Of Tourists & Mendocino

by Todd Walton, August 12, 2009

We are now at the high tide of the summer tourist season in Mendocino, the streets of the village awash in visitors from more populous places — the beach at the mouth of Big River a chilly Malibu. Having barely graduated myself from visitor status (I’ve only been here four years, after all), my graduation hastened by marriage to a long-time resident, I find I am both fascinated and horrified by the “tourist run” as a favorite native calls the second largest engine of our local economy.

The word “run” serves to compare the tourists to salmon, the shops and inns and galleries and restaurants to trawlers. I find the comparison apt for other reasons as well.

First, a certain percentage of our visitors are clearly here to spawn, so to speak, before, during, and after their nuptials, marriage a large factor in the tourist trade. Jewelry stores abound in our village, economic meltdowns be damned. Adultery and romantic flings no doubt account for another chunk of the bed tax, with gold and diamonds apparently still many a girl’s best friend whether she’s a Ms. or a Mrs.

Secondly, our visitors frequently move about in seemingly aimless schools of multiple couples, families, multiple families, and pods of touring oldsters. There are biking clubs, motorcycle cliques, RV trains, vintage car rallies, and myriad packs of seminar and workshop participants.

Thirdly, the tourists, especially on summer weekends, outnumber the locals, great mobs of chubby Americans feeding on Frankie’s ice cream and Moody’s high-priced coffee drinks, with Harvest Market’s small town tone obliterated by that cold hard speedy Bay Area vibe I know so well and was so glad to escape by moving here.

On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, I moseyed into town to run some errands, attend the farmer’s market, and take the pulse of our picturesque hamlet. Parking my truck in the dirt lot at the Presbyterian, I sauntered forth with knapsack on my back, traversed the mob at the farmer’s market, skirted the crowd at Frankie’s, dodged the melee at Moody’s, skipped through the traffic clog at the intersection of Lansing and Ukiah, and eventually attained my beloved post office.

Buoyed by a decent mail haul, the AVA fattening my take, I swerved away from the Mendocino Market, sadly deterred by a line of tourists spilling out the door, and made my way to Corners of the Mouth, my family’s favored source of grains and fruits and legumes. I hope one day to write a treatise entitled Varieties of Hilarious Experience on the subject of tourist couples coming upon Corners for the first time. For this report, I will only say that the façade of the former church with its intriguing signage and nary a window giving a glimpse inside elicits varieties of hilarious (to me) responses from out-of-towners, including fear, suspicion, confusion, curiosity, and contempt, the latter no doubt in reaction to the sign declaring cell phones verboten therein.

Fortunately for those of us who frequent Corners, only a tiny fraction of the thousands of tourists passing by the red church ever venture inside, thus leaving the cool interior a haven for those seeking refuge from the seething masses of vacationing hominids.

Bread and tortillas and plums secured, I sally forth on the return leg of my navigation through the village, dodging pods and dyads of visitors, a great many of these charming folks blabbing loudly on cell phones, nearly all of them wearing the glazed expressions of those who have walked long blocks (often the same blocks again and again) in search of something more than ice cream and lattes and the same junk they can buy back home, though it is highly unlikely they will ever find that something more because the something more that Mendocino has is not a thing one eats or drinks or buys. No, the something more than what they have back home is the ocean-washed air and the cerulean sky and the tender fog and the wild forest and the wilder sea and the deep quiet and the magnificent stars, and most of the members of these schools of bewildered folk do not seem to know of these things that are not things or they would not be walking up and down the simple streets of the village looking for them. But they do walk up and down, and so be it.

Back at the Presbyterian parking lot, I found my filthy pickup sandwiched between two crusty old vans around which are gathered eight young humans, slender and scruffy, two females and six males, possessed of three dogs, two of them pit bull mongrels, the third an enormous red fellow I learned from his owner is a half-Husky half-Chow named California. The pits growled at me and earned a few kicks from their masters for doing what they’re bred to do. I was politely asked for money, a little of which I share, and I was offered a toke, which I politely declined. I knew all these young ones to be year-round residents of our little berg, having seen them countless times in front of the bakery or in front of Moody’s, or sprawled in the meadow just down the trail from the Presbyterian, though I don’t know their names and I’m certain they don’t know mine.

And since the young man was happy to reveal the make and name of his magnificent red dog, I was emboldened to ask, “So how’s life for you guys with all the tourists in town?”

One of the women smiled a sleepy stoned smile and shrugged; and one of the men grinned and said, “Who’s not a tourist, man?”

And for the first time since 1972, the rich musky smell of these local transients taking me back to my years in the communes of Santa Cruz, I employed that hallowed rejoinder, “Right on, brother,” though I might have more aptly said son.

Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.

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