There is no easy way to get to Fort Bragg from Sacramento. Because Interstate 80 extends southwest from the state capital toward San Francisco, one ends up having to go south to US 101, and then back north to arrive at a point where one can cross to the coast. I took State Highway 128 from Cloverdale for this trip, which took place in early August, 2016. The highway winds up a range of mountains going out of Sonoma County, then down through the vineyards of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. There are a number of small towns along the way, most of them just with a store visible along the road, though the larger communities (relatively speaking) of Boonville and Philo have a few more shops and restaurants. I drove through the dense second growth trees of the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, feeling awed, but also a little edgy within the eerie nocturnal darkness of the overhanging branches. From there it was out to the mouth of the Navarro River, where I was faced with a choice: across a bridge and south to Elk and Point Arena, or North to Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Since this trip was to Fort Bragg, the decision was an obvious one, and I left the tsunami warning zone at the river mouth with a sense of relief to make my way up the Shoreline Highway, the major artery connecting the little seaside towns on California’s coast.
Highway One twists along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, straightening out as you pass by Mendocino and into Fort Bragg, a city of about 7000 people just north of the broad Noyo River. Like most of the settlements along the Mendocino Coast, Fort Bragg has a long history as a lumber town, though the Georgia-Pacific mill closed there in 2002. Fort Bragg, like its namesake in North Carolina, was named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg, a mere captain in the Union Army when the old garrison in the town was established by Horatio Gibson, who had served under him.
Fort Bragg’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the years, but it is now a favorite destination for tourists and has many things to see and do. There are plenty of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, but I had come to stay at the Grey Whale Inn, the community’s former hospital, which is supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of patients. People ask me where I get my ideas for ghost stories like The Mendocino Room. Much of it has to do with picking up on the atmosphere of small towns in California and trying to transpose the sensations to paper. So when I can visit a place where my characters Trevor and Gabrielle might find themselves, and especially when that place has a spooky hotel, I jump at the chance.
The following account is composed from my notes and photos from August 4, 2016, the afternoon I arrived in Fort Bragg, and details my activities and discoveries on that first night:
I thought I had created a bizarre hotel in The Mendocino Room, but The Grey Whale Inn may be even more so. To start with, it was the old hospital for the town before they opened up a new one down at the south end of Fort Bragg. As a result, all the doors, corridors, and stairways are very wide, though the rooms themselves are pretty small. My parents told me that there were still signs up for the surgical ward when they stayed here about five years ago, but I didn’t see anything like that. There’s no parking lot, so I ended up circling the building before deciding to park on the street. What was weirder, however, was the “Closed” sign on the door at the top of the steps. Were they expecting me? I tried the door (it was unlocked) and checked the reception area. It was completely empty and dark. There was, however, an envelope on the counter with my name and a key in it. So after some prowling around, I made my way to the second floor and found myself outside the Cape Mendocino Room (ironically almost the same name as the room Trevor and Gabrielle stay in at the North Coast Inn, but I was unaware of the similarity at the time I wrote the novel). I figure from the corner location of the chamber that this would have made a nice, airy, patient room. At least it has that feel about it.
The hotel has a very scrawny black and white cat, which followed me into the room, hopped up on the bed, and went to sleep. At that point, I hadn’t run across another living soul.
By the time I had found the room and unpacked, it was about time for dinner. I left the cat in the room, since I didn’t feel like throwing it out (which was about the only way I was going to dislodge it) and walked down to the historic district for food. Despite the highway running through the middle of town, it is calming to stroll the streets of Fort Bragg. The air is fresh and somewhat moist, which I find invigorating compared to the oppressive heat of summer in Sacramento. The streets are free of litter and the sidewalks broad, and it’s not a hassle crossing the road as the crosswalks all have signals which go green promptly after pushing the button. One of the things I love about these small coastal towns is that they seem made for walking and exploring. And I don’t find Fort Bragg “touristy.” There are a few shops that sell the usual T-shirts, but plenty of the old buildings have cozy restaurants that look like the locals might eat in, and there are shops that sell things like shoes or tattoos. (If you’re in the market for either one of these.) I ended up at a sushi place towards the south end of the district. It was a small street level restaurant with shoji screens and plastic plants and a big window looking out onto Highway One. The menu was uncomplicated and the service fast and friendly. I had a Bento Box dinner with fried cod, which was a little bland, although it was fresh and supposedly locally caught, as well as salad, rice, and tempura (which was very good).
The restaurant is conveniently located next to an ice cream place, so I went in there for dessert. It’s evidently very popular, and, as I was standing in line, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and there, lo and behold, were my brother and his wife! They are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary with a trip up the coast to Washington, where there is a hot rod race, and they are stopping in Fort Bragg for a couple of days at a bed and breakfast across the street from the Grey Whale Inn. They had been at the Botanical Gardens for three hours earlier in the day and had become quite sunburned. They leave tomorrow for Coos Bay. The ice cream was rich and delectable (I had something called Black Forest, which as you can imagine, has chocolate and cherries in it).
It is definitely cooler here than in Sacramento. There seems to be some fog hanging way out over the ocean as it looks pretty hazy far to the west. Summer is typically foggier than winter on the coast, which is why I had to change the fog to rain in The Mendocino Room as that tale is set in January.
The room at the Grey Whale Inn has no refrigerator, microwave, or coffeemaker (I’m so spoiled!), but there is a dining area next door which does have all of the above. As I was storing some cheese in the refrigerator, I asked a guy with dreadlocks who was working on his computer about the wi-fi situation. He is one of the few people I’ve seen since being here—the others were a pair of women looking for the ice machine. I laugh when I think about this since it seems incongruous to be worried about an ice machine in a haunted hotel. I know there are some other people staying here, because some of the room doors are closed and I can hear doors opening and closing in the corridor outside (unless that’s the ghosts!) Anyway, I wasn’t too optimistic about the wi-fi, since nothing was coming up on my computer, but it turns out they do have it. There is, interestingly, an armoire in the room, like in Trevor and Gabrielle’s, but without the dead body or the spiders. (Yes, I did check inside, just in case.) There is a nice floral wallpaper, and the ceiling is painted what looks like hospital green.
The cat took off while I was in the dining room and has since gone prowling around. I can hear it yowling from time to time. It seems to have its choice of beds to sleep on since most of the rooms are unoccupied and the doors open. I was able to get photos of some of the other rooms in the hotel. The one two doors up from mine has a fireplace and looks quite cozy. But what kind of room in a hospital would have a fireplace? All the rooms seem quiet, clean, and comfortable. I have no idea what time breakfast is served or where—the dining room next to my room is too small. I’m sure I’ll figure it out by the time I leave.
I also took a few photos of the gardens at the Grey Whale Inn, trying to get a sense of what actually is planted there. There seem to be a lot of drought tolerant trees and shrubs. There were some nasturtiums, and a few squash plants. They don’t seem to be actively growing many vegetables, despite what they claim on their website, where it says that you will get fresh vegetables with breakfast. There is a weathered wooden sculpture of a gray whale in the garden. I get a feeling that the yard is uncared for, with plants allowed to grow at random; the paths are choked by foliage which brushes against my body as I make my way out to the street.
If this is indeed a haunted hotel, it has all the necessary qualifications—location on the remote side of a coastal town, weird hospital architecture, few guests, an absent innkeeper, a wild garden, and a strange cat. I’m looking forward to seeing if I run into any ghosts!
Next Time: Day Two, Round and About Fort Bragg