Friday, August 5, 2016

A Mendocino state of mind

A long, long time ago, the summer I was 9, I spent a week at my grandparents’ large white clapboard house in Woodbury, New Jersey, the town where my mother grew up. To escape her small town roots, she joined the Women’s Army Corps, and although she never left the country, being in the military fulfilled some of her wanderlust. That summer I was visiting, I couldn’t know that within a few years she would move us back to that town to open a business, or that I would attend high school there. That summer I was 9 I only knew I was to accompany my grandparents to their swim club a few hours a day where they hoped I’d make some new friends, and shuck sweet corn and shell peas on the back porch with my grandmother an hour before dinner after which I retreated to my room upstairs that had at one time been my mother’s, bored to tears, lonely, and missing my Pekingese dog, Dolly, who my grandparents didn’t want in their house. The sole thing of interest in that stripped down room was the bookshelf, which held copies of novels by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud and Leon Uris, authors I was too young to read. The one book that grabbed my attention and that I read all the way through was John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley. “
“Travels With Charley” is a travelogue accounting of the then-58 year old Steinbeck, who in 1960 embarked on a road trip in the company of his wife’s standard Poodle, Charley. To make the trip, he purchased a new GMC pickup which he named Rocinante, outfitting it with a custom camper shell so he and Charley could sleep in the outdoors. But roughing it wasn’t really in Steinbeck’s picture. Throughout the trip, he kept ducking into motels and truck stops and trailer courts, or parked his camper on the properties of his friends. When his wife joined him they stayed in nice resorts. They spent two weeks at the Steinbeck family cottage in California in Pacific Grove, and a week at a Texas cattle ranch resort designed for millionaires.
Last week Mr. Sax and I embarked on a similar journey as we traveled with our Miniature Pinscher pup, Lucy, to Mendocino, CA. It was not our first trip. We visited Mendocino in 1990 while we were living in L.A. A film production company had taken over the town that summer to make “Dying Young” starring Campbell Scott and Julia Roberts. Incredibly, the crew built a 7,000-square-foot house to shoot in on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
In 2016, Mendocino is still as arresting and cinematic as ever. Its winding streets, the view of the sea, the rocks, and bluffs, the extra-oxygenated air, the Boho vibe are all hopelessly alluring. The air is cool. In the morning the entire town is enveloped in a sweet fog. Nothing is too spiffy but it’s not too dilapidated either. There’s quite a lot of Victorian architecture and beautiful flowers everywhere.
Because we had Lucy, the dog dictated our plans. Instead of dashing off to a winery, we walked the bluffs. We got coffee. We lunched where we could outdoors. To accommodate the dog, we rented a tiny cottage with a high fenced in yard. Out back there was a deck and a fully operative hot tub. There was a miniscule kitchen and two organic food stores in town, but we never used the kitchen for anything but refrigerating our wine and olives and feeding and watering the dog.
In the mornings, we arose early and walked Lucy to Moody’s Organic Coffee Bar. Clearly it was the place to be. In addition to the tourists, all the people who worked in town went there, and the arty, possibly homeless hippies, too. One young man in his early 30’s who looked like a scruffy Brad Pitt drank his coffee outside of Moody’s sitting in his 1970’s era Mercedes in the company of his Boxer mix. He had a very pretty girlfriend who appeared to be in her teens. Her light brown hair was hopelessly frazzled in dreads. I saw her sitting on the ground one day along the ocean front road selling handmade brooches she’d fashioned from found objects.
Traveling with a dog is very different than traveling without one. The last time I was in Mendocino we had a small child with us, and the truth is, I prefer traveling with a dog. When you’re with a dog, you walk a lot. While they sniff, you stop and look at things you might not have ordinarily looked at, including clouds. You happily engage in conversations with strangers who want to know more about your dog.
It so happened the management of our rental left reading material on the nightstand. There was only the one book, “The Divinity of Dogs” by Jennifer Skiff. The book is a compilation of true stories of miracles inspired by man’s best friend. To be honest, it wasn’t a book I’d naturally pick up, but it turned out to be perfect. I laughed, I wept. These stories of love, tolerance, comfort, compassion, loyalty, joy, even death were just what I needed. Every night, throughout the entire Democratic National Convention which we had on TV, our one connection to the rest of the world from far flung Mendocino perched on a cliff on the west coast, I lay in bed and read the book, our darling dog Lucy, nestled beside me.

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