My daughter learned about a place called Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California, where the entire beach is covered with sparkling, sea-washed glass of all colors. She asked me if we could go. I could tell from her tone of voice that she thought I’d say no. No, I had to work. Or, no, we can’t afford it. No, it’s too close to school. Or, no, we didn’t plan it. Just, no.
I said yes. We took almost no vacation this summer — just a long weekend in Stinson Beach and a weekend at a friend’s cabin in Lake Tahoe. Both were lovely, of course, but brief. Also, I’m aware of this need to make up for lost time with my daughter.
For years, my son monopolized my attention for a variety of reasons, extreme teenage antics being one of them. My daughter is “good,” which means she has gotten less attention. And it’s hurt her. Now that my son has stabilized, I feel this need and desire to make up for lost time, to respond to my daughter fully, to give her my complete attention.
We decided to leave on Sunday. I found a cute studio with access to the beach at the end of a road on AirBnB for $130 a night. My daughter found a motel called the Coast Inn and Spa in Fort Bragg and talked me into going there, as it was less expensive, at $88 a night. She was right. I knew it wouldn’t be cute, to say the least, but we’d save a chunk of change. I also wanted to honor her suggestion. I booked it.
My daughter’s fantasy for our getaway included a stop at a Krispy Kreme for donuts. She searched online and found one just slightly out of our way in Dublin, California. I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure I trusted Krispy Kreme and didn’t want to spike my blood sugar extremely.
On our way out of town, I asked China to map the motel. I didn’t think she could map the Krispy Kreme on the same route. As we drew near the exit to a good bakery near our home that has an oat scone I’m partial to, I tried to talk my daughter into foregoing the Krispy Kreme dream. She was crest-fallen. Also, she’d managed to map the donut shop and the motel on the same itinerary. I dutifully made a U-turn and re-entered the highway.
In the Krispy Kreme shop, my daughter said her fantasy extended to getting a box consisting of a dozen donuts. I said, “We don’t need a dozen donuts! We’ll be sick!” She said that was her fantasy. What could I do?
We got a dozen donuts. I ate four of them. We pretty much decimated the box. Somehow I managed to keep driving the car even though I was nearly blinded by spiking blood sugar.
We drove for about three and a half hours, past farmland and vineyards, towns and forests. We listened to my daughter’s favorite musician Marina and the Diamonds and Eckhert Tolle’s The Power of Now.
Sunlight fell in white chunks through the trees to the black forest floor, until the evergreens began giving way to meadows. A small, forgotten tugboat up on wheels portended we were nearing the coast. The gathering fog confirmed it.
The road deposited us in Fort Bragg. We found our motel, where a massive, hand-painted sign behind the front counter titled “The Purpose of Life,” described the 11 stages of life from pre-birth to after-death with faith, education, “eternal marriage,” work and service, family unity, adversity, fulfillment, and death in between. Floor-to-ceiling shelves were stocked with glass jars of Chinese herbs. A certificate from “The International Association for Colon HydroTherapy” announced the proprietor’s skill in said procedure.
Instead of $88, however, we were asked to pay $99 to cover the extra bed for my daughter. We later learned that adorable B&Bs steps from the sea in quaint Mendocino were charging about $140 a night and included breakfast — a continental version at the circa 1878 Sea Gull Inn and a big classic North American spread at the more casual (and pet-friendly) Didjeridoo Dreamtime Inn.
Our room was what you might expect from a highway motel: no great shakes. A floor that didn’t feel all that clean, an odd odor covered by disinfectant, polyester linens and sad pillows on the beds. We dumped our stuff and took off for Mendocino about ten minutes south on Highway 1. Dramatic views of steep bluffs and dark, wet rocks reared up amid snowy waves at intervals. Cypress trees lining both sides of the road reached for each other over our heads, forming charming green tunnels.
We explored the town as twilight arrived, snapping pictures of Naked Lady lilies, adorable clapboard Victorian houses painted white, and a multitude of ancient wooden water towers that rose above the town in regular intervals.
We found our way to the rocky bluffs edging the town, ate handfuls of blackberries, lamented the fate of a noble pine tree hanging onto the eroding cliff by a thread. We found Big River Beach where the river meets the sea. My daughter said, “I love intersections!” and made me promise we could return to swim there the next day.
We dined at Cafe Beaujolais, a somewhat well-known French restaurant housed in a sweet Victorian. It was expensive for us, but I wanted to celebrate the occasion. We were the second party to be admitted to the rustic, nostalgic dining room with white-painted wainscoting, a decorative picture ledge, and mirrors running along the walls.
I ordered Petaluma Duck Two Ways: Crispy Skin Breast and Leg De Confit, with caramelized onion buttermilk spaetzle and wilted kale with balsamic jus lie for $29. China ordered Free-range Petaluma Chicken Breast with red wine-pancetta farro, butter-braised leeks in foie gras jus, and black garlic butter for $28. I got a glass of 2012 Baxter, Black Label, Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.
We agreed the food was fine, but nothing special, which is a shock — a shock we should be accustomed to by now. I said what I always say. China filled in my words before I’d even begun, “’That’s why you learn how to cook well.’ I know, Mom.”
The motel had no cable and no Netflix. We watched a movie on my laptop: The Little Prince, which started off well, but devolved badly about half-way through and took forever to wrap up.
