploration.
Our trip was the first time I ever properly appreciated that more than a third of California is north of San Francisco and Sacramento, but less than 5 per cent of the people are. There's an expansive beauty and off-kilter weirdness when you get off the road well travelled in California.
In a way, that statement seems obvious. California is a huge chunk of a pretty big country. Of course there's more here than Los Angeles and San Francisco.
But California provides you with so many different things to think about, you almost don't get around to appreciating it for its natural offerings.
Certain moments from our week away really imprinted on to me.
On our trip to Mendocino we entered into the Anderson Valley, 160km from San Francisco. The valley is an endless postcard of coastal redwoods and Douglas-firs, mixed in with some wine country from a 1980s viticulture boom. We pulled into Boonville, a veritable one-horse town, for lunch about 3pm. The town's main street was peppered with dishevelled thrift-stores, saloons, churches and a market at one end, with upscale eateries at the other end for those passing through. The town was almost entirely closed. We ended up dining at a bar that had a chandelier made out of deer horns and rented space on its second level to a dentist's office.
On our first day in Mendocino we set off with a picnic for Montgomery Woods State Reserve, about an hour's drive into nowhere. Until 10 years ago the reserve was home to the world's tallest tree, but it has been surpassed. We'd been told that the redwoods had trunks the diameter of a medium-sized room. They weren't quite that big, but they were something. There's a large grove of trees a short hike from the car park with a clearing where you can sit a while. The redwoods absorb a lot of sound and so it's a relaxing place to be in nature among an eerie, dampened quiet.
Mendocino was set on the cliffs of the Californian coast. It reminded me of the sort of town I imagine P.D. James novels are set in. You couldn't escape the view wherever you were, but then you wouldn't want to. The town is a handful of streets; there's wealth about in the town, you can spy it in pockets. But there's a smattering of hippies and burnouts; girls and boys in studs and leather boots moved among weekend tourists. We took a walk down the town cliffs to a mostly deserted beach. Four young men sat on the beach swigging from a bottle of rum and smoking joints. It was midday. The town's primary business is tourism, but you won't see youths like that in Napa.
After three nights in Mendocino, we took the Pacific Coast Highway to Stinson Beach. It's a 78-year-old, 1055km stretch of highway that runs almost all of the Californian coast. There are five main sections, and it overlaps at points with other highways. Its most famous spot, Big Sur, immortalised by Kerouac, was much farther south than we were. But this was still some driving. It is completely rural. The sea is never far from view. It took four hours to travel 200km and we didn't pass through a town with more than a few hundred residents.
Thirty minutes shy of Stinson Beach we struck Point Reyes. When you get within a certain radius of San Francisco, the money seeps into the small towns. Point Reyes seemed catered for weekending urbanites who fear being without fancy cheese and good wine when they're outside the city limits.
Stinson Beach is just a long stretch of beach and a few shops, the way all good beach towns should be. Several members of the Grateful Dead have owned property there. Our first evening, LP and I found a small fitness centre to work out in. Not long after our arrival, the owner, a pensive looking man with wispy hair and goatee, took a pause from wiping down the machine and sat in the courtyard to play slide guitar in full view of his patrons.
I was delighted.
There's no universal moral here. It is just satisfying for me to expand my self-imposed horizons.
So if you can and if you're here, stretch your legs into the countryside wherever you are. There are so many different beats and moods in California. You won't be disappointed.
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