A feeling of déjà vu the whole trip. I know how to react despite it being my first time traveling the stretch between Bodega Bay and Point Arena, because I’ve driven CA Highway 1 in Big Sur and recognize the landscape, recall the possibilities of elevation and sudden descent, of hairpin turns that roil your intestines. I remember the narrow runs along highlands with three hundred foot drop-offs, where the road veers suddenly inland around a dense redwood grove nestled in a canyon or above a burbling river waterfalling eventually out to the sea. So this Lost Coast already exists, a variation anyway, festering within me.
Better fucking follow the 25 mph signs, because if you take that curve at 40 you’ll feel the loss of control and hear death whispering haikus in your ear. Accelerate, decelerate, wait for the rare straightaway with a clear view where it’s safe to pass the sluggish camper van at an astounding speed, then brake before the route snakes off course again.
Something different than Big Sur manifests on the approach to Jenner. Coming from a lush river valley (the Russian River finally reaching the ocean), I climb with the land to an old western town, the entire grid narrow as it straddles the rise and then girds the sheer cliff above the Pacific. Families stop here and take stock. “Let’s get lunch” is better than “Let’s get lost.” Their map mileage fooled them. A protracted battle lies ahead to reach Mendocino, of rental car against the ragged edge of the continent.
“How far back to San Francisco, friend?”
Outlaws and old hippies settle in to places like Jenner for life. They find their own worn faces reflected in the weather-beaten shops and hotels. If this feels too social, too close to Bodega Bay and the relentless hawking of Hitchcock’s The Birds souvenirs, then move farther north, over the treacherous hills and turns with no safety railing toward Gualala. Despite arguments over the first syllable, a lovely name to repeat like some bogus ritual incantation in a 1940s zombie film.
There is a great clash in these Northern California towns. The mixture of blue collar uncertainty—what do people do up here?—of fallen-down, rusting metallic sheds thrown against newer redwood homes, perched on forested crags with breathtaking vertiginous views, concealing absent millionaires from distant tech cultures. But also the odd Victorians and Gothic structures where witches and covens might thrive, festooned with ancient water towers and widows’ walks.
Did New England whalers move out here a hundred and fifty years ago? Yes, but they were in the timber industry. Do Pacific Northwest lumberjacks have reoccurring Nantucket dreams they bring to fruition in this remoteness?
Stranger constructs peer out from haunted forests or sit perched on bare hillsides above the highway, revealing no easy access. Barns with stained glass turrets and mosque-like bulbs adorn clapboard cottages. A cult is forming somewhere, people in uniforms chanting nonsense at rapid speed, unaware of the staggering beauty outside, the redwood curtain rising in the clefts between the higher mountains and wheat-stained hills. Van Gogh Dutch yellow, or dried horse manure umber—depending on your mood, and how severe a winter you’ve endured.
What do residents do to survive? They can’t all grow marijuana, can’t all have trust funds or be rustic-looking, transplanted techies retiring at thirty-five. Fish and hunt? Perhaps for sport, but not to make a living. There are so many secrets of the Lost Coast, and like sham religions, you have to be all-in before the truth is revealed. Do you really want to know? Contractors are constantly building something up or tearing it down. Construction the only necessity, because nature eventually ravages everything here. Winter rain rots the wood, brings fungus and mold, while salt carried off the ocean rusts the cars and metal warehouses, and summer sun dries spring mud to windblown dust that spreads wide, obscuring clarity.
A fenced-in lot holds dozens of propane tanks near Gualala. Welcome to the jagged edge. Cell phones struggle, WiFi is spotty, and power outages should be expected. Land’s end, the living end, today is the first day of the last of your life. Better have your shit figured out when you wash ashore here. Maybe residents write books never meant to be published. I would. A rambling memoir that explains an odd, peripatetic life to the confused soul who is leading it.
Body work specialists and yoga instructors are in abundance. They find nutrients in the rocky spine of cast-off civilizations. Open an art gallery, based on a personal warped vision or to paint coastal watercolors that might sell to tourists. Start out uncompromising, then transform through necessity to the latter.
A writer friend heard of my northern road travels. “You’re an enigma. Baffling.”
Why come here? Who the hell knows. Have you ever written a song or poem and not understood it until much later? Same thing. Ask for meaning in five years, or at least enough time to come up with some elaborate, artful bullshit. Who would drive 900 miles north for no good reason? I haven’t been this way in ages. Maybe I’m backward-tracing a trip I took with my now-deceased parents over twenty years ago. That one started in Seattle, wound down the coast of Washington then Oregon before landing in Sausalito. If you can’t go home again, it’s doubtful that you can reverse engineer a family vacation either.
Beyond the perfect order of Sea Ranch and after Point Arena, the road becomes more manageable. Passing is no longer a suicidal gamble. When it’s clear of clouds, dense fog and rain, when the sun is strong and the headland winds blow calm, then this is heaven. You can stare and stare out to sea forever, or at least to the end of your life-span, with some measure of satisfaction that you have lived the perfect moment here. Go full Kerouac and write a new language from the sounds of waves detonating against monolithic offshore rocks. No one will judge.
It was just a jaunt, a day trip back in Bodega Bay, but now, approaching the living museum of Mendocino, and Fort Bragg where the regular folks live, I’ve gone too far, am dug in too deep. Beyond the roadside metal sculptures, are odd churches for unseen devotees, souls imploding from their latest reinvention or final chance. And what they loved during their initial sunshine days may have turned darker and twisted in the limiting mist, boundaries closing in, a cloud layer canopied over the storm-addled ocean. How far away is anything? Can one maintain a wispy, vague life?
