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October 1, 2008

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Where's Dave?                                          Mendocino County


Destination: Mendocino County
An exploration of Mendocino County in Northern California proves there's something here for everyone.
By David Bushell

Friday morning. Early. My first assignment. In the last several weeks, I have been referred to as a reporter, a journalist, a rookie. But nothing fit. This is not what I do or who I am! I am a "movie guy". A film producer, to be precise. The lady on the phone asked, "You're the travel writer?" Liking this new identity but eschewing titles, I replied, "Yes, but no."

"Will you be writing the article for Johnny Jet on Mendocino County?" she asked. My reluctance fades.

"Yes ma'am," I reply.

She filled me in on my itinerary and the "travel writer" vocation finally felt natural. I have assumed many positions. Each has led in some way to my current occupation in the film business. It's my work. It's good. But my desire to travel and write about it has always tantalized me.

So here goes.

Traveling to Mendocino County is easy. You can fly into either San Francisco (SFO) Oakland (OAK) or Sacramento (SMF) airports. All the airports have rental cars on the premises, allowing you to keep your travel fluid. I took a different route and flew into the quaint Santa Rosa airport (STS), picked up a rental car on the premises and immediately headed out onto scenic 128. It's about a one-hour drive north to downtown Mendocino. The two-lane road took me through glorious stands of redwood forests. These huge trees, redwoods and firs, descend from the mountain range, towering, standing naked without foliage. The deep forest inspired thoughts of old men, late into their autumn years with poignant stories of the past. Then, soon, I hung a right and headed north on US 1, the blue Pacific shining on my left.

Wednesday afternoon. My first stop is The Stanford Inn, owned by a lovely couple named Jeff and Joan Stanford. They have been together for over 35 years and met at an airport back in the late ‘60s. Jeff is from Kansas City and Joan is from Winnipeg. A real partnership in work and play. I find their kind of commitment rare and admirable.

I am scheduled for two nights at The Stanford Inn but stay for three. It is a wonderful place, committed to environmentally conscious tourism and sustainable living. It's incredibly homey, beautiful and friendly. The hotel allows pets, too! Books for sale scatter tables situated around the cozy lobby/lounge while fires burn warm with a light and pleasant scent of woodsmoke. Besides high star accommodations, also on the premises is The Raven restaurant. Their award-winning vegan/vegetarian cuisine turns out to be my most favorite meals of the Mendocino experience. The majority of the food served is grown down below in the sprawling garden, which can be seen from most room balconies. There is a nice sized heated pool, sauna, a terrific masseuse, spa treatments, yoga classes by the delightful Catherine McMillian, canoeing and mountain biking all on location. I drop my bags and Jeff offers to take me to lunch. We agree on Mexican food off-site and head to Restaurant El Mexicano. Veggie burrito for me, average but that's all there is to say. Back to the room. I unpack and get organized. A fire burns and the night intrudes. I leave the balcony door open. The air is brisk outside but warm and fuzzy under the covers. I cannot help a momentary longing for companionship on this great escape. But after a moment, I come to realize that my desire for solitude is met. Ultimately, by trip's end, I realize that either a single or couples' experience in Mendocino County is capable of nourishing the soul. The place speaks intimacy. There is lots to do and lots not to do. Fresh food to eat, great wine to drink. In time, I realize that most people I've met in Mendocino County care about something beyond the daily grind. They have left the rat race. In the mornings, the ocean is visible from most balconies of The Stanford Inn; the view speaks clarity, the waves just a hint too far away to hear, but the vastness of the Pacific is a presence that affects. Stanford Inn By The Sea, Coast Highway and Comptche Ukiah Road, Post Office Box 487, Mendocino, CA 95460, Tel: 800-331-8884.

The next morning, I head to the Raven for breakfast and enjoy a meal for the record books: apple raisin scones, eggs Florentine, organic potatoes with a thin lemon sauce and fresh orange juice. It's all local, organic and sustainable. The food on my plate was not only delicious, it was a visual delight, a palette of color. The service at my table was efficient and friendly. Altogether, breakfast at the Raven was more an experience than a simple meal.

