After a long December full of tough situations with COVID, we decided to take a small road trip on a weekend that we had off together. Both my fiance and I have been affected by the pandemic in different scenarios. As a nurse (obviously being on the front lines, helping people in the heart of the situation) she was effected most by the pandemic. Long hours and watching people go through this unbearable situation was gut wrenching to say the least. No matter what I had dealt with, it pales in comparison. Being that I work in retail, I had many scenarios that happened during the pandemic. My store being looted, continuing to try and keep morale high in an uphill battle, and the challenges with county safety regulations. It was a different type of stress, but also regardless, a very real one at that.
Our road trip was simple, move up the coast to Northern California. Reaching as far as we were willing to travel for a short weekend away. We decided to make our way up to Fort Bragg, an area that we hadn’t been to in California. The city has a small population of a little over 7,000 and resides in the county of Mendocino. Fort Bragg is known as a tourist destination in many ways. A picturesque view of the coast, Glass beach and a possible jumping-off point for other destinations in the area. Glass beach glistens in the sun with sea glass that has formulated over the years from being a trash dump at one point. Collections of bottles broken down into smooth glass-like pebbles provide a beautiful picture on a sunny day. What’s the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. I guess that statement holds true in this scenario. As years have gone by, less and less pieces of glass remain as tourists take their share for keepsakes on their journey. Regardless, the view of the cliffs across the shoreline always puts a vision of Ireland in my mind. The beauty holds true on the coast and the abundance of wildlife also captivates you. Birds and monk seals are constantly seen going through their daily routines in the area.
Making our way into Fort Bragg on day one gave us prevalent signs of the current state our country is in. Working up through US 101N, we often saw wineries closed as we passed by. Also, other businesses showing no sign that they had been open for a while now. As we rolled into town around noon, we stopped in at our hotel and got the description of our procedures to take during our stay. A short walk and we strolled over to Glass Beach for our first stop of the day. Signs everywhere making sure that people were six foot distancing and wearing their masks. The animals, lived life as usual. Monk seals playing in the water in front of the cove. Birds chirping away and looking for food along the coastline. In a way, if you looked only at the animals, you would see a much different world than we are currently living in. A drastic change occurs, when you step back and look at your fellow travelers across the beach with their masks on, trying their best to stay away from each other. The sea glass itself was somewhat of a disappointment. Tiny remminents of greens, whites and reds were paved across the shoreline. People picking through them like they were searching for gold. We decided not to keep anything that we looked at on the beach. Leaving it for others to see on a nice sunny day, would be much better than a piece of seaglass sitting across our mantel.
Fort Bragg is a quaint town that you can see has plenty of attraction with the ocean. Small shops across the downtown area and murals on buildings, all showing their fascination with the ocean and the importance of it to the city. Stopping in at the harbor area, we quickly saw where people came for a meal. The harbor had a constant flow of traffic in and out of the waterway. Boats coming in for the day with their fresh catch. Fish and crab were prominent and would make any seafood lovers mouth water. The taste of salt in the air made you remember where you were in the world. Any port or harbor can easily distract your senses from any previous excursion. We made our way to a popular deli called Princess Seafood. A wait in a 6 foot distanced line, culminated with us grabbing our number for our meal and two crisp local brews to indulge in while we waited. Choosing to sit next to the fire pit while we ate was a delight in itself. Warming us from the cold breeze coming off the water, we sipped our frothy beverage and continued to stay warm. The food when it came out, did not disappoint. Fresh Dungeness crab, grilled oysters and Ahi tuna poke bowls were fresh and delicious. The locals here seemed unaffected by the current pandemic. If they were, it was unnoticeable as you observed them going about their day with the only minor differences being social distancing and mask wearing. Finishing our meal, we got back in our car and moved back up through the city to our next location.
At the harbor I had tasted a beer from the local brewery that made us inclined to stop and try additional choices. Overtime brewing company had raving reviews and often outpaced the more famous brewery in town for their unique takes on beer. We assumed that the brewery would at least be open for food and tasting, as North Coast Brewing company was down the street. Sadly as we entered through the doors, we were greeted by an owner tall in stature that stated they were open for take out only. A small selection of food was written on the white board to our left. We had recently eaten at the harbor so no food was needed at the time. We came in with hopes of tasting beer. Allowing only for crowlers to be taken with, we had to make some blind selections that we thought we might like based on description. Luckily talking to the owner spurred his beer enthusiasm and we were able to try some of his recent brews. Several stouts, IPA’s and unique beers had some wonderful flavors brought forth as we went down the list. As he talked about his beers, you could almost see the disappointment with the pandemic in his eyes. Being a local brewery that had just opened several years ago, they are still working to get established in the community. As he sees North Coast down the street open for sit-down and tastings, you can assume that it effects his business on a large scale. A normal conversation with a brewer on beer, is exhilarating as they go through the ingredients used and the notes that you should taste. The conversation with him had him fumbling over his explanations of ingredients and tasting notes. We did our tastings and left, for the first time really feeling what small business owners were going through in the current climate. Doing whatever they could, just to survive through the pandemic. There was never a sense of wanting to go against the regulations and become unsafe in the process with this owner. It was more of a subdued passion for beer and determination to just stay afloat and weather the storm.
