"GLASS BEACH," SAID OUR FRIEND VIRGINIA, WHO IS suspiciously knowledgeable about rocks and plants and such.
Glass Beach, we scribbled. Fort Bragg. And off we went on our big summer road trip. We hit the coast in Sonoma County, a few hours north of San Francisco, and for days we tramped around rivers, forests, beaches, back roads and towns like Gualala, Point Arena and Elk -- towns that made Mendocino, oozing boutiques and B&Bs;, look like a megalopolis.
And then there we were, approaching Mendocino's scruffier northern neighbor, the unpretentious old lumber town of Fort Bragg. Time to dig through the guidebooks.
Glass Beach State Park? No such place. A county park? A city park? A national something? No, no and no. But there it lay, at the west end of Elm Street.
This part of California's coastline is crowded with dramatic driftwood, bare geology, sandy dunes, misty bluffs, pygmy forests, you name it. Just north of Gualala, there's a spot called Bowling Ball Beach for its rounded black stones. At Manchester State Beach, the driftwood arrives in hulking logs, and dawdlers build forts large enough to hold a basketball team. After a while, playing in these sands, you start expecting strange shapes.
But Glass Beach is still a surprise. Just make your way down to the shore from the corner of Elm and Old Haul Road, just north of the Georgia Pacific Lumber lot -- don't expect any signs to explain anything -- and inspect that stuff between your toes, where sand is traditionally found.
Some day, this stuff will be plain old sand. But so far, it's still something else: silvery, green, blue, orange and occasionally red bits of ground glass, twinkling in the sun and tumbling in the tide along with tons of more standard sand, bits of metal, a little kelp. In the distance, breakers crash on rocks, seagulls wheel and the meadows of old dairy farms gently climb away from the sea.
We found a dozen scavengers on the beach the afternoon we showed up, adults and children, shuffling and bending, picking favorite bits and tucking them away in Ziploc bags. My wife, Mary Frances, who had been lobbying for a quick peek and return to the road, got quiet. Her eyes widened.
Next thing I knew, she was out there digging and sifting. Since we had no plastic bags, she hoarded her tiny bits in a purse pocket.
"Suddenly I was 10 again," she said later.
So why the glass? From 1950 to 1967, state officials say, the good people of Fort Bragg used this beach as a dump, leaving tons of garbage, glass, china, spark plugs and engine blocks to rust and crumble at the edge of the Pacific, occasionally reducing the pile with a fire or two. (The owner of the property for most of this time, state records say, was Union Lumber Co. )
Eventually, local leaders wised up and stopped the legal dumping, and others fought to preserve public access to the area. But the detritus remained, from tiny bits to burned-out kitchen appliances, and the city of Fort Bragg pleaded poverty. Finally in the late 1990s, the state Coastal Conservancy started brokering a deal with the property's private owner.
Next, the state's Integrated Waste Management Board stepped in and hauled away tons of items, from contaminated soil to large metal objects, clearing the way for the state to buy the property in December 2003. When that $2.48-million deal closed, the state parks department took over the 38-acre site. So now Glass Beach, just south of Pudding Creek, is part of Mac- Kerricher State Park, which lies just north. The rest of the park, a nine-mile stretch, is as rugged and scenic as you could hope for. But Glass Beach remains a science-fair project writ large, the Pacific slowly, steadily grinding these castoffs into something very close to natural material.
Imagine the parks and recreation administrators, trying to gin up language for a sign to announce that, um, yes this is the ocean, but for decades not so long ago, it used to be the city dump. They could make some locals squirm with that, and maybe they should.
In the meantime, it's a pleasure and a comfort to behold, this little corner of the Earth, healing itself. And I wonder: All of us who plunge ahead with our unsustainable habits, using or tainting this planet's resources faster than natural forces can replace them or repair them -- do we carry around a subconscious vision of some great Glass Beach that will smooth away our sins? Is that what keeps us fouling our nest?
That's my big-picture thought now. My little-picture thought at the time was: Hey, these half-smooth, half-cloudy shards will look great on the side table in our dining room, catching a little light when the afternoon sun dips.
Sure, the park brochure warns that "it is illegal to remove or harm plants, animals or other natural features." But are broken bottles a natural feature?
"For us, the glass winds up to be glass on the beach and history on the beach. We hope people just leave it there," says state parks spokesman Roy Stearns. When he was there, Stearns adds, he briefly scooped up a shiny handful, "and my daughter had a handful. And I thought, if everybody did this, pretty soon it wouldn't be Glass Beach."
I propose a global conference of geologists, philosophers and reclamation workers to decide the moment at which a bit of sandy glass becomes a bit of glassy sand. But until they convene, I figure Mary Frances and I are safe in the legal twilight. We took baubles. They look great on the side table. Call it looting or call it overdue custodial work.
And if The Man comes after us and our gems, we're not going down alone. I plan on ratting out Virginia first, then the good people of Fort Bragg. Accessories.
To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.