I've read a great deal of the wonderful adventures that befall those who truly ramble through a countryside, traveling without a fixed plan and stopping as whim or inspiration dictates. It never seemed to work that way for me.
Nonetheless, on a late summer's day in 1976, I found myself driving north on Highway 101 toward Oregon from northern California's wine country with no commitments for two days and a vague sense that the redwood forest of song and story lay ahead. As daylight began its disappearing act, the next dot on the map was marked Garberville. A couple of miles south of this town my eye caught a lighted sign off to the left. Behind it was a bulky mansion done in English Tudor style. "Benbow Inn," the sign said. What was that anachronistic battlesip doing in this hilly ranch country along a road where one-story motels are the norm? When Garberville turned out to be merely a dot, I turned back to find out.
The place was wonderful. There were 40 rooms (containing neither television nor telephone) off halls that wandered about on three stories, a lighted terrace overlooking a lawn set for croquet and a man-made lake. The large reception and sitting room could not be called a lobby. It was the set from a 1920s movie: dark wood, portraits, huge fireplace, oriental carpet and gaggles of adults carefully minding their own business. It had been built in 1926, had recently been purchased and was being spruced up. When I told the desk I wanted to rise early, they gave me a wind-up alarm clock. As I tried to forget its unfamiliar ticking, I pictured one of Jay Gatsby's parties on the terrace.
The clock worked, and I drove off without asking more about the inn's history. But the place stuck with me, like an evening in Brigadoon. Someday I would go back.
This summer I did. The Benbow was cleaner but not moderized. The woodwork and flower beds had been improved. A giant jigsaw puzzle was on a table in one corner of the main room. A couple was playing chess on another table near the fireplace. The salmon was fresh, and the wine list had improved. There were only two jarring notes: The place was full, and this time traffic noise from the highway filtered into our room. That never would happen in Brigadoon, nor in the Benbow Inn of the '20s. The old road, I discovered, was well away from the building.
I also learned that celebrities such as John Barrymore and Clara Bow had been guests at the inn, that it was located in the Benbow Valley and had been built by the Benbow family. Who were they? How did they attract famour stars? What happened to them? Next time, I'll stay longer and find out more. Then maybe I'll finally have the characters and setting for that novel that hasn't yet been written.