Spy Rock Memories, Part 11
by Lawrence Livermore, November 30, 2011
Udo died in the autumn of 1991. He’d been driving alone late at night, so no one ever knew exactly why or how his car wound up at the bottom of a ravine. The best, most likely guess was that he’d swerved to avoid a deer and lost control. We buried him in Little Lake Cemetery, at the south end of Willits. Afterward we gathered at Tre’s parents’ house.
It was a gathering of old mountain friends such as I hadn’t seen since the uproarious, carefree parties of the early 80s, but with, of course, a far more somber purpose. It was hard to avoid noticing a certain awful symmetry: eight and a half years earlier, we’d gathered at the same cemetery to bury Kira, Udo and Josie’s daughter.
She’d been an angelic child. I can’t remember a single negative thing ever being said about her. The world felt like a brighter place when she was around, and there was the slightest hint of a frown on your face or a gloomy air overhanging your mood, she’d immediately set about trying to find some way to send it packing.
The last time I saw Kira, she and Tre’s cousin, Bex, had emerged on horseback from the woods in front of our house. They stopped to chat for a few minutes, I snapped a blurry photo of them, and they rode on. Shortly afterward, she collapsed and died of an aneurysm in her classroom at Willits High. She was 16.
It was spring when we buried her, but a harsh, chilly breeze tossed clouds across a dismal, tattered sky. As they lowered her coffin, Udo all but flung himself into the grave, his coat flapping in the wind as he cried, “My baby, my darling baby.” It was a stunning, shocking moment, made all the more memorable because Udo, a strong, stoic man, was almost never given to overt displays of emotion.
When I first came to Iron Peak, you might recall, it was in search of something more “real” than the hothouse existence of city life. “A man could die up here if he wasn’t careful,” I’d thought. The idea that death was a more constant and palpable presence in the mountains was probably not accurate — no doubt people die with similar frequency and drama wherever you are — but it felt that way. I suppose the difference is that in the city, you seldom know more than a handful of your nearest neighbors, whereas in the country you’re usually aware of, if not directly affected by, every death that happens for miles around.
And though Kira’s and Udo’s deaths hit closest to home, there were others. Many others. Michael Ferretta dropped dead of a heart attack, Judi Bari passed away from cancer. Teepee Doug, spokesperson for the ragtag band of hippies who’d tried to frighten me out of the publishing business, spun out on the curve where 101 shifts from a Sonoma County freeway to a Mendocino mountain highway. Lester, one of my nearest neighbors, and Craig, his brother, both had their hearts give out while still in their 40s.
Not to mention the slow but steady stream of accidents and murders that, while they happened to strangers or people known only by name or reputation, cast a pall over their surroundings. There was the case, for example, of the woman whose mangled remains were discovered in a streambed near Registered Guest Road, about a mile beyond the Iron Peak turnoff.
It was clear to investigators that a bear had eaten her; what remained a mystery was whether the bear had killed her, or if it had merely happened upon her body after she had died from another cause. People were inclined — or preferred — to think the latter; the number of bears roaming the woods had increased noticeably since the late 80s, and it was unsettling to think any of them might be deliberately gunning for humans.
Udo’s funeral was the first time I’d seen Tre in a while; he’d been spending most of his time on tour with Green Day, who were now attracting attention from far beyond the punk rock scene. Tre’s dad, Frank, was talking about refurbishing an old bookmobile and using it to drive the band around, which he would eventually do, right on through their major label breakthrough in 1994.
Even by late 1991, the band was the biggest thing Mendocino County had ever contributed to musically, and there was much talk about what their next step should be. Frank maintained, as he’d been doing ever since Tre joined the Lookouts, that they needed to get “on a big label.” As usual he cited Warner Brothers as an example.
His high opinion of Warner Brothers possibly stemmed from the fact that it was home to his beloved ZZ Topp, who, he never failed to make clear, represented his ideal of what a rock and roll band should be. But he was far from the only one suggesting that Green Day move on to a “real” label, a concept that never failed to irritate me, since as far as I was concerned, Lookout was not only real, but also doing a pretty good job of representing Green Day.
