Raggedy Roads, Saggy Gates

by Bruce Patterson, December 2, 2010

My first job making firewood was up on a bench of land high on the sunny side of Ward Mountain above Yorkville. It must have been 1975 or ’76. To get to work I turned off Highway 128 and went through a wooden pasture gate. After driving down the riverbank, splashing across Dry Creek and gunning up the opposite bank, I came to another gate. The ranch was running maybe a thousand head of sheep plus a fair number of cattle, my job was still over a mile above, and on my way in and out I had to open and shut at least four more pasture gates. They’d all been fashioned by the same pair of hands, too. Hands that were, no doubt, now pushing up daisies down in the cemetery in the Ornbaum Opening. Made with sawed redwood heart 1-by-6s, hanging between hand-split 8 by 8 redwood posts and sporting giant Pittsburg steel hinges bolted through, their latches were pointed boards that slid in and out of notches carved into the latch posts.

With age, wooden gates sag, posts list and the wood squeezing the bolts holding the hinges in place rots away. So, with every one of those waterlogged gates not just resting on the dirt but resolutely attached to it, I had to manhandle them to get them out my way. First, I’d get out my truck and face the hulk like I was getting set to curl a barbell. Then I’d grab a hold of the gate and yank it straight up, get the side of my boot wedged under it, pull the latch free with one hand and then jerk my boot loose. Next, I’d give the gate a violent tug downhill to get its edge clear of the post. Then I’d step around, pin the edge to my breast bone, spread and flex my legs, grab a hold from both sides, jerk the thing up and then skitter sideways down the hill like I was some kind of two-legged beetle. After getting my truck through, I’d return and skitter the gate back up the hill, slower this time, what with me huffing, cussing and puffing. By the time I got up the hill and cranked up my hotrod chain­saw, already I was tuckered out.

One thing that hasn’t changed much around here over the past 35 years is the number of raggedy roads and saggy gates. And that’s kind of strange considering all of the suburbanization and gentrification that has taken place. Nowadays there’s no telling how many luxurious new 3 bedroom, 4 bathroom houses with 3 car garages are hidden away at the ends of raggedy roads blocked by ancient, saggy gates. Since the main reason why folks devote so much of their lifetimes to feathering their own nests is to show off for their friends and neigh­bors (hermits don’t need much), you’d think they’d start by building themselves a nice entrance and driveway. You’d think they’d give their property a pleasant sounding pastoral name and then broadcast it in chiseled stone, wrought iron or carved beam. Or, at least they’d put out a sign posting their street numbers where folks can see them without having to beat the bushes. I mean, how are your friends going to compliment you on the beauty of your new digs if they can’t find you? If they’re coming up from the city, they get three miles deep into a network of raggedy dirt roads, can’t find you and their cell phone doesn’t work, how’s that going to effect their opinion of you? You went and told them they couldn’t miss your place, right?

At one time or another, my career has taken me up and down about all of the dirt road networks lacing this watershed, so I can confidently state that raggedy roads and saggy gates are a local cultural trait. Nowadays, what with TV and all, folks equate privacy with anonymity, and anonymity with personal safety, and per­sonal safety as life’s greatest good. Besides, even para­noids have enemies. What if you’re on the run from the mob and 14-Finger Frankie out of Cleveland is after you? Do you want Frankie to find you? What if you’re being stalked by an ex-husband, wife or disgruntled ex-employee? What if the Mexican Mafia moves in and takes up home invasion robberies? Or how about the possibility that a gang of sociopathic hillbilly yahoos like the ones recently portrayed in the now infamous locally produced documentary movie, Pig Hunt, come riding over the hill at you aboard fire-breathing Harleys flanked by wheelie-popping dune buggies mounted with topless yahees firing machine guns? That’d put a shiver into anybody’s timber.

In case it isn’t clear what a “local cultural trait” is, let me explain. Since all people the world round are made of the same stuff in the same combinations, and because out of sight is out of mind, people blend into the folks near­est them. For example, say you are a German immigrant and you buy a farm in Nebraska. When all of your neighbors stretched as far as you can see are growing corn and soy beans, you’re going to think twice before planting tomatoes. If you’re living in the city, you enter an elevator and everybody stuffed in there is silently and grimly facing the door like lemmings on their way to the beach, you’ll feel a powerful urge to do likewise. If somebody tells a painfully corny joke and everybody breaks into laughter, smart money says you will at least chuckle.

Blending in with those nearest us is one of our most important individual personal survival techniques, and it’s what makes us, in our peculiarities, different than them, and them different from those over there and, it goes without saying, one of the things that makes each the same as all.

Boonville — my sort of town — is the home of mer­chants with squeaky wooden doors. Step through a wooden door in Boonville and it makes sounds like a cat does when you’re throttling it. Since it’s impossible to believe that everybody in town is too cheap to buy a tiny tin of 3 in 1 oil, or too busy to give their hinges a teensy squirt, it’s a local cultural trait. While in most small towns in America having squeaky doors is taken as a sign of a sloth and an indication of a lacking in couth, around here it’s a status symbol.

Am I exaggerating? Have I ever? To really find out, we’d have to put it to the scientific test. Determine who in town owns the squeakiest door — the one so loud it gets the hounds to howling across the highway—and then, using friendly persuasion, payoffs or, if need be, coercion, make it so all the rest of the squeaky doors get oiled all at once. Now, how long do you think the owner of that solitary squeaky door would last? How long would he or she be able to withstand the pressure?

The village of Mendocino — a justly famous Red­wood Coast tourist town that time has forgotten seeing how far it is from the maddening crowd — has its own local cultural trait that is even more peculiar. I first noticed it a few years ago. I came around a corner in my car and up ahead in my lane were elderly tourists walk­ing six abreast with their backs turned to me. Thinking they must be Europeans or drunken Russians, and not wanting to startle them, I gave them a little toot on my horn. Well two of the men pivoted around and glared at me, one of them wearing a USC sweatshirt, and the whole flock of them geezers took their own sweet time getting out my way. I looked around and —good God —everywhere tourists were walking on the streets. High end tourists, too, college educated ones. While I don’t believe any of them would try that trick in San Francisco or LA, Willets or Ukiah, out in the village of Mendocino it’s expected of you. The trait is so quaint they should advertise it: “Have you always yearned to play chicken with hairy-headed bipeds strapped inside go-carts sporting 300 horsepower? Come and stroll on the magical the streets of Mendocino.”

Now there’s one thing about local cultural traits that’s universal: to get any amusement out of them, you must see like an outsider. You don’t have to be a rebel, heretic, fugitive or exile; you just need to use your own eyes and ears and apply your own inborn logic and imagination to arrive at what was, before TV devoured it’s mass audience’s mass mind, what Thomas Paine so famously called Common Sense. Once you know what common sense it — 500 years of scientific, technological and spiritual progress has made the task relatively easy for us living nowadays — you can find humor every­where. Life’s so tragic it’s funny.

While finding fault in one’s neighbor requires all of the intellectual heft of eating a Twinkie, who do you see when you look in the mirror? Are you the rich­est/smartest/ sexiest/most powerful/Godly person in the room? How small is your room?

Mark Twain once wrote that “God made man because he was disappointed with the monkey.” To squeeze any real pleasure out of living in a consumer civilization engaged in self-consumption — to take a hand in your own sorry fate — you start by seeing the monkey in the mirror. ¥¥

(Books, stories and snapshots at www.4mules.com)

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