Sun 10 Jun 2012
Neither my partner Lynn Axelrod nor I had taken even a short vacation for a couple of years, so last week we spent Thursday afternoon to Saturday afternoon in Gualala on the coast of Mendocino County. The town is only 80 miles north of here, and it took us about two and a half hours to drive there.
Superficially, Gualala resembles Point Reyes Station. Highway 1 is the main street, and the population is not noticeably larger: 1,927 versus 848.
Both towns are rich in history and share some of the same problems. Where Point Reyes Station’s historic Grandi Building, erected in 1915, is derelict and boarded up, the 1903 Gualala Hotel (second from right) has closed its restaurant, lodgings, and once-renowned bar, but the building is in better condition.
Gualala is perched on a bluff at the edge of the Pacific, and many homes and businesses enjoy views of the water, which helps make it an exotic getaway. And because of moist breezes off the ocean, all manner of flowers bloom throughout the town.
As for the origin of the name Gualala, there are two main theories. One is that Gualala was taken from the Pomo word Wallali, meaning a place where two rivers meet or where a river meets the ocean.
The second is that Gualala is a Spanish rendering of Walhalla (a.k.a. Valhalla), which in Teutonic mythology was the abode of heroes fallen in battle. According to this theory, Walhalla was given its name by a German immigrant, Ernest Rufus. He and a partner in 1846 had received a Mexican land grant to an extensive region up there.
I had stayed in Gualala twice before and had found a charming inn, the Breakers, so Lynn and I had made reservations there for two nights.
All the rooms have decks with views of the ocean, as well as the Gualala River, and Lynn (above) immediately fell in love with the place. The bathroom included a two-person spa. A fireplace in the living room/bedroom made our accommodations seem especially cozy. All the rooms are thematically decorated. We had the Connecticut room which was vaguely reminiscent of colonial New England.
Lynn and I had not traveled to Gualala primarily to stay at the Breakers, however. After all, Mitchell cabin has its own deck with a narrow view of Tomales Bay, a hot tub, and a fireplace. A key attraction was the Gualala River where we wanted to go canoeing.
We had reserved a canoe from Adventure Rents and paddled upstream for a couple of miles, coming ashore on a rocky beach to look around. Dozens of cliff swallows were skimming over the river to catch insects. In addition, we saw what appeared to be a plover nesting on the beach, so we kept our distance to avoid disturbing it.
The Gualala River bridge is not only utilitarian but a work of art. We launched our canoe just downstream from the bridge. The river mouth is closed at this time of year because ocean waves throw up sandbars once there isn’t enough water coming downstream to wash them away.
While looking down on the bridge from the bluffs above revealed its grace, looking up at the bridge from our canoe revealed numerous clusters of swallow nests. The chance to see the nests was one reason I personally wanted to go canoeing.
Birds, in fact, were everywhere. This seagull kept showing up on our deck in hopes we would feed it pieces of bread, which I did. Often more than one gull would perch on the railing, which sometimes led to tussles over who got the bread.
Sunset in Gualala. The mouth of the river can be seen at the right.
Notwithstanding Gualala’s small size and relatively isolated location, it is remarkably sophisticated in many ways. It boasts a large (32-page) weekly newspaper, The Independent Coast Observer, which has all the coverage one would expect in a community newspaper and more.
Its election coverage was outstanding and included a well-written piece on the too-soon-to-call battle between Democrat Norman Solomon of Inverness Park and Republican Dan Roberts of Tiburon for the second spot in the District 2 congressional race.
The Coast Observer also printed a lengthy Sheriff’s Log and the usual land-use planning stories. Perhaps the most surprising story in last week’s issue was a first-person account by a local burlesque dancer who had just returned from India where she had worked with abused women and fought sex trafficking.
The burlesque star, Melinda Miller-Klopf, wrote that she has been criticized in the US and India for fighting sex-trafficking and abuse of women while working as a burlesque performer. To this she responded, “At their heart, they are the same issue with the same goals: self-empowerment for women and girls, ownership of sexuality, and love and respect for the bodies we are born into….
“What is titillating about burlesque is only partially the skin; most of the allure comes from the slightly scandalous feeling one gets from watching women having way too much fun.” Miller-Klopf was about to put on a burlesque show in the Gualala Arts Center, and apparently her argument was convincing. Just before we left town, Lynn and I saw women young and old lining up to buy tickets.
Saturday we headed back to Point Reyes Station but stopped at the Sea Ranch Chapel to admire its architecture. The chapel, built in 1985, was designed by the award-winning San Diego artist James Hubble.
Three large stained-glass windows give an understated elegance to the chapel’s interior.
Lynn peers through a sculpted fountain outside the chapel.
Our final stop on the way home was in Jenner where harbor seals could be seen basking on a sandbar. Lynn got into a conversation with an older couple from Los Angeles, who had also stopped to enjoy the scene, and came away convinced she had been talking with actor Ed Asner. I couldn’t tell, and we’ll probably never know for sure.
All in all, our short adventure was as exotic as a trip to Hawaii — and for a tenth the cost.