I head back up to my room and change into my boots and jeans for some horseback riding. At the Ricochet Ranch stables, the trail guide, my new Slovakian friend, Miro, helps me choose a red mare, Zvesda, with a thick brown mane. She's a good horse, intelligent and gentle. Swing up into the Western saddle. We take the reins and walk the horses, crossing Highway 1 and down the redwood trail to within 100 yards from the ocean. Riding on Mackerricher State Park Beach, there on the sand between the rocks, we come upon a large group of mellow, tired-looking, California harbor seals. I recommend a morning's ride near the ocean. You can book a private tour or a group ride, select either Western or English tack and pick horses and trails suitable for all skill levels. As their brochures proclaim: Outside Magazine chose Ricochet Ranch "One of the top 25 trips of a lifetime!"

Before heading back to the inn, I drive into downtown Mendocino, park and walk across the street to a health food store, Corners of the Mouth (45015 Ukiah St., Tel: 707-937-5345). It's a converted church with a tall peaked roof, painted a deep barn red. It's a great health food store with a bevy of fresh local produce and a wide variety of goods.

On my way back to The Stanford, I make a quick diversion down the street and around the corner for a look into the Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites. First built in 1878, it has been restored with rooms and suites for travelers. I decide to grab a drink at the lobby bar, with its elaborate oval stained-glass ceiling. It's worth the price of admission (which is free, or course). Nothing like a cold beer after a morning on horseback. The hotel has an old-world feel, terrific view, right on main street in downtown Mendocino. Twentieth century antiques litter the lobby. The hotel is the social center of town for locals and tourists alike. I definitely recommend this place for a sunset cocktail. The Mendocino Hotel, 45080 Main Street, Mendocino, CA, 95460, Tel: 707-937-0511.

Friday morning. I awake to yoga, followed by a relaxing massage. Then, the mushroom guy. I was looking for something a little different on this trip. Mendocino County is known for being wine country. And hey, I love a good glass of wine. But I had a limited amount of time to explore and I know how wine is made. Basically. So, let's skip the wine country tour although I will say that with nearly 50 wineries located in three clusters, Mendocino grows more varieties of grapes than anywhere else in the USA and is home to the oldest organic vineyards. My wine love affair comes naturally later in the journey. Back to the mushroom guy.

We are in mid-season and the mushroom guy (aka Eric's) reputation precedes him as one of the world's most renowned hunters. Mushrooms can be cultivated in a controlled environment but farming mushrooms is not possible.

Eric Schramm is The Mushroom Man. "You mean the Fun-Gai?" he says, when I finally track him down, making me laugh.

An artist and explorer, Eric has been selling mushrooms for over 30 years and happens to be one of the oldest mushroom distributors in the US. He sells roughly 60,000 pounds of mushrooms a year, all over the world with a value of around $400,000-$500,000 depending on market. Before his current occupation, he was a park ranger and before that, Eric trained dogs for the Vietnam War. Working with mushrooms for the past 30 years, his knowledge on the subject is plentiful.

We agree to meet at Patterson's, a local Irish pub in downtown Mendocino the next day at 11am. I ask how much time to set aside and he tells me that it all depends on how deep I want to go. This mushroom business, I learn, is work! We hop into his Ford F-350 diesel. His beautiful German Shepherd, Loner stays quiet in the back. Eric is in his 50s and both he and his dog are in great shape with all the exercise that picking entails. We embark on a two-hour hike through some of the most beautiful forest I have ever witnessed, the trees standing taller than the sky.

"David, did you know that life on earth could not exist without mushrooms?" he says. "Really?" I ask. "You know what else?" he prods. "You cannot make anyone else happy." OK, Fun-Gai. Explain yourself. Mushroom mycelium ... it breaks down all organic matter. Without it we would all apparently be living under all the debris. The mycelium actually breaks down the matter. The relationship between the trees and mushrooms is a special symbiotic relationship.

