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Karen Mathes

Karen Alveen Mathes was born in Oakland, California, June 24, 1951, to Aili and Joseph Mathes, the oldest of five children. She grew up in the Mountain View-Sunnyvale area back when it was semi-rural. Her father was an airline pilot and as such, often absent. Her homemaker mother had health issues, and Karen was early on saddled with parental duties to her younger siblings.

Karen Mathes

She thrived in school, got excellent grades, and in high school often took classes above her grade. She excelled in philosophy, poetry, advanced literature and French but had no use for math, physics and the likes. She graduated from Awalt High School in Mountain View in 1969.

The suburbs became confining during Karen’s teen-age years. The Big City was beckoning, its counterculture siren call irresistible. In the Summer of Love ’67, she immersed herself in the Haight-Ashbury scene in the company of free, young people and musicians. 

She was a hippie.

In 1970 she married Alan Cordell Clarke, a gifted drummer, with whom she roamed San Francisco’s spectacular rock-and-roll scene, rubbing shoulders with all the big names. You name them, she’d seen them.

It was a rip-roaring time, but food had to be on the table. Living in a commune, she took a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, back when food was actually cooked there. This was her entry in to the culinary world. She often brought home leftovers to her hungry communards. She had found her calling: feeding people.

But the times they were a-changing. City life lost its allure and the young hippies went looking for something more meaningful. There was talk about going up to the country. But where to?

They drew circles on a map, around nuclear power plants, weapons storage facilities and other military installations up and down the West Coast and found the best place this way: Mendocino County.

In 1974, scouting forays in a VW bus found Karen and Alan a 6 acre ridge top plot in the dense forest near the no-where town of Elk. At the end of an overgrown driveway sat a cabin, as simple as can be, barely 10’ x 20’ with a door, a window and 7’ ceiling. But it had a roof, a floor and 4 walls, and even though it had only a shallow well with a bucket hoist, no running water and no electricity, Karen thought this was a very, very fine house.

She soon got a job at the venerable Harbor House Inn in downtown Elk, 4 miles away, doing rooms. When a cook quit, Karen was asked to fill in by the owner, who ran the place in a hands-off manner and let the crew of local women (mostly) manage itself. 

Karen’s culinary skills now came to full flourish, and she ran the kitchen for the next 14 years. That kitchen was such a joyful and easygoing place to work. In the after-hours it became the place to be for many of Elk’s young men-folk, a scene of legend.

Meanwhile, life at the cabin in the woods became constrained. Alan was playing in various bands and set up a drum set in the cabin (double bass drums). Together with a bed, a stove and a table there was no space left. Not physical, not mental, not personal.

The situation slowly grated away their marriage and in 1980, Karen moved out of the cabin, into rentals here and there around Elk. A good friend and fellow urban refugee asked her an irrefutable question: why not build your own cabin, you already own the land? They drew up a plan right there and then, on a paper napkin.

In the summer of 1982, with loving help from good friends and fueled by Karen’s food, a 16’ x 24’ cabin was built for $8,000. Another $2,000 paid for a well with an old-fashioned hand-crank pump.

An outdoor shower was fed from two 60-gallon drums, 30 feet up a big fir tree near the house. A hundred pump cranks gave Karen a 10 minute trickle shower. Those 100 cranks warmed up her body perfectly for the open shower, especially in winter. A 5 gallon propane tank fueled both the on-demand water heater and her cook stove. Kerosene lamps and candles brought light at night. Things were as they should be. Who could ask for anything more?

The new cabin didn’t have phone or electricity. Karen didn’t want it. These amenities cost money and lead to buying gadgets and tools and electronics. They infringe on nature, waste resources and eat away free time; you have to pay for it all. Even Harbor House kitchen didn’t have a Quisinart. 

Karen was a luddite. 

She wanted an abode on her terms and here it was, her own. It was very quiet and peaceful.

The Harbor House machine was running smoothly. There was a sense of equality among the crew and much friendship. Many young women, born and raised in Elk, worked at the inn, on their way to form their own lives. Karen was here a big sister, a tutor, a trusted friend, a helping hand without forethought. One Saturday night in April 1983, a dinner waitress was in a bind. A band was playing at The Sigh Of The Whale in Point Arena. A hot date was waiting for her there, but her car had just broken down. She persuaded Karen to take her there. After the shift, 4 or 5 of them hit the road to Point Arena in Karen’s station wagon.

