Spy Rock Memories, Part 3

by Lawrence Livermore, March 3, 2010

All right, maybe I exaggerated a little bit. There were a few weeks of spring before summer hit with full superheated force. As I was to learn (and re-learn, year after year), freezing weather can and probably will put in at least a token appearance any time up until late May. For that matter, by the time I’d spent a few years on Iron Peak, I’d seen snow — not necessarily sticking to the ground, but definitely snow — in every month of the year except July.

Life in the mountains can get downright elemental, in the classical sense. Nearly everything comes down to some version of earth, air, fire and water, with the latter two being the most critical. In winter fire is your friend and water (whether in frozen or liquid form) your enemy. In summer the situation is reversed; in the tinder-dry hills an accidental spark can turn into a conflagration, wiping out in an afternoon what it’s taken years or decades to build, and maintaining an adequate water supply becomes a constant and vital quest.

I’d been warned in advance about the importance of keeping on top of the water situation, but had a hard time taking it as seriously as people seemed to think I should. Whether in the form of snow or rain, we typically got between 50 and 100 inches of precipitation annually, and during the time — between October and April — when most of it was falling, it was difficult to believe that a shortage of water could ever be a problem.

After months of overflowing creeks and culverts and washed out roads, after being cut off from the world for weeks at a time by mountains of snow, it was tempting, once the sun came out, to sit back and watch the flowers grow. Water was everywhere, not the muddy, destructive torrents of winter, but fresh, clear, sparkling and benevolent water. You could hear it crashing over the rocks in the creeks and streams, see it oozing out of the ground and collecting into rivulets that followed the contours of every hillside.

Our storage tank was full to overflowing without any effort on my part, thanks to a hydraulic ram pump placed in the creek at the bottom of the hill. A ram pump collects water as it rushes downhill and sends it through a pipe about 100 feet long, at the end of which it strikes a valve with sufficient force to trap a little water on the uphill side of the valve. Repeat a few thousand times and you’ve got a steady trickle of water flowing into your tank at the top of the hill.

Supposedly this was technology that dated back to the Romans, which made me wonder why more people didn’t use it. The pump was put together with parts available at any plumbing supply store, needed no electricity or other outside power source, worked tirelessly night and day, and provided more water than we could possibly use.

Until, that is, summer set in and the creek started drying up. The ram didn’t need much water to keep working — a pool five or six inches deep was sufficient as long as the mouth of the intake pipe was always submerged. But the minute it protruded above the water, however momentarily, air got into the line and the pump stopped. No big deal in itself; I could restart it by hand in a matter of seconds. Not counting, of course, the 20-25 minutes it took to make the journey down to the creek and back up again.

When Udo showed me how this worked, he made a crack about how both of us would still be clambering up and down that hillside when we were 80 years old. That sounded kind of cool. Until, that is, the first few hundred times I’d repeated the journey.

Sometimes, especially on days when it wasn’t too hot and I wasn’t in a hurry, it was almost fun. Kind of like playing in the woods when I was boy, forging new trails, jumping over rocks and tree stumps, sliding on my backside when the hill got too steep to keep my balance. And as a child I’d always loved playing in the water, something I was to get many opportunities to do that summer.

The trick to keeping a sufficient pool around the intake pipe was to dig deep into the creek and then build a dam to hold the water in. But just piling up a bunch of rocks or dirt wouldn’t come close to doing the job. This dam had to be seriously watertight.

The creek bed was lined with stones of all shapes, sizes and colors, ranging from pebbles to boulder, and I hesitate even to guess how many of them I moved that summer and the summers that followed. They mostly stayed put during the dry season, but when the winter rains turned the placid creek into a raging torrent, stones so heavy I couldn’t budge them would be tossed every which way, frequently burying my pipes and pump.

There was a miraculous substance, a bluish-colored clay that could be found in pockets in the creek bed. It would most often turn up near the blue rocks that had given the creek its semi-official name, and I suspected, though never proved, that the clay was in the process of hardening into rocks, or possibly the other way around. When wet, it was as malleable as the clay I’d played with as a child, and I’d use it like mortar to line the cracks between the rocks making up my dam. As it dried, it would harden and turn light gray. But wet or dry, it did the job and kept the water where it needed to be.

But finally, sometime in mid-July, even my most herculean efforts could no longer maintain enough of a reservoir to keep the ram pump going. Then it was time to switch over to the electric pump, which, while it could deliver water at a much faster rate, had its own set of problems, the most serious being that while the ram pump would harmlessly stop if it ran out of water, the electric pump would quickly overheat and destroy itself.

Then, too, there was the problem of electricity. While the house was mainly powered by solar panels, we did have a cranky but semi-reliable generator as a backup battery charger and for running heavy machinery. A couple hundred feet of wire had been strung through the woods, but getting water was seldom as simple as turning on the generator and flipping a switch.

