Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
Saturday (Sept 7)
A trip. A week-long trip. Hundreds of miles. (Almost). The occasion was an art-training session on the California coast in the little town of Gualala. Marianne and her buddy had signed up and husbands were invited along to goof off. Ward and I were OK with that.
Marianne and I watered our gardens extra to last a week, packed the Jeep full of art supplies and photo equipment, and headed out on the first half of a two-day drive. We are not ambitious travelers and were breaking up the 250-mile trip, just because we could. I can remember the old days, before retirement, when my goal was 500 miles in a day and I am grateful that sort of discipline is no longer necessary. We even get to take a break at Starbucks, less than an hour from home. Time is the real luxury in retirement.
From there, it was north on Highway 99, usually a miserable highway, but on this Saturday just dull. We then went west on Highway 120 and Interstates 580 and 680, all overloaded valley highways. To get around the San Francisco/Oakland congestion, I chose a route north of San Pablo Bay and across the Benecia-Martinez Bridge. So did hundreds or thousands of other folks. A short travel day was definitely the right choice.
Our overnight goal was Petaluma, a small town we remember as famous for chicken ranches and not much more. We started our visit with a late lunch at "Wild Goat", a cute bistro in the heart of downtown, housed in an old grain mill. (Grain was important for chicken growers.) Nice place. Good salad and pizza and pleasant service.
After lunch, for entertainment we checked out the touristy art and antiques' scene. It seems almost all of downtown Petaluma is now devoted to food, old junk, and commercial art.
My own favorite art were photos by Michael Riley. I think I liked his work because it seemed like subject matter even I could try to emulate: night skies, flower close-ups, general landscape. So many great photographs are of subjects so exotic or are that we ordinary camera clickers have no chance of anything similar. Riley's could offer more approachable models.
We stopped at a pair of antique shops. The first, Vintage Bank Antiques, was in a grand old bank building and, from the outside, looked promising, but inside it was filled with "collectibles", our term for items we would never buy, much less collect. The other was Chelsea Antiques and here the offerings were more interesting. In one corner was a small boat, a copy of the boat I had built in my teen years. I'll tell the story sometime when we have a glass of wine. Another unique offering was an assortment of old paint brushes, perfect for the artwork of Dale, a good friend in Germany. She and husband Peter now need to come to Petaluma.
Most of the rest of our Petaluma time was spent walking along the waterfront and the River Plaza. This could serve as a model for how to re-purpose a run-down old river port, even leaving in the falling-down rails and piers.
We ended the day with dessert, as days should end. My selection from the Petaluma Pie Company was a small "peach and berry crumble", maybe not the best I've ever had, but plenty tasty for an old chicken ranching town.
After that, it was off to hole up in the Motel 6, almost the only place in town we could find. There were nicer places, closer to the touristy center of town, but they were all either full for the weekend or hundreds of dollars above our budget. When did Petaluma become so popular? Why?
On Sunday, after a breakfast and fuel stop in Petaluma, we headed to the Pacific. Part of the plan was to have plenty of time to explore before we were due at the rental house in Sea Ranch at 4pm. Our navigator said we only need a couple of hours to get there, so we turned south on the coast highway instead of north, just to see what might be there.
Our first place to visit, and as it turned out the largest we would see for the week, was Bodega Bay. The town struck us as an old-time fishing community, less modernized and polished than most other California coastal towns. We limited our touring to the small boat harbor, so maybe we just failed to see all Bodega Bay has to offer. A return trip?
On the way south, just out of Bodega Bay, we took a left to the very small community of Bodega. The little village is also over 200 years old, ancient by California standards, but now consists of a half-dozen businesses, a church, and enough houses for the 200 or so residents. Worth our ten minute stay, but probably not much more.
Further south on Highway 1, we stopped in Tomales, founded in 1850 as a farm community and, like Bodega, only about 200 people. The major tourist attractions seemed to be The William Tell House, the oldest saloon in Marin County, and a bakery across the street. We passed on both.
Still heading south, our next land mark was Hog Island, famous for oysters. Marianne loves them raw, but it's not a taste or texture I can handle. We passed again, but did stop on the edge of the three-building community to get a picture of the island itself and the oyster packing plant. Maybe next time.
Finally, we made it to our southern-most destination, Point Reyes, home of Cowgirl Creamery. Here, we needed to sample and buy. There are two ways to sample: a formal, arranged-ahead-of-time guided tour or the ad hoc process of browsing a cooler full of good sounding cheeses and asking for tastes. This later worked for us. We sampled a half dozen and bought two or three.
