A Return to Travel - Mendocino

February 22-27, 2021

Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,

This is a return to a diary in the old manner, one that tells of a specific event: a trip, a travel day, a party, or a visit with friends. The almost-one-year-old pandemic diary will co-exist, just share the stage.

Monday, February 22, Mendocino Trip Day 1, Covid Day 346

This would be our first real trip in the new electric car so we needed to discover what that would all be about. First, would be carrying capacity. We had gotten used to the big red Jeep where there was no doubt everything would fit, but the Tesla Model Y ("MY") is smaller. I know, we've traveled for months in a Porsche Boxster, so the MY should be no problem, but we've also become accustomed to lots of camera gear, clothes changes, and art supplies. As it turned out, most camera gear went in the front trunk, items with less common use (e.g.: hiking boots) went in a deep well under the back trunk floor, and everything else fit easily.

dovesuperchargeAt about 8am, we had filled all the spaces and we waved goodbye to the back porch dove. The nest might be a nursery by the time we get back. The first part of the drive was up dull, old Highway 99, nothing new here. At the two-hour mark, we stopped in Manteca to stretch our legs and add some power to the battery. In principle, we could have gone at least twice as far before tanking up, but stopping every couple of hours is best for the human factors.

A significant part of the mission on this trip was to gain some experience and comfort with Tesla's "Autopilot". We invested in the "Full Self Driving" (FSD) option in order to make long trips less tiring and, ultimately, to extend our own driving life into our 80s. That's a long-term goal, but first we needed to get a lot more comfortable letting Carla drive herself. There are three or four levels of automation, from always-on emergency-front crash avoidance, though telling the car where we want to navigate and watching. (Highways only, so far. Surface street navigation is in demonstration.)

CA 99 was a good test. FSD handled traffic OK, but there were a few areas I did not like, construction zones for example. The driving system follows the painted lines in the road and is not always smooth when those lines have been interrupted or shifted. Multi-lane curved roads were also uncomfortable. FSD always puts the car in the exact middle of the lane and does not change speed when entering most curves. As a driver, I think I unconsciously move the car toward the inside of a curve and slow down, at least a bit. This is a case where I need to change, because the Tesla won't. Manually reducing speed a bit before getting into the curve helped.

Richmond Dan RafaelWe continued this learning process as we crossed the valley on Interstate 580 and then turned north in Oakland on whatever that eight-lane monster highway is called. By the time we got to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, it was time to take a break from learning Autopilot. I have faith that more flight time will make automated driving less stressful, but I am not there yet and we haven't started yet with our co-pilot. We have time.

Our next stop was Santa Rosa where we needed to completely charge the car, since there would be no more Supercharger stations until Friday, in Ukiah. Somewhere along the way, I expect we will need to learn about charge stations other than the Tesla system. We'll see. The Santa Rosa stop was also perfect for lunch at "BJs Restaurant Brew house". By the time we were full, so was Carla.

This was also the time when the drive on Highway 101 starting being more scenic and fun. When we diverted toward the coast on Highway 128 it was even more scenic and, for me, nostalgic. From my teens, our family had started driving CA 128, initially to visit my namesake grandfather, Jon Christianson. Mom and Dad bought a few acres near Boonville, complete with a small trailer, and that would be a weekend base for years. Eventually, the place would be expanded and serve as the first retirement home for my parents.Jon Christianson

In neighboring Philo, we stopped to take a picture of the old red shack where Jon had lived and died. I have no idea why it has been preserved for over a half century, and I am always surprised to see it still standing, unoccupied and only meaningful to me, I suppose.drive

The rest of CA 128 is among the most scenic roads, through California redwood forests and onto coastal hills, before it ends at Highway 1. This was the road I had "traveled" on the Peloton, just a few days earlier.

A few miles north, we came to Mendocino, perhaps the most picturesque coastal village in California. (Many more pictures later!) We had booked a room in a small hotel chain, The Blue Door Inns (three locations with about a dozen rooms total). Our room, named Kit's Cabin, was in the J.D. House and was charming, a bit rustic, but charming.

After settling in, we took a walk around town. There were picture-worthy subjects everywhere and the best I can do is just show them over the next few days. Here's a start.

blue house house tower
taking pict old pier feeding


Ideally, the day would end with a spectacular sunset, but this evening there was more calm resignation than spectacle.

I'm not sure what the rest of the week holds, but Monday was a good start.

