summer stories

Ah, summer memories. Took me awhile to write this one, the long weekend trips are always overwhelming to craft a story. Sometimes, I just plain avoid it until I’m ready to tackle a long piece. So, here it is, our road trip to Mendocino county from last August.

It was a girls weekend in late August, so I packed up and drove north. Really far north. The drive to Mendocino is a hard one, especially when you are the only driver. We left early, but still tackled heavy wine country traffic. We passed through Alexander Valley before navigating thirty plus miles of endless switchbacks on an unforgiving road. The tired eyes of my children closed and I drove in silence. When I reached the Anderson Valley, I was able to stretch out on a long straight highway for a short while. Eventually. it turned back into a twisty road through a majestic redwood forest. The brightness of day blocked by the thick canopy of the old growth forest, my car headlights automatically turned on.

Finally, we emerged from the forest onto the cliff hugging highway of the Mendocino coast. It was rugged, wet, and slightly foggy; it reminded me of the Oregon Coast. Stunning cliffs revealed layers of infinite color; shades of red, orange, blue, and green mixed with gold. Long sandy beaches hugged miles coastline.  Kissed by the crashing waves of the cold northern california surf, the cliffs are ever-changing. Insulated ocean coves, protected and gentle, sprinkled the coast. Perfect for buckets, shovels, and sand castle making.

As we rounded the bend, the Little River Inn rose up from behind the trees. It was white washed and gabled, carefully perched on the hillside. It is fifth generation family owned hotel with a colorful history to match. We checked in, received a small map, and made our way to the Llama Barn. Our home for the weekend.

The Llama Barn is off-site from the main buildings. We found ourselves driving down a narrow country road with little brown bunnies dotting small patches of grass along the way. As we drove in further, an actual llama farm appeared. Curious, fuzzy heads popped up from their afternoon snack to stare at the new guests. To the right was the hotel owner’s home. To the left was a massive organic garden. Ahead was the old barn.

The Llama Barn was in a word, was cozy. Tucked back into a thicket of tall trees, the room had a bedroom for me with a sleeper for the kids out in the main room.  The decor themed in chicken art. Mia loves chickens, so she was fascinated with all the chicken paintings, lamps, and statues. Even the kitchen towels sported colorful roosters and hens. We even had our own hot tub, which overlooked the fairy like green backyard. A small playground was also nearby, including a green wooden bi-plane for climbing.

Just outside our door, a family of deer quietly grazed on the lawn. Away from the main highway, the Llama Barn was incredibly quiet and peaceful.

We quickly unpacked and took a walk in the garden before dinner. As we passed through the garden gates, the owner’s daughter and her small son greeted us and kindly showed us around. She encouraged the girls to taste and try anything in the garden. Mia loved the pink pearl apples, yellow-green on the outside and rosy pink on the inside. She filled her arms with apples, eating more than her share. Ava devoured impressively large strawberries; sweet like candy. Flowers burst from everywhere, colorful and sweet-smelling. A delicious discovery.

 

Later, we enjoyed dinner down the road at our hotel. Not really sure what kid portion means here, but the food was delicious. We shared a bowl of fresh clam chowder. Ava tackled a huge “kid’s menu” cheeseburger.  Breakfast brought even more huge food and the girls navigated GIANT pancakes, bigger than their heads. They loved it.

After dinner, we stopped by Van Damme State park to enjoy the beach. Van Damme is a curved rocky beach, tucked back into a calm inlet. The sun was setting and it was still warm. Ava made friends with a lady and her dog. She got a lesson in using the tennis ball thrower and played for a long time with her new canine buddy.

 

For Saturday morning, we decided to try out sea kayaking. I booked an ocean tour with Kayak Mendocino. We woke to gray skies, slightly choppy seas, and a constant wind. We decided were still up for an adventure, the girls wanted to see sea caves and jelly fish. We put our warmest clothes and fueled up on giant pancakes. Then we went back down to Van Damme State Park to meet our hosts.

At the beach, lines of wet suits, kayaks, and oars filled the beach. Mia found a surf board and pretended to surf the big waves. The Kayak Mendocino team gathered everyone and we received our safety talk. Everyone was assigned a boat, mine was a three seater. Ava in the front, Mia in the middle, and I was in the back. I put a teeny tiny wet suit on Mia and just a slightly bigger one on Ava, plus my own. The girls were by far the youngest kayakers that day. Before long we pushed off to our sea adventure. Ava paddled as best she could, but the steering and power were really up to me. It was a short distance to our first sea cave. Funneling into a single line of boats, we paddled in, through two rooms, and out the other side. The walls were wet with orange and purple starfish punctuating the slick rocks. We looked for seals, but the weather was turning worse, so they had already slipped back into the security of their ocean home. No sunbathing on rocks today. A fine mist floated all around us and the waves were rougher, but it was all manageable as our kayaks cut through the water. We toured another cave and eventually paddled out into the open water. We floated through large pockets of jellyfish; pale white in color with long lace like tentacles trailing behind. The girls made a game out of spotting and counting each one.

One jellyfish, two jellyfish, three jellyfish, four

Five jellyfish, six jellyfish, seven jellyfish, eight jellyfish more

Our final cave run was the most difficult. It was called The Cathedral and only one boat at time could enter. As the waves pushed us in, I paddled hard to turn and stop, so we could appreciate the tall walls and high ceilings of the church-like cave. A hard paddle forward against the current and we popped back out into the bay. It was worth the rush!