Heads turned when the crew filed in. One young man at the bar exchanged glances with Karen. He was a tourist/drifter from Denmark, a curious blend of happy-golucky and sincere intent. A school teacher back home, he happened upon a boatbuilding apprenticeship in Gualala while hitch hiking the West Coast, overstayed his tourist visa, devil may care.

He was of farm-raised progeny, drawn to stories of stone age and frontier life. His mother had told him we don’t kill anything unless we eat it. He saw animals as food, nature for her utility. It was a creed of sorts, but without thought. Tools and skills were necessities, boatbuilding their highest achievement. He wanted fish.

He believed in luck and worked diligently for it.

Karen Mathes, meet Ejler Hjorth-Westh.

When the band played Brass in Pocket, a Pretenders song, they danced. There was nobody else there.

Karen was still married to Alan in ’83. She wanted to end the marriage, but was hindered by her dislike for all things paperwork. Finally in 1986 she got her divorce. Shortly thereafter, Ejler, still an illegal alien, was threatened with deportation. He asked Karen to marry him so he could stay. Karen balked. She had been married already and that didn’t end well. Here was a chance to reclaim her independent life. She relented in the end; she must have liked the guy allright. They married in 1987. Two years of immigration process earned Ejler a green card.

At Harbor House things were changing. The owner wanted to sell, making life changes for herself. The crew made an attempt to buy collectively. It went nowhere. The inn was bought by a couple from Beverly Hills, with some experience running an inn. They had ideas.

Rank and uniforms were implemented. Rules were rules. What was once a bottom-up self-enforced operation became top-down and tight. Cohesion was a casualty. Folks quit. The warm kitchen lost its glow.

Karen quit her job in 1989. It was one of the hardest things she ever did. She knew she would miss the majestic building and its spectacular view, the crew camaraderie, the social anchor Harbor House had always been for her.

She now embarked on culinary ventures too numerous to detail. Standing out were opening Bridget Dolan’s Irish Pub in Elk, running the kitchen and staff for 3 years; opening and running the (late Queenie’s) Road House Cafe in Elk as chef and manager, breakfast, lunch and dinner, for 4 years. She also had numerous shorter gigs at BnBs up and down the Coast.

Karen got to know the hospitality industry inside and out. She was loved by guests and patrons for her genuine generosity and selfless, friendly and helpful personality. Countless cards and letters expressing appreciation for her food and hospitality bear witness thereof.

The people she worked for were another story. Her generous portions were sometimes frowned upon, her selflessness and friendliness often mistaken for weakness, fostering condescension and patronizing attitudes in the sometimes little minds among people running hospitality. Being conflict-averse, Karen rarely stood her ground in spite of her extensive knowledge and experience.

One day she decided she didn’t want any more bosses in her life.

In 2001 Karen started her catering business. She quickly established a sprawling clientele, from the intimate dinner for two to the large family celebration to the megawedding. She recruited trusted assistants when needed from the many people with whom she had worked in numerous kitchens. She did her work deftly and fearlessly.

She was dutiful to a fault and conscientious beyond reason. Her assistants thought she was the best boss in the world, and brides, and especially their mothers, absolutely loved her.

Karen never made any money to speak of and she didn’t care. Material wealth meant nothing to her. She rarely spent money on herself, expertly scouring thrift stores for her wardrobe and catering equipment. Her cooking gear, however, was top-notch.

She earned enough to keep her cars running and her larder brimming. Karen had found her sweet spot and she was very happy. Both she and her husband worked from home and the little place in the woods flourished.

They had slowly built it up as they went along, on a shoe string budget and entirely without permits. However, in the late ‘80s things changed for this kind of easy living. The county board of supervisors showed their irritation with “those hippies” who had built without permits, by passing an “amnesty” ordinance: turn yourself in, meet minimum code, Class K, avoid hefty fines when we find you sooner or later. One author of the ordinance, a flinty entrepreneur-type, thought everybody should share her vision of how to live, as is their wont. 