The next morning, we woke up and went straight to Glass Beach, about ten minutes north from our motel. Until 1967, Fort Bragg dumped its trash over the bluffs right onto its beaches in three places. The ocean transformed decades of glass into a field of colored gems. Unfortunately, they’ve been heavily raked over by collectors who arrive with buckets to carry the treasures home. Most of the red (from glass tail lights of old cars) and blue (from apothecary bottles) is gone, leaving various shades of clear, brown, and green glass, but it’s still a charming and impressive sight. When the waves come in, the glass tumbles making a high, clear tinkling sound distinctive from sands and pebbles.
We walked along the bluffs to the end of the path where the old Georgia-Pacific lumber mill was located before its closure in 2002. A big gate posted with several No Trespassing signs blocked our way to the 460 acres of ocean-front bluffs that are now being returned to nature.
We had brunch at Egghead’s, a narrow, Wizard of Oz-themed breakfast joint with a handful of booths and tables on Main Street. We sat in the window. They were out of the tequila-based hollandaise for their famous “Wicked Benedict,” so I had a traditional — and perfect — Eggs Benedict. My daughter ordered a burger she wasn’t crazy about. Our warm and efficient Latin server dropped Spanish terms of endearment as he took our orders and poured coffee.
Across the street from the cafe in front of the Guest House Museum, we discovered a slice from the largest tree known to have grown in Mendocino County. Estimated to be 1,753 years old when it was cut down in 1943, the magnificent tree is named for C.R. Johnson, who founded the Fort Bragg Lumber Co. in 1889 and served as the city’s first mayor.
A plaque fastened to the tree offers a sobering timeline of the tree’s majestic life in comparison to the human scale. My daughter found the “discovery of America” especially troubling since of course numerous civilizations were thriving here when we invaded.
In the afternoon, we returned to Mendocino, visiting the hillside cemetery where Mrs. Mary Brever from “Limrick,” (Limerick) Ireland, and Henry and Henrietta Gordon, among many others, are buried.
We admired Mendocino’s lush vegetation which seems to thrive in the damp, foggy air. In addition to the Naked Lady lilies blooming everywhere were wildflowers of all kinds and colors, winding and tumbling arrays of nasturtium, ancient trees with trunks the size of cars, and a bizarre, delightful, very tall, Dr.-Seuss-type plant.
We found an old apple tree with bright red, wicked witch-apples peeking through nets of Spanish moss. (China said they weren’t that great.)
We made our way to the north end of the town’s bluffs and took our time walking to Big River Beach, passing innumerable rocky coves…
…and fields of ice plant tinged a delightful array of pink, red, violet, and orange.
Although it was chilly and foggy, China jumped into the channel separating the south from the north beach and began swimming across. Knowing I would regret not joining her, I stripped and followed suit, yelping, before ducking under the exhilarating cold water to swim to the other side, where we walked through sand unmarred by footprints and pretended to be on a deserted island.
We walked up river. The forest opposite the beach rose up hauntingly beautiful and mysterious. A myriad of breath-taking greens seemed to pulsate with life and power. A number of birds called from the depths.
For dinner, we returned to Fort Bragg. We chose the Mendo Bistro, located in a corner of the top floor of the former Union Lumber Company Store, which sold hardware and groceries to generations of mill workers and their families in a bygone era. We got a Caesar Salad with unusual polenta cubes instead of traditional croutons and a dressing that was tasty, but not a Caesar. In an effort to keep costs down, we ordered pasta instead of entrees. China got the fettuccine with scallops (small, previously frozen, no great shakes). I got an over-sauced linguini with clams. At $18 a pop, these were overpriced and small to boot. Plus, we agreed we can both make better pasta with our eyes closed.
The next morning was departure day. We packed up by 11 and split. We found the Fort Bragg Bakery online, drove there, parked, and then discovered it was closed. Flummoxed, we started looking for a cafe. We passed many closed and shuttered storefronts and a couple of side-by-side row houses for sale that appeared to have provided lodging for loggers in prior decades. In between them was a run-down little hut with a big American flag, camouflage tarp, and watchful calico cat in front.
After walking several blocks along North Franklin Street, and still no cafe, we asked for help. A guy in a backpack told us we’d find one a little further, but we didn’t. I wanted to get on the road before traffic got bad. I spotted La Bamba Imports with a $5.50 dinner advertised in the window. It occurred to me they might have Mexican pastries and coffee.
Bingo! We were greeted by the unmistakable fragrance of something sweet baking. Crowded and dim, the store offered produce including nopales and hardware items of all kinds. A window-less restaurant occupied the back corner next to the meat counter, where a gaunt, bent-over elder with long hair and a cane watched a TV installed in the corner near the ceiling.
Yet, when we finally found them, we saw that the bakery shelves were empty except for two trays of donuts. I asked the woman at the register if they had Mexican pastries. She said yes, they’d be ready in 45 minutes. I asked if the donuts were home-made, sure she’d say no. To my surprise, she said yes, they were. We bought one each and then discovered there was no coffee. I was disappointed and annoyed, until I tasted the donut.
Magda and I bit in and looked at each other. We passed a glance that said, “Wow.” We bought three more donuts. They were incredible, we both agreed, the best donuts we’d ever had. Soft, fresh, warm, and fragrant, they gave something to the tooth — they had a little bite, some chew, some substance. Magda preferred the sugar. The chocolate donuts were covered in chocolate sauce, messy as could be, but delicious, high-quality Mexican chocolate. We hit the jackpot with that rare find: a culinary delight in an obscure Mexican import store.