No, first there always had to be at least one trip down the hill to ensure there was enough water in the reservoir and, if necessary, to prime the pump. If all was in order, I could shout up to Anne to start the generator, but once it was running, she wouldn’t be able to hear me any longer, so further communication required a trip back up the hill.

At least half the time, further communication was essential: either the electricity wasn’t coming through, or the pump lost its prime, or a part had broken that could only be replaced via a trip to town. On a good day I’d be up and down that hill two or three times, on a not so good day, five or ten. And once every couple weeks, there’d be a day when, despite climbing back and forth from dawn to dark, nothing would work and I’d fall into bed with not so much as a drop of water to show for my labors.

Plumbing-wise, we had a pretty nice setup compared with many mountain houses: not only did we have an indoor toilet, but also a shower and bathtub, a fully functioning kitchen, and outdoor hookups for watering the lawn and gardens. If you didn’t know that the water was coming from a tank situated a couple dozen yards up the hill, it wouldn’t have seemed much different from living in the city, where having limitless amounts of water at your beck and call was as simple as turning a tap.

But the 1,200 gallons our tank held wouldn’t go far in the heat of a Mendocino summer. It seldom got as warm as it did down in town, where 100-degree days were routine, but my old-fashioned round metal thermometer advertising a local butcher (“Meats With Your Approval”) regularly registered in the upper 80s and low 90s. That was in the shade, the cool and gentle shade that surrounded the house itself, thanks to a grove of fir, pine and live oak that had been spared the logger’s ax.

Out in the sun, it was a different story: the fields where everything had been growing with science fiction-like rapidity — I sometimes dreamed that the grasping tendrils of runaway vegetation had enfolded the house and were pushing their way in through the windows — went from green to yellow, and then brown. The earth turned from mud to hardened clay to desiccated clumps that crumbled into dust underfoot.

The only thing that would keep this process at bay was water, and plenty of it. That first summer we had a smallish vegetable garden, some flowers, the fruit trees, and the fir and pine seedlings I’d planted out on the hillsides. The seedlings were too widely spaced to water by hand, and most of them didn’t make it, but all the fruit trees survived, and our tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, corn, peas and cucumbers produced abundantly. Oh, and of course Anne’s half dozen marijuana plants, tucked away in a semi-shady corner just below the house.

To keep all this going, plus, of course, our personal needs, five to six hundred gallons of water a day would have been ideal, but through drip irrigation and careful husbandry, we kept it down to three or four hundred. Even still, that meant we could never have more than a three or four day cushion. If the pump stayed out of commission longer than that, or the tank failed, the little oasis we’d carved out of the arid hillside would vanish far more quickly than it had appeared.

Luckily that never happened, although there were some close calls, especially when a part on the pump motor shattered (almost taking out my eye) and we had to wait over the weekend for a replacement. But by August, after living in what had felt like crisis mode for several months, I began to feel as though I could relax once in a while.

Things, even potentially disastrous things, continued to go wrong, but no longer bothered me as much. I had begun to learn that there was usually help of some kind at hand. Udo, who generally knew what to do about plumbing and electrical problems, stopped by often, and there were other neighbors I found I could call on in an emergency. And Anne not only had an ability with mechanical things that far outstripped my own, she also had a real talent for improvising solutions out of spare parts and scraps.

She’d done wonders with the house, making curtains, hanging pictures and handmade decorations, and assembling most of the furniture and accoutrements of country living through a careful culling of every thrift shop on the North Coast. My own decorating achievements were a bit more nebulous: I bought a couple dozen sets of cheap wind chimes in San Francisco’s Chinatown and a box of several hundred crystal prisms from some hippie supply store and hung them in trees all over the land.

The mountain winds were hard on the chimes, and they had to be replaced frequently, but the crystals endured for decades. 20 years down the line I could be walking on some remote corner of the property and find my eye stabbed by an intense, piercing ray of pure colored light. People laughed at me for spending what would turn out to be several hundred dollars decorating the forest, but I wasn’t bothered: the tinkling bells and unpredictable flashing rainbows transformed an already beautiful place into a magical one.

Another thing making life less stressful was that I’d become acquainted with what people routinely referred to as “mountain time.” In its most common usage, this was the principle that everything took at least twice as long as you’d expect it to, and that anything or anybody you were waiting for might show up an hour, a day, or a week late. Or not at all.

That could be annoying sometimes, at least until you got used to it, but mountain time had its charming aspects, too. You could be clearing brush down by the road and wave to a passing neighbor, who’d stop and engage you in a conversation that might last the rest of the morning, or could result in him enlisting you to help pull a car out of a ditch which might then turn into a dinner invitation and a night spent sitting around strumming guitars and swapping stories. That brush wouldn’t clear itself, true, but it would be patiently waiting for you when you showed up again the next morning.

