Where 19th century genius meets 21st century thuggery…
I had no idea that a militia of armed rebels was conducting a raid just minutes away as I stood in awe of the genius of 19th century lighthouses.
On the day of my first-ever visit to the Pt. Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County, I returned home to discover that local law enforcement, five agencies in all, had issued a “shelter-in-place” order because 20 armed bandits wearing black hoodies had descended upon someone’s home in the woods near Gualala, a few miles down the road.
I had no idea that a militia of armed rebels was conducting a raid just minutes away as I stood in awe of the genius of 19th century lighthouses casting a beacon of warning and welcomed light from some 20+ miles away to ships at sea, saving perhaps hundreds of mariners from certain shipwreck, and possibly death. I was still trying to wrap my head around the genius of the French innovator and physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, (1788–1827), whose light technology from 200 years ago, as the saying goes, “saved millions from shipwreck,” and is still used today in car headlamps and traffic signals. All the while, mesmerized by the beauty of the Mendocino coastline and the historic collective effort of pioneers in this area to build a rescue center and beacon of hope for mariners, a small army of bandits was trying to overwhelm nearby homeowners, presumably pot growers or drug dealers with a lot of cash on hand, which is a common hazard in these parts.
Recently relocated to this county from Morro Bay/Cayucos, I decided to go for a drive and enjoy the sun and clear skies along the the coast, try some sightseeing, get to know the place, and landed at the lighthouse, not far from my new home in the small coastal community of Elk, less than 400 residents, slightly smaller than the 2,500 population of Cayucos, where I have lived for most of the past 35 years.
The weather, so far, has been mostly cold and wet, with lots of welcome rain, some frost, and a few cold weather advisories. I’ve been homebound, on account of the weather and covid-19, eager to get out and meet people despite the rain and fog and the global pandemic, but on Tuesday the clouds cleared and the sun came out; it seemed like a good day to venture out into the southernmost part of the Emerald Triangle, where some of the world’s best pot is grown.
Also, nearby Anderson Valley is emerging as one of those quaint hard-to-reach wine destinations popular among folk who love good cuisine paired with equally delicious wines, and appeals to visitors from The City who like to get away and spend lots of money. Like Cayucos, this is a tourist destination but, unlike Cayucos, it appears to me that many who live here also do not wish to be bothered by urbanites whose only goal is to fuck things up by turning the countryside into a rich man’s playground. Still, the push toward the high-end dollar is very much in evidence here, where wine, money, and pot commingle in an odd amalgam of earthy wealth and criminality.
Originally, I had planned only to make a quick run to the Elk Post Office, pick up a package, hit the small family-run general store next door and return home. But the store was closed and I needed some avocados, which were always plentiful on the ranch in Cayucos. We were having tacos for dinner and guacamole sounded like a great side dish.
I had recently visited a small grocery/coffee shop on the main drag through the town of Pt. Arena, about half an hour’s drive south from Elk on Highway 1, the Shoreline Highway. I knew they had what I was looking for. So I headed south on the winding, breathtaking road past Irish Beach with its cluster of eyesore prefab-like homes, down through Manchester, and finally into the little town of Pt. Arena.
Hippies have left their mark on the place, I’ve decided, where it’s easy to find organic produce, posters and handbills advertising liberal ideas such as diversity and the right to vote, and yet there’s an odd mix here of surfers, foresters, environmentalists, and drifters who lounge in the public restroom/park area across the street, next to the Arena Theater, an old movie house still in operation and run locally by an association of art lovers. It’s not unlike the little coastal town of Cayucos, from which I came a few months ago, but less chic and apparently less affected by big money. This is a town, like Cayucos, that has a storied seafaring history but, unlike Cayucos, feels like it’s on the verge of a civil war.
Before I got to the tiny local market, however, I detoured onto the road leading out to the point, where many shipwrecks have occurred throughout the years and where, in 1870, a lighthouse was built to steer ships to safety. Mariners must adjust to a 40-degree slant, heading either north or south, when they get there to avoid hitting rocks or running aground. Navigating these waters requires a skillset that keeps me in awe and I wonder how men and women even find the nerve to approach such a task.
While exploring the area around the the point, I marveled at its rugged beauty, which reminds me of Big Sur, the spectacular rise of coastal mountains on California’s Central Coast, where I’ve spent many a wonderful evening, conversing with Benedictine monks overlooking the Pacific, grousing over the shape of things to come with the curator of the Henry Miller Library, and sitting naked with my lover in the coed baths at the Esalen Institute. Big Sur, however, as I’m quickly learning, is not Mendocino.
While I stood in rapt wonder over the effort required to build the lighthouse and signal a warning to shipmasters the world over who dared to navigate these waters, two armed residents held off the small thug army until authorities arrived and the invaders scattered. Into the woods, I guessed, which would mean several days of slogging through rugged hill country before they arrived where I’m now living. No need to worry. Yet.
We’re loaded down ok, with a couple of shotguns, a handgun or two, but hardly equipped to fend off 20 invaders. I’ve had some training in guerrilla warfare tactics as an Army Ranger, and my host’s two brothers–all lifelong friends, like family–served as Special Forces operatives in Afghanistan and Iraq. I suppose we could stage ourselves for combat. Conduct raids. Drive out the enemy. But this is supposed to be our home. And besides, I’m 63, and I don’t want to set up for combat. I want to live! Life is difficult enough. Like anyone, I want to feel safe in my home, eat good food, sit by the fire and read, not throw up parapets and dig fox holes.
In the end, I want to study the genius of men like Fresnel, who apparently thought more of the wonder of light than how to terrorize and steal from his neighbors. In the end, I wish to pursue the enlightenment to be had in the study of physics instead of bullying someone into giving me something that doesn’t belong to me.
Two days after the “shelter-in-place” order, I have still not found any updates in the local media, no word on whether anyone was caught, or what became of the residents who apparently bravely stood their ground. I’m surprised at the queer silence that has filled the pages of the local news. There’s no appraisal or reassurance about much of anything here, simply the hope for connection with minds like Fresnel’s whose focus truly was to enlighten rather than dominate and terrorize.
Stacey Warde is a writer living in Mendocino County.