Northern California hiking and beachcombing; October 2012

We landed in Oakland in time for a pleasant walk on the shore of Lake Merritt, an urban gem beloved by joggers and mommies.  Then we met Anna and Brian and walked to Drunken Fish, a fine Japanese restaurant, for dinner.  Sushi is their specialty, of course; and what I was brave enough to try was very good.

October 6

We strolled around the corner from Anna and Brian’s house to Beauty’s Bagels to pick up breakfast.  Shortly after we’d arrived, a line of customers stretched from the counter to the door.

Our next destination was the Oakland Museum of California, a large museum encompassing regional history, natural history and art.  There was a special exhibit on the year 1968 that evoked many memories for me (some of them dark) and was surprisingly moving.  I tailed onto a guided tour of highlights of the art and history sections.  We adjourned to Ike’s Lair for sandwiches (mine was a Hot Mama Hutsa that included grilled chicken, barbecue sauce and provolone).  We picnicked on the museum’s plaza and explored the garden, which covered the roofs of some of the buildings and had many large modern sculptures.  Tunnels and corridors led us around and beneath the museum.  We found a large pond stocked with big golden and spotted koi; in its center a crystalline sculpture cast rainbows onto the walls.

We peeked inside the wonderful modern Catholic cathedral near the lake.  It is oval-shaped and has awesome acoustics, as we learned by listening to the choir practice.  Supper was at a Thai restaurant with delicious yellow and Penang curries.

Anna had arranged an after-dark gondola ride for us on Lake Merritt that was very enjoyable.  Our gondolier conducted us noiselessly along the glittering shore.  He briefed us on the history of gondoliering in Venice, and boasted that he had introduced gondolas to Oakland ten years ago.  He serenaded us beautifully too, though he explained that real gondoliers never sang; that is just an invention of Gilbert and Sullivan.

October 7

Brian’s brother Scott joined us for breakfast at Aunt Mary’s Cafe, a funky place a mile north of Anna and Brian’s house.  It was good that we arrived early.  As with other restaurants Anna and Brian have brought us to, when we left we saw a line of people on the sidewalk waiting to get in.

We drove to the Robert Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the steep hills northeast of Oakland.  We’d come to hike the ridges and hollows that overlook foggy San Francisco Bay to the west and Mount Diablo, a onetime submarine volcano, to the east.  We met many happy dogs and their owners.  A big tan dog named Butter approached us hopefully with a stick in his mouth.  A corgi decided we weren’t close enough to each other, and diligently herded us together.

The basalt hills were covered with dry grass.  A few trees grew between the hills.  Brian pointed out oak trees bearing green acorns; and bay leaf laurels, whose aromatic leaves Brian said were rather strong but might be used by an adventurous chef.  Fennel in tall clumps offered clusters of yellow flowers that tasted like licorice.

We watched several passes of the US Navy’s six Blue Angels acrobatic jets flying in a “V” formation.  We noted the advice of a skywriting plane; “Geico – it’s more than just car insurance.”  Anna had read that an air show was taking place in the bay area; that would explain the aerial activity.

We had a fine picnic lunch, and returned to Anna and Brian’s house to shower, relax and do our laundry.  Supper was delicious tamales that even Pat could eat, with mugs of ice cream for dessert.

October 8

We saw Anna and Brian off to work.  Anna warned us that the street sweeper was scheduled to drive past her house today, so all cars had to be moved off the street by 9 AM.  Pat couldn’t find the keys to our rental car.  We scoured our luggage and the rest of the house for them.  At a few minutes after nine, Pat found them on the high windowsill by the front door.   She moved the car to a metered space around the corner.  Eventually we were ready to load it, so she brought it back.  The fallen leaves on the street in front of Anna’s house were still there. 

We found our way out of Oakland with some difficulty, crossed the bay and headed north on US 101.  By the time we’d reached Novato, the driver needed a break.  We stumbled onto SushiHolic, an excellent sushi restaurant, in a shopping mall.  For dessert we had frozen yogurt at Tutimelon, whose owner was very accommodating to Pat’s nondairy, nonsoy needs.  We visited Target to buy some Sudafed decongestant.  I had to show my ID card and sign an electronic form in order to buy it.  The druggist explained that it’s now federally controlled because meth labs use it to make their nasty stuff.

