Spy Rock Memories, Part 4

by Lawrence Livermore, March 23, 2011

As soon as you give something a name, it begins to die, says an old Chinese proverb, and its corollary might be that as soon as you get comfortable somewhere, things start going wrong.

I thought it might be different on Spy Rock, and for a while it was. Though trouble might be brewing down the road, life settled into a comfortable routine. Our second winter was a dream compared with the first. Lots of rain — at one point it rained every day for a month — but it stayed relatively warm, and there was very little snow.

Because of all the rain — my back porch gauge recorded 120 inches that winter — one of the biggest challenges was keeping our road from washing down the hill. That entailed many hours with a pick and shovel, clearing rocks and mud from drainage ditches and culverts. It wasn’t especially hard work, just time-consuming. Decked out in rubber boots, rain suit and hat, I was mostly impervious to the weather, which strangely delighted me. I’d play engineer, as I’d done in the stream the summer before, digging channels to guide the runoff where I needed it to go, letting the water itself do much of the work. In full flow, it could carry off rocks and dirt far faster than I could shovel them.

With the soil loosened by so much rain, trees were coming down all over the land, and some were considerate enough to fall near or on the road, which made cutting and transporting next year’s firewood supply back to the house far easier. When I wasn’t repairing the road or hauling wood, I’d load the truck with rocks of all sizes, shapes and colors and bring them back to build borders around the house and gardens.

I’d never before been a big fan of the outdoors or of physical activity, but this was a new me, and I was enjoying the heck out of it. Anne and I were getting along better than ever, and apart from the occasional crisis — the wood stove backing up in a windstorm and filling the house with smoke, a leaking or broken water pipe, a balky generator — life ticked along nicely.

There was, of course, a fly or two in the ointment, the main one being that the punk rock band we’d been trying to start was still going nowhere. We’d failed to find a bass player when we’d lived in the city, and our chances of finding one up on Spy Rock seemed remote at best. Musicians were a dime a dozen on the mountain, but their interests seldom ranged beyond the Grateful Dead/reggae/endless boogie fusion that was meat and drink for stoners everywhere.

Punk rock was an alien, almost unheard of concept, an aspect of our character that our neighbors mostly chose to overlook when making the decision to befriend us. They’d occasionally ask questions or make jokes about it, but it was clearly something they weren’t interested in learning more about. As far as they were concerned, my acoustic guitar and familiarity with a number of Bob Dylan and Hank Williams songs was my sole source of musical credibility

Our punk rock ambitions took a turn for the better when our friend Richard moved up from the Bay Area to play bass for us. Richard’s grandfather had been a homesteader in the early part of the 20th century, and his family still owned a large tract of land along the banks of the Eel River, out past the point where Spy Rock Road petered out into near-wilderness. In his grandfather’s day, the property had been accessible via the railway tracks that ran through it; locals would hail passing trains for a ride into Eureka or Willits and back.

But the trains were long gone, so Richard made his way in and out via a combination of walking and mountain biking, a journey that took hours, and which demonstrated a greater commitment to our music than even Anne or I had ever shown. We practiced three or four times a week, and at last the band seemed to be getting somewhere.

Somewhere, maybe, but not where we wanted it to be, which was playing gigs, making records, having an impact of some sort on the then largely dormant punk scene. There were two reasons. First, obviously, we were in the middle of nowhere, the nearest venues for our kind of music being a hundred miles north in Arcata and almost two hundred miles south in San Francisco. Second, while Anne and I had been playing music together — or at least trying to — for as long as we’d known each other, it wasn’t, as they say, gelling.

The sad truth was that we spent more time arguing than playing, which couldn’t have been fun for Richard, who, after his arduous trip up the mountain, had to stand around awkwardly while Anne and I debated whether the intro to the song was supposed to have three drum beats or four. It wasn’t really about song structure or arrangements; the crucial issue was that we were each plowing away at our instruments in our own direction, oblivious to or angered by what the other was playing.

She was a good, powerful drummer and I, well, let’s just say I was improving on the guitar, but we were working at cross-purposes. Smashing and bashing our way through the summer of 1983, we made little visible or audible progress toward becoming a real band, so it was no surprise when Richard announced he’d be returning to the Bay Area at the end of the season.

Meanwhile, other problems were afoot. There having been almost no raids the previous summer, marijuana growers had begun to hope that the war was over, that as long as they exercised reasonable caution, they’d be left alone. But at the same time, there were rumors about a new strike force in which federal and state authorities would combine with local law enforcement to launch an unprecedented crackdown on the devil weed.