Three hours of kayaking had passed and we were all tuckered out. The girls were shivering as I removed their wetsuits. I quickly bundled them up, put on the heater in the car, and tucked them securely into their car seats. Time for lunch and a well deserved nap!

When we returned, the hot tub was warm and inviting. A welcome treat after our ocean adventure. While Mia napped, Ava explored the woods around our cabin. Ava dressed in her jewel blue princess gown and explored the backyard. She blended in like  a resident fairy, casting her magic spells amongst the moss and small yellow flowers.

Later that afternoon, we drove to downtown Mendocino. A town famous being the hometown of mystery writer, Jessica Fletcher, from the t.v. series Murder She Wrote. Mendocino is designated a historical landmark, the only seaside town in California to boast such a title. A Victorian styled village lined with bookstores, trinket shops, and art galleries; we ate an early dinner, enjoyed the local chocolate shop, and explored quirky stores.

 

When we returned, the girls wanted to take a flashlight walk in the garden and visit the llamas. I took an interesting series of photographs of my flashlight on and around the different flowers.

Before bed, they watched the classic Robin Williams movie,”Jumanji.” We snuggled down into our warm comfy beds and drifted off to a deep sleep.

And while we slept, a fairly large earthquake hit during the night, but not one of us woke up because of it.

Another big reason for visiting Mendocino is for its sea glass beaches. Back in the 1940’s, local residents used the beaches and the ocean as a giant trash can and simply dumped their garbage over the sea cliffs. It wasn’t until 1966, the North Coast Water Quality Board realized this had been a bad idea and built a new garbage dump away from the beaches. Since then, Mother Nature used the power of the surf combined with miles of sand to clean the trash laden beaches. Fifty years later, only the sea glass remains. Small, round, and jewel-like, the sea glass beaches cover several coves in the area. With only a short walk, we were able to enjoy the beauty of what was once trash, transformed into today’s treasures.

I did some research first because it’s not easy to find the beaches. Especially this time because they were constructing new trails and we were told the beaches were closed. So, we went to visit Captain Cass at his Sea Glass Museum. The museum is small and quaint, located on the side of a busy highway and it is filled to the brim with sea glass. Now, Captain Cass has spent a lifetime gathering sea glass and his collection was impressive. Every color of the rainbow had a place on one of his glass shelves. We learned about rare colors of sea glass as well as the more common ones one would find. He even had a whole section of glow in the dark sea glass; mostly likely depression-era vaseline glass.

Captain Cass was ancient, scruffy, and colorful in attitude. On this early Sunday morning, we were his only customers. I dropped a couple bucks in his donation box and he gave us a short tour of his museum. Historically speaking, he told us sea glass used to be referred to as mermaid tears. It was said for every sailor who drowned at sea, the mermaids would cry and the sea glass was their tears washing up on shore. A sad romantic story to be sure, too bad it was really just nature’s way of cleaning up garbage.

We explored his jewelry case and the girls selected necklaces. A pale pink round piece for Mia, which Captain Cass said would turn deeper pink with time. Ava selected a jade green heart-shaped piece. I selected a rare orange rectangular piece. It took him ten years to find the orange piece I selected (Well, at least that was what he told me and I’ve chosen to believe him, because it makes for a much more interesting story about my necklace). We also purchased a couple of bags of “sea glass seeds,” lightly tumbled large chunks of glass to leave at the beach.

“Take a piece, give a piece,” he said. He also told us how to get down to the beaches, despite the lack of a main trail. He quickly drew a rough map to guide our way.

We drove a few miles down the highway and parked on a side street. We picked one of the multiple trails pointing towards the ocean and started our journey. It was only maybe a mile and half walk down to the first cove. We didn’t need to really go any further, there was plenty to look at in this small inlet. Plus our time was short, the tide was rolling in. If you ever visit, note the sea glass pieces are really small, but plentiful. Like a snowflake, each one is different in shape and color. Mia grew bored with searching for sea glass pieces and spent her time climbing rocks. She is really more of a shell gatherer. On the other hand, Ava was captivated by the jewel encrusted landscape. Sea glass is smooth and cool to the touch, but is only shiny and deep with color when wet from the sea. Once dried, the perfect piece you put in your pocket fades away into a dull piece of glass. It really is prettier  amongst all the other sea glass on the beach. We still took the time to seed the beach with our bags of museum sea glass and the girls selected a few favorite pieces.  We explored the beach for about an hour before everyone started to get cold, so we walked back up the trail to the car. There are other coves to explore with larger pieces of sea glass, so I guess we’ll save those for another time.

We packed up shortly after our visit and pointed the car towards home. Another long journey, but worth every minute of fun on the Mendocino coast. The good news is there is still a lot left to do, so we will be back.

On a side note, the trip was inspiring enough to start my young adult novel. When I look at quotes from Murder She Wrote, this one struck a chord….

Lt. Faraday: Oh, I think writing is a real good hobby for a woman. You can cook up some supper, you can chat on the phone, then pop over to the old typewriter now and then for a few minutes. 
Jessica Fletcher: Yes, when I am not too busy beating laundry against the rocks in the river.

Write on. Write on. Write on.

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