The access road that yaws west into Mendocino is pastoral and uncluttered. I see a huge white tent on a bluff and a sprawl of locals standing outside it, while others crouch on picnic benches. Everyone is casual and in no hurry, and if they knew me from the Harvest Market or hardware store, they would absolutely wave and laugh. I don’t know why a Shirley Jackson “The Lottery” vibe inhabits me, because she based that story on North Bennington, Vermont. But such is the architectural displacement, that you can imagine having tumbled through a rabbit hole into New England.
When the Lost Coast is fog-shrouded and cold-damp—as it often is—the voices grow louder, tape reels unspooling in the brain. Yes, the fucking ghosts are here: from old Angela Lansbury TV shows using the rocky coast to stand in for Maine, and James Dean hot-rodding Highway 1 while filming East of Eden, from Gene Clark of The Byrds trying to find a simpler life that doesn’t vibrate so. You’re in Denis Johnson Country with its celestial poetry and random exaltation, but also its casual crime: “Which way to Murder Mountain?” and vehicles flung off impossible cliffs, posted flyers of missing wanderers, and forgotten bones buried deep in the valleys.
I come to a bridge before Fort Bragg, arching over dark green eternity, above a cove and the divide between two pancaked headlands. And there a man on the walkway hears music none of us can. I feel a brief jealousy. He writhes, sometimes dancing, other times twitching in pain. Dirt-dusted, moss-encrusted, and clothes tattered, his life contained in bed rolls and bags attached somehow into a chaos of order. He speaks to phantoms and to nature and whoever he sees or has met on his travels beyond our visible plane while passing into another one. A holy fool or incognito sage dispensing garbled wisdom I can’t decipher, can’t utilize. Maybe both. We can never know if we are encountering divine spirits or prophetic warnings. Turn back now. You don’t belong. Stop pretending. This is real, messy existence, not some imagined, curated Bohemia that can be switched on and off, the leftovers refrigerated and feasted upon later in the comfort of your ordered, control freak life.
At Fort Bragg I join residents and tourists inside Eggheads for breakfast among Wizard of Oz themes, but the manager’s vocal rhythm and timbre reminds me of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I wait for him to say, “There are two kind of people in this world,” but he is flitting in and out of various diners’ realities, hectoring the waitstaff, commandeering the kitchen. A single day of his job would destroy me.
The town drapes itself around me like a weather-beaten but comfortable old coat. Once a military garrison, the remnants of the timber industry still abound in Fort Bragg. Locals will claim logging is dead, but you will encounter lumber trucks every hour, every day. A mother with her daughter at a motel parking lot showed me where a detached wrapper cable had cracked her glass, and told nightmarish tales of displaced logs bouncing off trailer loads and crashing through windshields of cars traveling just behind.
A man in his late twenties with long brown hair and a goatee parades along South Main Street wearing a fez and carrying a cane. At his side is an incredibly slim waif in an elaborate bustling spinnaker of a dress that she does not possess the rigging to support. Art supply stores and used book shops, CDs, vinyl, and psychedelic knick-knacks. And this is a boon of the Lost Coast. You can time travel to the nineties, eighties, or even further back. Beyond the free WiFi signs and travelers staring at their phones, not much has changed. Old cars, the tang of skunky weed, VW buses with peace signs, iconoclasts, seers, and introverts. Did the hardscrabble buildings and warehouses ever look new?
North above Fort Bragg you become truly untethered and adrift on the Lost Coast. Beyond the fly specks of Inglenook and Newport comes Westport. No one lingers outside the only commercial shop: Westport Community Gas & Groceries. Perhaps after dark when the car train of summer drivers diminishes. These final settlements stand as rugged unincorporated communities where tourists don’t walk the bluffs and services are scant. Self-sustaining, off-the-grid hideouts. They are inhabited ghost towns with residents who do not seek your company or anyone else’s. Westport has a history of vanishings, people fading into the mist. Imagine what you wish and keep moving.
It is in this least populous region that one can most clearly imagine what settlers and adventurers arriving in the 1850s encountered. They may have missed the Gold Rush, or dodged that hysteria to choose better opportunities here. They recognized dependable income in the dense stands of towering trees, the possibility of fishing and whaling by constructing harbors in the sheltered coves. Some of their traces remain in structures or street names, but for the most part have joined other ghosts, barking on offshore rocks or whispering in the windblown Monterey Cypresses.
Highway 1 peters out and the road tilts eastward back inland toward Leggett. A huge chunk of the Lost Coast remains inaccessible. Catch a glimpse of its mass, arcing northwest to reach another fog-enshrouded rocky point. When the limited niceties of a Westport are too civilized, then abandon your vehicle by the roadside with other shipwrecked cars and venture into the wilderness as a mad poet, mountain man. Build a structure and live off the land. Join the mossy ranks of the disappeared. Try to remember, you can fall in love with nature, but it remains indifferent and will destroy you and everything else in the end.
The connecting spur eastward is a demonic drive that requires total concentration. Where I learned to fear and respect the big-ass logging trucks careening along then winding through impossible hairpin turns beneath a dense redwood canopy in a diesel rush to reach Highway 101. Pray they are rumbling somewhere ahead, unseen, and not riding your ass while a tentative family in front of you motors below the speed limit and brakes to a crawl at every bend.
The blurred scramble of the modern world’s technological advances, the daily idiocies belching out of Washington, DC barely make landfall on the Lost Coast. They are carried away by sea winds, drenched by storms, and obscured by fog. Many desire to live a slower, less frantic life, but in the end most of us can only handle that pace for a week, or perhaps just days.
And I’m already gone.