Dispatches From the Road: Sun and Fog on California’s North Coast

Mendocino County Coast, California (Chris Marshall / CNS)

The ranger chuckled and shook her head when I emerged from the thick fog, Klaus the dog by my side, and said hi.

By the time I thought to yell “Great sunset!” she had ducked into the check-in kiosk at California’s Van Damme State Park.

What kind of a person watches the “sunset” on an otherwise empty beach so obscured by thick fog he can barely see two feet in front of him, she might have wondered.

Since I’d been the only person in attendance that evening she wouldn’t have been alone.

Quite different the scene had been the day before. Blue sky, bright sun and weather warm by Northern California coastal standards drew a relatively large crowd to the crescent-shaped beach.

Van Damme State Park, Little River, California (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Some came to spend a couple hours kayaking. A squat older man with a shiny bald head led the excursions while his younger helper – the parts of his face not covered by an unruly beard lathered in zinc – stood watch and then slowly pulled the returned kayaks to a weathered tan bus that doubled as a rental office.

An elderly man limped to the sand beyond the edge of the parking lot and put his feet in the sand. His similarly ancient canine wandered ahead. Klaus stood up from in front of our log that nature had fashioned to fit the contours of my back and jogged to the end of his leash, the gray tuft of hair that passes for a tail flitting to and fro. The man stared to the horizon. His shaggy dog ambled over. He and Klaus sniffed each other. The old man looked over and flinched before realizing there was no cause for concern. Meet-and-greet finished, the dog walked back. They returned to their car, climbed in and left.

I read my book, glancing occasionally at kayakers skirting the edge of bluffs at the far end of the bay, disappearing around the bend, then back through spaces between rocks inhabited only by seagulls, ending at the beach.

Named after Charles Van Damme, who used proceeds from a San Francisco ferry business to buy the land that he deeded to the state on his death in 1934, the park boasts 10 miles of hiking trails, most in the hilly, fern-filled forest on the inland side of Route 1. A mailbox with the family name up the road from the park suggests some descendants remain.

After lunch and a nap at the campsite I finished one book and started another until the descending sun shot through the trees, casting shadows on the page that beckoned me to reality.

I packed my bag and grabbed Klaus’ leash. He ran to the edge of the site. We meandered east through the paved wooded campground road to a trailhead beyond which dogs are not allowed, turned and set course for the sun.

Klaus the Dog, Little River, California (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Two cars entered the half full lot as we ran across the street to the beach. We settled into our spots against the log. I pulled out my book and placed it on my backpack. A middle-aged man in a rastacap sat in a beach chair, his fishing rod tucked in the sand, a teenager I assumed to be his son next to him.

I snapped a few pictures. The teenager turned to look, then the man. I waved.

“How’s it going?” he hollered.

“Wonderful. How’s your day?” I shot back.

“Great. Just trying to get home,” he said.

“Where’s home?”

“Oregon. My son and I have been traveling for a few days,” he said, his voice trailing off as he stared into the setting sun.

A young girl followed her teenage sister past us to climb the rocks to our left. A lone seagull claimed dominion over a rock, squawking loudly at would-be challengers. The crowd increased, eager for the show.

Hiking Trail, Van Damme State Park, Little River, California (Chris Marshall / CNS)

The sun sank languidly below the tree-lined bluffs to the right, the clouds above the fading light turned a light purple with blue sky above. Not the most dramatic sunset, but it sufficed.

The man in the rastacap stood up, collapsed his rod and chair. As he walked past he said, seemingly to the ocean, “Well, might as well get moving,” and sauntered along. His companion soon followed.

I took one last look at the sky, hoped for a similar show the next evening and returned to the campground.

Pale blue was the sky the next morning, but by early afternoon white strands of fog invaded the campground.

By late afternoon the fog blew like a smoke machine in an already full room. We nestled into our log, alone with waves lapping and crashing, lapping and crashing.

I closed my eyes around the time the sun should have set. I don’t know how long I sat there, lulled by the sound of the waves, or if I actually fell asleep, but after a time my brain reminded me that navigating the way back in the dark would be challenging. And Klaus needed to eat, I needed to set a fire and make dinner before deciding what I could pack away before the next day’s journey back to civilization and whatever hellscape news cycle Donald Trump cooked up to trigger the left, fire up the right and harry already harried journalists.

But that’s a tale for almost every other columnist to tell. I’ll stick to the beach.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

%d bloggers like this: