Winter came in hard that year, and stayed hard. By mid-December it was obvious I wouldn’t have enough firewood to last till spring, and between the limited hours of daylight and the ice and snow that clung to everything and made much of the land impassable, cutting more wood and getting it back to the house was no easy task.
Not as easy as it would have been last spring and summer, anyway, which is when I should have been doing that chore. But my major feat of engineering during that time — apart from world-class moping, that is — was stringing a third of a mile of plastic pipe over the hills to the previously unused well at the far end of the property.
The well had been there all along, but as long as I could get water from the creek, it didn’t seem worth the effort and expense to develop it. But as more people moved in upstream, I could no longer rely on the water being safe to drink. There were rumors, too, that bear droppings were creating a risk of giardia.
Besides, I’d had enough of the constant struggle to keep the pump going during the dry season and to keep it from being destroyed by torrents of mud, water and rocks during the winter. So my version of the California Water Project — the series of canals and pumps that had diverted Northern California’s water southward and made Los Angeles possible — was one thing I accomplished that year that tangibly improved my quality of life.
I’d also managed — by myself, I might note — to roll a 1200-gallon water tank to the top of the highest hill on the property. Thanks to the law of gravity, I now had water pressure rivaling what you’d find in the city. I had to replace most of my plumbing fittings with stronger ones, but once that was done, my garden hose could direct a stream of water all the way onto the roof in case of fire. Or if I, you know, wanted to wash my shingles.
Still, after the year I’d had, I didn’t feel prepared to face another winter, and though I felt a bit like a deserter, when a friend offered me the use of her room in San Francisco while she was traveling, I jumped at the opportunity. It was located in an apartment in a then-desolate and little traveled corner of the city, above a bar called the Bottom of the Hill (the “Hill” being Potrero). A few years later, the Bottom of the Hill would become a popular music venue, but in early 1986 it was a middle-aged alcoholics’ hangout that we referred to as the “Bottom of the Barrel.”
It had been the better part of a decade since I’d been in San Francisco on my own, and while I wasn’t sure which had changed more, the city or me, it was as though I’d dropped in from another time and space, perhaps even another dimension. Few of the people I’d known were around anymore; a fair few, thanks to the AIDS virus then running rampant, were dead.
The apartment was not opulent. Thanks to an unusually harsh and lengthy cold spell, I spent much of my time in the kitchen, huddled over the only heat source, an oven with the door left open. But being able to stay up late reading or writing under lights that didn’t grow dim as the batteries ran down felt like unspeakable luxury. As did having something besides trees and wilderness at my doorstep should I feel like going for a late night walk.
The sort of street life I’d come to associate with San Francisco was at least a mile away; the lights beckoning in the distance burned shockingly bright compared with the stars, moonlight, and dimly adumbrated mountains I’d grown used to. But like a desert mirage, the promise they held seemed to evaporate before I’d reached them.
I’ve heard people speak of San Francisco in the 80s as a halcyon era; to me it was a ghost town, a graveyard for a dream. Eventually I’d learn that every generation had its version of a San Francisco that had been ruined by interlopers and newcomers.
My personal golden age — the late 60s and early 70s — had been precisely the time when, in the view of people slightly older than myself, the city had really started going to hell. I remembered why I’d left the city in the first place to start my own version of civilization in the wilderness, but with country life having recently become such a trial, I felt hamstrung between two similarly untenable worlds.
I hadn’t fully gotten away from Spy Rock in any event. At least once a week I had to travel north to look after the dogs and cats and make sure the roof hadn’t fallen in or the house burned down. City people found it shocking — didn’t hesitate to tell me so, either — that I would leave Ruf-Ruf, Kong and the four cats on their own, with nothing but a 50 pound bag of dog food (it was cheaper than cat food, and looked to be made of pretty much the same stuff) to sustain them.
“Won’t they eat all the food at once and then go hungry till you come back?” “Don’t they get lonely?” “Where will they sleep if you’re not there to let them in the house?”
The facts were: no, they didn’t eat all the food at once; there was almost always some left over when I returned. Never having been one for anthropomorphizing, I have no idea if the animals got “lonely.” City friends seemed incapable of understanding that these were not pets in the usual sense of the word, but working partners in Livermore Acres. My job was to feed them, theirs was to stand guard (the dogs) and to keep the mouse, rat and snake populations under control (cats). Lastly, they never slept in the house, whether or not I was there; their jobs were outdoors, and that’s where they spent their entire lives.