Tuesday, February 23, Mendocino Day 2, Covid Day 347

bakeryThe 7am sunrise was as subtle as the 6pm sunset had been. Coffee and sweets came only at 8am at the Good Life Cafe & Bakery (wonderful name!) The coffee was excellent and the baked goods even better. Since this was just our pre-breakfast snack, we will need to show more restraint in later days.

Real breakfast was delivered at 9am to the door of Kits Cabin. The insulated bag contained a nice combination of individual egg soufflés, yogurt & granola, scones, orange juice, and more coffee. In non-Covid times, I'm sure this would be even more pleasant in the JD House dining room, but the bag breakfast was a good solution.

Eventually, we got more active than just eating. Marianne took a few pictures to serve as fodder for her drawings and I took pictures just because I could.

photographer gate toward ocean
ice plants path shimmer

California coastal climates are wonderful for gardens and the gardens are a distraction for photographers

yellow bunch single

Of course, we also shopped. Mendocino is littered with shops as quaint as the town itself. My favorite is Out of This World, a toy store I have visited for more than 30 years. I can remember buying things for Brian and Geoff, when we would visit my Mom and Dad in Boonville and now we can look for another generation. It was good to see that most stores remained in business, despite the pandemic. Most places had limited hours, and everywhere masks and hand cleaning were required for entry. It seems the town has tried to strike a balance between an active tourist business and social distancing. For us, the attention to protocol was reassuring.

wineburgerFor our main meal, we tried Trillium Cafe and Inn, recommended by our hotel and by others. Years ago, Marianne and I had stayed here and remember spending hours in their dining room, from breakfast through a late lunch, writing diaries, drawing, and reading. Dining is now outside, under a huge tent, but as pleasant as we remembered (albeit a bit chilly.) Our burgers were much better than ordinary, the local Anderson Valley wine excellent, and the service masked, but friendly. (Remind me to tell the story about my "lost" camera.)Zoom

Back home, we recovered from our meal, reminded that we don't normally have a whole bottle of wine with dinner anymore. We needed to recover, because we still had a cocktail party to go to - a Zoom cocktail party. Rita, Pete, and Adrienne all joined us for the weekly virtual party. Everybody seemed in good spirits, not a given considering Covid, parent care, and other realities.

potterysunsetAfter the party, Marianne and I went for yet another walk. Really, that's what Mendocino is made for. Next door we ran across a "shop" selling ceramics and pottery. There was a cash box and a Pay-Pall address, but no person. This struck us as a very-Mendocino solution to Covid contact-less shopping. Tuesday's sunset was as understated as Monday's.

Wednesday, February 24, Mendocino Day 3, Covid Day 348

The days start with a normal routine: John goes and gets good coffee at Good Life. The small cafe lets in just two customers at a time, always masked, and there is a morning line. That's OK, since I can take time to look around. The ornate white bank building was built in 1866 as Masonic Lodge #179 and the carving, named "Time and the Maiden", was carved from a single redwood stump. Nearby is one of the many perfectly restored homes and shops, although this yellow example had not rebuilt the water tank that must have originally topped the tower.

bankTime and the Maidenyellow bldg

chargingAfter breakfast in our room, we drove north a few miles to visit the Point Cabrillo Light Station. One attraction was that the park had a charging connection for our car, great use for the time spent exploring the station and station grounds.

mapThe Cabrillo Light Station was planned as early as 1873, but was not built and lighted until 1908 and 1909. A head light-keeper and two assistants lived here with their families to provide 24-hour coverage, 365-days-per-year. Over the years, the light and fog horn were modernized and gradually automated, allowing the last full-time light-keeper to retire in 1963, although the light remains a navigation aid on this rocky coast.

We walked the half-mile road from the parking lot to the light station buildings. The ground cover had been restored to original flowers, reeds, and grasses, home to all sorts of birds. The walk alone is worth a visit.

sign bouquet path
finch buzzard finch too

Light station buildings include three houses, originally for the families of the head light-keeper and his two assistants. Buildings have been extensively restored over the last two decades and two of the houses are now available for vacation rental ($500 to $600 per night) as are two small cottages that were originally equipment buildings ($150-180 per night). Funds go to further support and restore other buildings on the grounds.

houses lighthouse

Point Cabrillo itself is typical of the rocky headlands common to the area. North of the State Park were large homes, overlooking the Pacific. Don't they worry about tsunamis or even winter storms?

coast splash homes

The BrickerypizzaOur long hike was rewarded with a pizza dinner from The Brickery, an annex to Cafe Beaujolais, a big-time destination restaurant. The restaurant did have outside dining, but we opted to drive back to the patio of JD House and enjoy our own private table and small ocean view.

