Are there ever earthquakes? ‘Oh for sure. There was one a couple of weeks back’

I find warm hospitality and spontaneous friendship in Gualala, where I stop on my journey up the Americas

The coast of central California progressing north takes one’s breath away. Ragged with cliffs and inlets, the Pacific – blue and sparkling on this sunny, early summer day – has carved out bay after little bay and the land rushes down from the ridge of mountains parallel to the sea.

I stopped in Gualala outside the supermarket where I wanted to get a bottle of wine and a tin of something or other for dinner, knowing that wherever I found to camp probably would not have a shop.

As I got off the bike, a fellow approached me and we started chatting – about biking, the area and what was I doing. Within a sentence or three, he was inviting me back to his house and suggesting I could drink my wine there. He said not to worry about finding a campsite because I could stay the night at his place as well.

He seemed normal, sane and pleasant. But I still accepted his invitation by joking that if I came back to his house, I guess we’d both find out which one of us was the axe murderer. We laughed, but David Belk (76) – and his partner Shao-ying – turned out to be the sort of gracious, kind and interesting hosts that make casual and random 24-hour encounters among the many things that make independent travel worthwhile.


I followed David’s red Toyota pickup truck a couple of miles north up the coast to Anchor Bay. His home was on Fish Rock Road, a narrow one at right angles to the coast that went slightly up into the hills. A wooden sign over the front porch says Enchanted, and the house is indeed enchanting - – a beautifully designed and maintained timber home that backs on to a redwood forest, where the ground plunges into a steep-sided small ravine so that the entire house seems suspended amid the trees.

What is suspended among the trees is what David calls his Ewok Outpost, named after the small furry Star Wars creatures that inhabit the fictional forest moon Endor. David’s Ewok Outpost is what my wife would call a Gin Platform. It’s a timber deck with seating that is bolted into the trunks of three very large redwoods about 20ft up and from which the ground falls away almost vertically.

Sitting there, as we did drinking Pepsi (at least initially), was like sitting mid-air in the middle of the forest. Having it made was “probably the best money I’ve spent in the last 30 years”, said David, a retiree, who comes here every day just to relax and watch the forest. He bought four acres of it in 1977.

The redwoods are everything you’d expect: tall beyond belief, great sturdy trunks reaching maybe 150ft, ramrod straight into the sky. At the bottom of the ravine, there’s a stream. The forest floor is covered in ferns and small flowering plants. In 2014, the home adjoining David’s forest came up for sale and he was able to buy it and decamp there forever.

As David said, when you are inside the house, “you feel you’re in the forest rather than living next to it”.

The home is essentially a shingle-clad rectangle built on the shoulder of the valley and parallel to it. Picture windows at the rear bring the forest right into the house. It is three stories but, because it takes full advantage of the steep-sided valley, it appears from the road to sit low, almost like a bungalow.

The house was built by an American architect, designer, muralist and painter named Millard Sheets (1907-1989). He earned his reputation designing large-scale statement buildings for the Savings and Loan Bank in California, where he was born. During the second World War, Sheets also designed aviation school buildings in California, Arizona and Texas. Other examples of his work included huge mosaics for buildings and promotional posters for Trans World Airlines and various other companies in the travel business. Sheets did well financially from some property dealings along the California coast near Anchor Bay.

The second owner after Sheets was another David. “He was a psychic,” the current David said. “He said he lived in the 7th dimension and was trying to progress to the 12th. He was a little out there.”

Well, it is California...

In Enchanted, the entrance door opens to the main livingroom, which is all windows to the forest and made of timber. The ceiling is as high as the roof so the room, with an open plan dining area and kitchen, feels huge. I sat there as Shao-ying and David rustled up a delicious meal of ribs and an oriental chicken soup which I suspect owed much to Shao-ying’s Taiwanese background. We drank wine and, joined by neighbours David and Cindy, swapped stories of travel, life and politics. The next morning, Shao-ying, who is an acupuncturist, showed me how to sit and stretch my spine, exercising each individual vertebra.

David whisked me off further up the coast to show me Bowling Ball Beach, named after the large spherical sandstone rocks that emerge out of cliffs which are being eroded by the sea. Movements in the earth’s crust upended the originally horizontal sandstone into vertical cliffs. When worn down by the sea, what’s left are parallel lines that look like they could be bowling lanes. According to David there are only three: this one, another in Montana and a third in New Zealand.

The sea erosion is so severe that the days are numbered for several clifftop homes, all million dollar places in a stable seaside location but now, some of them at least will be close to worthless. A little further along the road, we stopped at Alder Creek, an apparently humdrum small valley with a bridge over a stream that runs into the sea, and a few ramshackle timber farm buildings. The land of the northern side of the bridge is part of the North American tectonic plate, while the land on the southern side of the bridge is the Pacific plate.

And so I cross directly over the infamous San Andreas Fault, that great rupture in the earth’s crust whose two sides are moving in opposite directions. Scientists predict that California will eventually sever its attachment to the rest of the US and sail off into the Pacific.

Are there ever earthquakes, I asked David.

“Oh for sure,” he said. “There was one a couple of weeks back.”

“Did you feel it?”

“For sure! Seemed like everything jumped a foot,” he replied.

Further along the coast we stopped for a goodbye sandwich at Elk, where the local garage and the small grocery store-cum-cafe are straight out of Americana central casting. The garage has been going since 1901 and is still run by the Matson family. They have had several dealerships, including for Studebaker cars, a vintage poster for which has pride of place inside the hardware and general store attached to the still-functioning garage and towing service. I bought a pamphlet of local poetry and we got two paninis. David and I retired to eat them on a wooden bench overlooking the foaming, turquoise Pacific.

How could one repay such spontaneous friendship and generosity as that shown by David and Shao-ying? I guess simply by saying thanks and offering the same in return.

Guys, Ireland awaits you...

Peter Murtagh is travelling by motorbike from Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, to Alaska, at the top of North America, and writing here regularly. You can also read his blog and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times