This adventure on the mountain was starkly at odds with the re-urbanization process I was undergoing in San Francisco. People there didn’t know what to make of my tales of mountain life. I got the impression they thought I was greatly embellishing things to make myself appear more interesting, or just a plain and simple lunatic.
I made some important connections, though, when I ventured over to a punk rock show at the New Method warehouse — named for a long-defunct laundry that had once occupied the building — in Emeryville. As was usually the case, I’d brought along copies of Lookout magazine, and was surprised to find people who were not only familiar with it, but who’d been wondering who I was and hoping to meet me.
One was a cautiously friendly but mildly inquisitorial 17 year old named Aaron Cometbus. I knew who he was, at least by reputation: he’d been publishing the fanzine from which he’d taken his surname de plume since he was 12. I’d found a copy of it on the 43 Masonic bus in San Francisco; he told me he was in the habit of leaving copies of it in random places to see who might pick it up and how or if they might respond. I told him I’d been doing the same thing with Lookout.
Aaron introduced me to Tim Yohannan, the fast-talking, wisecracking host of Maximum Rocknroll radio. I’d been listening to the show, broadcast Tuesday nights on Berkeley’s KPFA, off and on since the 70s. I’d forgotten about it during my first few years on Spy Rock, until I discovered that by parking on the ridge near the top of Iron Peak, I could pick it up loud and clear.
I’d formed a mental image of Yohannan based on his cackling laugh and the loud sardonic asides he delivered in between spinning that week’s selection of newly minted punk rock records: the kind of leather-jacketed greaser you’d expect to find hanging out on a street corner in 1950s Brooklyn or Jersey. I’d been right about the motorcycle jacket and New Jersey, it turned out, but Tim was nothing like the kind of greaser I’d grown up with.
Besides being obsessed with guitar-driven punk rock and garage music, he was a stone cold Marxist, extraordinarily knowledgeable on certain subjects, blithely, even deliberately oblivious to others. His magazine, also called Maximum Rocknroll, had been coming out like clockwork every month since 1982, a rare accomplishment for any independently published underground zine. By default it had become the pre-eminent voice and central clearinghouse of a far-flung international punk rock scene.
I was aware of MRR’s reach; its reviews of the Lookouts demo tape and Lookout magazine had produced orders from all over the United States and half a dozen other countries. My musical and literary efforts had been finding a more receptive audience among the punks than they had in Mendocino County, where apart from a few teenagers who liked our band and a few irascible adults who appreciated the sarcasm and name-calling that constituted a typical Lookout article, I remained a prophet without honor. Or prophecies, for that matter.
I hadn’t personally encountered most of the people or institutions I was writing about, so it didn’t occur to me that insults and invective might not only ruffle their feathers, but also make for awkward situations when, as was inevitable in such a small community, I ran into them or their supporters. What’s more, I was unfamiliar with the quaint custom — especially common in but not unique to small towns — of trying to be polite and courteous even to those we disagree with.
So when the pastor of the Community Christian Church wrote in the Ledger that AIDS was a divine punishment for sexual perversion — a common view at the time — I saw nothing wrong with calling him a moron and referring to his congregation as the “Community Cretin Church.” When logging supplies baron Bill Bailey, the town’s richest man and a philanthropist of some note, spoke out against the environmental movement, I didn’t open a reasonable debate, I declared the journalistic equivalent of thermonuclear war.
Bailey had enemies as well as supporters — I would eventually find this out when some of his employees began slipping information to me — but agree with him or not, the overwhelming sentiment, especially among townspeople, was that Bailey, warts and all, was “one of us,” while I, an anonymous, vitriolic voice from the remote reaches of Spy Rock, was definitely not.
The once-gaping divide between the “rednecks” and the “hippies” was still in effect, though it was rapidly disappearing or at least becoming hopelessly blurred as the two cultures interacted, intermarried, and, perhaps most important, did business together. The old-timers, once content to sell land, soil and plastic pipe to the hippies, got into the growing racket themselves, and the hippies began sporting cowboy boots, driving old pickup trucks, and letting their accents morph into a half-country, half-western drawl.
“We’re from North California and South Alabam,” Hank Williams, Jr. had sung in “Country Boy Can Survive,” and my dad, never a fan of southern ways or dialects, had made the same conflation. “Why, you might as well be living with a bunch of hillbillies,” he’d protested. It was true, I had to acknowledge, that there was a lot of “y’all” and “I reckon” emanating from the mouths of city-bred mountain folk, myself included, but I didn’t see that as a problem so much a natural response to our environment.