A circuitous series of back roads brought us to Highway 1, a narrow two-lane road that winds in, out, up and down following the jagged coastline.  Signs warned of cows, and we saw quite a few cows loitering on the edges of the road or sauntering across it.

We checked into a cabin north of tiny Gualala (“wa-LA-la”) as the sun set over the Pacific.   The woman in the office filled out a long statement form with a ball point pen, even though two computers were sitting behind her.  I then had to sign a full page of regulations for making damage to our cabin impossible and ensuring that we’d pay for it.  A parakeet in a cage shrieked all the while.  “He isn’t pretty,” she commented, “Just loud.”

Our cabin was decidedly rustic.  I kept tripping on the two-inch step between the kitchen and the rest of the place.  There was no light over the stove.  A franklin fireplace and a fat tube TV hogged the middle of the main room.  Soot darkened the ceiling around the chimney, suggesting that it wasn’t very effective, and the air was smoky.  But the cabin had a small deck overlooking a rocky inlet.  Now and then we could hear seals barking happily on some offshore rock.  We ate leftover Thai food for dinner, reinforced with snow peas and fried mushrooms from Target.

October 9

We spent the afternoon strolling down the coast from Gualala Point Regional Park.  Here the mostly craggy coast is relieved by a coarse “salt and pepper” beach with bits of quartz in the gray sand.  Pat found a seep spring in the side of the cliff; we can build a pueblo now!  Rollers crash against craggy headlands, flinging plumes of spray into the air.  Layers of tan and yellow sandstone compose the cliff behind the beach, tilted like a shelf of books fallen awry.  And the loose boulders and slabs of rock scattered at the base of the cliff have layers like broken wafer cookies.

We scrambled up a slab of sandstone to the top of the bluff.  Beyond a low screen of intertwined cypress trees, fields of long dry grass nod in the breeze.   We wandered south into Sea Ranch, where the bluff trail edges past expensive, empty beach houses defended by No Trespassing signs.

We had a good dinner at Cove Azul Bar And Grill (Pat ordered crab louie, which is hard to find).  Back in our cabin, we made a fire in the Franklin fireplace, following the elaborate instructions posted by our host.  It was very cheering, but it made the place even smokier than it was before.

We opened windows and ran the bathroom fan to try to clear it out.  Out on the rocks, the seals barked in foolish delight, as if they knew they sounded silly and that was funny too.  There should be a laughing seals channel on TV.  You can’t stay grumpy, listening to seals.

October 10

This morning began in fog, so we made a sluggish beginning too.  At noon we headed north from our Gualala base to the Point Arena Lighthouse.  At the end of a long narrow road, we found a toll booth.  The entrance fee; $7.50.  I was willing to go along with that until I learned it was per person, not per car.  I resented that the cost hadn’t been posted at the start of the road; since we live a mile from a lighthouse in West Seattle that we know pretty well, we took a pass.

Next stop was Manchester State Park.  We ate our picnic in the car, then bundled up to investigate the beach.  We could hear surf from the parking lot, so we figured it was a short walk.  And it was, to the top of a 20-foot drop-off above the beach.  Pat hunted around until she found a sand ramp that would not only get us down to the beach but would also let us get up again.  It was not my kind of beach, flat and featureless other than scraps of kelp and driftwood.  The cliff turned out to be more of the yellow clay and sandstone we’d seen at Gualala.  Gray clouds curdled to the north, and gusts of cold wind blew sand in our faces.  So much for beaches today!

We drove to Irish Beach, expecting a town, but found only expensive houses and real estate signs.  So we proceeded to tiny Elk, and bought some mango and red pepper jam for Anna and Brian in one of its three roadside businesses.  The two ladies who were running it gave us a cheerful good-bye.

Across the street we visited Greenwood Creek Beach, which we viewed from the comfort of the bluff trail.  Several natural bridges had been eroded into the offshore rocks, and waves were shooting through one of them.  At the north end of the trail, we noted that two overgrown picnic tables were enclosed in a massive steel-reinforced concrete circle.  It looked like the ruins of World War 1 artillery emplacements on Washington’s Whidbey Island, though the Wikipedia entry for Elk says nothing about a military history for the park.

Pat orchestrated a fine dinner at the cabin; barbecued salmon, yams stuffed with dried cranberries we’d imported from Utah, fresh string beans, and salads enhanced with tomatoes, grapes and roasted almonds from our lunch stash.  Supplies were running low; we were trying to arrange to use everything up just before we flew home.

October 11

Our little cabin resort is on the ocean side of Highway 1; it’s on a headland with a picturesque bay on each side.  It has a cliff trail to the north bay, and we explored it today.  The forested bluffs, sheer cliffs and the angular rocks scattered in the sea make a wild and beautiful setting. 

Pat scrambled around and found a perfect abalone shell.  It’s bigger than my hand, and turquoise and purple inside.  The resort isn’t in a park or reserve, so we figured we could carry it off.  Nevertheless, she checked with a staff member to make sure it’s all right to take the shell.  He said yes, though cautioning her that selling the shells isn’t permitted.

We bought six gallons of gas at $5.06 a gallon.  I’d read that a power failure at a California refinery had reduced production, leading to an average price in the state of $4.66.  The extra 40 cents must be a premium for our remote location.  We hoped it would get us through this day and back to US 101 tomorrow where gas might be cheaper.

We drove to Van Damme State Park, north of Little River, to hike the Fern Canyon trail.  We arrived in the late afternoon; the ranger at the gatehouse suggested we drive around the south side of the park to the Pygmy Forest trailhead of the Fern Canyon trail network.  We went through the nature trail there and saw miniature versions of familiar trees such as madronas and rhododendrons.  The sandy, acidic soil stunts their growth; a tree whose trunk is a quarter of an inch in diameter may be 80 years old.

We followed a broad, smooth path through much bigger trees toward Fern Canyon.  But we turned back before we reached it, because it was going down steeply and the daylight was fading.  A heavy mist set in, verging on drizzle — “drist” — as we withdrew to the Little River Inn for an elegant dinner.

October 12

We checked out of our cabin and tried to get breakfast in Gualala; but we were too late.  After inquiring at four restaurants, we ate trail mix and bananas in the car.

We drove back to Oakland, stopping along the way to stroll around the big gray sand bar and dunes at the mouth of the Russian River at Sonoma Coast State Beach.  The sea was opaque and ornamented with widely scattered rocks like a sand garden; the sky was opaque.  Few people were around when we arrived; it was an immaculate, spacious scene. 

A barrier of rocks in a decayed wood frame, with a long section of steel-reinforced concrete near the sea that’s in better condition, crosses the sand bar.  From Highway 1 it looked like a dam; at the time of our visit, the outlet of the river was closed.  After walking around and on the barrier, I thought it was a breakwater that accidentally caused the sand to accumulate.    Pat thought it was meant to keep the sand from filling the river mouth.  Anna later guessed it had been a pier.  Later I did some googling and couldn’t find an explanation for the structure.  But I did learn that the sand bar is a “barrier beach” that naturally closes the river’s mouth during the summer season and reopens it in the winter.  In the 1990s it was reopened annually with earthmoving equipment to prevent flooding; later this practice was given up because it was distressing the steelhead habitat in the lagoon.  So Pat’s idea of a sand control barrier seems to be correct.

The barrier is a magnet for families and tourists.  It makes a good vantage point for looking at the fleet of angular rocks scattered offshore.  Kids ventured toward the seaward end, and squealed when waves sent bursts of spray toward them.  The beach is posted as dangerous to swimmers due to the rip current.  The lagoon behind the beach hosted two great flocks of seagulls.  Pat thought there were also pelicans and cormorants.  Throughout our time on the coast we’ve noticed long-beaked pelicans scouting the water’s edge, always in couples.

We drove on to Petaluma, where we bought more gas at $4.75 a gallon.  (When we returned to Seattle, it was $4.19 a gallon.)  The elevation of this inland town is just 17 feet; much of the coast is higher.  We took the San Rafael/Richmond Bridge across the north end of San Francisco Bay, arriving at Anna’s house in plenty of time for dinner with the kids, Brian’s mother Jay and his sister Sasha at Rustica Pizza.

October 13

Pat made us a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs.  Anna had to attend a conference in San Francisco on this Saturday.  So we took her across the bay and then headed back to Oakland.  Step by step our wonderful adventure was coming to an end.  We turned in our rental car, got through security like pros, found some reasonably good Chinese food in the concourse, and got on our plane to Seattle.

It has been great to see the kids and glimpse their worlds, and to explore new places on our own.  Next time we’ll pack lighter and plan better!  I hope it’s soon.

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