When faced with protest over the sudden shift of over a million dollars from the poorest to the likes of Baxman Gravel she replied: those hippies will thank me later. 

Perhaps she was right.

Karen and her husband joined the program. Two years and $20K later everything had changed. They now had power and plumbing, phone and fax, bathroom and washing machine, stereo and television. Karen and her husband had been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.

Her husband now enrolled in the Krenov School Fine Woodworking Program in Fort Bragg on the prospect of making a living as a woodworker with a home shop. He graduated in ’92 and immediately went to work.

Through the ‘90s the homestead expanded the clearing in the woods, established a magnificent garden and added various facilities. Karen built a commercial kitchen with ample storage and by the time she started her catering business everything was in place.

The sun was shining on their little place. They had plenty of work, on their own terms, and they struck a careful balance. A small piece of slate nailed to the wall by their front door chalked it up: eat, sleep, work, play. They lived by it. Yes, they worked hard at times, but also knew how not to. They worked for each other and for the place. They loved their life and each other and it showed.

Then, in 2012, just in time for Obama-care to kick in, Karen ran in to serious health problems. Imbalances in body chemistry of various kinds led to numerous and often remote doctor’s visits and a brand new alphabet soup of medications. She faced the new situation head-on and without fear, thankful for affordable health insurance.

In 2016 she was diagnosed with cancer. It took a toll. It disfigured her body, robbed her of her womanhood. Even though she faced the tough decisions with her usual fearlessness, she couldn’t stave off depression and anxiety creeping in. Her medications grew, leading to an ever-changing attempt to “find a balance” which never really existed.

Karen came from a work culture where alcohol has always gone hand-in-hand with food. We all know it. She could orchestrate a wedding for 150 people, consume 2 bottles of wine during the event, never lose a step, get up early next morning, take care of the aftermath. 

Par for the course. No problemo.

As Karen’s health faltered, so did her ability to bounce back from that kind of consumption. She cut back on work, dropped the big events, catered to families alone. She found a new routine that worked. But her body didn’t.

All that medicine, all that alcohol, it crippled her, physically and emotionally. In the fall of 2021 it became clear that she could no longer fulfill her obligations to her clients. She delivered her last catered meals in December.

Karen’s marriage had suffered over these last few years. Her husband saw how alcohol damaged her already frayed state of body and mind but his clumsy attempts to intervene only led to further alienation. Pleads from friends and family also fell on deaf ears. The addiction was too strong, the escape too urgent.

During last winter the bottle became the only thing in Karen’s life, when one day in March she couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stand, walk, anything. An ambulance took her to the hospital. The diagnosis was cirrhosis of the liver.

Karen and her husband now reconnected on a whole new level. They established a home care routine. They were going to make this work, and they did. An unconditional love came back to the house, family came to visit, friends stopped by. What was once hard and bitter became soft and sweet, all the way to the end.

Karen passed away on July 15, 2022, with her husband and loving friends by her side. She was 71 years old.

She is survived by her husband Ejler Hjorth-Westh and siblings Terri Casolary, Joni Mathes, Jeri Brown and William Mathes.

There will be a gathering in her name at the Greenwood Community Center on October 9.


  1. chuck dunbar August 27, 2022

    What a fine, moving, honest piece about Karen Mathes, written by her husband. The ups and downs of her life fairly told, a fine, flourishing life here on the coast for many years. Thank you for this sweet story of a strong woman’s life.

    • Paul Modic August 27, 2022

      No shit, Chuck, great eulogy…

  2. Elise Ferrarese August 28, 2022

    Beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman. Thank you for sharing your stories with us Ejler, I’ll miss seeing Karen around.

  3. Carolyn and Jon August 28, 2022

    Dear Ejler, Jon and I just heard about Karen’s death at Great Day yesterday and we are so sorry to hear about it. We knew she was very sick but hoped she would get better. Thank you for writing her very personal story. Carolyn and Jon

  4. Claire and Bill October 5, 2022

    Eiler, so sorry to have just now read this loving story. You captured the Karen we knew and loved; thank you for sharing her so fully with us now.

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