Part 3: Thar She Blows! A Day Of Whales

Friday, August 21st

On just the second day of our epic journey, we discovered what might be the greatest joy of the the travel trailer lifestyle: leaving your travel trailer behind.

After a morning walk (for some of us) and a dune tumble (for the youngest one) on the foggy beach, and with another night at the Manchester Beach/Mendocino Coast KOA ahead of us, we went exploring with just the car. It felt so free, not towing a big metal can over hills and around turns; I don’t think I’ll ever take non-towing driving for granted again.

It’s a question of maximizing your options based on how long you’re staying in a certain area.

There’s a different psychology at play depending on how many nights you’re staying at a particular site. If you’re only staying one night, you can’t really set up a base camp. You might have arrived late in the day; you’ll already be planning on getting up early, packing, cleaning, stowing, and moving on. But if you’re staying more than one night, you can settle down, relax, sleep in, and enjoy a little more freedom.

One lesson from our journey, for me, is that I would prefer to stay in one spot for 2-3 nights at least. However, that’s not always possible; you need to plan out trips far in advance, as camping is becoming more popular during the pandemic. Spaces are becoming in short supply; Facebook RV fan groups are full of posts asking if anyone is planning on canceling a site at such and such destination.

-Me, Today

But anyway, exploration, sans trailer:

Morning fog at Manchester State Beach

Highway 1 on the Mendocino Coast, from Manchester south through Point Arena to Gualala: for all my talk of Montana, this is very much familiar country to me. I grew up in Santa Rosa until I was nine, and my grandparents lived just south of here in Sonoma County, so the fog near the campground and then the bright, sparkling blue and turquoise water just over a hill on the way to Point Arena in the next micro-climate all felt like home.

The ocean has always called to me; it was a principal reason why I moved from Montana to San Francisco in 2007. Although I grew up in the mountains and woods of Montana, I always remembered the Sonoma coast, the fog, the rocky beaches, the mysterious waves. It’s such a fundamental transition where land gives way to water, where the known changes to the unknown, a liminal point.

The mouth of the Gualala River

The ocean is another world; anything could be out there, at any time.

Like whales. Whenever I see the ocean, I secretly count how many whales I think are under the surface at just that moment.

And, after the challenges and calamities of the first day of our trip, whales made the second day sublime.

One of my earliest memories is standing on the bluff at Fort Ross, watching a migrating pod of whales pass by. I must have been 5 or 6 in the memory, and I’ve always remembered seeing the spouts, and possibly even the wake.

But lately, I’ve wondered if that’s really an embroidered memory, enhanced by what I want to have seen. It seems almost impossible that I could have seen such detail from so far away at that age. (I’ve been close to whales, though, both at Laguna San Ignacio, where I touched a grey whale, and while living in Santa Cruz where they came fairly close to shore).

So it was just as well we re-created such a memory with Miss P, here, now, in the fresh memory time.

About ten miles north of Gualala, Marina spots a spout, and we turn out on one of the gravel pocket-sized pull-outs that line Highway 1, not one of the official turnouts for slow drivers, but just a little extra bit of shoulder big enough for one or two cars to stop safely.

They were far away, a good two hundred yards on the far side of a vast kelp bed. But the plumes of air and water are unmistakable. One, two, three, at regular intervals. We were giddy.

And then, a plume close to shore, fifty yards away! And then the glistening back arching up and out of the water, then back down, this side of the kelp. Two younger whales feeding close to shore, ancient and new at the same time.

Apologies for the giddy camera work. We were really excited.

For days, P would talk about seeing the spouts and the whale backs. Everything was sunny and calm; watching the whales feed and swim helped with a dose of perspective.

Eventually we drove on through the bump-in-the-road of Anchor Bay, where we failed to find lunch. What used to be a cozy diner, the Redwood Grille, is now a pleasant-looking Thai spot that was not yet open for the day, and the market didn’t have the right kind of deli sandwiches for what we wanted.

So we continued to Gualala, where M’s beloved great-aunt Charlotte was once a pillar of the community and where I once went kayaking on the Gualala River with my dad, my uncle, and my cousins. We found a taqueria at the side of the road, where take-out only policies were just fine with us, as a shady garden with benches gave us a relaxed place to sit and eat burritos and share a beer.

After a drive to the southern end of Mendocino County at the edge of Gualala, and a quick drive through a state park for a view of the rivermouth, we turned back north.

On the way back to Manchester and the campground, we found another overlook, this one a little more official, with an actual paved drive leading off the road to a turnaround circle where you could park and watch the ocean. There was a couple who had clearly established themselves for the day with camping chairs, drinks, and books, just hanging out at the cliff’s edge. Talk about knowing what matters in life.

And that’s where we saw more spouts, more whale backs, and, twice, the best view I’ve ever had of the whale’s fluke as it dived, backlit by a lowering sun. You never see flukes unless by, well, a fluke.

For now, whales are a conservation success story. Let’s hope they stay that way.

We returned to the campsite content, ready for a nap (for M), and a book (for P and me) and a beer (for me). The late afternoon sun filtered through the trees, a few people started wandering past on their way to their own site, and there was nothing needed doing except sitting quietly and just being.

Whether you’re on the road full time with a tricked-out RV as big as a cruise ship, or just a weekend adventurer with a 20 ft’ travel trailer, I think the appeal is (at least partially) the same. It’s not so much your particular destination; it’s the option of getting somewhere wilderness- and wildlife-adjacent and either staying put or exploring.

Me, Today

It was a mellow ending to the first stage of our journey; the next day would see us continue north to Trinidad, California, but for the moment, we were ready to rest.

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