Our day began by winding through green meadows and crooked Sonoma Valley oaks, bathed in sunshine as we drove a scenic route towards the land’s edge. From the tranquil woodland town of Occidental we took the Coleman Valley Road, the sun behind us illuminating our descent, westward, down to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay. The deep blue of the clear morning sky was reflected in the ocean peeping through gaps between crouching hilltops, opening out wider and wider as we reached the frothing shallows. From there we would start our journey up the West Coast of Northern California, following Highway 1 north for over 100 miles through snaking estuaries, shaded forests, and a breadcrumb trail of maritime communities.
As we set off, my brother asked us to tell him whenever we wanted to pull over to survey the view. After stopping twice in the first five minutes, however, it soon became clear that every single headland we encountered offered a whole gallery of vistas, making it impossible to see them all as our short strip of time gradually unravelled. Even if you attempted to stop at every single vantage point on this stretch of Pacific shoreline, by the time you finish, some new and spectacular feature would be sculpted by the relentless lacerating waves, freshly exposed when a curtain of mist is raised.
Drifting through the Sonoma Coast State Park, admiring the striking topography of stacks, arches, gulches, and striations from the car, our first stop was Fort Ross, an historical landmark that exhibits the place where Russian settlers once established a base for agriculture on the California coast in the early 19th century. After descending through a grove of stretching eucalyptus trees, grey and peeling, we emerged on a gravel path into the sun-bleached surrounds of the fort. It was there that we came across a throng of noisy schoolchildren all piling in through the entrance gate. Following them through, the scene that unfolded in front of us was mayhem. Small bodies charged wildly in all directions on the mowed grass, screeching and cawing as one of their pack began ferociously clanging a bell on display in the distance.
Strangely, after our immediate dismay and disbelief, they all scurried out within five minutes of arriving, having barely investigated all the points of interest. I wondered what impression this landmark would leave on their memories, and what role heritage has (or should have) in our lives more generally. Should it be a springboard for reimagination, play, even untamed exploration? Does a factual understanding of the past have any inherent value when inhabiting a space in the present?
The square of land encompassed by the fort’s perimeter walls is sparse, with a total area roughly the size of a football pitch. Only one original dwelling remains, Rotchev House, where the manager of Fort Ross and his family lived. The handful of other buildings – a residence, a chapel, and two blockhouses in opposing corners – are all reconstructed. I tried to weigh up my thoughts on the idea of reconstruction for heritage purposes. It always feels as if some semblance of ‘authenticity’ is lost when new materials are added to historical sites. Though if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of volunteers, who have maintained such a visceral, solid display of what the fort was like based on existing evidence, whole generations would have gone without the experience of immersing themselves inside the redwood beams, understanding what kind of space this was to its previous occupants. Ultimately, how we go about such endeavours indicates what we value in our communities. What is remembered and what is forgotten, and what do we want to remember and forget? What do we abandon to ‘nature’ and what do we claim as ‘culture’?
The Russian influence in California is one that often goes unremarked outside of the state. Fort Ross marks the centre of imperial Russia’s southernmost expansion along the Pacific Coast. Although this territory is no longer under Russian ownership, their colonial presence can still be detected in the names of local landmarks, such as the Russian River, and the town of Sebastopol. Like a dried-up stream whose lifeblood has long since dispersed, traces remain in the arteries of local identities and landscapes. Intriguingly, the Russian and Alaskan settlers formed a close relationship with the Native Americans who lived around Fort Ross – the Pomo people, in this region – who, after originally living outside the fort’s walls, integrated with the community to such an extent that the foreign settlers married and had children with them. The fluidity with which these diverse populations mixed offsets straightforward narratives of colonial exploitation, the whitewashing of native heritage, or fixed local identity. The tree-sheltered visitor centre that we wandered through on our way out gave an evocative, panoramic perspective on these different cultural tributaries. Displays presented detailed insights into Native American history in this region, as well as the influence of shipwrecks and seafaring that paint a highly nuanced picture of life on the shores of Northern California in earlier centuries.
Before leaving Fort Ross, we took a moment to soak up our surroundings: the striking cerulean of striding bluejays; fleeting fragrances riding on the breeze. All along the golden coastline that day, the air bloomed with an unfamiliar scent: a sweet concoction of cinnamon and coconut. The aroma was so distinct that you’d like to bottle it; to capture a single moment in time and place like bubbles in glowing amber, there to appreciate and revisit. At every stop on our journey, we scoured the yellowing grasses and flowering shrubs in search of this elusive aroma’s source. Yet even after asking the lady at the fort’s exit, and trawling online in the days afterward, it proved impossible to put a definitive name to this manifestation. As fickle as the fog, which had mysteriously (for this time of year) failed to make an appearance, its character has been hinted at in articles yet never accurately rendered in the way we experienced.
Back on the highway, we fell once again into the trance of vehicular movement, the road undulating through the sandy inlets and craggy slopes of Salt Point. We surfaced from our daze in the peculiar settlement of Sea Ranch, which sprawls along branches of private roads that straddle a 10-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. This assorted collection of wooden structures is the legacy of architect Al Boeke and his recruited designers, who imagined a community built around the principles of common ownership, with architecture that preserves and compliments the surrounding environment’s natural beauty. Each abode is adorned with grey, weathered timber from local forests, and – at least for older plots developed in line with the original design principles – are built to reflect the individual characteristics of the segment of terrain they occupy. Given the variety of coastal features and morphological events that take place here, this design brief has led to some visionary, one-of-a-kind inventions.