Their records were selling in the tens of thousands and, as I always had to point out, they were getting paid, at a higher rate than they were likely to receive from any major label, for every single one. Between record sales and touring, Green Day had become practically self-sufficient, something that in those days was almost unheard of for a homegrown punk rock band.
A couple months later, their second album sold out its entire first pressing of 10,000 copies the day it was released, and we — by underground standards, anyway — had a hit on our hands. Combined with the similar success of Operation Ivy and the first Green Day album, it meant that Lookout Records was now generating more income than I had ever earned — legally, anyway — in my life.
Hardly something to complain about, you’d think, but immersed as I was in trying to finish my senior thesis so I could graduate from Berkeley, it was like finding myself astride the proverbial tiger. Not that I was in any hurry to dismount; releasing punk rock records was proving to be more fun than I was likely to have trying to control classrooms of unruly high school students, and the pay was decidedly better.
But becoming a substitute teacher had been part and parcel of my plan for returning to Spy Rock. As it became more and more obvious that I neither wanted to nor could afford to abandon my responsibilities as a newly minted record mogul, the Spy Rock dream slipped further from reality.
First months, then years, slipped by without progress toward returning to the mountain. It would have been no problem — especially once Green Day’s meteoric rise to international celebrity in 1994 sent our grosses from the hundreds of thousands into the millions — to refit and rewire the Spy Rock house to serve as a fully equipped office, but instead I found myself preferring to leave it as a telephone and internet-free escape hatch for when the pressures of business grew too overwhelming.
My increasingly infrequent visits seldom lasted more than a couple days, much of which was spent driving there and back. But there came a time, one mid-September, when a relationship gone sour combined with the ever-mounting demands of keeping the company on an even keel left me on the verge of a mental meltdown. It was agreed — my employees being particularly vocal on the subject — that I needed to take some time off.
I spent a few days at Spy Rock, doing little more than sleeping, playing with the animals, and ruefully taking inventory of the repairs and maintenance I’d been neglecting for so long. Then I set out on a rambling journey that took me through the bleak wilds of Northeastern California, on into Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alberta and British Columbia. The scenery, the weather, everything was heartbreakingly exquisite and beautiful until I reached Vancouver, normally one of my favorite cities. There a bank of clouds lurched in from the sea, bearing the first of the chilly autumn rains.
It was time to go home, and I drove the 835 miles back to Spy Rock almost nonstop. As usual Kong greeted me at the top of the driveway, but Ruf-Ruf was nowhere to be seen. I drove down to the house and spotted her sleeping under the wind chime and crystal-laden Ponderosa Pine that had grown up from infancy to hold pride of place in what could be loosely be termed the front “yard.”
She was not as young as she used to be, and had been noticeably slowing down from her frenetic pace of running and barking pace over the past couple years. But never before had she slept through my arrival. I got out of the car and headed over to where she lay; I was not even halfway there before I realized she was not sleeping.
I loved both the dogs, but Ruf-Ruf had always been the special one. She knew it, too, and had always made sure Kong never forgot it, nipping and yelping at him whenever he got in her way, even though she was barely half his size. Living in the mountains had long ago made me aware of nature’s darker side, but even so, I wasn’t prepared for Kong’s reaction to the death of his longtime companion and tormenter.
I buried Ruf-Ruf not far from where I’d found her, but within hours, he had dug up her corpse and set about systematically demolishing (and possibly, though I didn’t personally witness this, devouring it). I dug a deeper grave, covered it with stones, yet somehow by morning he’d managed to retrieve what was left of her. The cats and I watched from the front porch as he snarlingly ripped great tufts of blond fur from her tattered hide. He’d been holding back these feelings for a long time, apparently.
Ruf-Ruf’s death left a large void, and the Spy Rock chemistry had irretrievably changed. Though Kong kept close to me when I was around, and begged openly for the attention Ruf-Ruf had always had first dibs on, he lacked the exuberance that she had brought to the simplest stroll across the land. The cats, who had always led separate and aloof existences, often disappeared for days or even weeks to prowl the forests or… who knew, really where they went or what they got up to?