Our nearest neighbors lived about a mile either side of us, and we got to know them pretty well that summer. Jim and Jenny had built an A-frame out of logs and a corrugated steel roof, tucked so deeply into the woods that from the road you’d never guess it was there. Jim was a Willie Nelson lookalike and sound-alike — albeit a couple decades younger — who at the drop of a coonskin hat (he actually had one) would have his guitar down and be plinking away at “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.”

They had two daughters, Sarah and Jennifer, who would have been about 5 and 10 at the time, the former shy and the latter not so much. Jenny’s sister Linda lived in the house below us, along with her husband Frank, Jr. and their children Lori and Frank III, known to everyone as Tre. Frank had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, whose job had been to drop Agent Orange across the jungle. The mountains of Northern Mendocino must have seemed about as far as a guy could get from those traumatic days. And for a while, at least, they were.

I’d met most of our neighbors in passing, but started getting to know them better one hot midsummer afternoon when Anne and I trekked down to the swimming hole, known as Snake Lake because of the bright green water snakes that loved to swim between your legs the minute you dived in. That took a little getting used to, but it didn’t keep anyone out of Snake Lake for long, not even the dogs, who splashed and swam as happily as the people.

This particular afternoon most of the women from our side of the mountain were there, along with their kids and assorted cousins and playmates. I already knew Udo and Josie’s children, Kain and Kira, but it was the first time I’d properly met Jennifer, Sarah, Tre, and about half a dozen other kids. They struck me as better behaved and more mature than the kids I was used to in the city, more at ease with adults, and at the same time, more carefree and playful. Kids, in other words, who weren’t embarrassed about being kids.

That was the beginning — though it would take a while — of our acceptance into Spy Rock society. As we got to know people, it became obvious that our arrival on the mountain hadn’t initially been greeted with enthusiasm. Considering that Anne and I had often been considered weirdos even on the multifarious sidewalks of San Francisco, it shouldn’t have been surprising that our short hair, our punky/new wave clothes, and our failure to conform to conventional gender roles would raise eyebrows and set tongues wagging.

There had been some suspicions that we were narcs, suspicion that presumed the police would be stupid enough to send in a couple of oddballs who stuck out like sore thumbs instead of some long-haired, bearded Deadhead types who would blend right in. But once Anne let it be known that she had her own little marijuana garden, people opened up, offering suggestions about how she could increase her yield. They also wondered aloud why she’d put in so few plants, and why, since marijuana growing was generally seen as men’s work, I hadn’t put in any at all.

When I announced that I had no intention of growing, and that Anne’s patch was more or less a hobby garden, it made us all the stranger by Spy Rock standards. But even still, we began getting invited to mountain parties, which were surprisingly wholesome affairs, not unlike a cross between the barn-raisings of pioneer times (on one occasion we actually did pitch in to lift and affix a new wall to somebody’s house) and old-fashioned church socials.

The kids would go tearing through the woods or swinging from ropes hanging in the trees, while the men shuffled their feet in the dust and muttered laconically about engine troubles or the latest rumors of marijuana busts. The ladies talked about each other’s relationships and bemoaned the absence of any decent culture or shopping north of Santa Rosa.

Someone would start playing some music, or targets would be set up for an ax and knife throwing competition, and the festivities would roll on into the night, with the children falling asleep in corners or the back seats of cars. Finally, as it got toward midnight, someone would start a general exodus by declaring, “Hoo boy, time I should be going, I’ve got to be up at the crack of dawn to patch that old leaky pump line.” 20 minutes later all would be silent again, as if the songs and laughter and voices had been no more than a fleeting illusion.

When I say silent, I mean, of course, silent of human sounds. Night times, especially summer night times, provided such a raucous symphony of crickets and owls and mysterious rustles and crackling twigs that it’s a wonder anyone could sleep. The only time you might know people inhabited those hills at all was when the whine and rumble of someone’s truck making a late night return from town came echoing down the canyon.

As summer winds down, tension ratchets up around the various homesteads. There’s the perennial question of whether the water will hold out, the race to get enough firewood cut and seasoned in time for winter, the dilemma of what do with the tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers that in those last golden days seem to ripen faster than you can pick them.

Most of all, there’s the nervousness, the edginess — sometimes the sheer terror — centered around how well — or if — the marijuana harvest will come in. A stranger seen on the roads sends ripples of paranoia through the community: does he belong to a gang of thieves scoping out their next ripoff, or, worse, could he be the advance guard of a police invasion that might not only seize that year’s crop, but also haul Dad and Mom off to jail and the kids into Child Protective Services?

