A few years ago I moved with my family from the village of Mendocino, California to Coos County in Southern Oregon. We didn’t know a soul in this part of Oregon, though we have some family on the eastern side of the state. We were attracted by a similarity in climate, natural beauty and the much lower real estate prices. As my acquaintance base grew I was surprised to discover that while the “village” of Mendocino has sometimes been touted as the “best known small town in the world,” it just isn’t so in Southern Oregon. Not to say that no one here has heard of Mendocino. Some have, but it was usually in the context of Mendocino’s largest agricultural enterprise and export item: marijuana or “Mendocino Gold.”
Beyond that smoky association and despite pointing out that Mendocino provided the setting for the fictional town of Cabot Cove in the ‘Murder She Wrote’ series, most people seem largely unfamiliar with Mendocino, the county and the village, virtually an island entire of itself, detached from the continent (forgive me John Donne).
Consequently, I have found myself adopting metaphoric ways to impart not only the physical beauty of my former home, but also the cultural uniqueness that makes Mendocino, well, Mendocino.
Two experiences always come to mind when I am asked to describe Mendocino and I will repeat them here. During my residency in Mendocino, I cutback on my computer programming work and began an herbal soap making business. This statement alone probably says volumes about Mendocino but I must deal with that another time. In order to promote my products I often participated in local events, craft shows, fund raisers and farmer’s markets.
One such market was held every Sunday during the summer months in the less famous but probably more notorious coastal village of Albion, about seven miles south of Mendocino. This market was comprised mostly of renegade vendors: farmers or artisans, who for one reason or another, generally space or politics, could not participate in the more mainstream and lucrative markets held each week in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, Boonville and Ukiah. Consequently, the market this day was not well attended by either vendor or customer and was situated at the Albion School about three miles inland from the Pacific.
Mendocino County is heavily populated by the giant California Redwood tree and for a brief time laid claim to the “tallest tree” distinction but also maintains a sliver of real estate known as the pygmy forest, a unique ecological area of nutrient-poor, highly acidic soils that results in stunted vegetation and dwarf pines. While still beautiful, in its stark contrast to the heavily wooded, sun-deprived, redwood forests, the price of real estate offered in the pygmy forest is significantly cheaper and, naturally, it was here that the new Albion School was built.
This was my first time selling at the Albion market and so I turned to my fellow vendors for cues on where to setup, etc., and soon fell into conversation with my neighbors to each side.
The neighbor to my left had moved up from Marin with her husband, both professionals in technical fields, they had given up the city lifestyle, but not the technology, to start an organic farm. They raised organic produce, organic goats and organic poultry. Her name was Kathy and she told me a hilarious story about an unsuccessful attempt to impregnate their organically raised pig with sperm, (organic sperm, presumably), they had ordered via the internet, using a turkey baster.
The neighbor on my right was from Scotland, a potter, and he spoke with a brogue softened by many years of living in the US, primarily Mendocino. His name was Shug and he helped set the tone for the day by early on pulling out his bagpipes and strolling around the perimeter of the school grounds serenading the rest of us with an exceptionally well performed ballad.
Sales were very slow being so far from the beaten path of the tourists, but the day had been warm and sunny and the company congenial and entertaining.
About 3:00 PM a classic Mendocino fog began to creep its way toward the outer edge of the playground where we were setup. Unhindered by the “pygmies,” the encroaching chill would soon cause many of us to abandon our posts a little early but our bagpiper/potter Shug was overcome by the foggy ambience and again picked up his pipes and began a highland lament as he disappeared in ghostly fashion into the mist.
The fog gave an ethereal, otherworldly tonal quality to Shug’s melancholy song and the sound so enveloped us all that it was soon impossible to tell from which direction the music came. I was completely caught up in the beauty and surreal nature of the moment and was so thankful to be a witness to it. Only in Mendocino, I thought blissfully.
It was just then I noticed two middle-aged women emerging from the approaching fog, now only a few feet away from my display table. The women were most notable by their gait, a sort of cross between a skip and a walk and they capered, smiling broadly up to my table. The oldest, a pleasant looking woman with a tanned face and short cropped silver hair, the younger with trailing long brown tresses hanging over her shoulders. Both were dressed in the layered, multi-colored disassembly of sweat shirts, leggings, skirts and mud encrusted boots that marked them as “locals.”
“Hi. My name is Belle, but I used to be called Janet. I have cast off my old self and my new self is now called ‘Belle’,” explained the silver haired woman, still smiling. Her friend remained silent but nodded her head in enthusiastic agreement.
Not quite prepared for this greeting, I glanced nervously at my neighbor Kathy for her reaction but she was dealing with a customer and so I responded simply, hoping not to illicit any additional explanations.
