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by Steve Heilig, July 31, 2013
When I was growing up south of Los Angeles, anything north of, say, Santa Barbara seemed like Alaska. Or, almost. Certainly up above San Francisco was mysterious and exotic. On first visits, way up around the Mendocino Coast things appeared truly beautiful, gorgeous unto being paradisiacal. Looking out from any coastal bluff, the vast blues of sea and sky spread out, endless rolling green and brown hillsides and canyons dropping down after miles of moist redwood valleys. We'd drive around aimlessly and just camp wherever we wound up, in “real campgrounds” but more often just pulled off next to the road in any spot with a view, or down on a remote beach. It all seemed a sort of shangri-la, populated by earthy, hip happy healthy humans and vast open spaces full of other exotic species living in harmony.
Little did I know.
That was the 1970s, when the vanguard of back-to-landers and cannabis agriculturalists found their spots and built that much-abused word “community” out of widespread hideouts. By the 1980s, though, some things were starting to tatter.
We had some casual pals who lived in a strangely-named canyon north of Fort Bragg. The couple living there were known, at least to me, as “How” and “Dee.” We used to visit after a surf session at Point Arena and a bit of touristing in Mendocino village. It was always a relaxing and entertaining stopover, as they were gracious hosts. There was a red wooden house and barn and a couple of decrepit out-buildings and then trails heading up away from Highway 1 into the woods. But we hung out at the house and barn and were never invited up behind there, which was fine. And as good houseguests, we didn't ask questions.
There was another guy they hung with a bit down the coast and up a dirt road named Tire, who seemed the shadiest and craziest of them all, sort of a slightly-older guru-type with a deranged edge, but nice enough. And yet another member of this crew named Cliff who had a normal name but lived on the outskirts of Fort Bragg in a rundown oceanfront house set back from, yes, the sea cliff. He had a bunch of extension cords strung together running out to the cliff's edge, where one of those old “magic fingers” leather massage chairs was perched. You could eat dinner and drink lots of wine in his house and then wander out to the electric chair, sit down, pull a tarp over yourself against the drenching fog, flick the switch, and vanish into the surreal sensual overwhelming rumbling of the chair while giant waves crashed just below.
I once brought a new girlfriend up from the city, showed her the cove at Point Arena, lately destroyed by huge storm surf, walked the crumbly streets of Fort Bragg and played tennis at the local school's courts, and the next stop was the Red Barn canyon. How and Dee were happy to see us and put us up for the night as usual. How leered at my new squeeze but he seemed good-natured and harmless, plus she was used to it, being tall and exotically beautiful. We told them we were thinking of going up to where the highway turned inland, then taking the Usal Road up into the Lost Coast, just to explore. Shaking his head a bit, How said, “Beautiful spot, rough road, but, er, I dunno if I'd do that. Or at least, don't mix with the locals if you can help it — they're a bit rough up there, some of 'em, eh.” And he nodded towards my girlfriend, as if to double his warning.
“Oh, don't be silly, it'll be fine and it's gorgeous up there,” replied Dee, and I was thinking the same thing; too much herb, combined with illegalities and isolation, can make people paranoid. So we went to sleep and in the morning had some of Dee's fine breakfast cooking and then headed further north.
The dirt Usal road was easy to miss and we did, once, then doubled back after it was clear we'd gone too far and were heading up into the curvy redwood pass, then doubled back and found it. It was steep upward from there, summer dirt and dust kicking up when we got going much more than 5 MPH. But before long we emerged out on a sort of bluff where that astonishing vista of Pacific horizon stretched out to seeming infinity. I found a place to pull off and we got out and stared. A light breeze, warm sun, vastness. I had an idea, a good one, and went to the trunk, pulled out a sleeping bag and the remaining half bottle of wine from the day before, and said, “Follow me.” We walked downhill a bit, through waist-high waving grass, until there was a little flattened spot with a drop-off allowing a 180-degree ocean view. I unzipped the bag and spread it out, red-checked flannel inside up, turned to the girl, pulled her close, kissed her. She giggled and kissed me back, leaning into me in a way that erased my mind altogether.
No words were needed, and soon we were engrossed in what healthy young naked humans tend to do sometimes, left to themselves. She smiled and kind of took over and I was looking up at her and the sky and feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet just then, and then I think we might have both been making some rather loud animalistic sounds when BOOM! — an explosion shook everything from just up the hill. A bomb? A shotgun or big pistol? Whatever, it certainly broke the spell and flow and she dropped down next to me with a look of shocked terror. I likely looked the same. But I quickly realized I had to be a “man” here and now, whatever that might mean, as we hustled our strewn clothes back on, still lying low on the ground.
I told her to stay down and raised my head above the summer brush. Nothing was visible but the hood of our car 20 or so yards uphill. Shit shit shit, I thought, now what? So I figured the best course was to do nothing at first, wait and see who was up there and what the hell they might want. Images from the film “Deliverance” and worse rolled across my vision. I looked around for a stick or something, but the only potential weapon was the wine bottle. I whispered to her to roll up the sleeping bag and crawl some distance away in the grass, staying down and invisible. She just stared at me for a moment, wide-eyed, and then turned and slithered off. I stuck my head back up just to take a peek, and still saw nothing. So, feeling silly, I also started crawling up the hill, the neck of the bottle in my hand.
