Mendocino on My Mind

A simple seaside cottage in Mendocino, with the blue Pacific distant

I first heard of Mendocino two years after the Summer of Love brought tens of thousands of hippies to San Francisco. In the spring of 1969 I drove west from Michigan in a bright red Opal; I was heading to California for a summer of fighting forest fires. At a campground in Nevada, a friendly fellow camper came up to me and told me all about how he had “dropped out” of society and was currently part of a small theater troupe in Mendocino–a place I had never heard of. He had a hippie van and long hair, and I asked him if he regretted dropping out. He said “Lord no!” and seemed amazed that I would ask the question.

Two years later, my wife-to-be and I went to see a movie in Ann Arbor, where we were in college. The Summer of ’42, a sad and romantic tale about a young woman who lost her sailor husband in World War II, had a character even more beautiful than the star, Jennifer O’Neill, and that was the lovely village of

Rustic fences and open meadows characterize the bluffs here

Mendocino. Perched on cliffs above the blue Pacific, with flowery meadows, weathered picket fences, and lovely old wooden homes, the town seemed like the perfect American village–the kind of small town we admire in our collective imagination.

During the summer of 1973, my young wife and I went to California, where we spent a five month summer camped under soaring Douglas Firs, with me fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service. During some days off, we took a trip to Mendocino and had a chance to experience this lovely village first-hand. We didn’t realize it until then, but Mendocino had been something of an artists’ colony since the 1950s, and I remember buying a piece of earthy stoneware that was innovative for the time. There was also a bookstore that had lots of wonderful do-it-yourself manuals inspired by the contents of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was the closest thing to the internet that we had back then. I remember leafing through some books about building your own house, but realizing that I didn’t have any talents for building a house. But plenty of hippies of the time did, and ramshackle houses sprouted along with marijuana crops back among the Redwood groves in the endless ridges and steep valleys of the Klamath Mountains. Those remote wildlands became one of the eminent pot-growing regions of North America, for better or worse. As we drove through the area, I recall singing lyrics from a Gordon Lightfoot song about the footloose wanderers of that era: “If you’re drivin’ east to Reno, or north to Mendocino, I hope you find your rainbow’s end …” (from the 1971 song Cabaret).

I returned to Mendocino while attending college in Utah during 1975. An “Animal Communities” class I was taking, taught by esteemed ecologist Dr. James MacMahon, did transects (straight lines where a biologist records data on plant and animals observed) recording animal life from the shore and out

The beautiful rocks of Mendocino Headlands State Park

into the ocean, so that those of us living in the mountains of Utah could have a sense of the structure of an entirely different kind of animal community. It was fun to see an octopus and sea stars and all the other varied tidepool life. The rocky beaches of Mendocino are incredibly fecund; naturalists can see Gray Whales migrating offshore; Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions basking on rocks; seabirds nesting on the offshore rocks; and all the wonderful invertebrates that occupy the tidepools. I recall driving through town, and it didn’t look like much had changed.

By the late ’80s, established in a career in Upstate New York, I was a long way from Mendocino, but once in a while the little village would show up unexpectedly in the media. Murder, She Wrote was the prime example. Set in Cabot Cove, Maine, the mystery series starring Angela Lansbury was actually filmed on the left coast, featuring Mendocino as the fictional Cabot Cove. Since Mendocino was founded by New Englanders, it had that look and feel. Residents of the little town enjoyed the occasional on location filming visits from Ms. Lansbury and Tom Bosley, and sometimes locals were hired as extras for the series. One home that is currently a bed-and-breakfast, Blair House, became Jessica Fletcher’s home in the series.

By the early 1990s, I had switched careers and became a photographer. My photographic travels took me to Mendocino one spring circa 1992, where I was enchanted once again by the early American coastal architecture. By the early

The village is perched on a headland terrace above the Pacific Ocean

1990s, yuppies had displaced hippies, and the town had a different feel. Art galleries were marketing more to people with money, and the gallery scene was big in town. The VW bus I was driving seemed like an anachronism in a place now dominated by Lexus and BMW cars drivien by the tourists. I wandered around town with camera and tripod, thinking again what a lovely place this would be to live if I could afford it, which I couldn’t.

A flowery path and a water tower among the Victorian homes

Nearly 20 years then went by in the blink of an eye, until I next had an opportunity to visit Mendocino. My old VW van had burned in a highway fire years ago, and my hair was grayer and shorter, but I still liked the look of the town–which has remained almost identical through all these years thanks to the officially designated Mendocino and Headlands Historic District, which carefully limits what owners can do with their property. In those 20 years, the shops that went from hippie to yuppie had now transformed again. The art galleries were fewer, having been displaced by nail and hair salons, an organic coffee shop, and more higher-end clothing boutiques and jewelry shops–all representing what I’ll call the “California Me” style, in which personal indulgence has become the accepted norm. There are undoubtedly hippies still out in the woods growing pot, and I’m sure that high-tech and banker yuppies

Classic Victorian details and a rustic water tower

who made fortunes during the bubble eras have second homes in the area, but the typical tourist these days is someone with the personal funds to enjoy a lovely bed-and-breakfast, and spend the days visiting wineries and brew-pubs, shopping in boutiques, and enjoying other indulgences. Once again times had changed.

