It was a dark and stormy night and I was lost on the Lost Coast of California.
And I was alone . . .
It had started out innocently enough. I had been lighthousing down the Oregon Coast on Highway 101 into California. I was headed to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse to stay the night, but had decided to take a “short” detour to Shelter Cove to see Cape Mendocino Light. It turned out to be a three hour adventure in the fog, with zero visibility up over a mountain to get there and back, and it was now getting rather late. Dusk had fallen, but because of the rain and cloud cover, it was pitch black out there.
My only consolation was my trusty GPS mounted on my car windshield. It showed Point Cabrillo to be another two hours away, so I put on some relaxing music and headed south, ignoring the pelting rain and howling wind on my car windows – and the ever deepening darkness of the night.
As I got to Leggett, my GPS said I was to turn off onto another narrow road, but the only sign I saw said “Fort Bragg” with an arrow to the right. There was a high chain-link fence there in the blackness of the night that my headlights barely made out, and being unfamiliar with California coastal towns in the area, I decided that must lead into a military installation of that name, so I purposely ignored my GPS and headed straight onward. That was my undoing.
My GPS repositioned to the next shortest route which I assumed would be a major road joining Highway 101 with Highway 1 where I needed to be. I had never been more wrong in my life. I took the next turn that it showed, and was led through a nice residential area. Fine, I thought. It will come out somewhere onto a main artery soon.
The houses started to thin out, and pretty soon the road began to twist and turn as I started to climb. Abruptly, I found myself in a dense forest of massive trees – California redwoods that go straight up to the roof of the sky, creating a dark underwood even in full daylight. But my GPS kept saying to go forward, so determinedly I pushed on.
The road had been getting narrower and the painted lines were getting thin. All of a sudden they disappeared altogether. No marking. None at all. Just black narrow road now barely wide enough for one car in black woods on a black night. No houses, no lights – only my headlight beams cutting the thickness of the mist and rain for a few feet between the trees.
If I had accidently gone off the road, I am sure it would have been months or even years before anyone found my car. The terror started to mount. Was that something I saw moving back there behind that last tree? Wraith-like fog started sifting through the massive ancient trunks. Was that a big hairy something off to the side of that last bend? I kept driving and started praying.
My GPS showed a pink squiggle of a line with no turns off it anywhere. I hadn’t seen a car in either direction since the road lines had vanished almost 45 minutes back. I had only seen the endless trees with the black denseness, so thick now that I could even feel it inside the car.
All of a sudden I saw something ahead, beckoning in the fog! What was it? A faint light, the thinnest of forms emerging from the dense black forest around me. It got brighter and more solid as I approached. It looked like . . . but it couldn’t be . . . but it was . . . a man in uniform holding a lantern! I could barely make out the shape of the hat. He was smoking a pipe and holding a can of some type in his other hand. It had a long narrow spout and was made of shiny dark metal. It all looked vaguely familiar.
For some reason I was comforted by this apparition. I trusted him, and sped up towards him. He moved back into the mist, and where his lantern had been, I then saw a small porchlight beam cut through the fog. A house! Then another and another! Within ten minutes, I had emerged from the woods and the lines reappeared on the road. I was coming back into civilization after my horrendous hour of utter trepidation and rising panic.
As I finally merged with Highway 1 and headed south once again, I came upon the town of Fort Bragg and realized my mistake. It wasn’t very much further to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. I finally arrived at 10:30 pm. Never was any weary traveler more grateful to see that welcoming beam of light cutting through the darkness of a foggy night!
I realized then that I had gained a first-hand experience and been initiated into the ranks of the lost mariners who were brought safely back to port from their watery darkness because of the efforts of a single keeper and a small flame. And whether on land or at sea, a lantern light will shine its rays of comfort to those in their greatest time of need and bring them safely home.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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