From the moment I meet this mushroom guy, I like him and understand that he clearly is his own man on his own mushroom mission. We hike. The woods in Jackson State Forest are awesome. Eric will not get too specific because this is a highly competitive field. It's mushroom hunting. Foresting as I call it, or "wild crafting," as Eric prefers. And then we start finding them, the world's rarest culinary mushroom, the candy cap and then chanterelles, mushrooms with the highest natural source of beta-carotene, even more than a carrot. We even grab some pig's ears on the way out too. Mendocino is home to 3,000 varieties of mushrooms.

Saturday morning. I enjoy another delightful breakfast at the Raven. I am a creature of habit. I take a quick swim in the pool then pack up, say my goodbyes and head inland. Before I leave the coast, I stop by Mendocino mushroom headquarters for a quick picture of Eric and Loner. I continue inland to meet up with an old friend, Don, who joins me for a visit to the Solar Living Institute. My trip to the Solar Living Institute, about 48 miles south of Mendocino, was something I had most looked forward to. Unfortunately upon arrival, it was a bit underwhelming and reminded me of an abandoned playground from the ‘50s that had been left out to pasture. Although my visit landed in the off- season and the foliage was at its barest, after the grand tour by one of the sweet and committed interns, I left feeling disappointed. Something was missing. The Solar Institute is in need of a resurgence, especially at a time like now when the idealism of the ‘60s and ‘70s has caught mass attention and the openness and growth behind alternative is exploding. The information and foundation is there but it feels like a bit of the passion has been lost from this place, otherwise a Mecca for education about how to cure so many of the world's energy and consumption issues.

We decide to race over to visit Don's friends who own a private vineyard named Lost Creek, for an amazing, home-cooked Italian meal and several of the best bottles of wine I have ever encountered. Zero manipulation is how it’s made. The wine is delivered to the mouth with the least amount of processing possible. No sulfites added. Organic fermented whole grape clusters that are gently crushed with clean feet, make a wine with fewer tannins and results in a smoother wine. I later call the winemaker Eric Le Vin, the owner of Le Vin Winery, to speak about this process. "This is pretty progressive winemaking?" I ask Eric. "Actually, this is the way it was done in Greece before all the chemicals and modern equipment were introduced", he tells me. "Lost Creek and I are taking a different approach from many of the other wine guys," he says. "We are simplifying the winemaking process whereas the majority of people making wine are making it far too complicated and complex." The wine makes itself, he says. "We just watch over it to make sure nothing goes wrong. These are the benefits of being a small winery. The large wineries are like factories." This was the fullest, deepest and delicious Pinot I have ever encountered. For many, it is also hangover-free because of the lack of additives. Don's buddy and now mine, Steve, sells a portion of his grapes to the local Le Vin Winery. Everyone must try the Le Vin Pinot at least once! Le Vin Winery, Tel: 707-894-2304.

STOP! I am called back to Los Angeles for my other job but leave Mendocino County with unfinished business. I make a deal with myself to return when the weather has changed. I have not had enough yet!

It's June when I return. This time, I drive from Venice, California and find myself headed towards 128 again. The ride. The road. It's worth it. Summer is moments away. I am headed northwest to the ocean but where I catch highway 128 off the 101, the weather is perfect. Mid-70s, warm California sunshine and the trees are clothed, though the temperature drops by the time you leave inland and reach the coast.

Next up: The Stevenswood Spa Resort. I'd met the owner Michael on my previous trip, through Eric Schramm, The Mushroom Man. I arrived around 7:30pm for two nights. Here we go again. When I pull into the drive, Nelson comes bouncing out of the quaint, 10-room boutique inn. He is expecting me. Upbeat and personable, Nelson is born and bred just a short ways up the street. He wears a handlebar mustache. I have not seen one live and in person since Rollie Fingers presented one during his tenure with the Oakland As back in the ‘70s. Nelson helps with the bags, a quick tour of the hotel and leads me to my room. All the rooms are suites at the Stevenswood. Nelson gets the fire going and upon departure, informs me he is off for the next two days. He's knowledgeable and a character like no other. Thanks Nelson, and goodnight.