And times will continue to change. I’ll probably return to Mendocino in a decade or so, if I am lucky. What changes in American and Californian society can I expect to see on that next visit? More gray-haired people? Undoubtedly; after all, that is the trajectory of my baby boom cohort. A new dominance of electric cars? A sudden influx of craft whiskey and vodka distillers?  Vast lavender farms to equal those of Provence? State sales of the headlands to developers in order to raise money for California’s beleaguered government? Hopefully not the latter …

Times change; fashions come and go; and some of these changes are reflected in this remote, offbeat village. Fortunately, the look and feel of Mendocino has remained relatively unchanged in the whirlwind of bigger changes that blow through American life. The unchanged look of this charming little village perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is an anchor in the storm of change sweeping America.

Calla Lilies along a picket fence in this quaint village

Main Street in Mendocino is a collection of cute shops

A beautiful home, undoubtedly occupied for over a century

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BS and MS in natural resources, with early career work as an artist and nature center director. Became a full-time photographer in 1990. Sells photographs at art shows nationwide. Publication credits include National Geographic, Alaska Magazine, National Wildlife, Audubon, and scores of other magazines, books, calendars, and electronic media.

20 thoughts on “Mendocino on My Mind”

  1. thans a lot , your pictures are fantastic, i want found out where is the beach house of summer 42 film. I m from spain, and this movie is my favorite.

    1. I’m not sure which house was used in the movie. The “Summer of ’42” is also one of my favorite movies of all time; I saw it when it first came out in a theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with my wife-to-be. It was very romantic.

      1. Hi,leerentz, I want ask you a favour, can you send me some picture of summer 42 ‘house if you knew .

        and do you know if exist still??

        thank you very much!

        best regards!

      2. I don’t know which house it was. If you email the Mendocino Chamber of Commerce (find them using Google), I’m sure they could tell you.

    2. Dorothy’s house was installed for filming “Summer of ’42” north of Fort Bragg at Mackerricher beach (39°30’18”.8N, 123°47’10”.3W). After that, house was removed from that location.

      1. Thank you for the update. By the way, Mackerricher Beach State Park is a terrific place to camp or play on the beach.

      2. Thank you, again for your reply.
        One question, can you take a picture of this place, Makerricher beach to send me?if possilbe, i apreciate you. Bye.

      3. Sorry Rafael, I’m not from USA. Can somebody confirm drugstore in film was at the oposite side of Presbyterian Church in Mendocino. I know that scene when Dorothy;s husband leaving was filmed at Noyo harbour at Fort Bragg.

      4. Hi Rafael,

        I am away from my studio computer for a month, but when I return to the studio I could see if I have any pictures of the beach at Makerricher State Park that would give you an idea of what the area looks like. I stayed in that park when I visited Mendocino last year.

      5. Hello Zoran, I’m curious, how on earth did you find it’s location? Many believed the house to be built out on the Mendocino Headlands (including some who helped make the movie), but the terrain was all wrong.

        Yes, I believe the drugstore was located in the building opposite from the church on the corner of Main and Langsing. It’s across from a field and down the street from Moody’s coffee shop where they went to the movie. I think it’s a clothing store now.

      6. Austin,
        I spent a lot of time using google maps. I am now 100% sure when I recognize location and shape of the rocks on the beach near Dorothy’s house. I was suprised how the scenery is almost the same now, except no more road north of the house, only dunes.

  2. I, too, have done a lot of Google maps gazing to look for the location of the house, especially after hearing about Mackerricher Park. I think I have deduced that the scenes were filmed along Ward Road there. Check it out and let me know if I have it right.

    1. I’ll actually reply to myself! I now know, without a doubt, the house was built on a bluff just west of Ward Rd., on the Mackerricher State Park Rd itself. Google Map it and go about a few hundred yards north from the northern end of Ward. You’ll see a bunch of logs line the west side of the road for just a few feet, and that’s it!

      1. Yes Dave I do believe you have it right. There are about 11 logs lined up head to head on the left side of the road using google street view of Mackerricher State Park Rd. On the right side of the road is a tourist type of sign. If you look around, the rocks especially on the beach match up with the movie. You can see views by going on youtube and looking for “Summer of 42 -Dorothy’s House Then and Now”.

        It is definitely Mackerricker State Park Rd because in the movie when Hermie visits Dorothy’s house you can see a road in the background out the front porch screen with 2 horseback riders going by. That is from the Ricochet Ridge Ranch horseback riding stable in Fort Bragg and they often ride along Mackerricher State Park Road.

        So good detective work everyone….we have found her house.

  3. Yes excellent detective work. Her house location is indeed on Mackerricher State Park Rd. When Hermie visits Dorothy at her house in the movie You can see through the screen porch 2 horseback riders go by on a road outside the house. These are from Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Fort Bragg and they often ride on Mackerricher State Park Rd. I have been to Mendocino and there is no scenery there that matches what is in the Movie regarding the house location. Only on Mackerricher State Park Rd at these logs by the Road (about 11 logs lined up end to end) is the scenery consistent with what is in the movie, especially the shape of the rocks on the beach.

  4. Great depiction of the area.
    I loved the film “Summer of 42” and just re-watched it. The feel the vibe and the innocence of the film and the beautiful way in which it is was shot is timeless.
    I looked up where it was filmed and came across your blog and pictures.
    I’m in the uk do can’t pop over and see this place.
    My how time flies and the world changes.. sadly not always for the better.
    Russell (also a professional photographer)

    1. That movie had an impact upon a lot of people. I saw it at a young age, and it opened my eyes as to how a movie could affect our emotions so strongly. Thank you for your comment.

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