After dinner, Marianne went to work drawing "Zentangles", a travel-friendly art expression.

Marianne zen

While Marianne was drawing, I grabbed a camera and went out on the town.

small house bouquet flowers

The park along the headlands was turning a nice red-gold, highlighting the new growth of the ice plants.

ice plant walker carvings
fisher waves

And one can never have too many sunsets, even without puffy clouds.

sunset 1 sunset 2
sunset 3 sunset 4

Thursday, February 25, Mendocino Day 4, Covid Day 349

We had no plan-of-the-day, but that's OK on vacation. The morning coffee walk was productive and the delivered breakfast box contained a new variant on the egg soufflé. Then diary-writing and reading, if screen-time counts as reading.

Kelley HouseclosedMy second walk was more of a wander, with no goal. I walked past the large yellow home that houses the Kelley House Museum, but Covid had shut it down. Too bad. Elsewhere on our wanders, we visited several shops, all charming, but none with things we just HAD to buy, but we did kill enough time that we were ready for lunch-dinner.

PatersonsPatterson's Pub had been recommended and the menu was good. I had a salad topped with salmon and Marianne had mussels and clams. There were also several beers offered and I tried one from a Fort Bragg brewery. Dining was outside in one of the white circus tents that are Covid-common in Mendocino. Tables were distanced and cleaned between every customer. Masking was required whenever not eating or drinking. In fact, Mendocino has been the most virus-careful place we have been, hopefully keeping tourism open and locals healthy.

blue doorAfter eating, we wandered around town some more. It seems walking is our only exercise, but I'd say it was enough. At 3pm, we stopped by the main office of the Blue Door hotels for our afternoon wine and cheese picnic box. Before the pandemic, this would have been a buffet, served in the dining rooms or patios of each property. The box is a nice idea, but I miss the casual conversations one would normally have around the visitors' table. I wonder how long it will be before we can return to all the friendliness of travel. Summer? Fall? 2022? (I hope not!)

cocktailswellMarianne experimented with a canned cocktail for our afternoon party-of-two. on our own little patio. Again, it was OK, but not really a substitute for a friendly bartender's chatter and product.

As sunset was getting close, I headed out in the cool wind to see if today would be the day for that perfect sunset picture. Nope. Still no clouds to turn red as the sun sinks into the Pacific. Seal gulls were cute enough, as they enjoyed a sunset flight, but we need to come back for better pictures.

sunset gull last sunset

Friday, February 26, Mendocino Day 5, Covid Day 350

red houseGood cafeThis was our Mendocino departure day, but we were not going far, so I had time for the morning go-get-coffee routine at Good Life Cafe and Bakery. The day was bright and my ten-minute walk was another reminder of just how cute this historic old village is. In downtown, almost all buildings are at least 100 years old, mostly well-restored, and occupied. We regret we will not be able to visit for a few more years, but there are so many places we need to visit or re-visit.

pathThe plan was to go over to Ukiah and pay respects to the memorial wall where my mom and dad's ashes rest. The route would be a bit north to Fort Bragg, east to Willits, and south again to Ukiah. We looked forward to the drive.

Our first stop was Noyo Harbor, on the southern edge of Fort Bragg. The tiny entrance to a very sheltered harbor looked like a challenge to power boats going in an out, and I can't imagine skills old time sailing pilots would have needed. It's dangerous just to stand on the breakwater! A normal visit to Noyo Harbor would include a fish lunch at one of several restaurants in the area, but we were still full from breakfast and, besides, eating outside in the cool ocean breeze just wasn't all that inviting. Next time.

noyo harbor wrning

Ft Bragg centerWe continued north into Fort Bragg itself, passing by the site of the 1885 saw mill that had served as the heart of the old city until closing in 2002. The area is now "the largest parcel of undeveloped land on the California coast" . All the industrial buildings have been removed, as the city creates parkland and appropriate developments, including 77 acres for a new station for the World Famous Skunk Train. With most tourist attractions shut down for pandemic protection, all we managed to do was window shop on the few blocks left of the old central business district. Cute enough. We may need to come back when normal times resume, but the next drive reminded us just how isolated this part of the California coast remains.

