By Jack Booth
Sometimes when you travel, you can have such a fixed idea of how a place will be that it’s hard to shake it once you see the reality. Such was the case with Mendocino, about six hours north of San Francisco on California’s spectacular, rugged coast. Touted in guide books as “a mighty pretty corner of the continent,” all “buffed-up” and brimming with shops full of works by talented artists and weavers, this tiny village utterly failed at first glance to live up to its public relations image. Far from being buffed, it was rough and weather-beaten, with a distinct, blue-collar air, as well as shops, what few there were, that contained little more than could be found back home at the local mall. Almost as if to magnify this letdown, the town’s one-and-only public restroom was the worst I have ever seen, bar none, and that includes Philadelphia’s bars, which are not exactly among the world’s finest.
But my wife Tanya and I were there, and the coastline was pretty, so we resolved to make the best of it, although we weren’t quite sure how to do that. We took a quick look at the shops, remained unimpressed, and headed out of town, going a few miles north to the Point Cabrillo lighthouse, which I only expected to be worth a quick glance, given that the only photos I had seen on the Net were tight shots of what looked like a one-room schoolhouse with a big searchlight on top. But, Ooh-La-La, what a place. Spectacular beyond my wildest dreams, with stunning seaside cliffs, sparkling blue water, deep inlets and tall grasses waving in the stiff breeze. We were entranced. Things were looking up. Jug Handle State Nature Reserve, just a short distance further up, was another pleasant surprise, with a charming, isolated beach and more dramatic cliffs, so wind-whipped that it was tough to keep from being blown into the sea.
It turned out that there were wonderful sights at every turn around Mendocino, and great food with a view was available at the Little River Inn, not far from where we were staying. We still were a little surprised at the clientele at the bar/restaurant , which was dominated by locals who clearly worked in the trades, not in the arts. I say this because prices were very upscale at the inn, and even pretty steep in Mendocino itself, where a nice little collection of cottages that caught our eye turned out to have room rates starting at $385 a night. But the area, with its scenery, was growing on us.
For the next few nights, at a very pleasant group of hillside cabins called the Andiron, we watched movies made in Mendocino. The opening scene of East of Eden had James Dean sitting on an unusual, 2 1/2-foot high curb in front of what is now a book store. The curb still looks exactly the same, shabby as ever. And The Summer or 42, depicting a rustic, “Eastern” summer island, was full of scenes of empty-looking, bare-bones streets bordered by picket fences that had clearly never seen a drop of paint, at least not since James Dean was there. I think I even spotted the same loose fence slats flapping in the breeze that I had seen earlier in the day. Clearly, this was a beach town, nothing fancy and not much different than you would find at the New Jersey shore. You just had to kick back and relax, and forget about the art and music scene that was there in the 1970′s, which, after all, was a long time ago.
For me, though, the turning point in appreciating the town came on the first dawn morning, at roughly 5.45 a.m., when I pulled up in front of the only coffee house open in the wee hours. As I anxiously waited for the 6 a.m. opening, I started listening to the older guy shown in the photo above. He was ensconced in the front seat of his beat-up old mini-van, like some sort of soothsayer, regaling the two guys in the car next to him with stories about the 70′s. He looked rough, and had an even rougher voice. I hastened inside for hot coffee to take the chill off the early morning, which was a good 50 degrees cooler than what I had left behind in sweltering Philadelphia.
I emerged about twenty minutes later, fortified by good coffee and a muffin, and much calmer to boot, only to catch the older guy saying, “Yeah, and I remember the acid too.” Then I started getting interested. I went over to this stranger, which definitely is not my usual behavior, said hello and asked if I could take his picture. He instantly agreed, and first said to wait a moment as he rummaged through the debris in his old van. Out came an artist’s sketchbook. Tucked inside were two photos taken by a photographer that the old guy said had been the photographer for the mayor of Boston. “He put the camera two inches from my nose, and made a Janus of the image,” he told me. Then I knew I had tapped into the 70′s that I had heard about but hadn’t found. I didn’t know the term, but was sure it had to do with art, and I instantly liked this guy. As it turns out, a Janus is loosely applied to any image showing a mirrored likeness, after the Roman god who was the guardian of portals and beginnings and endings, and is shown as having two faces, one in front, the other at the back of his head. The next morning the older guy cheerfully said hello when I pulled up in the dark, like we were old friends, and the following morning, our last in town, he was there with his radio on, which he cranked up to listen to “Mustang Sally,” shouting, “Let’s party.” The coffee house worker arrived slightly late and apologized for being held up by nighttime repaving of the coast road. “Hey, I’ve got an assignment for you,” the older guy said. “For the next two weeks your job is to party. Get up, pop a beer, brush your teeth with Jack Daniels and party.” Inside, the worker explained that he and his buddy outside shared the same astrological sign, and the older man was fond of telling him what his immediate future would hold.
As I left, the old guy was sketching in his artist’s book, still sitting at the same tilted angle that never seemed to vary. That’s the image I took with me from Mendocino. It was not what I was expecting. It was more than I was expecting. And I’ll be back.
For additional stories, see my blog, Photo Stories, at http://jpics.blog.com/
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