Nowadays, when everybody and his Aunt Tillie is a “medical marijuana provider,” the threat of prison has receded for all but the biggest commercial growers, but at that time, jail was still a real possibility for people caught growing anything at all. Granted, it was happening less and less as the sheer number of growers began to overwhelm the authorities’ ability to pursue them, and as the summer of 1982 gave way to the all-important harvest season, it seemed they’d given up altogether.

There were, as always, moments of panic when a low-flying plane or helicopter circled overhead, but actual police raids were few and far between. From worrying about whether they’d make it through the harvest unscathed, growers switched to complaining that if they’d known law enforcement was going to give them such an easy time this year, they’d have planted twice as much.

As for me, I had constant blisters on my hands from splitting firewood, but it looked like I might have just about enough put away, provided we used it carefully and the winter wasn’t unusually cold. I had muscles I’d never had before, and a slowly growing confidence that yes, maybe I could survive in this environment, as improbable as that had seemed only a few months earlier.

I still managed to set off a chimney fire the first time I used the stove that fall, but only a minor one, and easily dealt with. My satisfaction was also tempered by the realization that all summer long I’d mostly been playing catch-up. Do a thorough weeding of the garden and two days later the weeds would be back, bigger than ever. Get the pump working and the tank filled to the brim? By morning a fitting might have come loose or a gopher could have chewed a hole in a hose, and 1,200 gallons of hard-won water had disappeared into the parched hillside.

In the spring, I’d noticed black raspberry bushes growing wild everywhere, and I’d watched their progress through May and June, imagining the buckets of fruit I’d pick. Why, we’d probably be able to can enough to last us through the winter. The berries started ripening around the Fourth of July, and within a week were gone, either eaten by animals or shriveled by the hot sun. I managed to collect one small saucepan’s worth.

Similarly, one of my newly planted trees unexpectedly produced a couple dozen cherries. I never tasted one of them; again, the birds, who’d been keeping as sharp an eye on them as I had, and who got up a lot earlier, nabbed every one of them. That symbolized the summer for me: long on promise, short on delivery, except when it came to sweat, dust, and backbreaking work.

But still, we’d survived, confounding not only my own expectations, but also those of neighbors who, I later learned, had been all but taking bets on how long the punk rock city slickers would last. Anne’s marijuana crop came in, not in great quantities, but enough to keep her happy for a few months. The hillsides and forests turned multiple shades of red and gold and purple, and October delivered a series of deliciously warm days during which the land itself seemed to stretch languorously and luxuriantly under the last rays of the fast fading sun.

Before the month was finished, cold winds swept in from the northeast, and by November the upper peaks of the Yolla Bollys had acquired their first coating of snow. November’s bits of snow did not last long on our own mountains, but December’s did, and by mid-month, north-facing sections of the road were covered with diabolically slippery ice that wouldn’t fully melt until spring.

I had traded in the ridiculous little Honda I’d brought to the mountains in favor of a 4WD Subaru, but still had a harrowing experience involving a steep cliff, an iced-over road, and sheer, heart-stopping panic. For about half an hour I was marooned inches from the edge. No matter whether I tried to go backward or forward, every time I let go of the brake the car would start sliding sideways toward oblivion. Shoveling some rocks and sand under the wheels finally saved the day, but only just.

Our house had high ceilings, so I was able to lop the top ten feet or so off a Doug fir to serve as our Christmas tree. With the sun now spending most of its time behind clouds, trees and ridge tops, our solar system was hardly able to keep up with the demands of several strings of lights, but we lit them anyway, casting a multicolored glow up and down the side of the mountain. I loved to walk to the top of the driveway, about a quarter mile away, and look back down at this beacon, this haven of light and good cheer tucked tidily away in the snow-covered forest.

On Christmas Day, my parents and brothers came up from the city. They were hours late, and when my father finally walked in, he was ranting about the idiocy of anyone who would choose to live “on some stupid mountain in the middle of nowhere.” As often happened to people not equipped with four wheel drive and/or tire chains, he’d had no trouble driving down one hill, but found himself hopelessly stuck when he’d tried driving back up the next one.

Thankfully, some neighbors had come to the rescue and delivered him to us, flustered and exasperated but otherwise unharmed. We stretched out the table as far as it would go to accommodate the extended family, some 10 or 12 of us, not counting the baby my sister was expecting in the new year. It was as Norman Rockwell a Christmas as I’d ever been involved in, and my heart sang as I stepped outdoors late that night for some fresh air.

Some new snow was falling, but gently, ever so gently, and the woods, perfectly silent and still, were at once both dark and luminous. There would be more struggles, I knew, more trials and undoubtedly some dramatic, even disastrous failures. But for that moment, at least, I knew I was exactly where I needed and wanted to be, and that nowhere else in the world could possibly feel so right. Against all odds, I thought, we’d come to this wilderness and made it our home.

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