I often gave them up for lost and presumed eaten. The giant owl that roosted in the oak at the top of the driveway and sometimes spooked me by bursting, like Hegel’s owl of Minerva, into its twilight flight so close above me that I could feel the wind from its beating wings, was just one of many woodland creatures that could have made short work of them.
But again and again they’d surprise me by turning up bedraggled and mewling under my window on some random dawn, missing bits of fur, bearing mysterious bite marks, yet eager to return to the comforts of home and a regularly filled food tray. They’d hang around for a few days or a week, as purring and playful as you’d expect any pet to be, then just like that they’d be gone again, into the wild.
Ruf-Ruf had been the anchor that kept the animal family together, even during my long absences. Once she was gone, the cats, who as kittens had often spent cold nights cuddled with her in the doghouse, put in fewer and fewer appearances. Often during my visits now, I wouldn’t see anyone but Kong.
And they were just visits, that was the saddest thing. When, back in 1985, Indiana Slim had described me as a salmon swimming upstream, he could have been looking into the future, describing my attempts to find my way back up the mountain to a home that, despite appearances to the contrary, was no longer there.
1996 marked what was to be my last serious stab at becoming a mountain man again. Lookout had moved into a suite of offices and accumulated a staff of 14 employees, so it was no longer unthinkable for me to let things run on their own for a while as I attempted to re-establish myself on Iron Peak. I made several attempts, and usually they would run something like this: I’d arrive just before dark, examine the premises, and make a list of everything that had to be repaired or replaced.
The following morning I’d drive to Laytonville or Willits and buy the necessary materials, but by the time I got back from town I’d be too tired to do anything more that day. Or the next day, or the day after that, it typically turned out. Work had left me so exhausted that I would mostly doze on the sofa and reflect on the unexpected course my life had taken until it was time to go back to Berkeley.
One chilly, intermittently rainy spring day, I was lying there in my usual position, eyes occasionally opening wide enough to appreciate the lush array of greenery that, at this time of year, looked intent on overrunning the entire mountainside, when a large black dog went strolling by. It was unusual, but not unheard of, for a neighbor’s dog to come sniffing around in search of food or a new mate.
You didn’t want them making a habit of it, though; otherwise you could wind up feeding someone else’s dogs as well as your own. So I stepped outside to shoo the uninvited guest away. I had no idea who it might belong to; Kong was the only black dog I knew of in the immediate vicinity, but this one was at least twice his size. I was only a few feet away from him before I realized it was in fact a bear, still young enough to be slightly cute, but already way too big to be cuddly.
“Go on, get out of here!” I told it, calmly but firmly. “Shoo! No bears here! Only people, dogs and cats!”
He looked at me quizzically, almost as though I’d hurt his feelings, but gave a slight shrug and padded away into the forest. A couple days later he was back, and this time didn’t seem in as much of a hurry when I told him to leave, so I banged on a pot with a large serving spoon to emphasize my point.
That was the beginning of what would become a more than year-long contest of wills. Captain Ahab may have had his white whale, but I had my black bear, and in both cases, the animals appeared to be winning.
If I was at home when he showed up, I could chase him away, but each time it became harder. He’d figured out that my yelling and noisemaking had no power to harm him, and also seemed to understand that sooner or later I’d have to go back to the city. As soon as I did, he’d move right in and make himself at home.
He found the spot under the house where I left food for Kong and the cats, and after scarfing down a week’s supply in a single sitting, would settle down for a nap, leaving my animals hungry and out in the cold. As he grew bigger and stronger, he saw no reason to wait for me to come back and refill the food trays; tearing the padlocked door off the shed, he devoured everything inside, including 100 pounds of dog food and three bags of fertilizer.
The next time I came home, I found his claw marks on my front door, near the doorknob, in fact, almost as if he’d been trying to figure out how to open it. He hadn’t made it inside this time, but his intentions were clear. He’d lost nearly all fear of me. Shouting, pot-banging, rock-throwing, none of it worked anymore. He’d look calmly back at me as if I were a mildly annoying idiot.
