It was a spontaneous decision to drive north for Fourth of July weekend. Shawn and I wanted to get out of San Francisco for the holiday. The fireworks show in Fisherman’s Wharf is notoriously foggy nine years out of ten, and we wanted to feel some heat and find some surf. We found the surf but north is not typically the right cardinal direction to go for hot weather when you live in the northern hemisphere. Either way, we found a campsite on a private sheep ranch in a little town on the northern coast of California called Point Arena. In the past, my Dad had mentioned that an old stoner buddy of his lived up there, but that was about all I knew about the place.
Our driver was Johnny Hanusek, Shawn’s buddy, a permanent transplant from North Carolina. We piled our gear into his old Subaru, strapped our boards to the roof and took off Saturday morning. As soon as we crossed the Golden Gate, the clouds parted and the sun shone down upon us and dark green live oaks dotting the golden, grassy hills. The sunshine lasted a couple hours, but when the highway snaked us back toward the coast, the gray marine layer leaned in close and hugged the sandy redwood shores.
If you’ve never driven the coast highway in California -- I don’t care which stretch -- then move it right up to the top of your to-do list. There’s nary a turn in the road that yields a disappointing view. Rocky sea stacks stand like sentinels just north of Bodega, some stationed amongst the dunes, covered in lichen, epiphytes and guano. Cypress trees shaped by decades of ceaseless wind gnarl out of the grassy sandstone cliffs creating silhouettes that imprint on the memory.
The road rose higher hugging the cliffside as we continued north. We passed Fort Ross, a 19th century logging camp built by Russian settlers, and soon afterwards the mid-century modern blue-gray structures of Sea Ranch, a coastal colony built by beatniks and hippies in the 50s.
Finally, we reached our campsite at Casari Ranch -- an empty pasture about a half mile off the main road. The spot was a lumpy field with two small redwood trees for shade, a 500-gallon container of potable water and an outhouse, and it was bordered by an overgrown forest that acted as a barrier to the property to the north.
No sooner had we pulled our bags out of the car, then headed straight towards us from about 50 feet away was a wooly sheep with curly horns like a ram. An ivy vine wrapped its way around the sheep’s horns almost comically, betraying the fact that it had been foraging in the undergrowth of the adjacent forest. The sheep baahhed as it closed in on us and the three of us wondered if we were asking for trouble, encroaching on its territory. Reaching us, it veered slightly left to simply pass next to us, leaving us unscathed. These were our neighbors.
Point Arena is known for its lighthouse, as the coastline juts out into the ocean like a love handle at the waistline of California. It’s not particularly remarkable, nor is it tall, but it stands on the edge of a bluff, at the base of which is the roaring ocean, smashing against the continental shelf. Here the rocky earth has been pushed upward by subduction of the meeting tectonic plates. The boulders protruding from the cold ocean have visible layers like rings in a tree, only highlighting their ancient status. Sea fowl and sea lions are their only visitors.
Meanwhile above the fray, we parked the car near the lighthouse and walked to the cliffs north of it to scout the swell. The approaching waves had shape, but they looked cold, and there didn’t seem to be an easy way into the water from up above, save a footpath (if you can call it that), which dropped off a rock into a creek feeding into the ocean.
“I dunno,” I said, seeing that Shawn was probably experiencing the same doubt I was.
“C’mon, where’s your sense of adventure?” Johnny chided. That was enough. Next thing we were tugging our wetsuits on and tiptoeing barefoot across the bluff to the put-in.
We paddled out in the harsh surf, battling the current to avoid the rocks, and managed to catch a couple waves before giving into exhaustion and heading back to shore.
The next day was the Fourth, and we had collectively decided to explore the nearby beaches for more surf. The tides and winds weren’t cooperating with us enough to merit us hardening ourselves for the ice cold surf. The land, however, was providing the entertainment for the day.
As we drove away from the ranch, down the gravel road towards the highway with golden pastures on either side of the car, something swooped down into view out in front of our windshield.
“That’s a bald eagle! With a fish in its talons!” I shit you not.
“Holy smokes!” Johnny grinned.
Shawn leaned forward from the back seat with a trademark wry smile, “Happy Fourth of July!”
A few miles down the road, the beach was wide and sandy and backed by sandstone cliffs. Near the edge of the beach, the cliff sloped down to meet the beach in a series of rocks that seemed to fit together like the giant spinal column of some gargantuan rock lizard sleeping eternally. Upon closer inspection, each one of these rocks was made of hundreds of little hexagonal columns all fitting together forming a lattice. Most likely basalt.
Many of the beaches in Northern California (and the Pacific Northwest generally) are covered in logs and bits of driftwood -- the byproduct of the logging industry and the simple fact that there are lots of trees. This beach was no exception and to exploit this fact, some creative soul had constructed a driftwood box big enough to stand inside.
We sat there near the sculpture on a log and watched the waves. We climbed up the rock spine and looked down from the top. Then we left. The afternoon sun waned and the marine layer started its predictable march from the sea to the mountains behind us.
As we drove into town, pedestrians began appearing until there was a steady stream on the sidewalks of the main street. Figuring that this was probably the crowd for the fireworks show, we pulled into a makeshift parking lot on somebody’s wide gravel driveway, where they were collecting $5 a car for the night.
Joining the flow of people, we headed down a narrower road around a few fern-covered bends towards the harbor. Finally, we arrived at a gate where they were collecting money for admission to the harbor i.e. the fireworks show. $10 seems a bit steep for something you can typically watch for free, but figuring we’d come this far, we begrudgingly forked it over and went through the gate.
Describe the shape of the harbor with the cliffs surrounding it, and the dock going out to the middle of it. The pyrotechnic guys were set up on the end of the dock and had run a string up to the cliff to the left of us.
Mention: An 80s hair metal band (maybe the real thing) was playing covers over a pretty loud system. Smells of food. People laughing and dancing and drinking beer. Kids running around with glow stick bracelets and necklaces -- straight carnival style. Closer to the water people sat on camping chairs and blankets and picnic benches.