When I got home from Vulture Bait 2015, one of my lingering questions was "How did I almost miss this?" specifically regarding two of the highlights of our trip, Ferndale and Shelter Cove. They were really last minute additions to the agenda, and chosen more for strategic location than for any perceived intrinsic value.
I thought maybe I could blame our copy of Lonely Planet California for not pumping us up enough, but everything they say about Ferndale at least is pretty much exactly true:
The North Coast’s most charming town is stuffed with impeccable Victorians – known locally as ‘butterfat palaces’ because of the dairy wealth that built them. There are so many, in fact, that the entire place is a state and federal historical landmark. Dairy farmers built the town in the 19th century and it’s still run by the ‘milk mafia’: you’re not a local till you’ve lived here 40 years. A stroll down Main St offers a taste of super wholesome, small-town America from galleries to old-world emporiums and soda fountains. Although Ferndale relies on tourism, it has avoided becoming a tourist trap – and has no chain stores. Though a lovely place to spend a summer night, it’s dead as a doornail in winter.Charm: check. "Charm" was the word I overused during the first draft of this mess of a post (I'll reorganize eventually), without having reread Lonely Planet yet. But yes, basically, everything about Ferndale was quaint and welcoming without seeming false or forced in any way. Historical landmark: check. The post office and bank were straight out of the 1940s. Some of the buildings were from the turn of the 20th century. Locals: check. We talked to someone who said that business about the milk mafia almost verbatim. Super-wholesome: see below. Lack of chain stores: there's not even a traffic light.
But while all true, I can also see that Lonely Planet's blurb doesn't really radiate "excitement". I mean I can read it now and think, yes, I understand why I almost skipped that. So what's missing from their description? What was really so "lovely"about it? Maybe that everyone we talked to or heard talking seemed completely normal, in the best way: smart, polite, humble, friendly, funny (overheard in the Palace Saloon, two guys talking about their mothers' tendencies to not throw things away: "Alright Scott, but your mom, man. Your mom would keep a broken fucking toothpick. 'I might need it someday'"). Just not really the small-town folk I'm used to. And it all seemed so rare, so natural and unforced, very unselfconscious.
And maybe this is true, maybe it's just projection, but it seemed that everyone we talked to kind of realized that Ferndale was something special, but they weren't selling it, they wanted you to come to that realization yourself, on your own. And the places we spent our 18-hour visit: the Hotel Ivanhoe, the Palace Saloon, the Lost Coast Cafe...were simply entertaining, chilled-out, charming little slices of small-town American life, just like fucking Lonely Planet says.
I should've known Ferndale was going to be different based on my experience booking my hotel room. The hotel only has four rooms. I sent an email about reserving one on a certain date and the proprietor responded with a "Great, look forward to seeing you."
You know me, I'm a modern guy. That's typically not the end of a conversation about reserving things. I said do you need a credit card or anything, and she said nope we'll take care of that when we see you. I'm all pointing my finger to my head and making "loco" motions, thinking OK something's obviously wrong here, should I make a backup reservation somewhere, etc.
But no, in the end I didn't. A few weeks later I sent an email about making a dinner reservation at the hotel's restaurant, because we would be there on a Friday night and I was getting the feeling that this was kind of the restaurant in town. No answer. OK, so after a week or so I call them. Hey I'm staying at the hotel Friday September 24 and wondered if I could make a dinner reservation for 2 at 7:30pm. "Sure can." OK great the name is Nelson. "OK great see you then." No pause, no sound of writing things down, or even better, entering this into a reservations system. O-kayyyyy. Who knows where we'll end up eating or sleeping that night.
Turns out: Ferndale is just charmingly old-fashioned. Really charmingly. Utterly charmingly. This is the bench outside the hotel, and there on the ground you see someone's shopping bag full of recent clothing purchases. Its owner was inside the bar having a drink.
When we got there, our hotel key had been left with the barman in the attached saloon, and as he was pouring Nelson a beer she asked him so is there anything going on in Ferndale tonight? He cheerfully replied "Nope", and laughed. You could have a drink at the Palace. That's about it. I think she asked him if the shops were open, and he looked at his watch and said yep for about another 15 minutes. It was 4:45pm. "But that's plenty of time, it'll take you that long to see the whole town." He wasn't lying.