The only thing capable of chasing him off now was a blast or two with the shotgun. Not at him, merely in the air, but I wondered if more drastic measures might soon become necessary.
They did. I walked into the house one afternoon to find my back window shattered and my kitchen in ruins. Apparently he’d been poking around on the back deck, stood up on his hind legs to look in the window, and fallen through it — either accidentally or accidentally on purpose — into the house. Once inside, he’d smashed open everything that looked remotely like food, leaving a trail of broken glass and molasses in his wake as he headed over to the living room sofa for a nap.
People accuse me of making this part up, but the evidence was clear: there was a deep depression in the cushions where he’d been lying, and the blanket was covered with burrs and bits of fur. Eventually, he’d made his exit by pushing out a window screen on the side porch, leaving a couple claw marks in it as his calling card.
It took me the rest of the day to clean up the mess. Because he’d shattered not just the glass in the kitchen window, but the entire frame, the only repair I could manage was to cover it with polyethylene sheeting — hippie glass, as it was sometimes known. I slept uneasily, never doubting that he’d be back. It was only a matter of when.
Until then I’d never seriously considered shooting him, partly because I was a supposedly non-violent vegetarian, partly because I was terrified by the prospect of shooting anything that big. What if I only succeeded in wounding him enough to make him really mad? And even if I did manage to kill him, what would I do with a several hundred-pound bear corpse? I couldn’t very well just leave it in my front yard to rot. Not to mention, though I suppose this shouldn’t have been my first concern, that shooting bears without a license and out of season was highly illegal.
But what choice did I have? Either the bear had to go or I did. Worried that I’d arrive home one day to find him in the house again, I began taking the shotgun with me whenever I left the mountain.
It had been years since I’d been stopped by the police, let alone been given a ticket, but one of the first times I drove to the city with the shotgun in my trunk, the CHP officer everybody up and down Highway 101 knew simply as “Clarence” pulled me over, claimed he smelled marijuana, and asked for permission to search my car. It was his standard operating procedure; he’d singlehandedly busted hundreds of traffickers using that ruse.
In this case, however, I knew he was straight-up lying. I was driving a brand new car that had never contained or even been near marijuana. What’s more, I hadn’t personally touched the stuff since 1993, when a couple tokes had triggered a terrifying panic attack. I grew righteously indignant, and told him so.
“Well,” he allowed, “I can’t search your car without permission, it’s true. But if you’d rather do it the hard way, we can sit here for a few hours until a canine team can get here from Ukiah and give the car a going-over. They’re very thorough. You never know what they might find.”
Was he threatening me? For all the hippie paranoia floating around those parts, I’d never heard a convincing story about the cops planting evidence in someone’s car. At the same time, there was no doubt they could get away with it if they were so inclined. The cops’ word against that of a guy driving down to the city from Spy Rock? Based on what I knew about Spy Rock, even I’d be inclined to believe the cops.
Regardless of whether or not I could trust the police not to frame me, I didn’t feel like waiting for him to bring in the dogs. I had things to do and places to be in the city. So, much as it galled me, I told Officer Clarence he could have a look in my trunk.
Thankfully the shotgun wasn’t loaded, or I could have been in real trouble. As it was, he gave me a stern lecture about the legal way to transport weapons, how the gun had to be kept in a separate part of the vehicle from the ammo, and how I was lucky I hadn’t wound up handcuffed and spreadeagled face-down on the pavement.
Which wasn’t far from what happened a couple weeks later. This time I was driving the old Subaru station wagon, so it wasn’t physically possible to keep shotgun and ammo separated. I compensated as best as I could by stashing the gun at the back of the car and the ammo in the glove compartment. I’d have to have really long arms to put those two together, right?
I won’t claim to be one of those people who never broke traffic laws, but I usually did so judiciously enough that I was unlikely to get caught. There was nothing judicious, however, about my driving that night. I was riled up about something at work, and anxious to get back to the office to set it right. Near the Marin-Sonoma line I encountered a car that insisted on poking along at 45 mph in the fast lane.
