Jun 12, 2011

Lost Coast to The Bay

When I was really young, my parents made me skip a grade. I guess once upon a time I was really smart. It was a miserable decision any parent could make for an eight-year-old. I physically matured at a late age, so I was always the smallest kid in my grade. Plus schools usually frown on kids skipping grades, so I had to keep changing schools and constantly make new friends. It was terrible.

One bright side to the experience was that I was barely 17-years-old when I graduated high school and started attending Humboldt State University. This was where I spent the early part of my formative years. A small, liberal Northern California college town in Humboldt County called Arcata that makes Berkeley look conservative. As liberal as a place gets. Really fun town, and beautiful to boot, surrounded by old giant Redwood trees. I remember describing to people how the journey to Arcata involved driving for hours through an old Redwood forest before you arrived in this magical hippy commune where weed is as prevalent as onshore winds in spring. So when I fled Humboldt County two years later with horrible credit, a major drug problem and an arrest warrant that forced me not to return for seven years (although I did make quite a few subsequent visits under the radar), I was still only 18 years old. I had enough time to make things right, which I luckily did. For the most part anyways.

During my two years living in Arcata, I never got that much into the surf scene. By this point in my life I was passionate about surfing, but I was still terrible at it. Plus the surf scene in Humboldt is insane during the winter months. Besides the miserable cold and rain, the water and air temperatures are frigid and swells hit double overhead frequently. So it wasn't until years later when I really started surfing with a passion and vigor.

Recently I came to the realization that if I did a roadtrip covering the coastal roads of Northern California stretching from Humboldt County down to the San Francisco Bay Area, I would reach the interesting accomplishment of driving the entire Pacific Coast stretching from Vancouver Island and British Columbia all the way down to the southern tip of Baja California. So with my trusty companion, Dr. Indiana Jones (Indy for short), I packed up my beloved 4Runner named Holden Caulfield that has taken me on all these amazing voyages and embarked on the final leg of what has become a roadtrip spanning over 3,000 miles and five years, starting just south of my old stomping grounds of Arcata, California in a small, remote coastal Humboldt County town called Shelter Cove.

It took a little over four hours to reach the exit for Shelter Cove from San Francisco. The drive into Shelter Cove is an adventure in itself. After driving for close to 45 minutes on a small, windy single-lane road, you go down a steep descent where signs warn you to shift into lower gears. The second you reach this point of the drive however, you know you're heading towards a beautiful escape. Most of the drive down you get glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, and alongside you there is a steep ravine full of redwoods and other large trees. Upon reaching the town, I quickly realized how small and reclusive Shelter Cove truly is.

It's also a town of amazing beauty. While the airstrip that is right in the middle of this tiny place does seem rather strange and out of place, the coastline is amazing. There is a lighthouse on the southern edge of the town, and below this is a small cove where the majority of the surfing takes place. Indy and I took it easy our first night on the trip. After grabbing some fish and chips at a nearby restaurant, we settled in for the night at a dog-friendly hotel called Inn of the Lost Coast that features rooms with balconies right over the Pacific Ocean. This part of town is completely exposed to the Pacific, so the entire night you're hearing it's rage as waves are crashing into the Lost Coast's jagged coastline.

After grabbing some coffee and a bagel in the morning at the downstairs breakfast joint, Indy and I went back to the small cove where there is supposed to be surf. Unfortunately while there was a strong swell from the northwest hitting the region, the cove is so sheltered that it needs a south swell to give it some form. There clearly wasn't enough, although I did catch a few small ones. The weather was a trip. It was genuinely a good ten to fifteen degrees warmer than San Francisco. Amazing weather, even during the early morning it felt good to get out into the water.

This was the first time I let Indy roam the beach while I went out surfing. I tried to get him to get out into the water with me, but he wouldn't go past the breakers. Believe me when I say he wanted to. I tried getting him on the surfboard, and while he instinctually would stand on it the moment I laid it in front of him, it's rocky balance when floating on water didn't sit well with Indy, who would jump off the board just moments after standing on it. He clearly loves the ocean though, getting him to surf will be a future project.

There must have been a lot of fish in the area. Besides smelling it, there were a lot of birds diving, plus there were a few seals in the area that amazingly kept barking at me, wanting me to leave the area. One male in particular was making all the ruckus, and the one peak that every fifteen minutes or so would break for a decent wave was peaking right where the male seal was barking at me. I've never had seals fight with me for territory before. Not wanting to deal with a potential seal attack, I relented, and caught crappier stuff inside while the seal protected his spot in the lineup. Stupid seal.