The bottle felt like a feeble weapon against a gun, and possible scenarios played out in my mind as I crawled closer. Hopefully there was only one nut up there — I sure hoped so. As a fairly good pitcher I might be able to bean the redneck, or at least distract him for a second, and get to him to take the gun before he could use it. I was a trained marksman and felt that getting my hand on the gun would take care of everything. Would I shoot him, or them? Then I'd throw the gun far down towards the water where it would never be seen again, and we could just roll any bodies down the hill into the brush, where the coyotes and vultures would pick them clean and leave skeletons to appear in the winter when the wind and rain beat the brush back down. But what if there were more than one guy, how would I deal with that? My karate lessons were far in the past. Maybe they wouldn't know there was a girl down there too and it would just be a robbery of my meager funds, which would be fine. Maybe it would be best to just throw myself at their mercy, keeping her out of any events until they were gone. They could even have the old car and we'd walk back down to hitch on Highway 1.
All of this played out in my brain in the minute or so it took to get up to the edge of the road. It was quiet there. The car stood alone. I had no choice but to stand up, bottle in hand, and look around. Nobody. No other car, no sign of anybody having been there. My heart was pounding loud and my hand was shaking, as I could almost feel a bullet winging towards me in a kind of final slow-motion vision, but the coast seemed clear. Was it a trap? Were they trying to flush me, and her, out of hiding? How long should I stand there? I suddenly felt silly, even though there had undeniably been a gunshot just a few minutes before. So I just walked up and down the road a bit, looking for tire tracks or footprints — nothing — and came back to stand by he car.
Minutes passed, as slowly as seemed possible, and I finally decided we had to just go for it. I walked back down through the brush to the flattened area where we had “picknicked” and quietly called her name. Her head popped up over the brushtop; I put my finger to my lips and motioned her uphill, and she rose and we walked quickly up to the car. As we got in, I saw a glint of bright sunlight reflecting off something in the dirt a few steps away, bolted over and picked it up — a spent shell, a big one, still warm — whether from a barrel or the sun, I didn't know. I shoved it in my pocket, got into the driver's seat, and we headed downhill much faster than I usually would drive, back down the dusty road to Highway 1 and “civilization,” such as it was. By the time we hit the pavement she was sobbing uncontrollably from fear and, I hoped, relief. For my part, I couldn't even talk about it, and just put my hand on her shoulder as I drove south.
That evening we wound up at Tire's place, with a small crowd of locals and a barbeque going. Lots of booze and smoke and some white powder were going around and I told the story while sitting around a worn coffee table. “Shit!” said Tire, and reached behind him on his ratty couch and pulled out a massive pistol. “That's why I have this around!” Great, I thought, a coked-out would-be gangster — it's probably more dangerous right here and now than it ever was up on the Lost Coast. He leered at my girlfriend for a moment, gun in hand, and I started to spin out more violent defensive fantasies but he quickly laughed and put the little cannon down on the table, got up, and went out to piss and probably snort some more. At one point, while everybody still there seemed distracted, I quietly grabbed the gun, laid it on the filthy carpet, and shoved it under the table with my foot. I contemplated surreptitiously unloading or even stealing it but figured, better leave things at that.
At some point in the middle of the night, after too much food and drink and dope and ridiculous chatter, we left, and drove back through now-foggy Fort Bragg to How and Dee's place — the locals called that drive “running the gauntlet” as their vehicles so often contained illegal substances and the sheriffs and Highway Patrolers seemed to suspect that. But we all made it, and then she and I left in the morning for a much more sedate long drive down the coast. That was our last visit there for many years.
Those coastal Mendo hipbillies — Tire, How, Dee, Cliff and some others — did come down to the city one time after that. Most likely they were doing an urban illegal delivery of some kind and were flush with illegal cash, so a gang of a dozen or so of us went to some very fancy eatery, drank hundreds of dollars of wine, and then to a movie at the funky Balboa Theater in San Francisco's Richmond District. I don't recall much about the film as there was so much indulging going on around me before and during it. We'd commandeered a full row of seats but clots of two or three people kept getting up to go to the bathroom or somewhere to shove more powder in their noses and drink water to combat the cottonmouth and lord knows what else. The chattering of teeth and tongues was incessant, as was laughter in the right and wrong places during the film. Some people didn't come back at all. By the time the movie was over there were just a few of us still sitting there. Who knew where people had scattered to? How would they find each other again to go back northward?
Even though I was sort of their de facto city host that evening, I figured it was not my problem, and they'd figure it all out. But that was the last time I'd ever see any of them. Years later I heard some of that crowd had been busted with serious consequences; some had declined into junkiedom, as too often happened in that realm; at least one had died and another had been deported. And I also learned of murders and disappeared people up on that idyllic stretch of coast.
It's still gorgeous there, but so much for paradise. In retrospect, some of what went down with that Fort Bragg crowd seemed a harbinger of the broader trend, wherein the happy family pot farms devolved into big business, hard drugs, guns, lethal paranoia, and all that.
As for me, I'm not so sure anymore of the wisdom of just camping wherever looks nice, and the girlfriend is long gone — maybe some of my friends were a bit too “exotic” for her, and she married a wealthy banker, soon getting her two kids and (gated) white picket fence. But I do still have that big emptied bullet shell.