I blinked my lights, honked my horn, tried tailgating him, but he wouldn’t move over to let me pass. I tried passing him on the right and he sped up so I couldn’t get around him; then as soon as I got stuck behind traffic in the right lane, he’d slow back down to 45. Whatever his reasons might have been, he was determined that I was not getting to San Francisco before he did.
My increasing frantic and furious attempts to get around him — I wouldn’t be surprised if I was almost literally frothing at the mouth by this time — attracted the attention of a patrol car. “Why are you pulling me over?” I demanded. “That guy in front of me is crazy! You should go after him and get him off the road before he causes an accident!”
“With all due respect, sir,” the officer said, “you looked like the crazy one.” Had I been in a slightly less agitated state, I might have seen his point, but as it was, I was practically beside myself at the thought that the driver who had been causing me so much misery was going to get away with it while I, a perfectly sane and responsible citizen, was stuck here on the side of the road being unjustly harassed.
When a police officer asks if you have any weapons in the vehicle, you ideally want to be able to tell him calmly, coolly, and truthfully that no, in fact you do not. Unfortunately, in my case, none of this was possible. My years as a greaser and a hippie had given me plenty of experience with being shoved up against the car to be searched and handcuffed, but this being the first time it had happened since the early 1970s, I was a bit out of practice.
Once I’d calmed down, the cop turned out not to be such a bad guy. He took off the cuffs and let me — well, more precisely, ordered me to — sit on the hood of his car while he searched mine. The spot he pointed out for me left me silhouetted by one of his headlights, and he cordially advised me, “Just so you know, I’ll be able to tell if you budge from that position, and if you do, I’d be fully justified in opening fire.”
Clearly this bear business was doing my nerves no favors, and needed to be brought to a conclusion. With a full moon coming up that weekend, I decided to lay a trap for him. I filled an old cooking pot — already sporting a couple bullet holes after a previous encounter with a pesky raccoon — with dog food and set it out in front of the house in plain view of my upstairs bedroom window.
The shotgun, loaded with one-ounce lead slugs, reputedly capable of blasting a several-inches-wide hole in almost anything they hit, lay beside my bed. I’d slept that way ever since the bear’s first home invasion, but tonight I had no intention of sleeping. Based on his past behavior, I anticipated he’d turn up between midnight and 1 a.m.
I lay on my back waiting; in my adrenaline-charged state of combat readiness, I assumed there was no danger of drifting off, but somehow I did. Suddenly I was standing on the shore of a semi-circular bay, at the center of which lay an island that looked like a cross between San Francisco and Normandy’s Mont St. Michel.
Water lapped at my feet; fish, dolphins and eels splashed and leapt about. Then came a great sucking sound, as if someone had removed the plug from a bathtub. The water rushed away as it might in advance of a tsunami, leaving behind a vast expanse of sand covered with plastic inflatable sea creatures in pretty pastel colors. The one I remember most vividly was a dead ringer for an old-fashioned cream-and-green Checker cab.
Before I had time to make sense of this spectacle, the water came roaring back, threatening to inundate me. But before it reached the shore, I sat up straight, heart pounding, nerves pumping a double blast of electricity to my fingertips. I knew without having to look that the bear was here.
Sliding across the bed, shotgun in hand, I peered out the window, and there he was, halfway through the pot of dog food. Leaning back on his haunches, he looked so harmless and playful that I felt a twinge of guilt for tricking him this way. I had to force myself to recall the havoc he’d been wreaking on my life.
Although the gun held eight rounds, I knew it was the first shot that would count. If I didn’t bring him down with that one, there was no telling what might happen. But at this range — no more than 20 feet — how could I miss?
During my years on the mountain I’d had to shoot skunks, raccoons, rattlesnakes, and — don’t ask — a few obstreperous blue jays, but I’d never imagined coming up against anything so much bigger and stronger than me. What did I think I was doing? Couldn’t I just give up, retreat to Berkeley, and let the bear have its way?