“How do you do, Belle? I’m Mary,” I replied cautiously.
My reserve went ignored if not unnoticed. Belle was gushing with purpose and the unshakeable confidence of someone who “knows.” What it was that she “knew” would be revealed to me soon, I was sure, and I speculated whether they had yet spoken to anyone else here? If not, why me? Why me first?, I wondered? Memory will not permit me to repeat the conversation perfectly but I will reproduce a highly abridged version here as closely as possible.
“Many of us are caught in a rut and do not know how to get out of it,” she began, “I used to run a bed and breakfast here on the coast and was trapped by life habits pushed on me by ex-husbands, work and family. Unhappy and dissatisfied I decided to get rid of my former self. Since casting off my old self my new self is much happier and successful.”
The omni-directional quality of the bagpipes provided an unintended transcendental background as Belle now introduced her friend who had maintained a silent but happy and affirmative countenance throughout Belle’s monolog. Her name was Ginny (formerly Virginia), and once ungagged, she repeated almost verbatim everything Belle had to say about discarding “the old self.”
Not wanting to be rude but not sure I wanted to continue and having contributed nothing so far to the conversation, I glanced quickly around looking for help. None was forthcoming but I thought I detected a slight smile on Kathy’s face.
Shug was on his fourth ballad when Belle shared that she was offering classes at the recreation center every Sunday at only $35 per session. Several sessions would be necessary to completely rid oneself of an old self and create a new self. There were serious practical issues to be addressed such as what to say on your answering machine so as not to confuse friends and callers of your former self not yet familiar with your new self. I was not to worry, though. Everything would be hard work, finding the perfect name for your new self would be “very enlightening and a lot of fun.”
The fog was now waist high and extended well past my table and I finally extricated myself by assuring them that I would consider this concept of old self and new self but that my present self must get home to my children and I started loading the car.
The pair then capered over to the playground swings and took positions facing each other, swinging, and speaking sagely over the sound of the bagpipes about reality, old selves and new selves. As I drove away only their heads were visible above the fog when they reached the apex of the swing.
“Only in Mendocino,” I groaned.
A second experience actually revolves around one of my sons, Alex. Alex is in his 20s and has for the last four and a half years worked at an upscale inn in Mendocino just south of the village. Alex has acquired many skills during his tenure there but one of the most intriguing is “dowsing” or divining if you prefer. The inn property due to its changes and additions over the years is crisscrossed with multiple water lines, mains, irrigation pipes and serviced by multiple wells. Whether you believe in dowsing or not, the inn has come to rely on this technique to successfully locate lost lines, connections and leaks for several years.
Alex was introduced to dowsing by the owner, himself an accomplished dowser, and it soon became evident that Alex had an acute sensitivity. After a little practice Alex developed a 100% success rate and soon became the preferred dowser at the inn. Alex’ s youthful curiosity caused him to experiment with dowsing and he soon discovered that not only could he find water, but he could find his lost keys, other peoples misplaced items and on one occasion a missing employee. He came home from work once and asked me to test him. Among other things, Alex successfully located my purple lavatera even though he didn’t know what it was. Occasionally, he is even called upon by inn staff to help distraught guests find items they have misplaced or lost. They watch in dubious dismay and even annoyance as he produces his L-rods before assisting them, then stare in awestruck admiration as, in one instance, he leads them along a contorted path around various obstacles to their fallen keys laying in the ivy next to their parked car.
A few months ago, the mother of one of his close friends called Alex at the inn to tell him that she suspected her daughter’s boyfriend, an employee and resident of the inn, of stealing a large sum of cash from her. Alex was stunned at the charge and assured her she must be wrong about the friend but he informed the owner of her concerns. An internal investigation was undertaken and after certain facts came to light it was determined that a search of the suspect’s housing was necessary. Alex and another employee were enlisted for this duty.
“Be sure and take your rods,” the owner told Alex.
Alex found what was left of the cash in less than two minutes. But what the main point of this story is that Mendocino is a rare place that finds it perfectly commonplace to send an employee armed with dowsing rods to solve a crime. Only in Mendocino, I think fondly.
Hi Mary, Thank you for an entertaining morning read.
I happen to live in southwestern Humboldt County, and “Only in Humboldt” is perhaps just as often an apt descriptor as the Mendo version.
How do you find Coos County? I drive north along the coast there several times a year, and am attracted by the possibilities of “new self” that might be attempted there. Coos Bay is kind of big and industrial, or post-industrial, for my tastes, but what do i know? Did you find a rural living situation near one of the smaller towns?
Funny, in a way you may have accomplished, in a practical style, what Belle was promoting!