87. Haven's Neck

87. A (Promontorial) Paradise Lost: Havens Neck

Located several miles north of Anchor Bay on the Mendocino coast of California is Havens Neck, a promontory jutting into the sea, its rocky main mass rising above the water like an island, but reachable from the mainland by a narrow earth ridge, just wide enough for a road, with beaches far below on either side. When one crossed by this bridge-like access onto Havens Neck proper, one arrived first at a sloping meadow richly and densely covered with flowering weeds and succulents, and shaded in part by a stand of wind-dwarfed pines. Already one was in a world removed from any that one knew; and the best was yet to come. Climbing to the right one ascended onto a huge jutting rock, and standing on it could look northward along the coast, or down into the water. Moving out onto its seaward face one found it to be composed, or carved, of rocky masses shaped like sculptures by the endless pounding of the sea, with ledges and hollows where one could sit and gaze out westward, perhaps watching the sun set over the Pacific.

This was the Havens Neck I knew and loved during the later 1960s and after, into the 1980s; by the late 1980s, if my memory serves, it was already difficult of access. Today, it would appear, one has to be a nearby property-owner or otherwise specially privileged to get onto Havens Neck at all. Let me relate my own memories about it.

Shortly after my move back to Berkeley from Washington D.C. with my family, my wife Dorothy and our children Nicholas and Sarah, we set off on a northward coastal drive, along the spectacular Highway One, meaning to reach my home town of
Fort Bragg. We eventually did, and our stay there, for which I had high hopes—introducing these beloved sights of my own childhood to my wife and children—turned out badly: Dorothy, a fervent conservationist, was so disturbed by the sight of trucks hauling huge redwood logs, by seeing them go by on flatcars slong the rail line near our rented cabin, and by a tour of the Union Lumber Company mill that supplies Fort Bragg’s principal economy, that her discomfort darkened the experience for all of us. But before that, still driving up the coast, we stopped for the night at the Mar Vista Cabins (now Mar Vista Cottages) at Anchor Bay—by sheer good fortune, or had we planned this? I don’t remember. Anyway, it was our introduction to an area, the so-called “Banana Belt” stretching from Gualala up to Point Arena, which is warmer than the coasts above and below—the icy Arctic Current, coming down from Alaska, is diverted out to sea by the jutting of Point Arena, the westernmost point in the U.S. (Above and below that, as I know from childhood in Fort Bragg further north and from experiences of trying to enjoy ocean bathing near San Francisco to the south, the water is much too cold for comfortable swimming.)

The Mar Vista rented comfortable housekeeping cabins and provided access to a beach just across the highway, as well as to the small shopping area of Anchor Bay. We returned there many times, and I was still later to bring my second wife Hsingyuan there. It was also well located for easy drives to many more beaches: at Gualala further south (the name is said to be a corruption of Valhalla), and northward along a coast that offered quite a few beaches, once one learned where they were and how to get down to them. There were also public (State Park) beaches—one of these, above Point Arena, was called Bowling Ball Beach after the half-buried boulders shaped round by rolling in the surf. Patches of wild blackberries grew along the seaside of the highway, and the beaches were great for beachcombing, especially after storms.

But, back to Havens Neck: I remember going there with Nick and Sarah, sitting with them in a hollow of rocks on the seaward side, and reading and reciting suitable poetry (Byron’s “Roll on, thou dark and deep blue ocean, roll/ A thousand ships sail over thee—in vain--” and the like) as the sun set. Later, we brought C. C. Wang along for a three-day stay, telling him that we were taking him to see “the most beautiful place on earth,” as I believed it to be. But it was not Wang’s kind of beauty, or a Chinese kind; he was uncomfortable, and took a bus back to San Francisco by himself a day early. There was also an unpleasant incident in which I left him and the children at the entrance to one favorite beach while I drove back to get something, and when I returned found them still standing in the same place, confronted by the property owner with a shotgun. I delivered an impromptu speech about the mind-set of someone who could keep two children and an old Chinese artist off “their” beach, but it didn’t make the encounter less depressing.

Access to Havens Neck—and access to most of the beaches along this stretch of coast—was ridden with difficulty: property owners objected to our crossing over their land to get to the shore (which, up to the high-tide line, was public property); they had to be evaded or persuaded. I told my children that we belonged to the (invented) League of Responsible Trespassers, who would never take prohibited things from the shore or leave litter on it, but who considered the whole Pacific coast open to us, so long as we behaved properly. For Havens Neck, the main adversary was a realtor named Al (Something), whose office was on the inland side of the road a bit north of the access to Havens Neck. We visited him several times to consider buying land there, but never did. He was selling homesites in the area between the highway and the seacoast. One summer we spent a few weeks in a house owned by Travis and Jane Bogard—he was a Drama Dept. professor at UC, and they were fellow members of the Drama Section which met monthly for play readings, so we knew them well. During those wonderful weeks we had free access to Havens Neck, and contested access to lots of other beaches along that stretch of coast.

Our good friend Katherine Caldwell owned a small piece of seaside land along that coast, and knew the Berkeley family that had for generations owned a bigger stretch that included a secluded beach, which could be reached only along a hidden trail through dense woods and a steep, difficult climb down the cliff. And I remember happy times there with Sarah and Nick and Dorothy, lying on the beach with no one around, gazed at by a flock of seals who put their heads out of the water, as though we were the performers in this theater and they the audience. One could swim out among them, coming quite close to them—they were unafraid of humans—impeded only by the tangles of seaweed.

I learned that the artist Millard Sheets owned a large piece of seashore land just south of Havens Neck, overlooking Fish Rock, which is the notable sight just below it on the coast. I got to know him by pretending a great admiration for his work, and helping to identify and catalog the Japanese paintings he collected. His house on the cliff commanded a spectacular view along the coast, and one could observe, through binoculars or a telescope, the crowds of sea lions cavorting on nearby Fish Rock. For a time, then, we had a signed letter from Sheets that gave us free passage onto Havens Neck. But that, too, came to an end.

As more and more houses were built on the land between the highway and Havens Neck, more and more people came to know about it and had free access to it, and its dream-like existence as a mysterious and little-known place ended.  I remember reading in the morning paper about a huge wedding party for some rich and socially prominent easterners (the groom was the son of a Kennedy? something like that) held on Havens Neck, with full retinue of caterers and guests and photographers, and thinking with a sense of deep dismay what this meant about future access, and what it would do to the fragile ecology and physical state of that magical place. I haven’t been back since, and have no thought of going back, even if I were still physically able. Havens Neck remains as a dream, a lost, windswept almost-island paradise.

(Later: I sent this to my son Nicholas and daughter Sarah. Nick responds immediately:}

Dear Dad,

This makes me realize why I love the site of Myonessus so much -- it's exactly like Havens Neck, a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land, only in Turkey not northern California. I went there only once - and it's equally hard to get to, you have to find the land owner and have him open the gate (I had a moped). But once there, it's magical -- the site was on the end of the peninsula, about the size of Havens Neck, and was split in half by an earthquake. You can dive off the cliffs at the end of the peninsula into the ocean, and swim into the dark, sheer-sided chasm that splits the island in two, look up far above to the blue sky and birds circling in the breeze. The ocean swell rises maybe 20 feet up and down, which is a bit dangerous since the rocks are very sharp, and if you get carried along them you can be cut up -- but I wore sandals and could push off the rocks. Like Havens Neck it's not quiet or peaceful, or really comfortable in the traditional sense, but magical and unique. Here's a photo - I don't have one of the inside right now, but will try to take one this summer if I can get back.



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