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Petrov: The Man Who Lived In Hendy Woods

When Laura Hopper was a kid, her mother had a friend who lived in a tree.

“And I thought he was the coolest thing ever,” Hopper said of the man who lived in the woods near her family’s ranch in Philo for about 20 years. Most of Anderson Valley only knew him as the “Hendy Hermit,” but to Hopper and her mother, Joan Warsing, he was their friend Petrov.

“(Joan) definitely was the only person that I think he wasn’t just plain afraid of, really,” said Kathy Bailey, a volunteer at Hendy Woods State Park. Bailey remembers waving at Petrov the few times she caught sight of him while visiting the park in the 1970s, but he never let her get close. “And I’m almost certain that all of the pictures we have of him, those are because of Joan.”

Along with the few photos of a bearded Petrov, the park’s visitor center displays biographical information that gives his full name as Petrov (also Petro or Petroff) Zailenko, a man who was possibly born in 1914, and “is believed to have been a soldier for the Russian Army who was wounded and captured by the Nazis in World War II, (then possibly came to the United States) as a displaced person from a concentration camp.”

(photos by Justine Frederiksen, Ukiah Daily Journal)

Zailenko then likely come to California on a “Russian fishing trawler that docked in San Francisco in the early 1960s or late 1950s.” When he first arrived in Anderson Valley, he worked at a local lumber mill until asked for proof of his residency status, prompting him to flee into the woods, where he lived for at least 18 years.

John Melvin, who was a ranger at Hendy Woods SP from 1981 until 1984, said Zailenko “knew those woods better than anyone, and was very smart, because the hut he made himself was just outside the park boundaries.”

If the hut had been inside the park, Zailenko likely would not have been allowed to stay by park officials, whom Melvin said were very aware of the hermit, but considered him “in no way a danger. He never displayed any bad or threatening behavior of any kind,” even though he was known to visit the campground regularly.

“That’s how he got tobacco, from the campers, and cigarettes and matches,” said Melvin, describing Zailenko as never stealing from people, but endearing himself to them through gestures and facial expressions. “He knew if he went into the campground, he could get food and drinks, like pop. So when it suited him, he could communicate.”

Melvin doesn’t recall ever getting complaints from campers about the man who came out of the woods to visit with them; in fact he remembers many regulars “looking forward to see him again when they came back.”

Soon after starting his job at the park, Melvin said he got curious about the hermit he had been hearing so much about, and “headed up the hill one day to find his hut,” which he said was surprisingly clean “for a home with a dirt floor, with everything tidy and well-organized.”

He recalls Zailenko being meticulous about maintaining the walls and roof, which he made out of branches, so the hut was always “dry and water-tight.”

The visitor center display includes a bottle where Zailenko stored the corn kernels he liked to mash into a paste, and a pot he used to cook beans with over the fire. Before he got that pot from a camper, he reportedly used empty paint cans to cook in.

The clothes and shoes he wore were also reportedly “castoffs” from campers that he repaired and altered to fit his slight frame. He is described as being 5-7 and weighing only about 95 pounds.

After visiting Zailenko in his hut and experiencing his “odor,” Melvin said he would “smell” him while on patrol.

“I had a very sensitive nose back then, and sometimes while driving near the woods I would catch his scent, but I never saw him,” said Melvin, describing the smell as “not an underarm odor, but how a human would smell after living in the woods for a long time. When I smelled him, I would call out his name, but he never answered or appeared.”

Though he never saw him on the road or in town, Melvin said he knew that Zailenko would leave the woods to go to Jack’s Valley Store, about a 30-minute walk from his hut. Melvin said he wasn’t sure what Zailenko bought there, but that he got money from collecting bottles and returning them for the deposits.

Melvin said he visited the main hut a few times, but never went inside if Zalienko wasn’t there, because that felt like invading a man’s home. When asked if Petrov had ever offered him anything, Melvin said “I don’t think so, and there’s nothing he could offer me that I would have wanted, anyway. Except maybe fruit, which he ate a lot of.”

A main source of that fruit seems to be the ranch where Hopper grew up. One day, she said, her mother caught Zailenko coming onto their property to pick apples.