There were those who took things a step further, sauntering around with six-shooters — or the modern equivalent — strapped to their belts. One of the first indications I had that I was living in a very different world than I had grown up in came when one such neo-Wild Wester, unsuccessful in his attempts to woo away his neighbor’s wife, took out his frustrations by shooting his rival’s horse.
A far more squalid episode unfolded when another mountain man, used to having his way with his daughters and having fathered a child by at least one of them, was said to have shot his teenage son in the arm to teach him not to think about intruding into dad’s domain. Eventually, but not until several years had passed, a neighbor tipped off Child Welfare Services and the father went to prison, but the long delay was typical of the “See no evil” attitude that predominated on Spy Rock.
Part of it stemmed from a general distrust of and distaste for authority — you don’t move 20 miles up into the wilderness if you’re a law and order and community standards type — but above all else, it was marijuana that covered a multitude of sins. Nuisances, annoyances, even major crimes were tolerated, ignored or hushed up because nobody wanted to give the police an opportunity to come sniffing around.
I received a couple object lessons in this principle. When chemicals being used by some grower overflowed into the creek and turned the water a shocking bright orange, I expected people to be outraged, especially since the creek provided drinking water to a number of families and eventually flowed into the Eel River, which supplies a hefty part of Northern California.
But no one said or did a thing about it. “I’m sure he’ll clean it up,” people rationalized. Even if he didn’t, “It wouldn’t be right” to put him at risk of getting busted for growing. Another menace to the environment had come in response to the CAMP raids: farmers were taking their crops indoors, into barns, sheds, or underground bunkers, and were growing under artificial lights powered by heavy-duty generators.
When I came back to the mountain after my San Francisco hiatus, I was shocked to find the once almost perfect stillness replaced by the roar and whine of a diesel engine. As near as I could tell, it was coming from a neighbor’s property about a mile away, but it was like living next door to a truck stop. Even indoors, with all the doors and windows closed, I could hear it loud and clear.
I assumed someone was doing construction work and that they’d soon finish up and shut things down for the night, but the generator was still running when I fell into an uneasy sleep, and when I woke the next morning. And so it continued, 24 hours a day, for more than a year, with only the briefest of interruptions when they’d shut it off for maintenance or refueling.
Neighbors on two other sides of me also began running generators 24/7. What made it especially maddening was that they would place them in a location where their own homes would be shielded from most of the noise while I got the full brunt of it.
Noise was the most obvious problem, but there were other, more serious issues. These generator-powered grows amounted to full-fledged industrial facilities, the sort that in town would be subject to regular inspections But up here there was no one to check that diesel fuel wasn’t leaking into the ground water or that adequate fire safety procedures were being followed. It was only a matter of months before the first generator exploded. Thankfully it happened before the woods and grass had fully dried out for the summer, but it still sent smoke and flames leaping a hundred feet into the air.
The owners of the exploding generator did actually get busted, but that was a rarity; CDF firefighters showed up and reported it to the police. But try as I might to rouse concern about diesel-powered growers, no one was willing to say a word. As usual, marijuana trumped all. In the city, no one would think twice before complaining about round-the-clock engine noise and the risk of a fire or explosion; here, it wasn’t that simple. A noise complaint resulting in a police visit could put someone in prison for several years. As mad as I was about the noise and pollution, that seemed wildly out of proportion for what should have been a simple civil matter.
The trend toward indoor growing exacted another kind of toll on the community by dividing growers into separate classes, one of which was energy and chemical-intensive and increasingly industrial, while the other employed traditional and often organic agricultural methods. It was generally agreed that outdoor growers came up with a better product; the chemically enhanced indoor stuff could be just as powerfully psychedelic, but lacked the flavor and character of the outdoor stuff, which as a result fetched a slightly higher price.
But the indoor growers had a big advantage: while their costs were higher, they could produce crops year round, whereas the outdoor growers could count on only one — and with CAMP as active as ever, even that was a crap shoot. One neighbor, who owned enough earthmoving equipment to build his own version of the Alaskan Highway, spent his time excavating underground bunkers for his growing operation that, rumor had it, occupied more square footage than his quite substantial home.
He was also said to be grossing in the neighborhood of a million dollars a year, but the downside highlighted a vital contrast between the indoor and outdoor growers: while outdoor growers could have their plants sequestered away anywhere on a parcel of 20 or more acres, an indoor operation was necessarily limited to one or two easily located buildings.