On the long drive north up to Sea Ranch we passed several diary herds and now we had much more appreciation of the good that their hard work produces.
More than just cute cows, most of what we saw was Sunday traffic. Highway 1 is twisty enough, but on this day we also hit several construction zones. Traffic was a mix of Sunday-driver cars and impatient motorcycles. Around one bend we came to an abrupt stop while the highway patrol organized an ambulance and helicopter evacuation for one of those motorcycle drivers. After that, we were fine with the slow and cautious cars.
About 4:00 pm we made it to Gualala, picked up our rental papers, and returned to our Sea Ranch house called Whale Tale. Cute. We moved in and waited for our friends Claudia and Ward. By six o'clock, they had joined us, after a very long day driving from Carson City Nevada.
Here are pictures of Wale Tale: front door; back view (huge cypress); view from kitchen; living room
While the rest of the crew rested, caught up on gossip, and prepared something for dinner, I took my camera out on the nearby bluff for fun. I started with flower pictures, although by the end of summer the blooms were pretty dry. Pretty and dry.
The next subjects were rocks, or what folks here call "beach". The whole ten miles of Sea Ranch coast is 95% rocky bluffs and five percent small pebble or course sand beaches. Good for pictures, but not for sunbathing or swimming. And the water is Pacific-cold, not fun without a wet-suit.
I tried to catch birds in flight. Fun, but no spectacular results. Finally, there was sunset. Again, fun to do, even if the results are not magazine-worthy. I added a shot of the moon, just because.
Fun out of the way, I returned to find dinner: fruit, veggies, cheese, and wine. That's about as good as it gets.
Claudia and Marianne would have art lessons from 9:30 to 4:30, Monday through Friday, but the week was still unplanned for Ward and me. For sure, that will allow me more time to snap more pictures than I really should foist on an audience, so I will give everyone permission to skip as much as wanted.
On Monday, we started our new routine: Breakfast; Ward drives the students to school; I work on pictures and diaries; and then he and I goof off. However, goofing off requires some thought and action. Ward reads and goes out for walks. I putter even more on photos and diaries (these can take up all my time, in fact.)
Eventually, I have to heed my mom Thelma's advice: "Go outside". When I do that locally, I can take wildlife pictures. The sheep are Sea Ranch employees responsible for keeping the grasses under control. The deer are free-lancers keeping flowers, shrubs, and non-native gardens under control. Very effective.
Our drive out of Sea Ranch goes through a tunnel of Cypress trees, huge specimens that must be 100 years old. Several rows were originally planted by the local sheep and dairy cow ranchers as windbreaks. Maybe their sheep and cows were complaining?
On this day, I really had no destination, just a scouting trip to see what might be worth photos when the light is right. Serious photographers don't take pictures between 10am and 3pm, but that was my available window.
That's when I noticed the Sea Ranch Chapel, a wonderful find. The chapel was dedicated in December, 1985, after being sponsored by two Sea Ranch residents, as a "nondenominational sanctuary for prayer, meditation, and spiritual renewal." James Hubbell designed the building and decorations, making the stained glass windows himself. Outside and in, it is a remarkable accomplishment.
Back home at Whale Tale, I worked more on screen stuff (diaries & photos), before again heading out. This time it was for a walk along the bluff, where I took yet more pictures of the usual subjects: cypress-covered path; cypress falling into the sea; and gulls. Gulls serve as practice for more exotic birds, some day.
By now, Ward had done his Uber duty and picked up Claudia and Marianne from art school. My job had been dinner preps and I provided (purchased) split-pea soup, salad (assembled by others), barbecue pork tenderloin, wine, cheese. We combined food and art lesson stories. It was all good.
Sunset promised to be "ordinary" (no clouds or fog layers), but at the last minute I grabbed a camera and tried to at least capture color. The sheep were focused on reflections in a far house. The sun went down softly. Claudia and Ward enjoyed the soft light. I was taken by window reflections, just like the sheep, I guess.
Tuesday started slowly. We all watched and commented on the sheep grazing out our back patio, keeping the golf course in proper trim. These guys are active, but the rough was only slightly less challenging after the shepherd had moved them along. I think they have way too much work to do - and we have too little.
Ward did his morning Uber duty while I did my picture and diary puttering. When he came back he asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to Fort Ross, about a half-hour drive south of us. That sounded good to me, since I am partial to out-of-the-way history lessons and we had an entire day to kill before the art students needed a ride home.