There were always rumors on the mountain, of course; it often felt as though paranoia was the common currency binding us together. One of the favorite stories that year involved the Army using helicopters to spray our hillsides with Paraquat, or even Agent Orange to wipe out marijuana farming once and for all.

That threat never materialized, but the helicopters did, huge, loud, thumping beasts, some of them giant Hueys left over from Vietnam, capable of striking terror into the hearts of anyone beneath their flight path. My first encounter with one came as I was walking up the crest of our driveway, which overlooked the canyon carved out by Iron Creek. I could hear the deep rumble of a helicopter’s engine, even feel the ground vibrating with the thwack-thwack of its rotors, but couldn’t for the life of me figure out where the sound was coming from.

That question was answered when a Huey burst up out of the canyon to confront me at more or less eye level. It rose a bit higher and hovered over a tree top while several soldiers — National Guardsmen or Army Reserves — in full battle regalia, automatic rifles dangling at the ready, hung from its sides giving me the several times over.

I didn’t have much to hide — Anne’s dozen spindly plants were in the woods below the house, all but invisible from the air — but I was terrified nonetheless. This went beyond any police action I’d ever witnessed; it felt like all-out war. And in an important sense, it was: although there was no shooting, no napalm, no physical violence to speak of, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting — CAMP, as it would soon be universally known — seemed designed to wipe out an entire way of life.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of marijuana to the local economy and culture. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that people lived in the mountains only to grow dope, few of them would have been able to live there if it weren’t for dope. With the dwindling effectiveness of law enforcement efforts in recent years, crops had grown larger, money had been pouring into the community, and people had been getting comfortable. Too comfortable, as it turned out.

The new 4x4s and satellite TV dishes that had made sense a year or two before no longer looked like such a bright idea once CAMP appeared on the scene. Where once a grower might have had a 90% chance of bringing his crop to a successful harvest, it now became more like a 50-50 proposition, and that was only if you lived in an area that CAMP wasn’t specifically focusing on.

Our property was bordered on three sides by empty parcels where nobody lived or grew, and our neighbors who did grow had kept it fairly low key, so the helicopters didn’t linger too long in our vicinity. A mile down the road, it was a different story: day after day, the helicopters returned shortly past dawn, systematically moving from one piece of property to the next until almost everybody was wiped out.

Even those who weren’t directly targeted endured the stress. There was hardly a piece of land on the mountain that didn’t get a thorough going-over by a plane and/or a helicopter, and even if you’re a minor grower or not a grower at all, there’s something distinctly unnerving about the rising and falling whine of the plane as it cruises back and forth above your land, or the dish-rattling, almost deafening roar of a helicopter hovering directly above your house. FAA regulations require aircraft to maintain an altitude of 500 feet, but CAMP planes and copters routinely flew at between 100 and 150 feet. People talked about complaining to the authorities, but I doubt anyone did. Why make yourself any more of a target than you already were?

When winter finally settled in that year, it was over a shell-shocked mountain. People, especially those with kids, wondered aloud about giving up on this whole back-to-the-land thing, or at least moving into town and only using their mountain property as a grow site. Having just begun to feel part of this community, I hated the idea of seeing my neighbors move away. The kids, on the other hand, some of whom were approaching high school age, were itching for the bright lights of Willits or Ukiah, and their mothers — it was usually the women who were keenest on moving into town — used this as a talking point. “I’m not putting up with another year like this one,” was a common refrain that winter.

Anne and I had come through all right in one sense — at least we hadn’t gotten raided — but her tiny garden didn’t produce much in the way of income, despite CAMP-caused shortages having driven up prices to nearly double what they’d been the year before. At the same time, my own income had all but disappeared; my brother-in-common-law, with whom I’d had a lucrative arrangement distributing LSD to late-blooming hippies back east, had done an end-around and cut me out of the picture without bothering to inform me of this development.

All through the year he blithely lied to me, claiming that business was “temporarily” in a downturn, while I grew ever more panicked about my inability to keep up with expenses. What I didn’t do was talk to anyone else — not even Anne — about my concerns. Instead I became irritable and short with her, picking fights when she’d spend money on the sorts of things we’d always spent money on. She’d wonder — understandably — why I was being so mean, and I’d end up trying to make it up to her by — naturally — spending more money on something I thought she’d like.

One of the things she wanted most, and had been talking about for as long as we’d been together, was to travel, especially to Europe, and I’d more or less promised that one day we’d do just that. For the first couple years on the mountain, the idea of getting away for more than a day trip to San Francisco or the Mendocino Coast seemed like an unspeakable luxury. There were too many things that had to be looked after, too many things that could go wrong if someone wasn’t there to keep an eye on them.

