A GHOST STORY • PART 1
“Toothbrush?…Socks?…Pajamas?…Jacket?” As I drove out of the driveway, I went through a mental list of things I usually forget. There’s always a certain anxiety when leaving home for more than a few days knowing that wherever it is I’m going, I won’t have the same level of comfort and convenience. Which just goes to show how attached I am to my stuff. I mean, God forbid I should ever forget something as essential as my electric toothbrush—I might actually have to drive two miles into town just to buy one of those cheap analog ones! As I thought about my pampered life, I made a promise to take more camping trips instead of always opting to spend time away in a well-furnished vacation home with all the modern conveniences.
I was going away for my annual retreat, this year at Sea Ranch on the northern coast of California where the rugged coastline butts up against wide, open meadows and dense redwood forests. Unlike rowdy Tahoe, the other nearby alternative, this magnificent area has mostly been left unspoiled. Missing from it are the McDonald’s drive-thru’s, the 7-11’s and the Safeway’s, the smoke-filled casinos and over-crowded restaurants, the speed boats and jet skiers, and the stand-still traffic in the middle of—what would otherwise be—an alpine paradise.
The small coastal community of Sea Ranch has so far evaded the crowds, mostly due to its somewhat difficult access—a two-lane road that precariously winds along the ocean’s cliff—and for the fact that it has none of the aforementioned amenities. Sea Ranch is where you go to be sublimely bored and withdrawn, looking out a large window that perfectly frames the natural beauty surrounding you. Even the tastefully designed houses have a certain introverted, anti-social aspect about them. In spite of their charming conformity, they are irregularly spaced apart at a fair distance, allowing one to imagine that nobody else is around. And except for the infrequent passing vehicle or an occasional circular saw buzzing from a handyman, silence is prevalent.
Needless to say, Sea Ranch isn’t for everyone, including people addicted to their electronic devices and loud recreational vehicles (which amounts to most people by my calculation). It’s for those who still enjoy curling up next to a sunny window and reading a book, spontaneously making art, going for a long walk, watching the sun set with a glass of wine, or delving into a long conversation about the meaning of life—you know, all of those things we used to do before TV and the internet came along.
The drive was pleasant once I got off the main highway. After going through Petaluma, I stopped to stretch my legs and order my usual fish tacos at Bodega Bay. From there, it was through the little coastal town of Jenner and then the perilous drive up Highway 1. Just past the area known as Sea Ranch is a river and a small town called Gualala—an Indian name meaning “where the water goes down.” There, I pick up my rental key and afterward, head over to one of the two small available markets directly across the street from each other to stock up on all my favorite eats for the week. Both markets know their customer well, catering to Bay Area foodies who expect nothing less than the finest beer, wine, meats, bread and cheeses. In years past, when the girls were smaller, we would come up once or twice a year and stay for a few days. But those days are long gone and now it’s just me who visits this little Pacific sanctuary where Pomo Native Americans used to gather kelp and shellfish in woven baskets, and the Spanish raised their cattle.
Since I retired, I have made it a yearly thing to go on a 2-week meditation retreat, alone. Back when I was in my thirties, I used to attend silent meditation retreats at a Buddhist center tucked away in the nearby hills of Marin. There, I developed the skills to meditate for long hours and focus the mind. I enjoyed some beautiful insights in those early days, but mostly just liked how it stilled the mind, temporarily cleansing me of the constant chatter that reverberates between my ears. It was through Buddhism that I was also able to get through all my “stuff” without the need of a therapist and to set foot on a journey that continues today. Eventually, I moved on from Buddhism, seeking out answers to life’s biggest questions elsewhere. But I still enjoy being a yogi, spending time alone in solitude, and clearing the mind in order to gain a better perspective on things.
The house I rented was typical of the area: a modern structure with sleek vertical lines and long diagonals offset by rustic plank siding. The large windows and lack of landscaping or fences create the feeling of being totally immersed in nature. The hallmark architectural design of Sea Ranch was inspired by an early Russian settlement not too far south, Fort Ross, which you can still visit today. The original Sea Ranch concept, developed in the 60’s, was to create a community that would harmonize with the environment and have minimal impact on the natural surroundings. However, in recent years there have been more and more houses dotting the hill side and threatening the original vision with over-development. Nevertheless, the quiet atmosphere of the community persists.
As I drive up to my rental that’s situated just a stone’s throw away from the ocean cliff, the house appears bigger than I had imagined it from the pictures. A short gravel driveway leads to a small garage, and a charming wooden awning and stone path make way to the front door. Inside are two bedrooms; a bathroom; a medium-size kitchen with a gas stove, oven and utensils; and a large living room with two big leather sofas, a book shelf with old romance novels, and a cabinet full of board games. The living room also accommodates a dining table with four chairs and a simple table arrangement that includes a long piece of driftwood with small white tea lights tastefully wedged into it.
The interior has a contemporary style but is still, modest and cozy. Except for the bedrooms, there is tile flooring throughout with area rugs interspersed. Ocean-themed watercolors are placed sporadically on the walls, along with old faded photographs of, it’s assumed, the owner with friends and family. In the master bedroom there is an antique pine dresser with sticking drawers and a small built-in closet. A large skylight and a fireplace more than make up for the bedroom’s drab decor and outdated carpet. Other amenities include a laundry room, the garage (locked and not accessible), and a patio with a gas grill, deck and sunken hot tub. All in all, not a bad place to wind down and get back in touch with reality.
I park the car and power down my phone. Before I left, I told everyone I would be off the grid for a couple of weeks. Not surprisingly, this never seems to perturb my wife. I’ve always worked and played at home where I have an office and a wood shop just off the house, so she actually looks forward to these yearly retreats when she doesn’t have to see me for a while.
As I walk to the entrance of my temporary new home, I notice a small statue of the beloved Hindu deity, Ganesh with his various odd elephant and human body parts strewn together. He is seated at the doorway frozen in a friendly namaskar. I figure this is a good omen and proceed to unlock the front door. As I walk in with both arms full of groceries, what stands out to me most is the silence. Oh, the painful silence! Next, comes a heavy feeling of profound loneliness and longing as I start to question my decision to, once again, come alone. “I should’ve asked one of the kids to come with me,” I tell myself. “I could’ve at least brought the dog along.”
Every thing, every object in the house feels totally still and inert with a tinge of mystery, as if placed by extraterrestrials. The only thing moving is the reflection of tiny dust particles dancing in a razor-sharp ray of sunlight beaming in through the kitchen window. Even the lovely bottle of wine, with a personal note left on the dining table by the caretaker, feels still and lifeless—as if it had been sitting there since the beginning of time. I tell myself that I have landed on the moon—vulnerable and alone, with nowhere to hide.
The first night is always the most challenging, partly due to being in a new place and partly because it’s—what I like to say—when all the ghosts come out: memories of my youth, old relationships, lost opportunities, things that could’ve been, etc. I no longer identify with such regrets knowing that it’s just the mind, now with a blank canvas to work on, splattering thoughts around like some Jackson Pollock painting. I’ve also learned that this is a natural progression for it to go through. It is now fasting and will need some time, maybe three or four days, before it reaches a kind of equilibrium. Nevertheless, I try to appease it by breaking up the day with various activities such as preparing meals and taking frequent walks.