Day-Tripping in Northern California

Spirit of Place

Traveling north of San Francisco in search of surf.
Michael Kew

A stormy winter day on the Mendocino County coast can easily hint of the year-round desolation that existed in this part of the state before the arrival of expensive homes, wineries, parades of RVs, elegant art galleries, and bed-and-breakfast romance. At that time, decades ago, southern California surfers didn’t make the trek north to surf, where it was much colder, much darker; Santa Barbara was considered fringe, Santa Cruz was arctic, and nobody knew what was above San Francisco.

Today, misperception of the area’s surf-ability remains widespread. It’s true there are no Hollister Ranches, no hidden Rincons, no Sandspit-style harbors there-northern California’s coastline is too young and climatically beaten to allow for consistently refined waves. But that’s not to say the surf is always horrible, because like any surfy place, every dog has its day.

On the day I visited Mendocino, I was badly hungover. The previous night, a torrential black wash had confined me to the car from dusk to dawn, trembling in the wind on a patch of Gualala Point campground dirt. To while away the hours, I drank bourbon while reading Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, listening to the storm swoosh through the trees above.

Then came daybreak, and the storm was replaced by fog and silence. But soon the rain resumed, and in the car I dozed thinly, waiting for the rain to stop and the fog to clear, but neither did. So, for surfing purposes, I decided to try my luck in Sage Creek, 15 miles north.

It is an enchanting drive from Gualala to Sage Creek, first threading the brief retail strip of Anchor Bay, then its pretty white-sand beach, then past the piney woods and rocky coves of Havens Neck and Signal Port. At Iversen the route softens, deflating from the forest into the weedy terraces fronting Saunders Reef. Blond slant-shale bluffs veer northwestward from Schooner Gulch, leading into the pastoral coast preceding Arena Cove, which is an undulating savannah with windbreaks of cypress, malodorous dairy farms and grazing black cattle, soaring hawks and kestrels perched on telephone wires with dead mice in their talons. At Sage Creek, the road dips and the town’s Main Street appears, a clutch of stark storefronts flanking the grade.

Set amid the Mendocino Coast’s nouveau riche, Sage Creek (pop. 420) is a moldy bohemian spread of dope growers, hicks, and retirees. Many surfers know of Sage Creek and many have surfed there, but there is no local quite like the Sage Creek local. Minutes after arrival I met Bob at the end of the Sage Creek pier, precisely where I had seen him three years before, again holding a joint and a can of beer.

“Goin’ out?” he asked, squinting at me and taking a hit from the joint.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Bob lives in Sage Creek, grows weed, and drives a rusty green hatchback festooned with bumper stickers like “Mean People Suck” and “Arms Are for Hugging.” He is in his fifties and has long, frizzy gray hair. The day I met him he wore clunky leather boots, a thin blue rain jacket, and purple flannel pants that likely doubled as pajamas.

“Shitty out there today,” he said, studying the waves.

“Just drove up from Gualala,” I said. “Everywhere’s shitty.”

He set his beer on the pier’s wooden railing and smiled. “You know where’s good right now?”

“Hawai’i?”

“No.” He leaned toward me and spoke slowly: “La Jolla.”

From his chest pocket he plucked a small aerial photograph of the Southern California city. “See these?” He pointed at the coastal crags. “That’s paradise. I’m thinking of moving down there, leaving all my shit in my barn here.”

“I used to live around there,” I said.

“You’re damn lucky. What’re you doing here?”

“Just looking around.”

“Well, you know where else is good?” Bob asked, flicking ash from his joint. “Vancouver Island. The surf potential up there is incredible!”

“I was up there last year.”

“Is it unreal, or what?”

“I enjoyed it, but didn’t get much surf. The best spots are only accessible by boat.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Look, I don’t normally fly commercial planes, but up there I flew in a seaplane, looked at all the setups. So many pointbreaks!”

“What about Sage Creek?” I inquired.

“What about it?” he asked, brow furrowed. “It’s home, but I’m sick of this place, man. There’s a huge world out there, and I need to travel more. This ain’t La Jolla.”

“But it’s crowded down there,” I said. “Don’t you get lots of empty surf here during the year?”

The wind howled from the south; black rain clouds above us began leaking. Bob looked up, then at me.

“Man,” he said, “this place sucks.”

To flee the rain, I went back to Main Street and

ate a burger in a dingy cafe before walking to the

public library, a refuge of fluorescent light where the wind wheezed through heavy glass doors. The day was fading fast, and outside was cold and wet, a dark January afternoon sinking its teeth into the little town.

In the library were several people, sullen and pasty, coughing and sneezing, wearing heavy clothes, moving slowly. They looked like they’d spent too much time indoors. Near me slouched a preteen girl reading People magazine; a boy next to her had a copy of Us, blankly flipping through the pages. One darkly felonious-looking man in a blue flannel shirt and black cap was hunched over a computer, emailing women on Yahoo! Personals and MySpace, proving that even in Sage Creek, the bizarre concept of cyber-dating exists.

Meanwhile, outside had changed: dense fog and drizzle, a reduction from the downpour. I considered booking a hotel, as Sage Creek had one or two budget options. Then I thought of the Gualala campground-ferny, leafy, mossy, dimmed with the dirt-scented dampness of redwood forest, soundtracked with birdsong and babbling brook, weighted with the stark solemnity of a wet winter day. I thought of the woods in the rain and how tranquil and interesting they were, so I vowed to camp again, even if it meant I would be trapped in the car, reading until I fell asleep in the passenger seat before the stroke of nine, thinking, “There is always tomorrow.”

Because, certainly, Sage Creek in winter is no surfer’s paradise. Then again, with the right swell, the right weather, and the right attitude, it could be.

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