In pre-Covid times a hungry American was on a tour of a monastery. A familiar smell from the kitchen drew him away from the rest of the tour group. In the kitchen he spotted a brother doing all the frying by himself. The tourist smirked and said, “You must be the friar.”
The brother replied, “No, I'm the chip monk.”
We'll get back to potato chips in a bit, but if you want to work up an appetite for a salty snack what better way than a long day hike where the chances of running into anyone else are minimal. Even though this day hike is on the Mendocino County coast, the biggest challenge is getting there. We're talking about Wheeler Beach on the southern half of the Lost Coast Trail. One doesn't have to backpack for two grueling days north from Usal or a nearly equal distance south from Needle Rock. Lost Coast backpack trips are increasingly difficult these days as the trail falls under more and more disrepair due to slides, downed trees, and at least one section where pampas grass taller than Dwight Howard has enveloped the pathway.
Driving to any trailhead on the Lost Coast proves time consuming, so plan on one long day. The turn from Highway One to Usal Road is just short of or just past mile marker 91, depending upon which direction from whence you approach. The Usal Road is actually a county road, but this is not a place for a low slung Prius. A good all wheel drive car will do fine there though. I have driven to the Wheeler Beach trailhead multiple times in a Honda CRV. That said, the road to Usal Beach may be an eye opener for those unacquainted with it. There are steep ups and even steeper, winding downs. Oh, and did I mention, room for only one vehicle at a time in many long stretches. Keep track of the wideouts in case you need to back up. Of course, you are aware, this is all a dirt road. By dirt, I mean ruts. Second gear is as fast as you will need to travel. When you reach your destination your back window will be piled high in dust.
It's about six miles from Highway One to the northern end of the Usal Beach campground, a state park. Those six miles will take you thirty-five minutes of travel time. At the northern end of the campground the road continues northward, paralleling the coast but slightly inland. The good news, in your next 4.4 miles to the Wheeler Beach trailhead you are unlikely to meet any other vehicles. However, the 4.4 miles will take another twenty minutes. The first two miles or so is a ponderous, twisty and sometimes narrow climb to a ridge. The trailhead appears as a wideout on the west side of the road with a locked iron gate a second point of identification. The trail is an old logging road that runs about four miles down to the site of the old logging community of Wheeler. The trail to the beach itself is obvious, but there are two relatively shallow creek crossings. You may want to bring flip flops in a daypack to keep your regular shoes or boots dry while fording.
The hike down should take less than an hour and a half. The time needed for the fairly steep hike out, a little over half the four miles is an uphill slog, will vary from hiker to hiker. Hit the beach midweek while most folks are staying home for fear of Covid-19 and you could have this scenic beach and its pelicans all to yourself for several hours.
In past years, when shuttling cars to and from both ends of the Lost Coast, a glorious taste treat along the car shuttle route always proved to be the grilled oysters at the Peg House on Highway 101, more or less directly across from the entrance to Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area. Sadly, after this year's day hike, there were no oysters available. It depends on the day, the proprietor said. I can attest that their “Sunset burger” makes a fine replacement meal. You can call ahead on any particular summer day to check on oyster availability.
Many delicious eateries have come and gone in Mendocino County. In 1916, farm boys reportedly made haste into the town of Ukiah to the Little Davenport Restaurant on Perkins Street, immediately across from the county courthouse (same locale as the current Schat’s Bakery), for the tasty dishes conjured up by a former nurse, Mrs. Charles Scudder. Yes, her first name was Laura. Not only did Laura Scudder labor long hours serving up delectable food at her restaurant, she also spent many an evening studying the law. Perhaps with some tutelage from local attorneys who dined regularly at her business, she passed the California bar exam in the spring of 1918, becoming one of the first women licensed to practice law in this county. In 1920, she gave up thoughts of courtrooms and moved with her husband to southern California. Later in that decade and the next Laura gained national fame with her potato chips, pioneering the packaging and sealing process to extend the freshness of the product. This began when she paid her employees to take home sheets of waxed paper in order to iron them into the shape of bags. The waxed paper bags were brought back to her Monterey Park factory the next day to be filled with chips. Thus, the start of mass market potato chips. Laura Scudder also initiated the labeling of bags with a freshness date stamp.
Potato chips were first prepared by Native American cooks working at a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, during the summer of 1853. My great grandfather, John Robertson, was traveling back and forth across the United States and Canada at that time, but, alas, I don’t think he made it to Saratoga Springs. Some of his descendants or Macdonald in-laws may have been among those who traveled goodly distances to eat at the Scudder’s Little Davenport Restaurant. Robertsons and Macdonalds have been known to walk many a mile for a meal or even a singular culinary treat. The oldest of John Robertson’s children, my great-uncle Alexander (Alec) Robertson, born in 1854, walked many times from Westport, Rockport and Kenny to get home cooked meals alongside the Albion River from his younger sister, Lillian Robertson Macdonald. Into their sixties and seventies, Alec’s younger brothers, John Finley Robertson and Will Robertson, walked from the Macdonald ranch to Albion at least once a week. At the risk of aggrandizement, it is true that from the age of four onward I accompanied my older sisters on summer walks to Comptche, about sixteen miles round trip. The goal was not as great a culinary reward as one of Laura Scudder’s Little Davenport creations or the grilled oysters at the Peg House, but simply an Eskimo Pie at the Comptche Store. My eldest sister, Mary, will verify that if I complained on the jaunt home she would find a redwood branch and offer it to me as a “stick pony” to ride. While trudging the steep climb out of Wheeler Beach, I will admit I gazed about a time or two for one of those redwood ponies.
(Ponies, horses, panthers, bears and more at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)