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Settler Icons: Lyle Luckert, Part II

Thinking back on the Lyle memoir I wrote last week, I realized there were clues he and Grace were getting restless living in Anderson Valley.  One of the themes we used to explore regularly in our philosothons was whether Anderson Valley was a unique American community or whether there were other places as socially complicated and wonderfully character-driven as here between Yorkville and Navarro.  Well, sometime in the late seventies, the Luckerts bought an RV, packed up for an eighteen month trip around America, and headed south to find Route 66 in Arizona.  I had given them some destinations along the way I thought might fit the purpose of their exploration.  What I should have wondered about was who would manage the farm in their absence.  It wasn’t in Lyle’s character to neglect his agricultural activities, not even for a week vacation.  Maybe I should have recognized the “moving on” germ was in his blood.

First major stop on their odyssey was a famous upscale equivalent of Holmes Ranch in the sandstone country south of Flagstaff-- Sedona, Arizona.  When we reviewed his itinerary after their return home, Lyle gave Sedona, where they stayed for a week or so, a very low rating.  I don’t remember the itinerary for the rest of their voyage, something like through Texas, Arkansas and into south Florida, the Everglades, then north along the Atlantic Coast all the way into Maine.  Then west along the Great Lakes into Minnesota to the ancestral first settlement in New Ulm and west again along the Northern Tier of states to Washington state and back home.  Along the way they did a lot of trailer parking and exploring local communities.  I was beside myself when word of their arrival back home reached me and couldn’t wait for the dialogue to follow: extended comparisons of places each of us had visited as to which was more interesting or memorable.  But at the end of that discussion we were in consensus:  nope, there’s no place quite like Anderson Valley.

But then sometime in the early 1980s Lyle and Grace packed up their worldly possessions once again and headed up 101 to their new farm south of Bandon, Oregon, a once-was ocean-side industrial town.  Not long after their resettlement, I  drove up the coast for a first visit, curiosity deep both about the setting of their hew homestead and how Lyle was turning a piece of an old dairy farm into another source of family income.

The new Luckert Farm, I couldn’t call it a ranch in its coastal Oregon setting, was on the ocean side of Highway 101 just south of Bandon, an old lumber mill and commercial fishing town ninety miles north of the California/Oregon border and about eight hours driving time from Anderson Valley.  When  you turned off 101 onto Lower Six Mile Road and drove in on its lumpy pavement, you found a familiar identifier, a wooden post mounted by a carving of that iconic Sioux Indian slumped over the neck of his pony and  below that figure the text “Luckert” and “The End of the Road.” 

I drove in a hundred yards or so and crossed a little all-season stream, Lower Six Mile River, and entered almost flat green pasture, then two quarter acre cranberry bogs, water and bushes, next the iconic old hay barn in good repair, and everywhere you looked a band of sheep were grazing the whole property.  Past the barn the road swung north, and I entered the parking area between the old farm family home on the left, a simple one story building in pretty good repair, the right a modern “ranch house” style home Lyle and Grace’s domain not unlike the one on Nash Mill Road.  It was a great moment in my life when I entered the cranberry aroma-filled kitchen, gave Grace and Lyle a hug and joined them in the canning operation in full swing.

That evening after dinner I repaired to a freshly made bed in the otherwise dusty old homestead cottage.  The next morning Lyle and I began our survey of the farm.  It was kind of a rectangle, mostly grassland with Lower Six Mile River running across its middle.  The stream flowed broad and clear,  maybe twenty feet across and about a foot deep, no algae, no streamside alders, poison oak or blackberries overhanging it.   Over the eons as it wandered here and there across the prairie, the stream had created at its side a sandy loam bench, probably caused by heavy rain year flooding,  at stream level, about fifty feet wide, and below the surrounding higher gently rolling grasslands.  Here is where previous farmers had carved their cranberry bogs at grade with the stream.  A channel with a gate for Lyle’s bog enabled him to give the cranberries  a “drink” every couple of days, depending on the weather.  And important for a farmer of his age Lyle could graze three times as many sheep on the 26 acres as he did on four times more steep acreage on Nash Mill.

From where Lyle and I stood on the edge of the bog, we could hear the ocean waves breaking on the beach to the west.  Looking that way I could see the end of the grassy prairie at his property line fence, but not the water because of the gentle rise of sand dunes a quarter of a mile wide between the fence and the ocean.

How had Lyle found this remarkable place, “The End of the Road,” four hundred miles away from Anderson Valley?  He had asked around.  More specifically:  The family who ran the Ukiah Auction, the Busmans, had farmed livestock in Petaluma and before that in the Sacramento Valley.  One of the three brothers, Fred, hated livestock and their stockyard smell and had trained himself as a licensed carpenter.  Sometime back he had abandoned California and was living in semi-retirement in a home he had built on a small parcel along Lower Six Mile River and next to an old dairy farm for sale.  As soon as Lyle contacted Fred through his brothers, he had advised the adjacent 26 acres was underpriced and Lyle had better move fast to purchase the place.