The previous communities we’d passed through on the way here, where the main establishments were all bunched up oppressively at the roadside, made you feel unnervingly like the new guy in town in a Western film. But at Sea Ranch the pockets of buildings were more understated, camouflaged and kept a safe distance from outsider traffic. Nonetheless, there remained an authoritarian presence; a quiet tyranny in which the isolating layout of the built landscape itself makes you feel like an intruder, where signs warn that unauthorised vehicles will be ‘immobilized’. Once you detour from the highway, you become subject to the Sea Ranch Association Board of Directors and its rules. If Sea Ranch were adapted for the screen, you could imagine it as the setting for a murder mystery story: a remote small town, doggedly resistant to change in a dramatic rural landscape, where everyone has something to hide and all is not as it seems.
We visited one of the few publicly accessible sites as we drove through to the northern side of Sea Ranch. Nestled in a roadside meadow, accompanied by bushes, firs, and a trickling fountain, the non-denominational Sea Ranch Chapel squats as if to take a closer look at you. The most eye-catching feature is the tiled roof, asymmetrical and curving steeply to a point, where it is bisected by a skeletal ornament made of teal-coloured copper, creating the image of long fingers curling outward from a cloaked figure.
Every new angle divulged another interpretation in the obscure, indefinite shapes and arrangements. The roof appeared to me alternately as the crest of a wave, a bird, a boat, and a witch’s hat. Inside proved no less inspiring. Every surface enticed you to touch, from the smooth, hollowed wood seating to the swirling patterns of the wrought iron fretwork by the stained-glass door. The cosy space cocoons you in the sensation of being inside a shell, with a dim aura of sunlight overhead filtering through the narrow, enamel windows, and this glow reflected on the white of the low, spiralling ceiling above. As all these phenomena take place, nothing attempts to identify a name or reason for what you encounter. There are no slogans or statements, appeals to the conscience. Avoiding traditional architectural styles, the chapel embraces ambiguity. It finds reverence in not-knowing; in indeterminate moments of simply living, feeling, wondering.
Wandering purposefully on to Point Arena, a single road curving off the coastal highway leads you to Point Arena Lighthouse, a bright white beacon that serves as a glimmering landmark for road trippers on their West Coast pilgrimages. Just before you hit the gated visitor checkpoint, a narrow gravel verge opens out to the left where you can pull over and walk around. Here the cliff juts out squarely to form a platform where you can observe the coastline in all its intricacy. On both sides, as far as the mist permits you to see, beige sandstone is layered with neat grooves like claw marks, shoreline punctuated with inlets and outcrops that mirror the fluctuating pattern of the waves themselves. A primal cathedral with the shining lighthouse as its steeple, the rumble of crashing waves its choir. Stepping tentatively up to the precipice, whipped by wind and salty sea spray, the noise and energy reaches a crescendo that crowds out your senses, wrapping you in a deafening stillness. A divine balance, gripped in a communion with the colossal forces of ocean and land, beyond and beneath.
After this detour from our planned route (isn’t every trip a detour of some kind?) we returned to Highway 1. Driving between the white picket fences lining the roadsides of Elk, we paused awhile in Mendocino to gaze from cliffsides at the quaint rows of painted shopfronts, driftwood heaped on the damp sand below. Only ten miles later, we washed up at our final and northernmost stop, the old industrial town of Fort Bragg. Past gas stations, barren parking lots and an old railroad, we turned left and parked up on a soft slope that slid into an amalgam of shingle, rock pools, and swashing surf. Sauntering onto the foreshore, between pebbles we began to spot what we came here for: shimmering beads of glass. Clear, green, and brown mostly, and, very occasionally, sapphire blue and ruby red.
The history of the Glass Beach isn’t romantic. From 1906 until 1967, Fort Bragg locals dumped waste into the water at three sites. This practice continued until 1967, when the California State Water Resources Control Board closed the last active dumping ground and cleanup programmes followed. In the decades since, however, the discarded wrecks underwent a transfiguration. What was large was chomped down, what was biodegradable was swallowed, the earth reclaiming its bodily organs that were surgically removed, modified, used, and left for dead. At the same rocks where crabs crawl and limpets lie, now barely identifiable implements of plastic and metal have implanted themselves like some abstract sculpture, a geological cyborg. All edges rounded and smoothed, in time.
The Glass Beach now harbours tens of thousands of visitors each year, making it one of the prime tourist attractions for miles around. There has even been a campaign to resume the disposing of glass there to ensure the replenishment of the beaches, where collecting is discouraged but not illegal. Fort Bragg has gone full circle: a town salvaging the last knockings of an industrial heyday to fashion a spectacle that people from the Bay Area will drive for hours to see and touch (and, of course, buy). All relying on two resources it has in abundance: human waste, and the unyielding power of the ocean. With the same apocalyptic beauty of a coastline undergoing perpetual destruction, it is both miraculous and tragic at the same time.
Despite the majority of glass being clear, brown and green, pieces can be found in a wide spectrum of colours. Some browns soften into amber yellows or deepen to blacks and maroons; greens turn to emerald or lime; and whites tinge with aquamarine. Every piece unique and precious; the confluence of innumerable streams of stories and events encapsulated in a singular object.
Nearly three hours from home and with our own earthly schedules to meet, our time was equally rare. Handfuls of debris we had no chance to examine, slipped through our fingers like grains of sand in an hourglass. By twilight we would be back among the seemingly eternal plantations of concrete and corrugated steel in Petaluma, feasting from ceramic plates.
Turning our backs on the beach, and the Pacific Coast, felt like leaving a treasure chest half full. Footpaths not taken, guidebook entries unvisited; everything plunged into a state of temporariness. The Midas effect, where the very things you want to hold are what you must let go. We rolled out of Fort Bragg along Route 20, bearing inland toward the cavernous depths of Jackson State Forest. With the sun sinking into the ocean behinds us, its golden, angular light igniting the redwoods beyond, we weaved a path through the dusky darkness.