During their exchange, Hopper said, Joan “must have known he meant no harm and posed no danger, and somehow the two struck up a friendship.” They likely felt a kinship, she said, because at the time, her mother had “basically moved out of the house and into a tree on our property.”

“So maybe he thought my mother was a hermit, too,” recalls Hopper’s older sister Anne Woida with a laugh. Woida also recalls their mother telling the girls to leave blemished fruit they couldn’t sell on the trees for Petrov to come pick.

Though she doesn’t know why Joan and Petrov came to trust each other, Hopper said she will be forever grateful that “my mother talked to him that day, and that he allowed it, because I’m really glad I got that time with him.”

Her first meeting with him did not go well, however. Hopper remembers Zailenko getting so visibly upset at the sight of a 7-year-old girl that her mother suggested she go back to the house.

“We realized later that I reminded him of his daughter,” said Hopper, who recalls her mother learning that at some point during Zailenko’s journey to the United States, his wife and daughter were killed, “and I was about the same age as his daughter.”

The next time she visited the hut, Joan told her, “If he offers you food, you need to eat it.”

But once at the hut, Hopper looked at the stew he offered and realized the meat was from her missing duck Licorice. “And I just couldn’t eat it. Afterward I asked my mom, “Was that Licorice?!”

Hopper said she wasn’t mad at Petrov for eating her duck, because she understood that he needed food. She also remembers understanding that he was hiding from the world because he was in pain.

“And I was a kid, so I thought love could fix anything,” she said, recalling how she hugged him good-bye once, “and he just shook.”

Realizing that was too much for him, Hopper said she never hugged him again, “but I would sit next to him, and he would allow that,” she said, explaining that while she couldn’t understand what he was saying, they were able to communicate somewhat through gestures, and she knew he was kind and gentle. “And when you’re a kid, you don’t care if someone’s dirty, or smells bad.”

She also remembers being very impressed with the home Petrov made for himself, “because his tree was much larger than the one my mother lived in. I didn’t want to live in hers, but I would have lived in his!”

Like Melvin, she remembers the hut being “very clean and organized, with everything in its place.”

In August of 1981, Zailenko became ill. Melvin said he was seen hanging around the picnic area looking unwell, then a day or so later was found “lying on the ground, unable to walk,” by the other ranger who worked at the park with Melvin.

Melvin said Zailenko was eventually taken to the hospital in Ukiah, and over several days, many different people visited and tried speaking to him in Russian and many other languages, but no one could identify what words exactly he was speaking.

“He had a language all his own,” said Melvin, who can’t recall what Zailenko died of, only that “it was clear he had stuff going on inside that would have been very painful.”

Petrov Zailenko died on Aug. 31, 1981, and his age was estimated to be 67. Melvin’s daughter Rebecca, who was 12 when her family moved to the park, remembers seeing Zailenko at the funeral home, then finally visiting his hut.

The trail leading to the former homes of the “Hendy Hermit.”

“It was sad, but beautiful to be there,” said Rebecca Melvin, remembering that at first she was very afraid of the stranger who lived in the woods. But after hearing good things about him from her father, the other ranger family and even from campers, much of her fear of him dissolved.

While exploring the park she called “my playground,” Rebecca Melvin said she would often see Zailenko, and most vividly remembers his “blue eyes, which always seemed to be laughing.”

She came to see him as a “very benevolent figure, one who was always picking up cigarette butts, and who I felt was always watching out for us kids. Like when we lost a Frisbee, he would find it and put it where he knew we would find it.

“I liked knowing there was this other set of eyes, watching out,” she said. “He was a great addition to the park, and I think it should be named after him.”

Just a few years after Zailenko died, the park expanded, adding 40 acres to its boundaries that Melvin said then officially included the huts. Before then, the hermit’s homes were well-hidden, but now there is a trail leading straight to the huts, which he reportedly made two of “in case he accidentally burned one down.”

If you start the Hermit’s Huts Trail from near the visitor center, you first come to the larger of the two huts, which also has a sign displaying photographs and news articles written about Zailenko. A bit further from that hut is a second home, a much smaller one that he would not have been able to stand up in, only crouch or lie down in.

(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)

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