Sublime vistas, lonely trails, no boardwalk

California: Sea Ranch, on the northern coast, boasts splendid isolation and a chance to think. DESTINATION: CALIFORNIA

June 27, 1999|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN STAFF

SEA RANCH, Calif. -- It's designed to resemble the isolated sheep ranch it once was, though all the messy sheep have been evicted. Like a Tibetan monastery, it fosters reflection and a love of solitude, but without the distractions of crashing cymbals and honking conch shells.

Welcome to Sea Ranch, 3,500 acres of California's rugged northern coast lining the winking blue Pacific -- a vacation resort that offers little in the way of fun and less frolic, but a whole lot of splendid isolation.

Last summer, I was invited to a wedding at Sea Ranch and wound up spending three days in one of its houses with a group of friends. Scrawled on a card at the wedding, and in the guest book of our house, was the same line of poetry by the 19th century Austrian, Rainer Maria Rilke: "Live your questions." This inscrutable phrase became the mantra of our weekend, the words we used to greet one another at the breakfast table, the phrase we used to say goodnight.

Live your questions! And my question that long weekend was this: What the heck is Sea Ranch?

So I read about the place, talked to some residents, mulled it over with my friends. It was hard to say. One thing it is not, all agreed, is a resort.

Boardwalks and midways, there are none. Neither are there T-shirt stores nor salt-water taffy shops nor midways nor fishing piers nor sightseeing trolleys nor drive-through liquor stores. Entertainment consists of an ice cream parlor, an art gallery, a few other stores and restaurants, most of them in the hamlet of Gualala, on the northern edge of the development.

Mostly, visitors find rocks and trees and grass and fog.

Yes, there are a few grudging concessions to the traditional notion of a vacation getaway. Sea Ranch has a heated swimming pool, riding stable and two recreation centers. But I didn't see anyone using them during my admittedly short visit.

There are also a smattering of beaches nestled in the rocky parapets covering 10 miles of coast. The water was so cold, even over the July 4 weekend, that the only swimmers we saw were in wetsuits. The rocks were so treacherous, it seemed risky to swim, wetsuit or no.

There was a spooky, Hitchcockian feel to much of the place, as though seagulls were massing for an attack. (Bodega Bay, the setting for Hitchcock's "The Birds," is not far south.) During a walk, a friend and I stumbled on a playground in the pines: a fenced enclosure that included a playhouse built of weathered boards, a hollowed-out log, a couple of swings.

"It looks like a place where Shaker children play," my friend said, nervously. Of course, the Shakers were celibate and had no children. Neither was there anyone in the playground.

The main attractions of Sea Ranch are its vistas and its trails. Footpaths snake for miles through the waist-high grasses and dense stands of pine, along the coast and up into the gentle foothills. Benches overlook coves filled with sunning sea lions. Gulls cry, jackrabbits bolt and mule deer twitch their long ears.

Humans can seem less gregarious than the wildlife. Tromping along the sea cliffs, we waved to other trekkers. None did more than smile in response. "Most Sea Ranchers," explains author Richard Sexton, in his book, "Parallel Utopias," "are not walking the trails to find sociability but, rather, to experience nature."

Sea Ranch is a 2 1/2 -hour drive north of San Francisco, along broad freeways and winding coastal roads. But even when you're there, you may not realize you've arrived. Stands of pine form a twisting tunnel along California's Route 1. The development has only a few entrances, and these are subtly marked -- deliberately so, it seems, to keep out the idly curious. I kept driving past our entrance road.

Once inside the colony, it was as though someone had drawn back a curtain.

Brown grasses danced in the breeze above waves exploding on the shore. Suede hills to the east lay bathed in the shimmering golds and purples of sunset.

"For many residents," Sexton writes, "a life at Sea Ranch is a privilege for which you need to accept many responsibilities, and for which ultimately you must prove yourself worthy."

The wedding itself, held at the bride and groom's new home by the sea, seemed archetypically Californian. It was the third marriage for each. They recited their wedding vows outside in the squinting sunshine. Everyone dressed casually -- I was one of the few guests wearing a tie. And the ceremony was anything but solemn. As the couple kissed, the caterer walked behind them lugging a load of hot dogs and hamburger patties.

A love of the land

The motto of Sea Ranch is "Live Lightly on the Land." And it's remarkable how effectively the developers have managed to camouflauge the 1,200 or so homes. (Some are half-buried in the hillside, others lurk in copses.)

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