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  National Geographic Travel Magazine
October 2002

California Cruisin' 

"Where the heck is Elk?" my friend asked, mystified. Glad I wasn't the only native Californian who had been clueless about the existence of this scenic village on the state's north coast. When she asked why go, I made it simple: "It's Big Sur without the Winnebago. It's also, my husband and I agreed after our weekend there, the California of 30 years ago: Rugged landscapes; friendly, hardworking people; and eateries and inns that locals enjoy as much as visitors.

Fresh Dungeness! exclaimed a sign along State Highway I near the seaside fishing village of Bodega Bay. We were motoring north of San Francisco under a clear sun toward the village of Elk -- where we

 
Playing among the rocks at "Bowling Ball Beach"
  had reservations at Harbor House Inn -- and Dungeness crab sounded like just the picnic ingredient to jump-start our coastal jaunt. Pulling off the highway at Bodega Bay -- a setting for scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds -- we made a beeline to Bodega's harbor and Lucas Wharf's takeout stand, where owner Don Keen cleaned and cracked the succulent, locally caught crab for us. We added beers, lemons, horseradish, Tabasco, and french bread at a grocery, and headed off to find the right turnout for our picnic. We drove past beach after beach -- Miwok, Coleman, Arched Rock. By the time we reached a bluff overlooking Portuguese Beach we couldn't take it any longer. We spread our picnic out within spray distance of waves arching their massive backs before heaving themselves against the rocks. Gulls cocked their heads at us but didn't beg-a sure sign that humans were still a novelty here.

Back on the road, we stopped for gas. As I scanned postcards for sale, I pointed to one of 'Bowling Ball Beach," where round boulders littered the sand. "Is this for real and how do we get there?" I asked the attendant. "Can't see the balls 'cept at real low tide" he said, and checked a tide chart. "You're lucky, it's low now. Drive just past Iverson Point, park across from Schooner Gulch Road, and take the trail down to the beach."

The beach's satiny wet sand was strewn with dozens of large globular stones, backed by cliffs layered like phyllo pastry. I could see the round protrusions in the cliff faces, which themselves had once been the seafloor -- not unusual in this land of earthquake and upthrust.

Back on the road, we spotted the Point Arena Lighthouse after a mile. The little harbor town of Point Arena has become a low-key alternative for those who find Mendocino becoming too crowded and touristy. On Main Street we ordered two cappuccini- to-go at Holy Grounds, ambled past a general store, and paused in front of the Pangaea Cafe, locally famous for its self-described "lusty, zaftig, soulful food." The posted menu of dishes -duck breast on goat-cheese polenta, Moroccan- braised lamb shanks with

 
  baby artichokes and salad of Oz Farm organic greens- flooded me with a nostalgia for my hippie days when I worked at the geodesic-domed Sun and Earth Natural Food Garden Restaurant in Isla Vista.

It was hard to imagine that this uncrowded stretch of coastline, quiet except for waves and the cries of gulls, once supported a lumber town with hundreds of workers, capitalizing on the area's virgin redwood forests. Though traces of the town remain, it took fewer than so years for the thin skin of human industry to peel off and a wild state to return.

At sundown we reached the hamlet of Elk, scattered along a blufftop by the ocean. . . To the south the Point Arena light winked its way around, and soon the night turned blustery. A Guinness kind of night, we decided, so after dinner we walked a couple of hundred yards -- half the town -- to Bridget Dolan's Pub, where the British bartender serves them perfect, with a creamy head, from the tap. The pub seems to act as the town forum: We were brought into conversations with the grocer, a handyman - and a fisherman. "In the past we took care not to overfish," he said. "We would skip over schools of small ones because we knew they were our future. Now farmed salmon are kept in pens like chickens." . .

Queenie's Roadhouse Café...the best tuna melts in the world. We found the bartender from Dolan's pub at the counter, devouring some huevos rancheros. "Mornin'," he nodded, as if we were not strangers. He was assuming he'd see us again.
He wasn't wrong.

Article by Mary Heebner



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5910 S. Highway One, P.O. Box 190, Elk, California 95432
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