A Traveler’s View: The Principality of Mendocino County

by Don Edwards, December 17, 2009

Mendocino County's public radio KZYX transmits the near and far, the left and right, up and down of what in a pretty red state seems a principality, an enclave, a refuge — the principality of Mendocino. The somewhat eccentric electronic emissions encircling the principality start before State Route 128 hews up the valley from Boontling Times to the champagne ways of some of these days.

But when I arrive late at night in the township, the village seat, the center of gravity of Mendocino proper, the only apparent emissions are from the Mendocino Art Center Studios. That and Patterson's pub and Dick’s Place, keeping it from small town, not even late-night, shut down. Besides a little light pollution and the rebound from a westerly surf, one hears the sometime clang of hammers on blacksmith anvils in the open shed space of the foundry. A glow marks the spot from the forges re-welded by the current master smith and probably just a few minutes ago thought by some as “not suitable for the Center's mission.”

When before Mendo proper I approached the oldest wooden highway bridge in California — way above the Albion flat — I scurry across while it's still standing, leaving Central Albion behind, all of which gives me flashback of the smudged black and white photos of early Albion mill life which was a lot like Soviet industrial days — let the nostalgia go! The tourist packs will come anyway.

But Doug’s store still looks pretty much as it did in the 1950s photo of the woodpaneled Chevy station wagon being pumped gas at an impossibly low price — way below two bits — by the granddad of someone “farming” a little up the ridge in Albion Nation.

The back of Doug's building still houses the volunteers pumper truck as well as the too frequently needed jaws of life kinds of tools for coastal highway auto wrecks. Throughout this Rhode Island size County, volunteer groups like these sustain the heartbeat of the place the corporations cut and ran from. And the various volunteers are reinvigorated by newcomers determined to finally stay put, no matter how much moisture their laundry wicks in.

Seven miles later, after skirting the moonlight’s shorebound sheen and seen between the several fishing trawlers anchored in Little River Cove, single lunged packet boats were moored precipitously to load timber for San Francisco's rebirth after the great quake in redwood clear enough to reveal your better self.

While in the pitch and heave off Portuguese Beach at Big River, loading board feet on sliding decks in suddenly lurching swells initiated from some remote underwater mountain range that sometimes mangled hands and feet ready for the compassionate knife of Mendocino's Dr. Preston who again, on occasion, was to be covered in gore not unlike his hellish days just after the great quake. “Only better than Civil War field hospitals in that we had something for the pain.”

Or it might have been a timberman struck blind in the craftsman eye by a glint of steel off a bandsaw or his skeleton compacted after a topper's fall. But remembrance of all this is not as elsewhere in selective remnants of the past we've chosen to forget: no picturesque buildings well-maintained of the towns (Glenn Bair, Dewey, Whitesboro, Melbourne, Christine…). They had hotels and cafes and blacksmith shops, stables, saloons and narrow gauge rail yards.

And then there were the countless port towns at every cove and eddy — Pine Grove, Cuffey’s Cove, Smugglers Cove, etc.

These served that wild North Coast Ocean Highway which brought the first automobiles here by ship when Mendo’s many rivers and deep gully creeks finally had bridges to parallel the timbered logging train bridges which served the camps at every cove and landing.

No jetties survive to serve nostalgia’s trade. (Remember it really was not so picturesque.) Hardly a board is left of any of this (recycled I guess): no buildings, no markers, no plaques, no tourist vistas of boom and bust days. Merely on occasion an overgrown cemetery.

Oddly enough, this trade in, and often enough exploitation of, nature's free trade still has hands-on descendents of the original trades. The forge’s dampened roar of open doors in the midst of Mendo’s high class touristville is music to what is still molten in the heart of this crazy, mismatched marriage of a place. A place where third-generation and late bloomers and tardy arrivals are in a creative dynamic.

No death and potatoes of a world already mourned and asked, and no succumbing to well oiled New Age carpetbaggers (well, maybe a little) putting plastic over their sweat lodges. The Art Center, for instance, in its well used habitat — some would say rundown ways — is a living testimony, a poetic memory, maybe a creative reconstruction of this county’s white man's frontier days. “What Indians? Find me a buck who will take down a 15 foot redwood giant!”

It may not seem important to boards of directors, but the funky old forges in the back sheds connect directly to the old ways with tools of a bygone time often enough sharpened and pounded (“only when hot enough”) from the debris field of these days: giant cast couplings and joints from fourth-generation backyards, or venturing afield to Ukiah Auto Dismantlers, steel parts on the cheap with a high carbon content or auto springs suitable for the tests of ancient crafts current practitioners.

And as for those born here who fled, a lot of the good ones as Norm says are coming back. (Why “The Advertiser” boasts national columnists and an ever increasing prison population readership!) For as Ernie Pardini famously said, “As long as one gyppo remains (meaning in this case one independent noncorporate longer) we are all free.”

Now don't let them silence any of the volunteer fire base stations’ sirens as noise pollution.

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