After paying the $7.00 parking fee, we started our visit in the small museum and gift shop where we were educated by colorful displays and a 15-minute film giving regional and Fort Ross' history. The fort was established in 1812 by the Russian American Company as a fir hunting base and a provisioning station for the then-active Russian trade along the northern coast of North America. ("Ross" was the Anglicized word used for "Russia", not an explorer's name.)
For thirty years, up to 200 Russians and native employees from throughout their Pacific territories created a sophisticated settlement that built and repaired ships, harvested lumber, and planted wheat and fruit for communities as far away as Kodiak and Sitka, in current-day Alaska.
Pressured by Mexicans and Americans, and by an increasingly unprofitable operation, in 1841 the Russians sold the fort and all its buildings and equipment to John Sutter, who transported much of it up to his private fort near Sacramento. By the early 1870s, Sutter had sold the land and remaining buildings to George W. Call, whose family continued to run the farm and ranch for 100 years, although they donated the rundown fort and historic buildings to the State of California in about 1905.
Today, the Fort Ross stockade and a half-dozen of the buildings have been renovated or restored under the management of California State Parks. Here are my notes and pictures of our tour of the buildings.
The Orthodox chapel with its two spires is the most iconic of the Fort Ross Russian-era buildings. Reportedly, it has been repaired and rebuilt several times, but the wide plank floorboards indicate that those parts, at least, are many generations old.
The Rotchev House is the oldest almost-original building, dating from an 1836 rebuild. It is named after Alexandar Rotchev, the last manager of the Russian American post, who lived here with his wife Elena. The original details were interesting, from the rough six-panel glass windows to the handhewn timber walls. Inside, it looked quite livable.
The reconstructed Kuskov House is a large two-story building at the top of the grounds and it held, among other things, the Fort's armory. Originally it was also the home of the first manager of the fort, and one of the first buildings to be furnished with glass windows. I doubt if the current glass is original, but maybe. In any event, the glass and the period furniture and hardware was indicative of great care in seemingly authentic reconstruction. We appreciated the care.
The large and imposing "Magazin" was not open, but the nearby Officer's Quarters was. In the later building, the interior furnishings looked like they might have been original or, at the very least, reconstructions from decades ago. I particularly noted the carved pattern on one cabinet, a pattern I had seen in handmade Russian trinkets we bought in Kiev. Small world.
The Call Ranch House, outside the stockade, is not open on weekdays. It had been the center of the large and reportedly successful family operation for one-hundred years, from 1873 to 1973. The Call family had started the Fort Ross reconstruction effort with a 1903 donation of the few acres containing the original historic Russian buildings and, over the years, the family donated most of the 3,300 acres of the current California National Park.
A Windmill is also outside the stockade and it represents a pair of such machines that records show the Russian American Company used to grind grain and other agricultural material. This particular mill was recreated in 2012 by Russian craftsmen, using Siberian material and designs believed to be authentic to the early 1800s. Ward and I, in true nerd-engineer fashion, marveled at the strength and sophistication of the mechanism for turning the building itself so it's wooden sails could catch the wind.
Sandy Cove, below the fort, was originally the location of the first California shipyard. Four ocean-worthy ships and a number of small craft were built here in the four decades of the Russian period. Now it is a quiet pebble beach, guarded by sea birds. (I think this one is an Osprey. Or?)
After we returned from our day of California history, Ward picked up the art students in time for the four of us to create an impromptu dinner party. The ladies had invited another student, her husband, and the course instructor over. As the cliche says, a good time was had by all. As hosts, we were all pleasantly surprised at how nice a meal can be prepared with such little advance notice. There is a lesson in this.
On Wednesday, Marianne and Claudia started the third of five days of the Jane Davies workshop at the Gualala Art Center. Each class day, they spend six to seven hours learning new abstract painting techniques and then they replay lessons for most of the rest of the day and evening. Their enthusiasm is proof of the value of the workshop!
After leaving Marianne at the art center, I drove north on the Old State Highway, to see if the area offered any fall color to photograph. It didn't. Mostly, it was California coastal forests, a mix of Redwoods, Pines, Spruce, and a scattering of non-evergreens, but nothing turning yet for fall. I was surprised that the rural forests were largely filled with homes and a scattering of businesses, including a few junk yards. Nothing tourist-worthy, more like upscale Appalachia.
Coming back along the Coast Highway, I stopped at an overlook above the beach at Glennen Gulch. I had hoped for a dramatic Pacific Ocean picture or two, but this morning the waves were small and the scene peaceful. I imagine the houses on the far bluff enjoyed spectacular views during winter storms. For now, the only beach activity was someone walking his dogs. (A violation of beach protocol and law, by the way.)