Shortly after getting out of the water and drying off, Indy and I explored the beach a little more before packing up and heading out. Interesting to note that there's a small surf shop in the town just off the airstrip, an extension of Tsunami Surf Shop in nearby Geyserville that unfortunately is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I didn't get a chance to check it out.

Indy and I got on the road to head south towards Fort Bragg. After getting back on the 101 heading southbound, it took a good hour of driving on Highway 1's windy roads before finally seeing the coastline again. Literally moments after taking this photo, I was given a reminder that I'm starting to get old.

I shit myself.

No joke. First time in my life. Right after stopping to take this picture of the beautiful California coastline and letting Indy out for a piss break, I sharted so hard that it clearly constituted shitting myself. I don't know if it was the extra cup of coffee, or the bagel, or the fishiness of the ocean, but something got to me, and what I thought was going to be a simple fart turned into shit.

What an embarrassing moment. I was beyond lucky to have an adequate supply of napkins in the car, and spent the next few minutes squatting with my pants down next to the freeway wiping myself. I was so focused on the task at hand that I couldn't pay attention to passing cars, whose passengers must have given a second look if they saw me. Humility has its finer moments.

After this disgusting episode I got back into the car in a most uncomfortable fashion and saw that I was only 15 miles away from my destination for the evening: Fort Bragg. I wanted to settle in a place early as I've learned over the years with roadtrips that pulling back-to-back long days are what truly wears you down. So when I spend a day driving a really long time, I try to follow it up with a day spent driving maybe a few hours at the most.

Fort Bragg is an interesting place. I'd like to call it a rich man's Eureka. You don't get much of the methy feeling one gets when in Eureka, yet there's still a bit of a white trash feel. I didn't realize 15,000 people lived here, this along with Ukiah are the hubs of Mendocino County.

I settled into a dog-friendly motel called Surf Motel. They have a cool dog park and the owners, who bought the place five years ago and moved here from Redwood City to raise their kids, were really nice. Indy and I were pretty worn from driving and surfing (I surfed, he sprinted back and forth in the sand, mixing in a swim session here and there), so we stayed in, ordering some Round Table pizza and enjoying some of the fine purp that I brought along for the trip.

After a night of burning down the purp and scarfing down nearly an entire large Round Table pizza (Indy helped me out by enjoying a slice of his own), I went to a restaurant in the morning called Eggheads that received an exorbitant amount of positive online reviews. The place, located in downtown Fort Bragg, looked like any other small town cafe. I ordered a breakfast burrito to go, and later when I ate it I understood why the place is adored by all. The food is absolutely amazing. Some food items your taste buds instantly enjoy. This was one of those items. Next time I'm ordering some of the crab omelets, which looked good on the menu but were priced really high and I was already spending too much money on this trip for food.

Before I went back to the motel room to pack up, I spotted the town's surf shop, a place called Lost Surf Shack. I arrived too early as the place wasn't open yet. However the owner, whose name is Kris, was inside and noticed me looking in the window scoping the joint out. Kris opened the door and invited me in. After telling him I own San Francisco Surf Company, we talked shop for a while. He mentioned how he took over the business about three and a half years ago, literally moments before the Great Recession. Like me, he mentioned how he's barely getting by, that people just aren't spending money like they used to. I wanted to buy one of his shop's t-shirts but he unfortunately didn't have my size. Kris is a really nice guy and gave me some stickers before we parted ways, and shared some of the local knowledge, including where the best surf spots are. Highly recommend checking out Lost Surf Shack if you're ever in Fort Bragg.

After packing up, Indy and I hit the road again, this time to explore the last stretch of Pacific Coastline stretching from Vancouver Island, Canada all the way down to the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico that I hadn't explored yet. The Mendocino Coast. I had mixed expectations about it, mostly because of my previous experiences in shoddy Mendocino towns like Ukiah, Willits and now Fort Bragg. In a lot of ways I thought it would be similar to the drive along the Oregon coast. Some amazing views mixed in with traffic, rednecks and tourists. I was fortunate enough to embark on this roadtrip in the middle of June, when the weather is nice and tourists have yet to completely inundate the coastal roads. So unlike the Oregon trip, this drive was really smooth. Very little traffic and the towns were quaint and very delightful. And the views were breathtaking. I didn't realize that this drive would rival the Highway One south of Big Sur. It's that beautiful.

Shortly after leaving the city limits of Fort Bragg, I came to a place called Caspar Beach. I had read in my surf guidebooks (I brought along two of them, Surfing California which had served me well on previous California surf road trips, and Surfer Magazine's Guide to Northern and Central California Surf Spots) that this was a mellower spot in the area, and considering how strong the winds were that day coupled with a very powerful northwest swell that was hitting the area, I wanted to give this place a try.

