How a social networking junkie found a stronger signal on the Lost Coast of California—without tech in tow.
FOR THE LAST 10 YEARS, I’VE never left home without my phone—and if I accidentally forgot it, I immediately turned around to retrieve it. I’m the kind of person who stores my BlackBerry in prime viewing position on my car’s center console; who keeps it on the table at restaurants; and to whom “off” means “silent mode” at the movies. I’m a blogger. I’m a Tweeter. I’m a Facebook status updater. I’ll admit it: I’m “one of those people.” Well, at least I used to be.
My journey to recovery began with a week-long trip to the Lost Coast, a 75-mile stretch of Northern California coastline that (from my research) appeared to be barely inhabited, difficult to get to (it was never developed because its rugged terrain prevented the highway from going through the area), known for its bears in some parts (that was fun to read), but completely, breathtakingly gorgeous.
I had never traveled to a remote, undeveloped area and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to be yanked out of my comfort zone for a week to relax, think about my recent career changes, and of course, come home with a great story to tell. I also enjoy doing things that people wouldn’t expect me to do. But there was a catch: My editors demanded that I leave my BlackBerry and computer behind. Even if I had been allowed to take a phone, this trip to the unknown would be a challenge. But without it, how would I survive? It was like asking Paula Deen to lay off the heavy cream. To compound my anxiety, I had never traveled alone or gone camping, which was on the agenda. I’m the type of person who likes to go out with groups of people, not ponder the meaning of life in a tent. Alone.
As I turned off my cell phone and abandoned it on my night-stand in Atlanta, I felt both nausea and excitement at the thought of having absolutely no picture of what lay ahead. While driving to the airport, I fought the urge to rifle through my bag on the passenger seat when I didn’t see my trusty BlackBerry next to me. The phone was not there—and I couldn’t turn around and get it this time.
I LAND IN SAN FRANCISCO AND EMBARK ON A 5.5-HOUR drive north in a Toyota Corolla (I would later discover an SUV would have been more appropriate) to the town of Eureka. I’m anxious to tell my best friend about the nonstop talker who sat next to me on the plane, and I want to call my mom as I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge for the very first time (which conjures up images of my favorite childhood show, Full House). As I realize there won’t be anyone else’s voice keeping me company, I try to put my lack of technology out of my mind and appreciate the scenic drive. Yet, every time I round a corner, I long to snap and send a mobile upload of the breathtaking views to Facebook for all my friends to see (and envy, of course).
As the sun starts to set, I arrive in Eureka, a coastal town of about 26,000 that some consider the top of the Lost Coast, despite being accessible by US Highway 101. After checking into my cozy cottage at the Carter House Inn, I sit down for dinner at the hotel’s Restaurant 301. Not the type to dine alone, I long for the virtual company of friends by text message, and I can’t help but think how my Twitter followers would love to see a photo of the sautéed scallops in pumpkin purée sauce topped with herbs from the on-site garden.
My first full day starts with a kayak wildlife tour of Humboldt Bay, the only deep-water port on California’s North Coast and the state’s second-largest natural bay. Upon meeting my guide John “Hawk” Martin, a local historian and owner of Humboats Kayak Adventures, it’s clear I’m in for an interesting excursion. “You’ll see what happens to the human spirit in unspoiled nature,” Hawk says. “The human spirit sings in nature.” As we paddle a tandem kayak, Hawk gives me the history of the untouched coastline. The bay is a permanent or seasonal home to 266 bird species and 113 species of fish and is also the oyster center of California, producing more than half of the state’s supply. The area’s signature Dungeness crabs (a whole lot larger than the blue crabs I’m used to) also reside in the water. As I listen and look for harbor seals, egrets and other wildlife in their natural habitat, I’m still not compelled to sing any melodies. Maybe that will happen tomorrow, during my first-ever camping trip.
TO SAY I AM ILL-PREPARED FOR MY overnight adventure at Mattole Beach, about 55 miles south of Eureka, is an understatement. Don’t get me wrong: I love roasting marshmallows around a campfire. I’d just prefer to retreat to temperature-controlled sleeping quarters afterward. I am counting on the photographer I am meeting to bring all the gear as 1) I don’t own any and 2) even if I did, it would have taken up precious luggage space.
I’m in charge of food, so I pick up cheese and crackers, sandwiches, hummus, fruit, and a bottle each of red and white wine from the market in Eureka. I have a feeling I should be bringing something more “rustic,” but this is what I eat when I get together with friends to watch Gossip Girl. There’s no time to second guess the menu, however: I have to make it to the campsite in one piece.
The drive to Mattole Beach is treacherous, and I quickly find myself winding through mountains on near vertical gravel roads with one-lane blind curves. At 2,000 feet up with no guardrails, I know I’m better off not looking down. It’s an overcast afternoon and still light enough to drive safely, yet I can’t help but fear an early sunset and the deathtrap that would be driving these roads at dusk or dark.
I continue through the one-horse town of Petrolia, finally arriving at the campsite about two hours after departing Eureka. (Yes, it takes that long to drive 55 miles.) After setting up the tent, “we” (read: my co-camper) build a fire and sit down for dinner. With only the fire for light and no sounds except the waves crashing on the shore, I think I start to understand the appeal of camping. The sounds of the water are more soothing than any song on my iPod, and the fire has a warmth and smell you just can’t get from an automatic furnace. As we settle in for the night, I don’t even go through my usual nighttime ritual of stressing about work, finances and my endless to-do list.
THE NEXT STOP IS THE TINY, COASTAL COMMUNITY OF SHELTER COVE, known for its undeveloped coastline, picturesque hikes through the King Range National Conservation Area, black-sand beaches and “secret” surf spots with killer waves. With about 500 residents, Shelter Cove is the definition of quaint: a couple of cozy restaurants, one general store with fresh produce one aisle over from rubber boots, a handful of places to stay and a sense that everyone truly knows everyone.