The scene on the right, of the houses on the bluff, was more comlex than one would think. I worked to get the moving water blurred, while the rocks remained clear. This took a 40 minute to set up, with a tripod and an assortment of filters. This was another reminder that fancy photography techniques can be difficult and always require more practice than I normally get. And the product may not be noteworthy. I do like the process, however.
Back at home, I joined Ward looking out at our back patio view. We saw a few birds flying by down near the rocks and water, so I packed up the camera for more long-lens photo practice. This too is harder than it looks and definitely requires practice. Fortunately the gulls are always flying by, challenging me to take a shot. I learned from Ward that adults are white but younger gulls are modeled gray. Learn something everyday.
My favorite targets were a pair of California Buzzards who swooped around the area looking for dinner. The big red-headed birds are an interesting combination of scary-ugly and graceful.
This one shot was enough success to make me want to try more birds another day.
After shooting it was time to get our art students from school and find dinner. Marianne had heard recommendations for the Kitchen Vue in Gualala, so that was our choice. It was a bit pricey, but our ceviche was good and the view was better.
Thursday started early for me. The alarm went off at 4:00am to wake me for "moon set". This was one of my planned photo challenges and to make the early wake-up worse, I misread the event timing from my astronautical app "TPE", substituting the 4:30 time (the 11th) instead of the correct 5:30. That just meant I had lots of time to trouble shoot night time camera operation. There is nothing as testing of the camera operator as figuring out all the little buttons and knobs in the dark.
By 4:45 or so, I was ready. The moon was still big and bright. As the moon approached the horizon, the coast humidity started to put a haze in the air, good for color, but complicating focus.
As the moon approached the horizon, it became darker, redder, and distorted. The skies around it never picked up the red light, like a sunset sky would.
After the moon set, the stars had a chance to shine for a few minutes before the sun drown them out. I tried, unsuccessfully, to get some pictures, but then remembered to simply stand there and enjoy the moment, a great idea, as Sea Ranch is a "dark sky" area and excellent for star gazing, when the moon and sun are below the horizon.
Back at Whale Tale, the rest of the crew woke up, we all had breakfast, and Ward did his Uber-driver thing and took the wives to the Gualala Art Center. When he came back, we needed to plan some sort of guys' activity, not so easy in quiet Gualala or Sea-Ranch.
Near the art center, Ward had discovered an old bridge that sounded interesting, and his map search had uncovered a decommissioned Air Force base up in the Mendocino County mountains. We agreed to make an excursion of the bridge, the airbase, and then a stop at Point Arena on the return. I drove, he navigated.
The bridge was fascinating. Later, looking into the history, we found that the road bridge that now spans the North Fork of the Gualala River, was originally a railroad bridge, probably first installed in Texas around 1880. It was one of a series of Phoenix Iron Company's patented "Pratt thru truss" products. Completely assembled without welding, and able to be simply disassembled, a number of the Pratt bridges were brought from Texas to California.
In about 1905, this particular bridge was re-erected as part of the Gualala mill's lumber-hauling rail line. While most of the other bridges fell due to disrepair or were washed away, this one was restored in 1941 and maintained ever since, including adding six feet to the concrete piers to elevate it above spring floods. Without welds, typically the most corrosion-prone part of a steel or iron structure, the 140-year old bridge seems in pristine condition.
Our drive up to the Point Area Air Force Station took us through a wide range of coastal foothill homes and scenery, from the Appalacia-hovels-to-Califonia-Castles near Gualala, to sparse farm and forest compounds up higher. After more than six miles off a main road and about 2,500 feet above where we started, we hit the locked gates of the old station. Too bad, it might have been interesting checking for Cold War ghosts. At least we saw some countryside. Off to Point Arena.
Downtown Point Arena was darn cute, with about half the shops in business and half for sale or lease. Of the operating businesses, the old theater looked particularly inviting. A couple of the others, bars and restaurants, looked like the rough logger-fisherman places I remember from decades ago when my folks lived not too far away. The market had shrunk from a building to a trailer.
The closed businesses looked interesting as well. Some were nicely-restored old structures, just waiting for new renters with dreams, cash, and a willingness to take risks. An old yellow house looming above main street needed even bigger supplies of cash and hope.
Point Arena harbor is about a mile west of the historic downtown. A pier serves for boat launching, ever since the boat ramp was washed away in a recent winter storm. A black granite monument honors 15 young Japanese men who sought prosperity in 1915 by sailing a 45 foot boat across the Pacific, ending at Point Area, where their arrival was classified by the sheriff as "an invasion". Fear of foreigners has been around for a very long time.
