A Somewhat ill-advised Journey down Highway 1

When you have three small children, being an introvert is a bit of a problem. Also, living in community can be a bit of a problem, and this doesn't mean that you don't love living with people, it only means that it is hard to get your batteries recharged. Solitude is almost extinct for you.  This is why you asked for a writing retreat for your birthday, and are now using your coupons, almost five months later.

It is the first day of your retreat, and you made sure to leave early in the morning, as early as you could, considering that you are notoriously bad at leaving early. It is the type of slow morning you prefer that does this to you. But you pulled yourself away from your youngest who was giving you the biggest smiles he could possibly muster, and your middle who was sad on the couch with her blankie, and your oldest, clinging to you like a monkey. You pulled yourself away and an hour later you were kicking yourself for not bringing the camera.

You see, your husband received some packages in the mail a few days ago, packages that contained new, fairy-like, inexpensive lighting gear, and you felt as though you could hardly take the camera right now, now when he is so excited about it. You knew that he would tell you to take it if you mentioned it, but you felt that the least you could do after leaving him in the woods, without a car and with three kids for three days, is leave the camera. Everyone will be happier, and there will be nice portraits of your children when you return.

It is not that you regret that he has the camera, it is just that you regret that you don't. It seems silly to think that your family needs two, but it really seems that way, as you look around and want to capture everything you see. Oh well, you think, you will just write it all down so that you can remember every bit.

You look around you, as you walk down the street in Willits. You begin to think that you have seriously underestimated this town, this Willits place. You walk into a little organic burrito shop and eat a yummy breakfast burrito, which they allow you to order even though it is lunchtime! And then there is a little sign, thanking you for eating at a locally-owned restaurant. Go Willits, you think to yourself. You say goodbye to the nice girls who made you a burrito and some good coffee, and wander into a used bookstore to peruse its shelves, looking for an elusive book that you probably will never find. It's not there, although the store unfolds into room after room in an admirably magical way.

You turn the corner and find a little cafe called the Red Caboose. There is no reason for the way this cafe grabs you. Perhaps it is the unheard-of freedom that you are experiencing right now, the giddy head rush of no seatbelts to fasten besides your own that grips you, or maybe it is the way that the front yard of the establishment is all grown over in a lush garden, with a wooden red model of a caboose heralding its front path. It somehow reminds you of Asia. And you are gripped with a desire for an adventure.  A desire to explore.

You will drive down Highway 1. It can't take that much longer, can it? You consider consulting a local person or a map, but that is really not your way, you're not really into that. So you head down Highway 20 towards the coast and the legendary Highway 1.

There are almost no words to describe how happy you feel. The sun is turning the trees to gold and you are spinning along the kind of road that you like best; the curvy kind, the kind that takes you and turns you every different direction that exists on a compass, the kind that makes you grow a little taller as you resist the centrifugal force of hairpin turns. Not only that, but this is the kind of adventure that you like best; the kind that has travel and sunshine and trees and little towns with interesting people in them.

There is an old red Chevrolet truck in front of your van, so old that it has that narrow tailgate with the word CHEVROLET painted very seriously, in somber letters, across the back of it. It is the kind of truck you have always loved, and driving it is an robust elderly man with a Newsies cap on. There is another truck in front of him and the three of you take the curves together, keeping up, keeping on. You are heading to the ocean. You are friends, you and the man in the red Chevrolet.

The trees start to get scrubbier and more coast-like. Funny how it's only a few miles out, but because of the wild Northern Californian hills, it takes forever. You sense that the man in the red Chevrolet is starting to get tired of driving. He probably needs to get home to his wife. You observe some things, like the construction worker who is holding a stop sign with duct tape covering the word "stop" and black marker over the duct tape that spells the word "GO". Which is confusing. Because everyone knows what a red octagon means, even your five-year-old son.

You see a Confederate flag flying stubborning in front of someone's yard. What could they be thinking? You don't have much patience for this, these Confederate flags so out of place in the Northwest that they can make an ignorant statement about the way they wish things could be. The way they wish everyone was the same.

And then you see a glimpse of the ocean, and the red truck is still persevering ahead of you. You are glad for the old man, that he gets to see the ocean today. In the distance it is shimmery and elusive. You are entering Fort Bragg, a town that you are barely on speaking terms with. You have tried to get to know Fort Bragg better, but it always seems to have a lot of hotels and you have not been able to connect. A man is holding up a sign that says, "ELK" and you are blank for a minute, blinking, "Elk? What could he mean?" And by the time you remember that Elk is a place you are past him, but you remember that it is probably not good to pick up hitchhiker dudes when you are by yourself, anyways.

You and the red truck keep driving on past the outskirts of Fort Bragg and then he turns off on road 409. You wave goodbye and feel a little sad. You were pals. It has been about an hour, since you started meandering to the coast, a whole hour of traveling with the ancient red Chevrolet. But you are cheered by the sight of the ocean below, so deeply blue and impossibly lovely and delicious that you might just have to drink the whole thing.