But the winter of 1983-84 was a mild one weather-wise, and relatively stress-free, apart from the rifts that had been developing between Anne and me. With the help of neighbors who agreed to feed the animals and keep an eye of the property, I finally felt free to set off on Anne’s long dreamed-of European holiday. We left for England in February, and for the next 6 weeks fought our way across France, Italy, Spain & Portugal, arriving back at Spy Rock to find the lush green grass of spring already spreading its mantle over and around everything we’d planted and built in the previous two years.

It was a beautiful, almost overpowering sight, one that remains fixed in my memory more than a quarter century later. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier place to come home to. I was still worried about money — more than ever, in fact — and the growing distance between Anne and me remained a problem. I exaggerated slightly when I referred to “fighting” our way across the continent — in reality, there were good times as well as bad — but I was still incapable of being honest about the dire state of our finances, and that dishonesty was undermining our whole relationship.

But it was such a perfect spring that year — the winter rains had been so plentiful that the creek kept flowing and the grass stayed green into early July — that it was easy to overlook the unease and awkwardness dividing us. One day down in Laytonville I saw someone giving away a box of puppies in front of Geiger’s General Store.

Thinking that a new dog might bring us together — I’ve heard of couples having another child based on this same theory — I picked out one whose face uncannily resembled a gorilla’s, and decided to call it Kong. Around that same time we at last acquired a bass player for our long-in-the-making band: Udo and Josie’s not quite 14-year-old son Kain.

He didn’t know how to play bass, but that was a minor drawback. Far more important was the fact that he lived locally and was at least moderately enthusiastic about playing with us. Figuring he needed a punk rock name, I hit upon Kain Kong. To this day I can’t say for sure which Kong came first, our new bassist or the new dog, but I was grateful to 1984 for bringing both of them into my life.

The CAMP raiders were back in full force that summer. They’d mostly abandoned the oversized Hueys in favor of smaller, faster, and quieter copters that were better equipped for sneaking up on farmers and getting down into the canyons and ravines, to the point where I’d be as likely to see them hugging the hillsides below me as roaming the open skies overhead. In light of what had happened to so many of our neighbors the previous year, I was halfway hoping Anne wouldn’t put in any plants, but I knew that wasn’t realistic. If nothing else, she — and we — needed the money.

Until now, I’d been able to support both of us, but finances, especially in the wake of our European trip, were deteriorating rapidly. Where at one time I’d casually hand her a hundred bucks for a shopping trip into town, I’d now find myself calculating how little I could give her without calling attention to my tight-fistedness.

It didn’t matter; she noticed, and for that reason alone there was no point trying to discourage her from planting her largest garden yet. It made me nervous, but I knew chances were good that we’d get away with it. Not only had Anne gotten quite good at cultivating her plants, she’d also learned from our neighbors’ misfortunes how best to camouflage them.

This meant keeping most of them below the house, where a steeply declining, heavily forested hillside made it almost impossible for the helicopters to get close for a good look. It meant sacrificing a lot of sunlight, which in turn meant smaller yields, but everyone was having to do that now. You just compensated by having more plants spread over a wider area.

Although the summer went pretty smoothly, there were scary moments. The worst was when a forest fire broke out in the Eel River canyon. Fires were a nightmare scenario for people living in houses built entirely of wood, especially when those wooden houses were surrounded by grass and trees that by August would have grown tinder dry, and where the fire station was at least an hour away. It’s why the lookout tower atop Iron Peak was so important; it was rare for a year to pass without at least a few minor flare-ups, often caused by the rainless lightning storms toward the end of summer.

But this summer’s fire was no minor flare-up; it consumed thousands of acres before being brought under control, and for a couple terrifying days looked as though it might march right up our hill and take everything with it. Faced with that kind of situation, you have to decide whether to evacuate while it’s still possible, before the advancing flames outflank you and cut off your escape route, or stay in hopes that even if your land burns, you’ll be able to save the house.

Eventually the decision was made for us when the smoke got so thick that it was unhealthy to breathe, and we holed up on the coast near Fort Bragg for a few days. Coming back, we had no idea what if anything we’d find left of our property, but as we rounded the southwestern corner of Iron Peak and hit that spot where the panoramic view of the back loop opened up and always made me feel like I was home, I could see that the Department of Forestry firefighters had done their job. The forest remained intact, and the little bits of smoke that remained were drifting off to the south and east.

