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  San Francisco Chronicle
August 17, 2003

The Thinking's Good in Elk - by Whatever Name it's Called 

ELK (MENDOCINO COUNTY) -Right outside my cottage door in Elk was a little meditation garden. It seemed a trifle redundant, because all of Elk is one big meditation garden.

A string of shingled inns and clapboard galleries clinging to the top of the sea cliffs between Mendocino and Sea Ranch, the invitingly drowsy hamlet offers one of the most dramatic settings imaginable to do pretty much nothing.

It's a place to lose yourself in a novel next to a snapping fire while raindrops pelt the window, stirring only to refill your glass with Pinot Noir. Or, if ambition tugs, you can amble down improbably gorgeous Greenwood State Beach among skittering sandpipers, unearthly sea stacks and storm-tossed driftwood piled like pick-up sticks.

And, if you have energy to spare, you can ponder the two eternal questions of Elk: What, exactly, is a dog-hole port? And why do old-timers refuse to call the town by its official name? A century ago Elk was a flourishing lumber town, with its own mill and wharf, but it suffered the same fate as many of its neighbors along the timbered North Coast. The 1929 stock market crash, a string of disastrous fires and shifting markets wiped out the logging industry, reducing Elk to the happily somnolent village it is today.

Attracting a smattering of driftwood sculptors, New Age poets and itinerant gourmands, the town seems like a smaller, more intimate, pretourist version of Mendocino.

A heavy mist shrouded the Mendocino Coast as we drove northwest through the Anderson Valley, skirting the vineyards along the Navarro River. At Highway 1, a line of cars was turning north to Mendocino, but we broke away and veered south. As we wound our way down the coast highway, the clouds parted occasionally to reveal dazziing glimpses of sheer sea cliffs and the wave-battered sea stacks just offshore.

We were nearly through Elk before we realized we'd arrived . . . Cell phones don't even work here. (At least mine didn't.)

...We made our way across the road to Queenie's Roadside Cafe, a convivial diner that doubles as Elk's community center. At the counter, local ranchers in flannel shirts and suspenders chatted with artists bouncing babies on their knees. Tie-dyed flower children scampered around the deck, popping inside from time to time to grab a handful of free dog biscuits from the counter jar for the tail-wagging residents of the town outside.

Next door, at the 75-year-old, plank-floored Elk Store - a grocery shop with a deli counter and a great selection of Mendocino County wines - owner Ben MacMillan solved one of my Elk mysteries.

"Among ourselves, we don't call it Elk"' he told me. "We still call it 'Greenwood."

The town, he explained, was originally named in honor of Brittan Greenwood, one of the rescuers of the Donner Party. He settled along the North Coast in the late 1870s. But Greenwood eventually moved to the Sierra foothills and named another town there after himself, and the Sierra town got the official post office designation. So the lumber town near Mendocino grudgingly changed its name to Elk - after the big animals that used to graze at the edge of the nearby redwood forest - even though generations later, residents doggedly cling to its original name.

At Bridget Dolan's Pub & Dinner House, I came closer to solving the other mystery. Occupying an old clapboard house, the place has the feeling of a true Irish pub. Locals dropped in on their way home from work for a pint of Guinness and a little chat with the gregarious bartender - he scampered off before I could get his name - who was always ready with a quip or a conversation-starter.

It was the bartender who told me about the origin of the term "dog-hole port." These tiny coves are strung along the North Coast and played an essential role in the timber trade.

"Most people think the expression means that the little coves, which the schooners had to maneuver into, were barely big enough for a dog to turn around in and bite its own tail," he said, crowning my Guinness with a creamy head. "But there's another theory: Each cove had a lumber mill and each mill had its resident dog. The schooner captains memorized the distinctive bark of each dog, and as they made their way along the coast in the heavy fog, they navigated by listening for the barking.

"Of course, sometimes the mill workers took their dogs out for a walk down the coast, which might explain why there were so many shipwrecks around here!"

Just one more thing to meditate on while you're in Elk.

Article by John Flinn, Chronicle Staff Writer

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