I don’t remember the exact details of my first visit to Lyle and Grace, there were several more in the next decade, close to one every year.  And we always did a lot of work on the farm and also made reconnaissance to interesting places up and down the Oregon coast as well.  The remains of Bandon harbor, the local Ocean Spray farmers’ coop cranberry processing plant, and the  dairy coop cheese factory along 101, the fishing fleet town of Charlston near Coos Bay, for example.  And we both enjoyed doing farm projects, like re-fencing or cleaning the remains of last year’s cranberry bushes out of the bogs each spring, where two people working together was more efficient than one person alone.  And there was always the trip to the dump down in Langlois to trade the latest gossip with the local farmers and ranchers.  Lyle was always trying to get me to make the trip to the Roseburg livestock auction where he traded his sheep.  As much as I loved the sociability of auctions, the thought of hauling a load of sheep over the Coast Range to the Umpqua Valley, a four hour round trip in his aging overloaded pick-up truck, was  not a way I wanted to spend my  brief visit time at “The End of the Road.”

The most exciting visit I made to “The End of the Road” was a couple of years after Lyle and Grace had settled in on Lower Six Mile River.  It was a leg on an extended family odyssey camping out between Navarro and Montana at or near as many hot springs as we could fit into a three week itinerary.  The extended family travel list was fourteen souls and included my brood, my brother’s, and a favorite cousin from suburban New York, husband and three teenage daughters, all of whom were country club born and raised.  Age distribution went from my venerable forty-four to a nephew, six months old.  With trepidation I did most of the travel planning to accommodate my own interests and the capabilities of the suburbanites traveling in a 28’ enclosed RV the husband, who also hated camping out, had never driven before.  Cal the banker was a kind  patient parent.  And I can report that at the end of our voyage, when we all parted company south of Idaho Falls three weeks later, we were all still friends.

Anyway on the second day of our transit up Highway 101, we arrived at Lyle and Grace’s on Lower Six Mile River.  Husband Cal parked the RV in the area between the two houses and we settled into our accommodations, some sleeping in the RV, others with me in the old farm house, still others in the shade of the hay barn along the river.  Cool nights just perfect for sleeping out of doors.  The first night Lyle and Grace graciously fed all 14 of us sitting around two tables in their dining room.  I forget the menu but think I remember the smell of roast lamb w/ cranberry sauce.  The second night it was our turn, and we collaborated to barbecue fresh day-caught salmon, corn and tomatoes, apple/cherry pie we’d found in our explorations of the 101 coast line that day.  Beer and wine too, though Lyle and Grace were cautious imbibers.

But what was most memorable about the evening was the dinner conversation that lasted til perhaps 11 PM, well past the bedtime hour for octogenarian country folk.  In a matter of three hours it traversed the world from Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars foreign policy to income distribution in modern America and Lyle’s description of the difference in logging practices between California and the more complex and wetter Oregon timber country inland from Bandon.

The highlight though came at the end of the evening, when the diners drifted into a spirited discussion of the contemporary American banking industry and its impact on our economic and political behavior.  I don’t recollect how we arrived at the topic, but clearly the best informed of us, Cousin Bobbi’s husband, Cal, was the discussion leader.  Cal had been a mild-mannered Wall Street employee for twenty years at that point.  His whole career he had done nothing more adventurous than sell US Government bonds to individuals and financial institutions.  He and I never discussed politics; he didn’t seem at all interested in the topic.  Suddenly we were going down the road of how aggressively the banks influenced and encouraged the American family’s self-indulgent financial behavior, a/k/a INDEBTEDNESS, as an entitlement.

Credit cards then were in their first generation of mass usage, auto and home mortgage debt were gaining momentum, as was student loans as well.  And though there was as yet no media discussion of the matter, most of us at the dinner table, including Lyle, Cousin Cal and I, had no interest in borrowing to support our lifestyles.  Nickel-pinching cheapskates all around the table.  All of us, though, including brother Peter, had plenty to say about American consumer capitalism in general, and the banking industry in particular, and its media marketing manipulation of America’s collective lust for more material goods and personal lifestyle to propitiate our status as much as our material anxieties.

Well, the highlight of the evening starred Lyle and cousin Cal, not brother Peter and I, the on-site trained historians.  Lyle began the dialectics with his mid-western German-American socialist tirade about the role of the banking industry as the key corporate power behind our psychic subjugation to debt.  He noted how banks seemed to be growing larger and larger through buy-out of local and regional small independent and chain outlets.  Anderson Valley’s home grown Bank of Cloverdale had just been consolidated into a regional chain spread randomly over California and Oregon and today known as Umpqua National Bank (sic!).  And no matter what one’s financial needs were, they were willing to provide loans for more and more frivolous purposes as the years went on.  I had noticed the phenomenon even here in Anderson Valley, as in the disastrous Deron Edmeades debt run-up on the vineyard/winery property courtesy of Bank of America, with no customer thought about how to manage repayment.  “We’ll deal with that later, maybe with a refinance,” was Deron’s solution.