That’s what my city friends had been telling me to do. They were horrified when I mentioned the possibility of shooting it. “He’s just doing what bears do, they protested. “It’s his home. You’re the one that’s trespassing.”
That line of reasoning irritated the hell out of me. “I was living on that land for years before that bear was even born,” I’d argue. “And his ‘home’ is a hole in the ground out in the woods. I don’t go poking around in his den, and he can return the favor by staying out of mine.”
City people typically envisioned my land as some sort of Jellystone Park, with me as the villain trying to stymie the jolly, fun-loving, picnic basket-stealing bear. “If you really don’t want to share your land with him, at least call the rangers and have them move him somewhere farther out in the woods where he’ll be happy,” they’d urge, refusing to believe me when I told them that this wasn’t TV fantasy land and that there weren’t any “rangers” to take care of my bear problems.
All this raced through my head as I picked out my target and prepared to fire. It would have to be either the head or the heart, and the heart made more sense; it would be too easy to miss his head altogether, whereas I only had to hit him somewhere in the vicinity of the heart to stop him getting away.
I struggled to get my breath under control, reminded myself to squeeze rather than pull the trigger, but at the crucial moment my concentration broke, my arm jerked slightly, and while a deafening explosion rang out across the canyon, the bear didn’t go down. Instead, he jerked spasmodically, his hindquarters lurching into the air. After the briefest of pauses, he went tearing off at breakneck speed into the woods, down the hill, and out of sight.
I had to have hit him somewhere; his body was far too broad a target for me to have missed entirely. Yet it was hard to imagine a wounded animal being able to move the way he had done. And when I examined the area the following morning, I found not a trace of blood or fur.
Nonetheless, I continued to tell myself — and anyone who would listen — that I must have at least winged him. Why else, I argued, would he have never come near the house again? I did run into him one more time, about six months later, down at the bottom of the hill, at least half a mile from the house. The two of us were face-to-face, alone in the woods, and I was unarmed, but he took one look at me and ran away.
But now that I had vanquished, or at least banished, my black beast, I began drifting away from the land again. So, too, did my animals; the last of the cats disappeared for good, leaving Kong entirely on his own. With no bear to worry about, I could leave him a month’s worth of food at a time. I felt bad thinking about him wandering around alone up there, but still couldn’t seem to find time to visit more often.
Then one chilly February evening I realized it had been too long — less than a month, true, but in winter it was more important to keep the food supply replenished, since I never knew when I might get snowed out. On the spur of the moment I grabbed my pal Robert Eggplant and took a late night dash up to the mountain, stopping at the Willits Safeway for a couple 50-pound bags of dog food.
There was not much snow on the roads, but a lot of frost, its crystals sparkling and shimmering beneath the headlights. I could hear and feel the ground crunching under my wheels as I pulled into the driveway. Just after rounding the bend above the house, I ran over a rock or a log that, as often happened in winter, must have fallen onto the road from the hillside above.
It was enough of a bump that I thought I’d better check to see if it had done any damage to the car, but figured I’d wait until I got down to the house. Kong was nowhere to be found, which was very unlike him; in the more than 12 years since he’d come to live there, I’d never known him to wander out of hailing distance from the house.
With a sinking feeling, I remembered the bump in the road, and walked back up the driveway to find Kong’s corpse, frozen so stiff that my car hadn’t put a dent in it. If there was any consolation to be had, there was plenty of dog food left under the house, so at least he hadn’t starved to death. He’d been showing his age for a while; 12 years isn’t a long lifespan for a city dog, but mountain life tends to be a bit harder on both animals and people. Ruf-Ruf had been the same age when she’d given up the ghost.
I got out my guitar and played a memorial song for Kong; lacking anything in my repertoire about deceased dogs, I sang “Sam’s Song,” a number I’d written for my new band, the Potatomen, about the sad and lonely streets of Eureka. The ground was frozen too hard to dig him a proper grave, but the following day a blizzard swept in and left him buried beneath the snow until spring.