Why do six massive pieces of driftwood at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean have their own Facebook page?
I can tell you why. Because they are arranged in the shape of a bench above Portuguese beach at Mendocino Headlands State Park. Whales, dolphins and sea lions visit the cove below and gulls catch updrafts near the rugged cliffs. This spot, where the sea meets the river, has one of the loveliest views on the entire west coast.
The planks are scored with carvings: words and symbols etched into the soft redwood in a variety of CL + LW, often enclosed in a heart. The scripted LOVE that gave the bench its current name is prominent near the top. The Love Bench was chosen as title photo for a National Geographic article on Northern California in 1993 and has been showcased in countless travel guides and photo histories. It is a big bench, famous big, but also big in stature, measuring five feet high and over seven feet wide.
A wooden plaque across the back pays homage to original builders, Domingo Valador and Joe Silva. This piqued my curiosity about its origin—who were these guys and what inspired them to construct a bench here?
The village of Mendocino is fortunate to have extensive historic records tucked into a few rooms of the Kelley House museum. I made an appointment at their research office and dug in.
It turns out the bench was constructed in 1955. I noted East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s classic novel, was filmed that year in Mendocino. The opening scenes of the movie depict James Dean’s character following his estranged mother up and down Main Street. At the time, a row of buildings stood on the south side of Main, remnants of the logging era at Big River. I wondered if James Dean ever sat on this bench. Or maybe Domingo and Joe busied themselves here for a birds-eye view of filming and a glimpse of the stars.
I learned that the southwest section of town is known as Portuguese Flat, an area settled by immigrants, many from the Azores Islands off Portugal, in the late 1800’s. A book by Eleanor Sverko, Early Portuguese Families of Mendocino, includes photos of mail order brides making the trip, sometimes three or four sisters from the same family back home.
These Portuguese were fishermen and the original bench was built as a place to watch weather and tides, search for schools of cod and salmon—signs that launching boats might yield a productive haul. At the time, a steep stairway led from the bluffs to their boathouses on the beach below. The stairway and boathouses have vanished in Mendocino’s pounding storms, but the bench has existed as long as most locals can remember.
Photographs from the 70’s and 80’s show attempts to patch the bench together in one form or another, its scores of engravings, a crisscross pattern of new and old. Through the years it fell victim to abuse from the elements and vandals. By 2000, it was in serious disrepair. A group of local citizens, including the late Joan Curry, began a restoration campaign.
At that point, the Mendocino headlands had come under the management of State Parks. When logging companies wanted to develop the bluffs for worker housing in the 1960’s, concerned residents lobbied hard against them. With a considerable influence of renown local artist Emmy Lou Packard, the Mendocino Headlands was established as a State Park in 1972.
In 2003 State Parks Restoration Specialists Mike Cabaniss and Matt Liebenberg reconstructed the bench using photographs supplied by Joan Curry. “You always try and return to the ‘period of significance’ for a restoration,” Cabaniss said, showing photographs of the bench’s evolution through the years. “Slope erosion had heightened the bench seat and tilted it in the direction of the cliffs just a few yards away.”
To remedy this, Cabaniss dug the base of the bench into the hill, eliminating the slant. Then, using as many of the original old-growth planks as possible, he added found driftwood pieces and fabricated copies of the front posts. Finally, he shaped the armrests.
Soon after, the new bench was honored with a dedication ceremony. A party at the Ford House Visitors Center was attended by over seventy-five people, including original builder Silva (now deceased). Apparently, there was much reminiscing at this event about the early days of the Portuguese community, although unfortunately it was not recorded.
My guess is you’ll want to see The Love Bench for yourself. It’s easy to find. Just walk, or drive, to the west end of Main Street. When the road takes an uphill turn you’ll see a break in the white fence. Here, you access the well-trodden path leading through grasses, wildflowers and blackberry brambles, toward the bluffs. On the way, you’ll pass a marker honoring Ms. Packard’s vision for the Mendocino Headlands.
Eventually, you’ll come to the bench with its magnificent view of the blowhole tunnel and Portuguese Beach. In the distance are totems carved from the remnants of old loading docks and a new set of stairs cut into the hillside at the far end of the beach. If you venture down, be observant: this small beach can completely disappear in high tides.
Take a moment to rest above the ebb and flow of the sea. Soak in the splendor of the natural world. Feel gratitude to this small community for protecting historic treasures like this, a place for quiet contemplation during long winter months, and foggy summer picnics.
If you are like me, you imagine the stories this bench could tell. Over half a century of marriage proposals and secret weekend trysts etched into the graying wood. Certainly, there have been a few parting conversations, as well. And many names seem carved into the planks simply for posterity.
The Love Bench will continue to absorb a bit of humanity with every new inscription. I like to think it has a heart of its own.