Mar 4, 2010

Mendocino... where life's such a groove

Thursday 25th - Day 18

Mendocino. Beautiful word isn't it? Not sure where I first heard it. I doubt it was the song that the Sir Douglas Quintet are singing in the video above. Because I'd never heard of the Sir Douglas Quartet until I heard their leader Doug Sahm singing on an Uncle Tupelo record. Uncle Tupelo made less of a splash in a UK than a gnat pissing on his knees, so what chance for one of their obscure heroes? The Sir Douglas Quintet were a bunch of rock 'n' roll loving long-haired cowboys from Texas that managed to ape British Invasion sounds whilst still laying the ground work for Tex-Mex music. Too unusual for Britain, they did have quite a following in continental Europe. Our loss. Play that video above again and if you can tell me that Mendocino is not a stone cold classic pop song then you are a better liar than me Gunga Din.

Anyway... I know I further fell in love with the sound of this place when I heard Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack sing this song.

Rockets and fourths of July... I know it's borderline cheese. But I don't care... mark it up as a guilty pleasure if you like. These two people could sing about Scunthorpe and make it sound romantic. (Funny how no one from the old world thought to name a place in the new world after Scunthorpe.)

But back to the point. Mendocino. I reckon it was Kate and Anna McGarrigle (mum and aunt of Rufus Wainwright) who I first heard sing about that mystical place. This was during my folky days.

The lyric certainly echoes our trip.

I bid farewell to the state of old New York
My home away from home....
And it's on to... Indiana
Flat out on the western plain.
Rise up over the rockies and down on into California...
And let the sun set on the ocean.
I will watch it from the shore.

Our trip took us from fom Weed, set in glorious sunshine beneath the 14,000 foot high Mount Shastra, down 169 miles of Interstate 5 before heading north west towards the coast. We felt sure that the old snow that still lay on the corners of the sidewalks in Weed was the last we'd see before next winter and the next 71 miles was a joy. Drifting and falling past the sparse traffic on long slow bends for about 70 miles, looking at gorgeous scenery... it was like being in a TV commercial. Our car's a big car, it doesn't have much acceleration but this road suited it perfectly. It felt like I was driving with a balletic grace. No seriously.

Once on the flat again it was just another dull cruise control schlep of a freeway drive. But that was a mere intermission because things changed in a big way when we left the interstate to head for the coast. Highway 20 is a 129 mile long one lane road that takes in beautiful rolling countryside and delightful pretty little vacation towns alongside Lake Clearwater before transforming into a dark and treacherous homicidal switchback rollercoaster through the Jackson State Forest. The first bit looks a lot like Wales, the second part reminded us of Italy and the final section was clearly a place where Orcs live.

I think the writer of Mendocino County Line lost his/her love because he wasn't brave enough to cross the county line... that's why the song says We used to be so happy once upon a time... but the sun sank west of the Mendocino County line. If you stay east of the county you can fish and sip cocktails in Clearwater. But if you are brave enough to drive with the cowboys in their pick ups and cross the forest you get to Mendocino. And it's very, very pretty. It's posh and homely all at once. It feels very un-Californian, more akin to a New England seaside town. And what a setting. The cliffs that the Pacific (hello to you again) have been attacking for... well for ever... have eroded into arches and land towers which can be reached only by the birds. We saw Pelicans! Whilst we were listening to Pelican on the car stereo. No wonder people write songs about a place like this.

Sadly we couldn't afford to stay in Mendo (as I'm sure the locals call it) so we drove 8 miles up the coast to Fort Bragg. Which has at least one thing that Mendo doesn't. Pathos. Actually it has tons of things that Mendo doesn't have... like a Starbucks and lots of cheapo motels and the desolate sense of a coastal town they forgot to shut down. Though no doubt when the weather gets better the surfers will come back and all will be well again. And I'm sure Mendo, with its cosy houses and alternative therapy classes, doesn't want what Fort Bragg has and vica versa. It's a yin and yang thing. And long may they continue to co-exist.

And yes people do write songs about Fort Bragg too. They ain't household names, nor ever likely to be... but local acts keeping that American place song tradition alive.

These kids called Work Clothes have something. Maybe they'll get in touch and tell us why they wrote a song called Fort Bragg Summers. I'm sure it was the pathos of the place.

Oh yeah... Fort Bragg also has a cross section of a redwood tree that was 1,753 years old when it was cut down. Blimey.

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