I’m sitting in front of my computer screen for the first time in days, feeling torn between the need to put my epic experience of the Lost Coast into words and the desire to spend as little time indoors as possible in the few short weeks I’m in this amazing place. This trip, initially planned as an attempt to slow myself down and unwind in the weeks before leaving the U.S. to teach overseas, has itself become an extremely valuable experience- a curious blend of synchronicity, adventure, and unintended transformation.
My trip to visit family has brought me to Petrolia, a hidden town of less than 300 people, nestled in a river valley that cuts through the Kings Range Mountains. I’m about five miles inland from California’s longest stretch of wilderness coastline. It’s surreal, a town that exists in the past and the future at once, it’s citizens paying homage to tradition while remaining refreshingly open to new ideas. The town itself consists of the intersection of several treacherous mountain roads, steep inclines created by the intersection of three fault lines, a lush river, ranches where cows graze alongside the ocean, a general store and post office. Aware of the negative potential tourism could inflict on the almost untouched region, people here are justifiably wary of outsiders. Luckily, I have an “in”; my uncle, who might be the one person in my family who outdoes me in his adventurousness and love for the outdoors, landed a gig helping to restore a five bedroom cabin in town, moving to Petrolia a year ago so my sixteen year old cousin could benefit from the unique structure of the incredibly small local school.
Maybe upon first impression this is just another country town in the woods, but stay here for more than a few days and you’ll realize something special is going on. I’m convinced there is something in the water, and whatever it is, it’s rocket fuel for the divine imagination. People in this town have an unspoken commitment to sacred community, kindness, and shared plenitude. The more I witness it first hand, the more convinced I am that I’ve found a place where intention becomes reality seemingly within moments, and where the rich connectedness of people creates effortless prosperity. It’s as if the wind blowing through the Eucalyptus trees, the Mattole river rushing, and the not-so-distant crash of salty seawater into jagged cliffs combine to create a symphony… and the universe has been delighted into a graceful dance of “ask and you shall receive” magic.
A morning in Petrolia
I wake up wrapped in quilts in a lofted bedroom, shaking off the urge to hide from the crisp morning air. I open my eyes and remember that this is the view out my bedroom window, and that my family has stumbled upon one of the most magnificent locations in the U.S.
I sip on coffee that was prepared and packaged here in town, then throw on sandals and head next door to the town’s one room community center, where a handful of local women are discussing the new energy that last night’s rainstorm seems to have brought. From just a few moments of conversation, I decide they are a treasure trove of knowledge on all things nature, spirit, and history. I’d love the chance to learn more from them, but it will have to wait. The morning’s Qi Gong class is starting, taught by the local acupuncturist and town’s only doctor.
I’m not just enthralled because I am getting my “Asia fix” before I even leave the U.S., but also because there is something magically synchronous about Qigong discovering me while I have time off. Two years ago, during the most intense portion of my Master’s program, my aikido teacher suggested that I try the practice, as I was having a bit of trouble staying grounded in the midst of one of the busiest, most chaotic periods of my life. She advised that it might help me cultivate a deeper meditation practice- having the discipline to sit still has always been a challenge for me. However, somewhat ironically, the same busy chaos qigong might have helped me regulate was the same reason I’ve made excuses not to seek it out. It seems absolutely perfect that when I finally allowed myself some downtime, Qigong is not only available, but literally happening in my front yard. How could I not go? Thank you universe!
I struggled in my first class, probably for the same reason Aikido was a challenge; because Qigong requires getting out of your head. Maybe that’s exactly why I need this whole trip; to step out of my constant stream of internal babble and get back in the flow of my physical energy. Besides the benefits of the practice itself, discovering Qigong at the community center opened up another perfect opportunity; while waiting for my second class to start, I strike up a conversation, and am thrilled to discover that one of the women in class with me is the school principal. While normally this would just be only mildly interesting, I’d been chomping at the bit to talk to someone about the local school, because it fascinates me- it’s a public school, yet because of the size of the area, has only 36 students including the preschool and high school, and about a 1 to 4 teacher to student ratio. Students here go on frequent field trips to coastal conservation areas, and high school age students spend their last month of every school year doing a career internship of their choice. My inner education enthusiast was jumping for joy when offered the opportunity to pick someone’s brain about the benefits of a school like this, especially when part of the reason I’m leaving next month to teach abroad is to expand my culturally based perspective on education.
Qigong ended at 11am, and by lunchtime, tickled at the opportunity to learn from the unique perspective of these teachers, I had followed the principal back to the school, met half the staff and became a volunteer. I had no idea how my day was going to go when I woke up, but I definitely hadn’t expected to find myself sitting in the sunshine reading Dr. Suess with a little boy from Nicaragua, as he told me all about using papaya on a sunburn. This day was fantastic! I learn that the K-3 students share a classroom, which creates a unique opportunity for collaborative learning. At recess I decide I adore their teacher (although I admit I may be biased because she got her undergrad in art). We talk about how she incorporates creativity in her lessons, using visual art, theatrics, and song to teach science, math, and social studies.
Since I arrived, every person I meet is a vast source of diverse knowledge, and it’s blowing my mind… it seems my journey off the beaten path on my way to starting teaching job has once again made me a student, each day meeting more people I’m supposed to be learning from.
Just when I think things can’t get better, I find out Petrolia also has weekly aikido and yoga classes, and a farmer’s market selling everything from homemade beauty products to locally made granola bars called “Honeydew Hummers”. Plus, I can’t forget to describe the sheer joy induced by being surrounded by this much natural beauty. It seems to be perpetually sunny with a calm breeze, and if I walk more than half a mile in any direction, I am surrounded by ancient wilderness. I think I might actually be in a postcard. I’ve been hiking river beds, deserted beaches and peaks overlooking miles of wild coastline, and when I get tired from all that exploring, I can relax, drink wine from the vineyard around the corner, and play ping pong at the weekly BYOB tournament at the community center. I even meet some fellow Americorp alum who educate local youth on conservation. It’s official, this place has it all.
The coastal view from “Windy Point”…
Maybe the secret power of Petrolia lies in how it was founded. White settlers originally named it New Jerusalem, changing the name when it became home to the first oil well in California. The oil dried up shortly after, leaving behind a small community of ranchers with an innate knowledge that treasure often lies hidden beneath the visible surface. It seems fitting that while I’ve been here, I’ve tapped into a part of myself that has been buried under layers of sediment; this place has been a tonic for my soul. Thanks to this tiny coastal town, I am recharged, fueled by a sublime combination of nature, new ideas, and karmic community.