Few of the houses had a large enough water supply to give their owners a realistic chance of staving off a forest fire, and in any event, the sensible thing was to clear all vegetation away from the house for at least 50 or 100 feet. But while some homeowners did this, I hadn’t moved to the middle of the forest to live on a barren, sun-baked patch of rocks and clay, so our house remained nestled among the pines and firs, with a lush, overgrown lawn of sorts separating the vegetable beds from the house’s north-facing wall.

If a fire ever reached our property it would quickly climb the branches of the Doug firs that shaded us and spill onto the deck and walls. Even without a fire, there was always a danger that the wind — it was not uncommon for gusts to get up into the 70 mph range when the winter storms came sweeping in from the sea — would eventually take out one of the trees and send it crashing through our roof.

I had faith that nature would treat us more kindly than that, but it was also a combination of willful obliviousness compounded by old-fashioned laziness. And, of course, a fondness for being able to look out my window onto endless shades of green and to hear the reassuring swish and swoosh of the branches overhead. Still a city boy at heart, I might not have been cut out for life in the wilderness, but I had come to love it deeply.

It was a far cry from the self-conscious punk rocker who, three years earlier was in the habit of snarling, “I hate nature” when confronted with one of the beautiful tableaux that seem to crop up wherever you turn in California. In the city, where trees were rare, I’d barely given them any thought; up here on the mountain, where they seemed nearly as numerous as stars in the sky, I thought of them quite a lot.

Wandering around the land, I saw the ravages that remained from the last time the area had been clear cut: the decaying stumps of old growth trees ten times the diameter of any that remained, denuded hillsides that had collapsed into the creek and filled it with rock and silt. It’s not as though I was against logging — I lived in a wooden house, after all — but couldn’t help wondering why they had to take everything, even the saplings and underbrush that was of no use to the mills. I made a silent promise to the land: you’re safe now. I’ll never let anyone treat you that way again.

Around that time somebody cut down a couple of the only remaining trees along Highway 101 in Laytonville. They weren’t old growth, but they were nice tall Doug firs that lent a bit of shade and gentility to what was otherwise a sun-blasted asphalt and gravel desert. It was bad enough that the trees had supposedly been removed to make room for a parking lot; what was worse was that it wasn’t even necessary. The parking lot could easily have been constructed around the trees without sacrificing any space. It looked like the only reason they’d been felled was to conform with someone’s idea of neat and orderly parking lot management. Someone from Los Angeles, I suspected.

I wrote a letter to the local paper, the Laytonville Ledger, expounding on this view. The Ledger was an eight-page affair, published weekly. In writing and layout it compared unfavorably with my high school newspaper, but it had a couple of good qualities. One was that its editor, John Weed, was willing to print letters from any and all citizens with an opinion on local affairs. You wouldn’t find much news in the Ledger, but there were some very lively discussions.

The discussion sparked by my letter, however, got a little livelier than I had anticipated. Having assumed that people would, like me, be outraged by the unnecessary destruction of stately old trees, I discovered that they were far more outraged by my description of “downtown” Laytonville as an unattractive rural slum with few redeeming qualities. My point hadn’t been to denigrate Laytonville — however much it deserved it — but rather to bemoan the loss of one of those redeeming qualities.

It didn’t matter: the following week’s letter page was filled with variations on “Love it or leave it,” “If you don’t like it, go back where you came from,” and “Who the hell does this Livermore think he is anyway?”

This, incidentally, marked the public debut of my Lawrence Livermore persona. The name had come into being a few years earlier when a former girlfriend had hung the moniker of Lawrence D. Livermore on me in response to a pulp novel I’d written about a nuclear accident at the Bay Area laboratory of the same name. But it had been mostly forgotten until I resurrected it as my “punk” name for use with the band. I’m not even sure why I used it instead of my birth name to sign my letter to the Ledger.

But just like that a new entity had come into being: nobody had known or cared what Lawrence Hayes thought about things, but love or hate him — and at first the balance tilted decidedly toward the latter — people couldn’t get enough of this Lawrence Livermore character. Despite Anne’s sardonic comments and a few neighbors expressing concern that I might be bringing too much attention to our little corner of the mountains, I parked myself in front of the typewriter composing missives on everything from the lamentable lack of composting facilities to the war in Nicaragua.

By October the Ledger’s editor had received so many complaints that he decided to stop printing my letters, the first time, as far as I knew, that any local citizen had been denied access to its pages. Outraged, I shifted my efforts farther afield, addressing my ever-broadening complaints to the Willits News and the San Francisco Chronicle, but while those papers would occasionally print my letters about national or international affairs, their readers had little interest in the tempests boiling up in Laytonville’s tiny teapot.