For lunch, we stopped at the Chowder House and Tap Room, upstairs in the only commercial building by the harbor. It was light, airy, and almost empty. Ward and I ordered chowder and salads, both darn tasty and the view was better than Gualala's Kitchen Vue. A recommendation!
The half-hour drive back on Highway 1 was uneventful. I think we kept our eyes open for any attractions, but there was nothing new. Gualala and nearby may be a good place to live and raise kids, but it was about as quiet a neighborhood as I have encountered on the California Coast.
As our last night at Sea Ranch, dinner was clean-up: clean up the refrigerator, clean up the cupboards, clean up the wine bottles. Next week will definitely need to be a new campaign of exercise and healthy eating, but that's NEXT week.
Maybe because we felt guilty and the sunset light in the backyard was glowing, we went out for an evening walk along the Sea Ranch bluffs. Sunset was colorful and the moon rose on schedule. It's a rare day when I work in pictures of moonset, sunset, and moonrise. Sea Ranch and Gualala are pretty quiet generally, but at least our neighborhood has had good starts and finishes.
Friday was pack-up day. First, we packed up the students for their last class and then Ward and I finished gathering all our food and clothes and gear, cleaned our vacation home enough to not be embarrassed, and loaded the cars. At 11:00 check-out time, we closed the door and headed out, trying to think of interesting things to do in Gualala. Not sure we succeeded.
Ward visited the Sea Ranch chapel I had seen Wednesday and then kicked around in the woods and river bank near the Art Center. Not exciting. I went to town and ate lunch at Trink's while waiting for the new motel to allow me in.
Mid-afternoon, I checked in to the Seacliff Motel and moved in to our room-with-a-view - a great view. I think looking at the ocean is about the only dependable activity in Gualala/Sea Cliff. It's always there, moving a little or more. (I imagine winter the surf in much more active.)
I left for the Art Center to pick up Marianne sooner than I was allowed in the classroom, so I killed a bit more time taking pictures of a tree. A fall-colors tree. Maybe Gualala is more exciting than I have indicated. Naah.
Eventually I was allowed in and listened to the final assessment session. Jane, the instructor, walked her students around the picture-covered walls, asking for student evaluation and participation. All in all, the work was pretty darn good, both by the artists' evaluations and my own amateur view. (Of course, Marianne's half-dozen were exceptional.)
Ward and I packed up our student works into our cars and there were hugs all around as we went our own ways. Marianne and I were staying an extra day in Gualala in order to have a full day for the drive home to Fresno, while our partners were heading north to Fort Bragg on their mission to pick up ashes. (Their story to tell.)
After another excellent meal at Trink's, Marianne and I settled in to our room to enjoy the evening sun disappear from the comfort of our soft recliners. A good end to our beach week.
Saturday started early, in part because light from the bright full moon filled our room-with-a-view most of the night. After tossing and turning for hours, the sun came up and I gave up and got up.
At least we had nice views from the left and right sides of our big picture windows. (The wispy fog on the rocks reminded Marianne of one of the art class lessons.)
After yet one more excellent meal at Trink's, we headed south on Highway 1. Before leaving Sea Ranch, we swung by the chapel to show Marianne. It was more shaded than when I had seen it, but still an impressive piece of architecture and craftsmanship.
Highway 1 through Sonoma County is a real challenge, with hills, twists, traffic, and distracting scenery. We hear stories of folks driving the coastal highway from Oregon to Los Angeles, but we would need days and days to do that. Maybe less in Marianne's old Boxster.
After a stop or two (or three or more) for rest rooms and fuel, Marianne settled in to freeway driving, out of Sonoma County and into Marin. Not fun driving exactly, but things we did get to remember past trips on this route. My history goes back 55 years, to high school drives from San Mateo to Boonville, along this same route. Highway 101 is larger now, and surrounded by more homes and businesses, but it still felt similar.
Going east on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, we could look south and watch the fog rolling in the Golden Gate, past The City, and drying up near Oakland. Standard bay-area air conditioning. It had been 55F in Gualala and was now under 80F. Hours later, in Fresno, it would be 102F.
Eight hours after leaving Gualala, we were home, a week's travel under our belts. Even in the heat, it was nice to be home. We can always review this diary to remember the cool and quiet times in Sea Ranch and Gualala.
Not much more planned. (Phew - I am worn out writing diaries, at least for awhile.)
John and Marianne