When I was a college student at Cal in 1978, my fiancé-now-husband, Si, and I went to see the movie Same Time, Next Year, filmed at the Heritage House on the rugged coast just south of Mendocino. Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn play an adulterous couple who spend one clandestine weekend together every year, then return to their spouses and everyday lives. As the seasons, years, and decades go by, they grow old in each other’s arms. If infidelity doesn’t hurt your stomach, it’s a great romance in a breathtaking setting.
As I blew my sniveling 19-year-old nose leaving the movie theater, I decided that Mendocino was the perfect place for our honeymoon. Then I called and nearly choked when I found out how much Heritage House charged to stay for a weekend.
My sorority sister, Maggie, suggested a more affordable place nearby where her parents stayed regularly — the Little River Inn. For similar accommodations, it was half the cost. We booked it immediately and, like the movie characters (sans infidelity), return annually to celebrate our anniversary.
Cabin 11 was our 1981 honeymoon suite — olive green shag carpeting, a burnt orange bedspread and a rusty wood-burning stove. When we approached the front desk to make dinner reservations, the clerk said, “Cabin 11, right?” We nodded. The next morning when we asked our waitress to charge breakfast to our room, she said, “Cabin 11, right?” We stared at each other, bewildered, and nodded again. When we checked out, a different desk clerk said, “Cabin 11?” I said, “How did you know?” She said, “You’re still glowing!”
I blushed a deeper shade of pink.
As broke as we were, we scraped together enough to eat one dinner at the Heritage House. The teenage waiter had more attitude than a societal dowager. He whispered the dinner specials so softly that we couldn’t hear, and we didn’t have enough courage to ask him to repeat himself. When the waiter moved on to the elderly guests at the adjacent table, the old man said sternly, “Speak up, Sonny! I can’t hear a goddamned thing you’re saying!”
We are probably the same age now as that “elderly” couple. (Funny how perspective changes, given time.) Our favorite rom is in a building a little farther south on the ocean side of Highway One — nothing but a wooden deck, a grassy meadow with random Queen Anne’s lace, blackberry brambles and a weathered fence between the surf and us.
I soak in a hot bathtub until my fingers become prune-y, gazing out the steamy window at the ocean below and hoping the latest John Irving hardcover balanced on the rim of the tub doesn’t drop in beside me. A fire burns in the fireplace. Si naps, probably dreaming about getting lucky.
It’s true what he told our daughters growing up. Boys have only one thing on their mind.
It’s a good thing we chose the Little River Inn all those years ago. In 2008, Heritage House’s owners defaulted on a $24 million dollar loan and lost the business. I heard rumors about tax evasion, embezzlement and vagrant drug dealers encamped in the previously luxurious cabins. As of last weekend, it remains shuttered, as do many small businesses in the town of Mendocino, including our favorite lunch spot above the main street — the best vantage point for spotting migrating whale spouts.
It has been a rough few years on us all.
The price of gas at the only service station in Little River is now $5.38 per gallon, up from its 1981 price of $1.06. Cynthia, our favorite waitress (who eventually became the dining room hostess), retired and moved away. The majestic cypress in front of the inn fell over, crushing the white picket fence below. Its stump was carved into a bench overlooking Highway One.
I can no longer read a menu without glasses. This trip, with glasses deep in a dark purse, I made the mistake of ordering stuffed poblano peppers at a Mendocino cafe. “Stuffed Poblano” was in bold type, “crab” in fine print. (I am allergic to crab…) Si shared his cheeseburger and happily confiscated and devoured the crab.
In the 1980s and '90s when our girls were little and home with friends or family, I spent most of the trip worrying how they would survive without me. Now that they’re grown and perfectly capable of coping, I can check email wirelessly in the room and send and receive text messages most of the way up from the Bay Area. Is that progress? I’ll think about it.
According to the amenities binder in the room, the Little River Inn is keeping up with the times by being environmentally responsible. They send used bars of soap to be reprocessed and donated, and shower toiletries help support honeybee and sustainable pollination research at UC Davis. Fire starters are made from recycled candle wax, and kitchen frying oil goes out to a rendering plant. Plus, a voluntary surcharge helps fund improvements to nearby Van Damme State Park — a victim of budgetary cutbacks.
What hasn’t changed in over 30 years? I still love my husband and even though I am no longer 19, I can tell he still loves me. Wandering through Mendocino, I pointed over the top of a white picket fence and said, “Look at that garden, Si! It’s just gorgeous! That right there is my fantasy garden.” Si pulled me closer and said, “My fantasies don’t involve gardens...”
It’s true, girls. Only one thing on their mind. Always.