So I’d effectively been silenced, it seemed, and this was not something, I angrily announced, that I would stand for. “I’ll start my own newspaper,” I told Anne, eliciting only one of her patented eye-rolls, but I sequestered myself in what doubled as the band room and banged out four typewritten pages of copy that included a mission statement — to give a voice to our mountain community — as well as a report on that year’s marijuana harvest and an account of a bear that had broken into a neighbor’s house and was discovered devouring milk and cookies it had looted from a tipped-over refrigerator.

Xeroxing facilities were non-existent in our neck of the woods, so I took my work down to Spare Time Supply, a nursery and feed store in Willits that also had a primitive copy machine. Stacking and collating the finished pages atop bags of manure — a fitting beginning, local wags would comment for years to come — I ran off 50 copies of the Iron Peak Lookout, its logo, drawn by Anne, featuring the pagoda-like fire tower whose windows, seen from a distance, resembled eyes keeping a vigilant watch over our Mendocino mountainsides.

I personally handed a few copies to friends, left a dozen more at the Post Office, the one spot in town where everybody eventually turned up (there was no home delivery of mail), and distributed the rest at various gathering places and stopping points in town and on the mountain. At least half of them were defaced or destroyed almost immediately. I’d thought the more conservative townspeople might be displeased with my efforts, but was genuinely shocked that the most virulent opposition to the Iron Peak Lookout came from my neighbors on the mountain — the very people I’d thought I was creating it for.

The crux of the opposition was that I was “drawing heat” onto Spy Rock by writing frankly about its marijuana-growing culture. I protested that the San Francisco Chronicle and various TV stations had already run features far more revealing than anything I had said. I’d talked about marijuana only in the most general of terms, acknowledging only what I assumed nearly every sentient being already knew, that there was a lot of it being grown up in them thar hills, but my protestations were in vain.

“If you want to keep living up here,” I was told in effect, “you’d better find another hobby.” Not willing to take this advice seriously, I was already busily composing issue #2, but it would be several months before it would see the light of day. Partly because I was a little shell-shocked by the fallout produced by #1, but also because a couple other developments ensued.

One was the arrival from London of my wonderful Aunt Olivia — who wasn’t really my Aunt and who had renamed herself Olivia because her given name of Olive was “too boring and English” — and the other was my relationship with Anne having entered into its final downward trajectory.

Olivia’s presence — and it was quite a presence — might have helped postpone the inevitable by making us reluctant to fight in front of her, but verbal fireworks were replaced by sullen brooding or studious avoidance. The flashpoint of this latest struggle was Anne’s insistence — and my equally adamant refusal — that we should spent part of the winter in Brazil.

We had many Brazilian friends, and places to stay would have been no problem, but I said that we simply couldn’t afford the plane fare or the bars-and-restaurants of Rio. She argued that her marijuana earnings for the year would nicely cover the cost. What she didn’t know — what I still hadn’t been able to tell her — was that her income was probably the only income we’d see until the following year, apart from a monthly government check that barely covered our land payments.

Because she had no way of knowing that my easy money of the early 80s was long gone, she figured I was being stingy, cantankerous, and no fun at all. The latter of those was certainly true; I hadn’t been much fun for a while. Between my growing political fanaticism, my angry frustration with our band’s lack of progress, and a general sense of depression that my life had not turned out the way I thought it should, I was a study in angst, alienation, and irascibility. I could barely live with myself; how, I asked, could I expect anyone else to?

We saw out the year, and, for all effective purposes, our relationship, at the Howling Wolf Lodge, a bar and restaurant on Highway 101 run by a couple whose primary income came from renting out circus animals to film and television companies. It was an eerie but strangely satisfying night, with the talk and music punctuated by roars from the lions, tigers and elephants billeted in the canyon below. Olivia chattered with her usual abandon while Anne and I sat on either side of her, using her as a buffer against hurt feelings and studied indifference.

It had already been decided that whether I came or not, Anne would be leaving for Brazil, and as the time neared, it became obvious that my presence wouldn’t be that welcome even if I should change my mind. On a sullen, chilly January day, I drove her down to Willits, where she’d be catching the bus to San Francisco and points south.

We rode in near-silence, any attempts at conversation dissolving into a gloomy, aching lack of anything worth saying. Anne, her naturally sunny disposition only partially obscured by clouds, made a few half-hearted references to how beautiful everything would be by the time she returned in the spring, but it felt painfully obvious to both of us that she wouldn’t be coming back.

I pulled up at the bus stop and stared out my window, refusing to acknowledge her attempts to say goodbye. “Um, okay, then,” she finally said, “I guess I’ll see you.” She opened the door and stepped out of my life.

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