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Jack Smith

The sights, the sounds, the simple pleasures just up the road near the end of the world

July 16, 1986|Jack Smith

From San Francisco, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County and took California 1 north toward Mendocino.

Cyra McFadden had told us that if we wanted to get away from it all to go to Inverness: "It's the end of the world."

Inverness is just off the highway on the road to Point Reyes. I pulled up at a gas pump and looked around: In sight were the Inverness store--groceries, meat, liquor; the Gray Whale--pizza, bed and breakfast; Vladimer's Czechoslovakian Restaurant; Synergy Contemporary Fashions, and the public library, in a white frame structure the size of a single-car garage. A black and white dog crossed the road.

That was all of Inverness that showed.

My wife wanted to go out to the point and see the lighthouse. It was too early for a Czechoslovakian lunch, so we pushed on. It was maybe 14 miles to the point, through rolling pastures and past neat dairies. Red, orange and yellow wildflowers grew profusely beside the road.

Suddenly, fog closed down on us. We pushed through it until we came to a chain-link gate. No cars admitted; but we could walk to the lighthouse, exactly four-tenths of a mile farther on.

We set out up the hill. Half a dozen younger tourists caught up with us and passed us on the ascent.

We came to the point at last--a great granite knob with a national park service house on top. A polite young man was on duty.

"Where's the lighthouse?" I asked.

He explained that the lighthouse was down at the bottom of the point, but we could walk down the steps if we liked.

"I don't see any light," I said.

He explained that the light could not penetrate the fog. So in fog it sounded a horn instead. "You hear it?"

It seemed a long time in coming, and a long way off.

On a table we saw a model of a two-master that had gone into the point in 1910 and broken in half. The master had got all passengers and crew ashore, the only souls lost being a canary and a pig.

We went outside to consider walking down the steps, but a sign warned they were the equivalent of 30 stories. I couldn't even have gone down them, much less up.

My wife bought a book on Point Reyes wildflowers and one on Pacific wildflowers. Halfway back to Inverness, we were in sunlight again. We drove slowly, so she could identify the flowers. She asked me to stop, and she got out and picked two specimens.

"You're breaking the law," I told her.

"I have to have them to study," she said, "so I can find out what they are."

Considering that she is something of an amateur botanist, it seemed like a reasonable excuse; but I worried all the way to Mendocino that we would be stopped and arrested. Breaking the law makes me uncomfortable.

State 1 was under repair here and there, and we would be warned that we were about to enter work zones by signs that said "Flagman Ahead." As it turned out, five of the half dozen flagmen we saw were women. Readers have written me of encountering the sign "Flagger Ahead," but evidently that particular product of the feminist revolution hasn't penetrated the northern branch of the division of highways.

We twisted through forests of eucalyptus, pine and redwood, passing or encountering platoons of bicyclists. There must have been hundreds of them, men and women, doggedly pedaling up hill and coasting down. There were far more of them than campers and motorcyclists, which seems like a good thing, since they neither block your way nor blow past you, pouring carbon monoxide into the air.

We reached Mendocino in the middle afternoon. The question is, when you reach Mendocino, where are you?

Though it is a metropolis compared with Inverness, Mendocino is still a very small town. It was founded as a mill town in 1852 by Henry Meiggs, who had built San Francisco's Meiggs Wharf (now Fisherman's Wharf), to exploit the nearby redwoods. Men came from New England, Scandinavia and the Azores to engage in mining, whaling, fishing, farming and logging; there was a Chinese colony of 200.

What gives Mendocino its special charm today is its residue of sturdy 19th-Century New England-style houses that are so cherished and well-preserved.

The Mendocino Presbyterian Church, built in 1868, still serves the community, a treasure piece of stark New England Gothic steepled church architecture.

We stayed at the Mendocino Hotel, whose components date to 1852. It stands on Main Street, with numerous other old monuments, facing the bleak bay and headlands. (Unlike most seaside resorts, Mendocino does not recommend its beaches; it warns that the water is dangerous.)

We stayed in one of the garden cottages behind the hotel, warmed by an old iron stove (which I couldn't light) and surrounded by gardens of almost incredible variety and brilliant color.

As usual, I bought the local paper--the Mendocino Beacon, established 1877--to read at breakfast. There were only two big local stories:

One was a proposal by the board of supervisors to ban skateboarding in commercial districts during business hours; the other was a report to police by Bill Zacha that a hand-carved cigar store Indian named Tonto, which had stood in front of Zacha's Bay Window Gallery for 23 years, had been stolen.

My wife loved the gardens so much that we stayed two days.

We weren't arrested.

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