We made a mistake; it was a rookie mistake. We paid, we learned (we think).
Here’s the scenario. Leaving our Quality Inn motel in Santa Cruz, CA some eighty miles south of San Francisco at 830A on a Monday morning in mid-January, we time our departure to minimize the traffic as we pass through the City by the Bay. Being first timers on this section of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), we have no idea that the two-lane sightseeing coastal adventure of the past few days is now a thing of the past. At this point the PCH has become a highway of commuters heading to San Fran.
Amazingly, as we approach the turn for the Golden Gate Bridge, the eight lane interstate (I-280) just dumps us onto a city street (19th Avenue); from there it’s twelve miles of go and stop and stop some more with at least 75 traffic lights.
But that isn’t the big mistake, but it is part of it. Once over the Golden Gate Bridge, we do choose wisely and zip along at 65 mph on the six-lane 101 north for 50 miles to Santa Rosa. From there it’s 50 more twisty miles along the windy two lane routes 12 and 116 to Jenner, CA on the coast. Once on the PCH our GPS says we have 71 miles to go that will take us two hours of driving to our destination north of Gualala, CA (pronounced Wah-LA-La). Two hours for 71 miles! Welcome to the Pacific Coast Highway ladies and gentlemen.
The mistake? I think you can connect the dots from Santa Cruz to San Francisco to Santa Rosa to Jenner to …. Too much driving. The serpentine roads of rural California take hours to navigate. Sadly it’s a vacation day without a hike. That just should not happen. That is a sin against all that is vacation holy.
Happily we arrive at the Corey House, the VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) of our friends Tree and Scott (neighbors of ours in York, Maine). These two cross-continental travelers set this entire West Coast adventure of ours in motion. Tree was the one who articulated how as outdoor people they didn’t want to spend the winter inside when temperate California waited with open arms. After six nights in motels, Hannah and I are ready for the comfort of the sunset coast home of Scott and Tree.
The next morning after a homemade Tree breakfast, they chauffeur us to Gualala Point Regional State Park for the last of our five bluff hikes in California. Scott and Tree are making this area a wonderful three month home away from home. After we leave, they will go to town for a Saturday evening spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Gualala Community Center. They are on first name basis with Judith, the post mistress, and have a gym membership at Kenny’s in-town Physical Gym and Fitness Center. They will run in the Whale Festival 5K in Mendocino, some thirty miles north up the coast. In a vacation area, they are fast becoming locals.
Parking in an empty trailhead lot, we will skirt the Sea Ranch Community today as we hike along the Pacific Ocean. Known for its distinctive, simple timber-frame construction, Sea Ranch is a community of some 1800 luxurious vacation homes a few yards from the ocean itself.
On the bluff trail with Tree, Scott, and Bob, their Irish setter, we see more dry grassland as we have all up and down the California coast. It’s relaxing with compadres like Scott and Tree who take care of us like family. After our hike, Scott will stop at the Surf Market in Gualala and buy a bottle of Crane red wine for dinner. Pretty routine stuff, right? What you don’t know is Scott and Tree don’t drink. They bought it just for us.
Above the basalt cliffs, we hike in pairs, Tree and Dan, Hannah and Scott, then we switch it up. With an Irish setter, the pace is relaxed which fits the mellow California feel of the day. As we hike, Scott gives us a lesson in whale-ology (i.e., to marine biologists it is cetology). Soon I spot five whales while Scott’s eagle eyes finds 17.
You have no doubt heard the expression, Thar she blows. Though we see no whales breaching, Scott has us looking for the warm water spray from their spout on the horizon as they exhale and inhale. The visible spray (“blows”) is whatever seawater that has collected into their nostrils. Whales usually remain beneath the surface for three to ten minutes, but they can stay under for 30 minutes or longer.
Scott and Tree have come west to count migrating gray whales that are swimming often some 500 yards off shore southbound to Baja California ; whales have their calves in the warm Mexican waters. He registers his daily count with the American Cetacean Society, which has a large census center in Los Angeles.
Have you ever wondered how can you make a whale float? Root beer, ice cream, and a whale.
Overlooking the Pacific we lunch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a day when we are glad to have sweatshirts. Though just a touch chilly here 150 miles north of San Francisco in January, it’s sunny and upper 50s by the water. Just last night the Weather Channel has informed us of another East Coast snowstorm and plunging subzero temps.
For the most part we have the bluff trail to ourselves. Tree and Scott are in the midst of their first month of three away out west in California. On this day, they will have no way of knowing that this will be the coldest, snowiest winter in memory in Maine and throughout much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States.
The California coast has its hooks in me. For Hannah, I’d say it’s a small itch. But I hope it is one that she will want to scratch next winter!