My home for the next two nights is the Inn of the Lost Coast, a recently remodeled “indoor-outdoor” property that sits on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and is painted the same blue-green color as the ocean. Each of its 18 rooms offers mesmerizing views of the water, and it seems like if you got a running start, you could jump off your balcony into the surf. On a clear day, you can even see California gray whales pass by on their migration to Alaska in the spring and Mexico in the winter.
I was told when I checked into the Inn that there was little to no cell phone reception, but it doesn’t matter. I actually don’t feel like calling anyone or checking my email (although I do have a fleeting urge to Tweet that I survived my camping trip and made it to my next destination intact). Just being in what feels like the middle of nowhere with no cell phone or computer has me feeling more in touch with my surroundings; however, I still feel slightly like a kid at summer camp. I keep running into my “counselors”—the innkeepers—who want to make sure everything is ok. I think the true Shelter Cove experience will happen the following day on my solo six-mile hike on the Horse Mountain Creek Trail.
The trail starts at about 1,500 feet up and includes a 4.2-mile downhill hike through the mountains, then 1.8 more miles on Black Sands Beach. As I make my way through the lush greenery, weaving between huge trees, I breathe in the scent of the Douglas Firs and keep my eyes focused on the plant and animal life everywhere, including wild mushrooms, giant ferns and a little something called a banana slug. (Yes, it looks like a banana—under other circumstances, I would have Tweeted a picture of it.) But it’s the beach that really blows me away; as an East Coast girl, I’m used to flat, white-sand shores. Here, the mountains meet the coastline in a way that doesn’t seem plausible. I never imagined a place where you can hike from such a high altitude and end up at the water, where you’re greeted with turquoise waves and black sand—truly one of the greatest color contrasts in the natural world.
After the hike, I head back to the Inn with my sandy feet and spend time with the owners, Mike and Toni Caldwell, who purchased the property in 2000. According to Mike, there are two types of people in Shelter Cove: those who visit and want to move there, and those who end up in the isolated town and think “How the heck can I get out?” I decide I’m more of the former: While I haven’t considered a permanent relocation, I have already thought about visiting again.
The couple—clearly the first type—help me realize what I’ve been feeling all along, but just couldn’t put into words: I truly am connected, but in a different, more powerful way that just having internet and cell phone access. I’m connected to the natural world, to my surroundings, and ultimately, more to myself. For the last five days, it was just me in some of the country’s most untouched habitats with no agenda. I fell asleep peacefully at night without one stressful thought or concern. I woke up every day without an alarm clock, somehow at the exact time I planned. I had more energy, no shoulder tension and hadn’t indulged in any of my typical stress habits like picking at my nails. I was eager each morning to get outside, and I found myself stopping and actually taking in what I saw, rather that just rushing past to get to my next destination. I took photos upon photos, many of which would probably look identical to someone else’s, but to me, were each more beautiful than the ones before. Maybe it was because I encountered fewer people than I do on a daily basis back at home, but I hadn’t felt annoyed by anyone all week and I felt a peacefulness that I didn’t have before. Instead of talking on my cell phone at night, I wrote in a journal; instead of an afternoon Facebook stalking session, I hiked on a black-sand beach. Maybe, just maybe, I had changed.
As I drive back down to San Francisco, I mourn the end of my trip. I have no desire to get back to reality, let alone reach for my cell phone. I know there is more to discover and would like to fall asleep listening to the ocean at least a few more times. Sitting on a pier overlooking the bay with a couple hours to kill before catching my flight, I write in my journal, “I bet some people in San Francisco don’t even know about the Lost Coast. This trip has made me feel sad for people who never get to experience nature in such a unspoiled environment. They must be so… disconnected.”
AS I PULLED INTO MY DRIVEWAY IN Atlanta, I started to panic. Was I nervous that once I crossed the threshold into my house, I would revert to my old ways? Or, was I so relaxed from my trip that I just wasn’t ready to re-enter life as I knew it before? Turning on my phone was one of the first things I did (I had to tell Mom and Dad I was home safe, right?)—but I felt a twinge of sadness; the beep of new voicemail indicated my disconnected life was officially over.
In truth, I was glad to be back to my old life. I didn’t throw out my cell phone or trade in my heels for hiking boots. I still thrive on being in constant contact with friends and family. But while I’m back to being connected in the technological sense, I haven’t forgotten what it felt like to be in tune with my natural surroundings on the Lost Coast. The trip had a calming effect on me, and I realized that I do enjoy “alone” time. I find myself reaching for my phone less and have made a promise to never have it on the table during a meal again. I plan to take a solo vacation at least once a year—although I can’t guarantee I won’t Tweet about it.
If you want to ease back into civilization gradually after a trip to the Lost Coast, make a stop on your way back to San Francisco in Fort Bragg—a popular tourist spot off of Route 1—for an overnight stay with Lodging and Llamas. First, you’ll take a llama trek along a bluff overlooking the Pacific (you walk the llama while he carries your belongings), then stop for a picnic lunch overlooking the ocean. After you check “walk a llama” off your bucket list, you’ll spend the night in one of three cozy cottages on the llama farm. 18301 Old Coast Hwy, Fort Bragg; 707-964-7191; www.lodgingandllamas.com
CARTER HOUSE INN, RESTAURANT 301
301 L St, Eureka; 800-404-1390; www.carterhouse.com
HUMBOATS KAYAK ADVENTURES
Eureka; 707-443-5157; www.humboats.com
INN OF THE LOST COAST
205 Wave Dr, Shelter Cove; 888-570-9676; www.innofthelostcoast.com
LOST COAST TRAIL TRANSPORT SERVICE