Then   Cousin Cal quietly took the stage with a calmly professorial exposition bomb that concluded the evening.  In a gentle monotone he suggested that if we thought consolidation had been dramatic in recent years, wait a little longer.  Then in a soft, reflective voice he said, “if you think things have gone far now, wait a few years, there are going to be only five or six big banks controlling most of the industry.”  Bingo!

He then went on to explain that industry consolidation begat further consolidation because the cost of managing customer financial information and developing new “services,” like student loans and sub-prime mortgages, would undermine the profitability of local banks and render them up for purchase everywhere in the US.  And that’s the score today: six big banks monopolizing both retail, trading and investment banking services.  And it had been Lyle’s vivid description of the state of the industry that had provoked Cousin Cal to toss his prophetic tablet off the mountain.  

So ended my family’s wonderful visit with Lyle and Grace Luckert at the “End of the Road.”  By ten the next morning our caravan was heading east over the Oregon Coast Range, through Roseburg and into the Cascades to camp out at a hot spring near Crater Lake.

Over the next six years late wife Earlene and I visited Lyle and Grace at “The End of the Road” every year or so, sometimes Summer, sometimes Winter.  And on each occasion we did a little farm work, a little exploration of the surrounding countryside, visits to local dairy farmers, for example, and lots of dialectics around the breakfast and dinner table.  The last time I saw Lyle and Grace was the end of January, 1991.  The date sticks with me because during our visit out to the planet Oregon and Lower Six Mile River the New York Giants played in the Super Bowl.  If I remember right we spent three or four days with them under, for Coastal Oregon, favorable winter weather conditions: a little bit of rain, a little bit of sun, not too much wind.  And you could hear the ocean beating on the sandy beach day and night.  As usual we had our daily political, cultural and metaphysical discussions whether at home or on the road.  Lyle told me one story about a road trip to deliver lambs to the livestock auction in Roseburg, two hours away.  He said he’d been driving down the Interstate 5 part of the drive to the auction, when he started having chest pains.  So he pulled over to the shoulder, took a rest, ate some grapes, he and Grace were vegetarians, and when the pains subsided, finished the drive.

The final day of our visit was cloudy, breezy and threatening, some rain drops from time to time.  We did a tour of the ranch, checked the sheep, said good-by to his neighbor Fred Busman, had an early afternoon lunch.  Earlene and I headed south for the long drive back to Anderson Valley around 3:30, with the daylight fading.  I remember the time because immediately after we pulled out of Lower Six Mile road onto highway 101, I dialed in the Super Bowl pre-game show on the networked local radio station.  And as we headed south into the deepening darkness, I began reflecting on the details of our visit.  My mind wandered along to Lyle’s story about the Roseburg trip the previous November and the chest pains episode.  Suddenly this low ranking amateur prophet had a troubling flash.  This was our last visit to The End of the Road; I would probably not see Lyle again.  Later that year he passed.

About ten years later, on one of my several trips up the Oregon Coast to visit old friend and Oregon winery/vineyard owner Terry Brandborg, I turned off into Lower Six Mile River road to check up on “The End of the Road.”  At the farm road entrance was a locked gate.  I parked and walked in a hundred yards or so, didn’t see any livestock though the fences and road looked well maintained, then decided to not go any further.  I also stopped by the Busman home next door; no one there at the moment.  So I drove out to the end of Lower Six Mile, parked where pavement ran out and walked out over the dunes to the ocean.  What I encountered took my breath away.  Right to the north in what had been dune was an irrigated golf course wandering upcoast toward Bandon Village.  So I drove up to town and through the docklands, found the harbor filled with more expensive yachts than fishing boats, and many of the previously abandoned wharfside buildings converted to restaurants and gift shops.  I tried what looked like the coffee shop the locals still hung out at, and was told, yes, there was now a golf club and hotel out on the beach west of Bandon.  So Lyle the American frontiers explorer’s “End of the Road” had become an extension of white collar Oregon.  Thus the world turns.

3 Comments

  1. Jonah Raskin July 3, 2021

    Is there an answer to this question? : “One of the themes we used to explore regularly in our philosothons was whether Anderson Valley was a unique American community or whether there were other places as socially complicated and wonderfully character-driven as here between Yorkville and Navarro. “

    • Marshall Newman July 3, 2021

      I’ve lived many other places, but I have never lived in a place with such vivid characters as Anderson Valley.

  2. Eric Labowitz July 3, 2021

    Kathy Bailey here. After living at Lyle’s Anderson Valley place for the last 34 years or so I am pretty sure I know why Lyle and Grace moved on. Water. Lyle and I graduated from the same high school in Minneapolis somewhat less than 40 years apart, a school that was only a few bocks from a chain of lakes that spanned west Minneapolis, in a town where these waters were connected by creeks and parkways from the western edge across town all the way to the Mississippi River at its eastern boundary. You grow up with that much water and what we have here in Anderson Valley and the crazy complicated water system Lyle developed to make things work for him, will always feel like a struggle. And that was when water was “normal” for here. Figuring out how to make a living on this land was always extremely challenging. At least in Bandon he could count on the water. And how great does that sound right now!

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