The next day we made our way through a beautiful redwood highway to Anderson Valley. A plethera of wineries made us decide that we needed to stop in for a glass of pinot at a couple of locations. We first made a reservation at Lula. A winery with plenty of juices that rank high on wine enthusiast, we knew it would be a great choice. We were greeted by a dog as we drove up. A rambunctious joy of life was seen in this dog and was contagious. Bending down to pet the dog, we looked up and saw his owner in the doorway. He was quick to greet and ask if we were there for a tasting. With a quick reply to that question, we were whisked into the building to be taught about the COVID protocols they had for their business. We signed off on safety and sat down outside for our learning experience on Lula wine. Dave greeted us and you could tell that he was excited to have someone here to taste his wine. Being that it looked like we were the only two that had came for the day, his attention was on us alone. He talked about his experiences and also being that he lived only 400 feet from the tasting room. Learning about what made Anderson Valley unique as a wine region and how at first the entire region was only made up of Gewürztraminer grapes. Once people learned that they could sell Pinot for a whole lot more and it was a similar climate, the Pinot culture took storm. You could tell as Dave talked, he had a love for life, passion for wine and an even deeper bond with his newly rescued dog that had greeted us in the parking lot. It seemed even with the various protocols of safety and challenges the business faced with COVID, it didn’t distract Dave from his passion. He just continued on and moved past the barriers that had been placed in front of him. As we bid Dave a farewell, we packed a couple of bottles of wine that we purchased and moved on to a local recommendation for a charcuterie board.
The rain started to fall hard as we made our way to Disco ranch. Looking like a local store with a small deli inside, it had a small town feel that made you feel comforted inside. Greeted instantly by a woman behind the counter by the name of Wendy, she asked us questions about where we were from and what we were interested in. The food looked delicious sprawled across the cooler. Various cheeses, tapas and cold cuts were all enticing as our hunger grew more apparent. We ordered a charcuterie board, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed peppers. She ushered us outside to a small dining area in front of the store. Lighting a table top fire pit, we were happy for the warmth that it brought us as we stared out at the rain pouring down hard on the parking lot area. Two fantastic glasses of local wine accompanied the food that we had ordered. As we talked a bit more with Wendy, we let her know that it was Dave that recommended that we stop in and see her. She gave a small chuckle and let us know that one of our cheeses was one of Daves favorites. As we finished our meals and sat and relaxed, reviewing the experiences we had for the day, we couldn’t stop thinking about the effects on local businesses with this situation. We were the only patrons at the Disco ranch, which made for a special intimate meal. Yet, we were also disappointed at what this place potentially could be if the state was fully open. We imagined on a Sunday afternoon such as this, the business would be going back and forth out of this place. Locals mixed with wine enthusiasts traveling from around the world. A mixture of languages could be heard and various forms of small talk between all walks of life. The food, the ambience and customer service were all fantastic. Sadly, at the moment it was only for a table of two. We tipped generously and made our way back to the Fort Bragg area.
Meeting Dave and Wendy, along with other small business owners along our travels, gave us a different perspective on the pandemic. How do we find a way to continue safety protocols that make it so people stay healthy, but also support the re-opening of peoples small businesses? There’s a different struggle that is all too real with this situation. A struggle that might not hit inside the home for many, but it affects our communities that we live in. If Dave didn’t support Wendy’s business at the Disco ranch, how much of a profit do you think she would have made that day? Local brewers trying to find a way to compete with larger established companies are finding a situation that leaves them swimming against the current. Tourism has dropped drastically across this country. Highly penetrated tourist cities are finding themselves struggling to make it day to day. Even if the money comes in the form of a grant from the government, does the passion stay at the heart of the owner when they aren’t doing what they love? A wine tasting doesn’t go well when done alone. A brewery doesn’t feel at home without the sounds of laughter roaring through the doors.
The difference to me seems to involve simple practices that have been talked about since the beginning. Wash your hands, wear a mask and 6 foot distance from others. The challenge is that often times, people find this impossible to do. The times in the past two months that I still have people reach out for some form of life with a handshake, only to silently retract their hand as it loses the battle with gravity and nothing to hold it in place. It’s a reflex that we’ve had our whole life. We are taught at a young age to have a strong handshake, it makes a world of difference. In one year, we’ve learned to reverse the trend of this symbolic form of unity with another human being. Same with masks, the frustrations people show in the simple practice of placing a cloth over their mouth and nose, bewilders me. The look of disgust on some peoples faces from telling them to place a mask on their head as if you’ve told them to digest battery acid and smile. How dare this person ask me to be safe in his or her presence?
As for our small businesses, treat them like your community partners they are. They have been around and supported you, whether you needed a quick lesson in life or just a smile on your face. These people are more challenged than ever with the current climate. Do what is needed and help your neighbors. Give a little bit more when you are looking at that final bill, when your waitress comes back with a smile on her face and she’s battling more than you’ll ever know. Reach down a bit further into your pocket when you see your haircut has turned out flawless yet again. It’s what makes us human. People helping people through difficult times. Seeing people like Dave or Wendy helping each other through the tough times, shows the compassion that we still have left in this life. We don’t always make the choices on what our county regulations are when it comes to businesses opening or closing, but you still have the chance to bring some humanity back into the pandemic. Stay safe and reach out a symbolic (not physical) hand to help others get through this difficult time. If it were you, I’m sure they would do the same.