The little town of Mendocino. You and Mendocino have history. Here you fell a little more irrevocably in love with your husband, before he was your husband, before you were dating. You skirted around each other shyly in a music store, Lark of the Morning, and you tried not to stare at him too much, at his beautiful hands as he picked up a dulcimer guitar, a flute, an old hand drum. After you were married you came here together for a brief vacation, when your oldest was not yet one and shoveling sand into his mouth almost as fast as you could sccop it out. It's hard to believe that was over four years ago, those lovely days on the beach, the longing for a home as you gazed at perfect lattice work on houses with roses spilling out of their front yards.

You always long for home, no matter where you are. Beautiful things touch you with a sharp spike of yearning, and you have grown used to this as a state of being, rather than something you need to fix, or something you need to buy. The glimmer of sun on the sea, the perfect corners of beautiful expensive inns, these things make you hurt, in a sweet way, a way that promises a forever home someday.

You see a bush in a field and then suddenly think, "That's not a bush, that's an alpaca!" There are many surprising things like this, over and around these cliffs. You notice that the Navarro river is huge, compared to your little Eel, even at this time of year.

And then you are in Elk, the place, and you can see why that hitchhiking man wanted to arrive here. It is precious, tiny, with Inns that are perfect in their architecture, leaning prettily out over the ocean with their glass and corners and clean lines. They have names like the Sandpiper. Cute names.

You start to take notice of the Adopt A Highway signs. This bit of highway has been adopted by the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Group. The next one by the Irish Beach Planning Committee, which is mystifying until you realize that it appears to be the name of the town.

You come upon Manchester, which is nothing like Elk. This must be where the area stashes its poor people. There are no cute inns, only trailers that are moldering and leaning, junked cars and falling down huts. This is life on the coast when there is never enough money. Money flows on around these people and they may never get to jump in. A sign on a store advertises "Antennas and Chainsaws". There are satellite dishes on all the trailers. The highway here has been adopted by Dave's Plumbing.

And you drive on, and on, and here is Point Arena. You pass by another Catholic graveyard and another Catholic church. Are there more Catholic people on the coast? you wonder. No, wait, there are the United Methodists, representing also. Here the highway is adopted by Everything Under the Sun. This is a little hippie town, cute and brightly painted, not really a touristy place, but kind of, in its own way. You almost stop. Later you wish you had.

You pass a road called Gypsy Flat Road, and an Inn called the Whale Watch Inn. You wouldn't mind staying there, watching whales. It would be nice. Now you are coming into deep forest, and it is more like home. There are redwoods here, tall as mountains. A ferrari breezes past you, no doubt headed for the Whale Watch Inn. Look! There on the left is a Turkish house, with turrets and woodwork that must have taken years to craft!

You are coming into Gualala. In Gualala they have huge metal dinosaurs and condos! For so long now on this highway, you have only seen trailers and homes that seem to have been put together lovingly by hand, that condos jump out at you like eels. You are spinning through Gualala quickly, and you do see a supermarket that was probably made back in the days of the Old West. You like the name of this town.

Sea Ranch has golf. And you see a sign for a beach called Shell Beach. You want some shells, so you stop, but Sea Ranch will not let you in. The County of Sonoma will, but they will charge you $5. You rustle up some old dollar bills and some change and determinedly set out for the beach. Unfortunately, someone lied. There are no shells at this beach. There is water, however, and sand, and marvelous miles of seaweed, covered in flies and smelling like brine. The sun is on your face. On your hike back to your car you wonder why you feel so tired, and then remember that you are just getting over being sick.

The highway here is adopted by the Gleaners. You are beginning to regret your decision to take Highway 1. It sure is taking a long time. But you keep going, there is nothing else to do. The land becoming more scrubby again and it is covered with boulders. But some of those boulders are sheep! There are sheep all around you, and then you keep driving and cows are on the road. The truck behind you wants to pass you. He keeps honking, but you think he's crazy because there is a line of cars in front of you stretching as far as you can see, and all of you are stuck on this winding coastal road. You will probably be here forever. Still, you pull to the side to let him over, and then bemusedly watch him honk at the car in front of him. His life must be very frustrating, he's living a six-lane lifestyle on a two-lane road.

You are slumped over, now, with your elbow on the door of the van and your face on your hand. Will it never end?

Jenner. Wow, another town. But suddenly you perk up. You've been here before, you are near the highway that will take you back inland. You have reached the Russian River. You are exhausted. It has taken you four winding hours to drive what would have taken one. Still, you are so, so happy. There is an older woman on a bicycle, riding down a forested road beside the river and you can still see the sun. Suddenly you can think of nothing you would rather have done with the first day of your retreat. You made friends with the man in the red truck. You almost got shells on the beach. You lived in little towns in your mind, pretending the Turkish house was the house of a Turkish princess, and you even saw an alpaca. What a perfect day in September, a day of solitude, a day saying goodbye to the California that you love.