Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Weekend in the Country

A weekend in the country (sing along, Sondheim fans) beckoned – a trip north from San Francisco to Elk (aka Greenwood), a town of 426 that sits perched on Highway 1 about 18 miles south of the town of Mendocino.

The trip to Elk and environs offered time with extended family and a splendid Easter dinner at the home of Anne-Marie and Robin. The long table was filled with platters of lamb and ham, twice-baked potatoes, homemade biscuits, green beans cooked with bacon and a festive salad with plenty of sliced avocado.

For dessert, Susan made an English trifle with fresh berries soaked in Triple Sec and also a Charlotte Russe, which she said her grandmother referred to as “ice-box cake.” Of course, there were plenty of chocolate eggs to go around as well, and the kids shared with the grown-ups. The kids also shared the trampoline (go, Martia!) and their card games. 

I made the trip with Susan, who was eager to navigate the twisty mountain roads and dirt paths that lead to Elk and beyond to the homes of her brother and sister-in-law and her nephew. As we headed out Saturday afternoon, Susan announced, “We’re off like a herd of turtles.”

Critters (beyond turtles, lamb and ham) were a big part of the long weekend, and as we rode along, we City Girls had fun calling out what we saw: Cows of many colors, a lone majestic bull, horses prancing in the sun, sheep, a single llama, 17 brown pelicans swooping and soaring, goats, a gopher digging a hole, a young deer and what may or may not have been a raccoon darting across the road.

“My friend once saw what she thought was a wild turkey, but it turned out to be a plastic bag,” Susan said as we drove. Not long afterward, we saw two actual turkeys that did not resemble plastic bags at all. But then, I once spied a penguin on a major thoroughfare in St. Louis County that turned out to be a box in the road that appeared penguin-shaped only in a certain light.

The worst sighting turned out to be the best. Driving along, we saw a large lump of light-colored fur just off the road. We both made low sounds of despair, hesitating to define what we thought we saw. When we got closer, I put my hand up to block my view. “Oh no – it is a dog, a poor dead dog,” I said. Then Susan laughed, which was not the reaction I had expected. Just as we passed by, Susan saw the “dead” dog raise its head and look at us, probably wondering what the fuss in the car was all about.

Dead animals – specifically, whales – were in evidence at the Point Arena Light Station, where we stopped on Monday on the trip home. Susan opted to climb the steps to the top of the 115-foot historic lighthouse while I hung out on a bench in the Native Plant Garden that overlooks the sea. Displayed among the plants are a gray whale's massive skull and several whale vertebrae. I like bones, and I liked being in the open air at the edge of the sea, watching pelicans fly in formation overhead as a wee gopher dug a hole in the dirt.

Perusing the nautical souvenirs in the gift shop, just off the Natural History Museum at the lighthouse, I saw a sign that urged people to call a hotline if killer whales were spotted. I asked the clerk about it. “I’ve never seen a killer whale,” she said. “I don't know anyone who has.” I volunteered that I have, off the Farallon islands. The woman seemed disappointed.

Shopping in downtown Mendocino on Sunday morning was not at all disappointing – especially at Ocean Quilts and Creative Hands, two shops on Main Street close to the water. Sandy, Susan’s sister-in-law, owns both. Ocean Quilts has lovely quilts, of course, but also beautiful sweaters and scarves and other gift items. At Creative Hands, we found high-quality tee shirts and an abundance of tie-dyed socks (hand-dyed by a couple in Fort Bragg) and clothing for little girls. Icons, a shop on Lansing Street, also was a delightful place to browse.

Other shopping stops included the Elk Store, where I bought mustard. I am an aficionado of condiments, and after tasting Mendocino Mustard on the aforementioned ham at Easter dinner, I wanted a jar to call my own. I bought two jars, one of each kind: Hot and Sweet and Seeds and Suds. For details, see

On this particular road trip, the best signs were these: “1 MEN,” “1 SON” and “VICIOUS BULLS.” The first and second appeared on highway mile markers, indications that we were driving on Highway 1 in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, respectively. (“1 MEN” grates in so many ways, doesn’t it?) “VICIOUS BULLS” was stenciled atop a cattle chute in a field by the road. None were in residence.

On the way to Elk on Saturday, we had stopped in at Yogurtdale in Cloverdale for tasty self-serve frozen yogurt. On the way home from Elk on Monday, we stepped it up a bit and stopped at the Korbel Winery outside Guerneville, where we tasted several sparkling wines. We both bought wine. Susan bought tea towels and at the deli, I bought an award-winning pastrami sandwich to take home for supper.

That was the long weekend -- family, food, wildlife and one scenic vista after another while on the road in northern California.

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