West until your feet get wet
We returned recently, M and P and I, to our home among the rocks, surrounded by barnacles, kelp, and snails.
No, I’m not that bad a housekeeper. Barnacles have left our walls alone for now, and the smell of kelp is fading.
Tide pools. I’m talking about tide pools on the Sonoma Coast. Not a literal home as you might define it. But then again, home has so many definitions. As Obi-Wan Kenobi would say, home depends greatly on your own point of view.
You have your day-to-day, things-get-messy home, that house/condo/villa/yurt where you hoard books and wrangle chickens, where your Roomba can never keep up with the crumbs and your NordicTrack is quietly judging you while you binge Men In Kilts and The Rookie and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or search for cheat codes for Breath of the Wild or Animal Crossing New Horizons on the Switch you just bought for your daughter, who can just wait her turn like the rest of us – there’s a slot open a week from Tuesday, P.
You give that sort of home its emotional identity based on what you say, do, or think.
These places are like the Hundred-Acre Woods; even when you don’t visit for years, you always feel them waiting for you, just around the corner. Close your eyes and you remember every inch. Maybe one day you’ll say goodbye for good and not know it. But deep down, beneath your bones, it will always be home.
For me, I’ve found this twice. There’s the Bitterroot Valley, where I grew up among the knapweed, creeks, and aspen trees, wrestling with teen crushes and an immobilizing shyness (not literally wrestling with the former because of the latter, regrettably).
And then there’s the Sonoma Coast, particularly Highway 116 running west from 101 to Guerneville to the mouth of the Russian River, and Highway 1 snaking north and south between Gualala and Bodega Bay respectively: jagged-rocked, fog-bitten, green, grey, and brown coastal lands. It’s country that threaded into my life early and often.
When my grandfather retired from Pacific Bell in Pennsylvania, he and my grandmother moved into a special home up the hill from Fort Ross State Historic Park where they lived the rest of their lives; my architect uncle designed Fat Sun and my dad helped build it, a weathered-wood home with a long great room with vaulted ceiling, an alcove with a fireplace, a deck overlooking the ocean, and a pantry where, in my San Francisco adult years, my grandmother, uncle, and I would gather around the glowing-orange heating panels for coffee and oatmeal cookies on cold mornings. It’s surrounded by redwoods, madrones, manzanitas, wet leaves, newts, and the fog.
That house has always been (will always be) in my heart, a sanctuary in the mind’s eye, like Frasier‘s apartment or the Vermilion Minotaur tavern in Hello From The Magic Tavern. Except, you know, real. It’s at the heart of my Sonoma life. And while we couldn’t make it there this time, it was nice to know it was there.
If I could, I would be there, or at least on the Sonoma Coast, every weekend. If it weren’t for all that driving – southern California drivers are well-known for being testosterone-twitterpated, but drivers in the Sacramento and Bay Area regions are not that much better (#NotAllAudisAndBMWsButMost). And if it weren’t so hard now to find a rental. The secret of Sonoma is out.
However, by great luck and even greater diligence, M found a vacation rental on the Sonoma Coast for the weekend of February 19th, perfect for a belated celebration of both Valentine’s Day and my 41st birthday.
We left Sacramento mid-morning on Friday. After a remarkably perfect lunch at a roadside diner whose web presence is so confusing that I’m not sure if we ate at Boxcar Fried Chicken & Biscuits or Lou’s Luncheonette, we pressed on westwards. Wherever we ate, I can recommend it; a wide-open patio with wooden picnic tables, an adherence to social distancing in the ordering and pick-up process, and a menu of satisfying, tasty comfort foods was just what we needed.
When I was two months old, we moved from Montana to Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, where we stayed until the summer after my ninth birthday. I spent many days scrambling over the rocks at Fort Ross beach, or watching the seals at the mouth of the Russian River. Exploring the tide pools and bluff trails, sunny days or windy and cold, the bite and quiet where all you hear is the rumble of the waves, and then visiting my grandparents’ home for Nana’s famous shrimp-and-rotini salad.
So it’s easy to say the Sonoma Coast has been in my life as long as memory. And once I admitted to myself Missoula was over, four years after college (friends were leaving; I was counting cell phones; wasn’t grad schooling; still only figuratively wrestling with crushes), Sonoma was not the least of the reasons why I chose San Francisco.
And, coincidence or not, the Sonoma Coast has also been woven throughout M’s life; her remarkable great-aunt Charlotte designed and lived in a glorious Sea Ranch home for many years.
The Sonoma Coast: home and former and future home, all at once.
After buying gas and groceries in Guerneville, we continued west through the redwoods and along the Russian River, passed Duncans Mills and an old barn, rounded the corner and glided through Jenner. It was a drive as cozy and familiar as the opening of an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the sort of stretching-your-toes-and-smiling sensation you feel when Mr. Rogers changed into his cardigan and comfy shoes.
We drove north along the section of Highway 1 so eroded that it’s inevitably going to fall into the Pacific. Cattle often block the road, and rearguard roadwork against erosion means traffic lights and single-lane stretches, teaching either the value of patience or the benefits of the Meyers Grade – Fort Ross Road detour. This was the stretch the sourced the more unsettling dreams and memories I had of the coast, of jagged rocks as tall as the road, and cars falling, falling towards that waiting water.
The road leveled out (relatively speaking) as we passed Fort Ross itself. We rose and fell and curved along the road that’s every motorcyclist’s wet dream, beneath eucalyptus and cypress trees; the sort of beautiful drive that really wants to kill you if you fail to pay attention.
We didn’t die, of course. Instead, we reached the rental home in time for wine on the deck as we watched the sunset. Alas, no ‘green flash’, but the whisper of the trees and the rumble of the waves were just what we needed for a Friday night.
The girl, the crabs, and tidal wars
Our first stop on Saturday morning was Stump Beach, in Salt Point State Park.
We started down the trail from the parking area, enjoying the cool air, blue skies, and a morning quiet except for the eucalyptus trees along the path squeaking in the breeze like a door that needs a drop or two of WD-40. The path soon opened up to a view of the cove and rolling breakers.
That’s when an osprey swooped by at just above eye-level, devouring a mouse in mid-flight.
Nature is vicious.
With that inherent risk of evolutionary violence, I’m not quite sure why I feel so cozy at the tidelines, other than the familiarity. When you get right down to the water, you realize nature’s not cozy. Nature is big and cold and powerful and beautiful. It’s also tiny, minute, working away all around you when you don’t even notice.
A few miles south of Stump Beach, at Gerstle Cove Campground, P and I made our way down an eroding road, scrabbling over some helter-skelter concrete slabs the last few feet of the descent, to another stony beach that promised good tide pools.
Now, a word for a moment as a father. When one introduces a daughter to a special spot in the world, such a favorite beach or sacred cliff, someplace that feels like home in an inspiring way, one might rightly expect a little daughterly awe and maybe a “You’re so cool, Daddy.”
But no. She just charged ahead, scrabbling over the rocks like a rock crab herself.
And boy, were the tide pools active. P was fascinated as a group of active hermit crabs appeared to be fighting each other or ganging up on another crab to feed – or possibly a snail, to evict it.
And then we spent five minutes watching an anemone ensnare and try to devour a hermit crab that wandered too close. It was a slow drama, but drama. Bit by bit, the anemone tried to contract, to pull the crab into its maw, and the crab strained against the tentacles to climb up the rock and away. Finally, once again proving that size actually does matter, the anemone gave up and the crab – too large to be swallowed – went on its way.
Despite my long tide pooling career, I can’t recall another similarly dramatic encounter. Or maybe I just never sat long enough to notice. I was always more fascinated by the waves than tide pools. But P didn’t want to leave. She was fascinated.
After the tide pools, P and I set off down a short trail to an overlook where we found M. The low tides and a scattered collection of wind-shaved rocks had created a mini-cove for baby seals to lounge in the sun and swim in shallow pools, sheltered from the tides raging all around. A couple of them looked at us curiously then resumed sunbathing like lazy sandbags.
And there we sat as a family, P in M’s lap, for a good five-ten minutes, just sitting on stony dirt as the waves broke and the seals lazed. P would talk about those seals and tide pools for days; that was her go-to response when anyone bugged her for her favorite part of the trip.
Which is another reason why Marine Protected Areas are so vital. A thriving intertidal zone, full of these dramas beneath the water; waters where fish are left alone to provide food for baby seals. Kids need to learn about nature in such a first-hand way, full of salt and wind and air. Whether they root for the anemone or the crab, they need to care how elements of ecosystems fit together like Tetris blocks.
It’s far too easy for everything to get out of whack – the disappearance of sunflower sea stars led to a rise of sea urchins, who devoured kelp with a devastating domino effect on the fate of California abalone, which is one more example of the dangers of overfishing and an unbalanced environment. It’s one more reason why abalone poachers will – and deservedly so – face investigation, arrest, and prosecution. And it’s one more reason you should punch purple sea urchins in the face (well, not really, because that would hurt. They should be heavily culled from the Sonoma-Mendocino coast, though).
Fort Ross, then and now
If Fat Sun has always been the heart of my Sonoma life, Fort Ross has been the lungs – or maybe an arterial chamber? I don’t know. Clearly I haven’t thought through the metaphor.
Fort Ross has staked a claim in my memory, we’ll put it that way.
It’s not the original Russian fur-trading post, just a faithful recreation — except I doubt Russians had a wheelchair-accessible bathroom. Everything just looks like it could be that old. My dad – a carpenter in Montana when he met my mom and who carried the trade to California briefly before moving into the computer and electronics fields – helped recreate the main building of the fort, part of a massive local effort to preserve the history, as otter-unfriendly as it may have been.
We got to Fort Ross in the mid-afternoon, when the light and wind were at their peak. The big change struck me immediately – a new replica of a windmill that once stood outside the grounds of the Fort, and which was constructed in Russia in 2012, disassembled, shipped over, and re-assembled.
Russia seems to like reminding the world that they were there. But the windmill was definitely fascinating to see.
P marched around the old fort with curiosity and impatience both. She loved the chapel, the bell, the cannons, and the old well. The block house and other buildings left her cold, although that might have been the typical coastal breeze. To me, it was one more moment walking through my memories.
This Fort, all these parks, were places I’ve been with my parents, my uncle, aunt, cousins, grandparents. And here I was, with my daughter and the ghosts of all the days that went before. I think P liked it, but I’m not sure if she loved it as much as she loves Monterey, Santa Cruz, or any place where she’s been with her BFF. It’s like she doesn’t live her life through my experiences or something.
Everyone knows the town of Sonoma and the Sonoma Valley; almost – but not quite – as famous as the Napa Valley when it comes to wine. But the Sonoma Coast still feels a little secret, a little quiet. A little bit all my own. It’s not Mendocino; it’s not Marin County and Tomales Bay and Point Reyes. Maybe that’s why it still feels home. We all want to feel like we’re equipped with special, intimate knowledge, that we matter, that there’s a place that we understand that others don’t.
That’s probably a good definition of feeling at home (and yes, I’m aware of the irony in having talked all about this special secret place).
Will P feel the same way about the Sonoma Coast when she’s 20? 30? 40? Probably not. But it probably depends on what she remembers of these tide pools, the fort, and these beaches.
I know she remembers the osprey eating the mouse. That’s something to build on (well, not for the mouse).
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