Caspar Beach is a gem. While the surf wasn't that great, it was probably the best the entire Mendocino Coast had to offer. An old guy who was surfing alone in the lineup backed this feeling up. He told me everywhere else was completely blown out, that Caspar was the only place that didn't have strong winds and closeouts. Apparently this is one of the rare beginner spots in the area. I could understand why. It's more like a cove, with cliff edges blocking out some of the wind and the narrow channel at the edge of the cove minimizing strong swells. I caught a few decent rides, one good one, and given the conditions considered the session a success. It wasn't great by any means, however any session where I'm just out in the water and I catch at least one good ride is something I'll never take for granted.

After being in the water for about an hour, I headed back in. Despite the cliff's protection, the winds were still hitting the place pretty strongly and the break clearly couldn't handle larger swells because when set waves came into the cove the waves wouldn't hold, they would closeout. Plus Indy was tied up to a large wooden post on the beach and I could tell he was getting anxious sitting there. Turned out the real reason for his anxiety was that a large seal had perched himself just feet from where Indy was tied up. The seal rolled himself in sand so it was tough to spot him. Amazingly enough, when I took Indy's leash off, he didn't pay any attention to the seal. The interactions of animals can be a trip.

The only thing that pissed me off about this part of the trip was that I stupidly stood my surfboard up for a second while I was changing, and a strong gust of wind blew the board onto pavement, creating a nasty ding on the nose. I cursed God for that one, not just because of the ding but because this was one of the wettest and nastiest winters I have ever experienced, and in the middle of June strong spring winds which had been blowing for months were still not dissipating, and it was really hurting business at my surf shop because I depend heavily on foot traffic and no one wants to go walking around when the weather sucks. So in essence the weather over the past six months cost me approximately $30,000 in lost sales, and my dinged surfboard put me over the top. For a brief moment I completely lost it, screaming at the sky to give me a fucking break with the weather already.

I screamed and cursed, put the dinged surfboard into the car, calmed down, then hit the road with Indy. The first town one encounters when leaving Fort Bragg and heading south is called Mendocino, named appropriately for the county. What charm Fort Bragg lacks is more than made up for by this quaint little town. It's a little touristy, but cozy, full of art galleries, a couple of coffee shops, all around great vibes. I told myself I would spend more time there the next time I cruise through this part of the world.

The next five hours I drove south, enjoying unbelievable views, seeing endless amounts of amazing surf spots (when the weather is good, it's easy to tell that there is really great surf here) tucked into countless coves, and making the occasional stop. One of these stops was at Point Arena, named for a large rock that is located just off the coast and is responsible for countless shipwrecks. This rock is the reason why the west coast's largest lighthouse was built. I paid the $7.50 to check the lighthouse out, and was lucky to have shown up right when a tour group was heading to the top. I climbed the 146 steps to enjoy the view.

The town of Point Arena is located just south of the lighthouse a little ways inland. I had heard that there is great surf here, and before I turned to head towards the harbor I noticed a small surf shop in town called Family Surf N Skate. This place represented exactly the opposite of everything I go for with my surf shop. Thug looking teenagers hanging inside and outside the shop, and when I reached the doorway I received the nastiest look from the shopkeeper. I never understand why so many surf shops run their business this way. The vast majority of these places are so unwelcoming. Family Surf N Skate in Point Arena included. I said, "Fuck this," and went down to the harbor.

From the looks of things, the surf was remarkable. I was well into the day and had already got in a session, but I could see a right-hander about 150 yards away that someone was paddling towards, with a second older guy heading into the water to go surf as well. It looked so clean and good. While the vast majority of the coastline was blown out with really heavy winds, this harbor was in yet another cove, protected from the nasty gusts. The weather was warm and friendly, and the surf looked good. This is a place I will have to come back to someday.

Indy and I hit the road again and continued on down the winding roads of highway one heading south. Such an amazing drive, nothing but beautiful coastline to put one at peace with the world. We stopped at one final beach before heading inland. This place didn't have good surf by any means but it was split up into two separate beaches, with one forbidding and one allowing dogs. I could understand the half not allowing dogs because there were seals and other wildlife everywhere, plus the beach had a powerful shore pound that I'm sure could easily suck in and drown a dog. Indy had a blast, running all over the place and getting wet before we hit the road again. I was happy to see that Indy had just as good of a time on this trip as I did.

We reached Bodega Bay, then turned inland towards the freeway and home.
I can be so alone on these trips. Yet I continue to travel.


I'm lucky to have Indy with me. When I feel dogwild and board, there he is. Reminding me of the good in this world.

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