Highway 20 runs east, through redwood timber land that had originally fed the mills at Fort Bragg. The forests that remain are second and third generation, but some of the old stumps are still there, covered in a century of moss. The drive itself is filled with twists and turns as it climbs over the coastal hills until it descends into the valley town of Willits, the eastern base for the Skunk Train. (The train no longer runs between Ft. Bragg and Willits or Ukiah, as it used to when I was a youngster.)

redwoods stump turn
gps willits

From Willits, it was a half-hour drive down to Ukiah through a green valley that reminded us of Italy or France. We probably would have preferred the thousand-year-old villages filled with ancient charm (and restaurants), but this isolated valley is old both by native and by immigrant standards.

Mom and DadOur goal was the mausoleum wall where the ashes of my Mom and Dad rest. She passed away in early 1999, while we were in Ukraine. I still carry guilt for not being around for her last months. Dad passed away in 1991, before meeting Marianne. I think they would have liked each other, despite my father's disapproval of the divorce that necessarily preceded our marriage. 60 rancho grande

We swung by the Lake Mendocino Mobile Park to see their last home. It's still there and the neighborhood looks well-cared for. It appears to be a good landing place for seniors. I know it was for Thelma and Bob.

From old-home nostalgia, we shifted to Ukiah tourism. We parked the car at a Supercharger to prepare for the next day and checked out our standard haunts: Schat's Bakery and The Mendocino Book Company. Both stores have been in business for as long as I can remember and it's good to see that they survive, pandemic and all. In fact, Ukiah seemed little changed over the decades we have been visiting, still a place to live more than to visit, but one that has memories for us.


After the bakery, it was time to find a hotel and then get ready for Friday Zoom Game Night. Hotels are easy enough in Ukiah, with older ones along the old main street and newer ones off the Highway 101 freeway. We opted for newer, although I believe even these places have been there and unchanged for ten or twenty years. Anyway, the Hampton Inn was super clean and had wifi good enough for Zoom, our two criteria.

The game with Jen, Brian, and Geoff went as usual, starting with grandparents grilling kids about their status and the news from grandsons. Rich still has some Colorado college acceptances pending, so no new decisions there. Ryan and Sean, in Maryland, were still surviving winter and remote schooling. It will be nice when both are over. The best news is always that everyone is healthy.

Saturday, February 27, Mendocino (County) Day 6, Covid Day 351

For breakfast, I woke up early and drove to normal destinations: Starbucks for coffee and cappuccino; Schat's Bakery for cinnamon rolls; Tesla Supercharger to top up for the day's drive. This needs to be our new standard for travel-day starts: caffeine, calories, and kilowatts.

Marianne drove the first part of the road, south on Highway 101 and then east on Interstate 580. I snapped pictures out the window, none of which were great. On 101, we passed under a rock that marks the spot where the road often washes out. The photo does not do it justice. The flowering plum (?) trees leading to one of the Coppola Wines properties were pretty, but not well-captured from the highway. The view of San Francisco from the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was dull, as was the shot down I-580 into the central valley. Some days photographers do not do memorable work.

rock coppola

We stopped at Manteca to recharge and visit rest rooms. I think the Tesla needs filling at about the pace we need emptying. I drove the rest of the way, mostly south on my least-favorite highway: CA99. Crowds and construction zones precluded any experimentation with Tesla "self-driving", so everything was normal, stressy normal. In Madera, we took a detour to pick up hot dogs at Chase's Chop Shop, our favorite butcher and also a vague family connection. (brother of a sister-in-law). It was good to get off CA99 for a few minutes.

904 e cambridgedinnerBack home, we were welcomed with plum blossoms in front of our cute old house. Unpacking was quick and Marianne turned our Chase's purchase into dinner in no time. It was nice to be home.

That said, how was our whole travel experience? Good. Excellent, even. The weather was perfect, considering the late winter season. (The photographer would have asked for puffy clouds, however.) We found it comforting to return to places visited over many years and still see the same friendly shops and businesses. I am certain tourist-dependent folks have been suffering, but maybe they struck the proper balance between staying open and insisting on cleanliness, masks, and distancing. (Mendocino County's Covid positivity rate is less than half of Fresno County's.) The experience bodes well for our hopes for travel, even in the next few months, before the scourge has truly passed.

The next diary will return to the pandemic-daily-record format, with a trip to grandkids thrown in toward the end.

Stay tuned.

John and Marianne