A couple of highlights about the Stevenswood. It's small and quiet. The inn houses the only five-star luxury spa in Mendocino. They love dogs and give $100 off to anyone who arrives in a Hybrid. All the rooms have Tempur-Pedic beds. There's free Internet, and the showstopper -- FREE unlimited local and long distance calling! Breakfast is included and dinner is served most nights. Although perhaps not at the same level or caliber as The Stanford Inn, The Stevenswood is environmentally committed. They too are looking towards a healthy and sustainable future and constantly making environmentally conscious upgrades and changes. Michael and his partner bought the inn three years ago and moved up from Southern California after years of working in the hotel industry. Michael mentions they explored upwards of 1,000 options, looking all over the world before settling right across the street from the ocean in Mendocino County.

The next morning: a quick run on the treadmill and a delicious breakfast, which is included for all overnight patrons, and then it’s time to venture out. Last trip, I was tipped off by the locals about the Pygmy Forest. I call it the Midget Forest. At any rate, what I envisage and see, are totally different. Interesting to many but not for me. Back to the hotel. Read, write and relax. It comes easy in this part of the country. Clean air, giant redwoods and the ocean. I drive into town for a late lunch of fresh wild red snapper tacos at the Mendocino Café (10451 Lansing Street, Tel: 707-937-6141). The tacos were great! I cruise back to the hotel, lay around on the second floor decks and decide to blow off dinner. Late lunch has my tummy satisfied. I have an early night. I exercise again in the morning and then it's time for the spa. The woman at the spa recommends a facial and I go with it. Relaxed and revitalized, it seems my trip is complete. I say my goodbyes and I'm back in the car for the drive home. I like it here and see myself returning. I recommend Mendocino for singles, couples and families alike. It is a mellow and special place. I have been to Northern California on many occasions but this was my first time venturing past San Francisco. Mendocino County offers something special and unique at any time of year.

David Bushell recently wrapped filming the psychological thriller The Tourist. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams, and is directed by Marcel Langenegger.

Before that, Bushell produced the comedy The Wendell Baker Story, written and directed by Luke Wilson and co-directed by Andrew Wilson, to be released on May 18th, 2007 by ThinkFilm. The film features an ensemble cast that includes Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Eva Mendes, Eddie Griffin, Will Ferrell, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel.

Bushell executive produced the critically acclaimed and award winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film, which earned Charlie Kaufman an Oscar for Best Screenplay, stars Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Kirsten Dunst, and was directed by Michel Gondry. Shortly after the filming of Eternal Sunshine, Daily Variety named Bushell one of their “10 Producers to Watch.”

His ongoing commitment to bringing independent spirited content to screen has resulted in such praised work as Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade. Bushell produced the film, which earned Thornton an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In addition, he produced Bob Gosse’s Niagara, Niagara, starring Robin Tunney; Nick Gomez’ Illtown, starring Lili Taylor; Hampton Fancher’s The Minus Man, starring Owen Wilson; and Laurence Fishburne’s Once In The Life. He was the executive producer of Bob Dolman’s The Banger Sisters, starring Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn and Geoffrey Rush.

Bushell has recently become involved in philanthropic endeavors. He started off 2007 by producing a benefit concert for The Women’s Cancer Research Institute at Cedar’s Sinai Medical Center. The event was held at the Gibson Amphitheatre and featured legendary artists Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne and John Trudell.

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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Pictures From

The Trip


Mendocino Coast Shot


Downtown Mendocino Coast Beauty Shot


Road 128


Stanford Inn Entrance


Stanford Inn Balcony Shot


Stanford Inn Lobby Fireplace


Stanford Inn Breakfast Delight


Stanford Inn Dessert


Stanford Inn Pool


Stanford inn Balcony View of Ocean


Stanford Inn Balcony


Ricochet Ranch


Ricochet Ranch


Horseback on the Beach


Harbor Seals on the Beach


Health Food Store


Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites Lobby Bar


Mendocino Mushrooms


Candy Cap in the forest


Pig's Ear Mushroom


Mushroom Man in the Forest


Bushell on the Mushroom Hunt


Eric Schramm/Loner the dog


Mendocino Grapes


Stevenswood Lodge


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