Which meant that the indoor grower couldn’t afford to spend much if any time away from his property. Satellite TV and copious amounts of good food and fine wines might help dull the boredom, but so did cocaine and amphetamines, which enabled people to stay up long hours guarding the operation but also produced massive paranoia and wreaked havoc on people’s health. The million-dollar-a-year guy dropped dead of a heart attack in his early 40s, surrounded like a modern-day Midas by wealth that had imprisoned rather than freed him.
One of the main sources of conflict between myself and both neighbors and townspeople was my assumption that all right-thinking people would naturally share my values. I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose the indoor growing route when — at least as I saw it — outdoor, organic methods were environmentally and morally superior. Similarly, it never occurred to me that others wouldn’t want to save the trees, protect the ground water, and build sustainable communities that weren’t reliant on fossil fuels.
To be more precise, I knew there were people who didn’t share those values, but in my blinkered view, they were either conscienceless capitalists — owners of sawmills and logging supplies stores, for example — or naïve workers who’d been brainwashed into supporting their oppressors’ quest to destroy the planet for a quick buck or two.
Such simplistic thinking got me in trouble time and time again: not only did it reduce complex situations and even more complex people to slogans and formulas, but it also undermined my ability to get along with those I had most in common with, i.e., my neighbors on the mountain. Somehow I had leapt to the conclusion that because we were pursuing similar lifestyles, we were on the same page politically and environmentally; it came as a shock when I discovered that some hippies had no more interest in saving the planet than did the land-raping corporations then stripping Mendocino County of the last of its salable redwoods.
In some cases this was due to a lack of awareness or interest; in others, I was to learn, people had moved into the mountains for the same reason the logging companies had: to make money. Romantic dreams of alternative communities were, if they thought about them at all, the butt of rude jokes. Rather than accept that, just as in the city, people came in all sizes, shapes and stripes of opinion, I railed against them as if they were war criminals. So even though more people were reading my magazine, I still wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity.
One supportive Lookout reader, however, aware of my previously futile efforts to make any money from marijuana, offered to help me out. Which was how I found myself navigating a moving van filled with a couple dozen five-foot high marijuana starts from one end of the county to the other. It was — and remains — one of the most terrifying rides of my life, especially while running the 50-mile gauntlet of Highway 101, staked out by sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers looking for people exactly like me.
I made it, though, and being able to start out with five-foot high plants — bigger than any I’d produced by the end of the previous year — was a huge advantage. I lucked out further by teaming up with a local kid who’d grown up with marijuana, and who, in return for a share of the crop, took over much of the day-to-day work I’d proved so inept at.
As a result, I had some significant income for the first time in a few years, and more free time to devote to the band and the magazine. Thanks to the connections I’d made through New Method and Maximum Rocknroll, the Lookouts began playing shows in the Bay Area, and Lookout magazine found an ever-expanding audience among the punks, who, unlike my squeamish Mendocino Country readers, positively cherished the opprobrium and obloquy that filled its pages.
Because of my new prosperity, I was able to rent a room in San Francisco again that autumn, and for the next year and a half I’d find myself pushed and pulled between two worlds, rural and urban, unable or unwilling to give either of them up, yet always feeling or at least fearing that I was missing something by being one place when I should have been in the other.
I’d gotten involved in organizing and building a warehouse in West Berkeley that we’d sold to the city fathers and mothers as a “community cultural center,” but which was basically meant as a venue for punk rock shows. My reasons were partly selfish — I knew the Lookouts would benefit from having a regular place to play — but like MRR’s Tim Yohannan, who invested $40,000 of his magazine’s money into the project, I believed that what we were doing was about much more than music and a fun place to hang out.
I couldn’t completely put my finger on it, but I had this sense that if we could create a space where people were free to create and interact, great things could happen. In retrospect, it was the same romantic ideal I’d taken to the country with me, repackaged and restructured for the city.
When harvest time came, I used some of the proceeds to beef up my solar system, which made it possible for the Lookouts to practice for longer hours and buttressed my completely unsubstantiated claim to be the world’s first solar-powered band. Later that year we went down to Oakland to record what would become our first album.
It was way too soon. Not only did we need about another year of practice, but we were so nervous about being in a “real” recording studio that we played everything at double speed, obliterating most traces of melody and any lyrical or rhythmic subtleties that might have existed.
There’s a punk rock philosophy that anybody can be in a band, but it doesn’t follow that everyone should be, let alone that they should immediately make a record. Oblivious, we plowed ahead anyway. While the record we produced remains a bit of an embarrassment, it was something we could build on, a foundation of belief in ourselves that flew in the face of the ridicule and neglect our efforts had elicited from our fellow mountaineers.
So as 1986 came to a close, there was reason for hope and maybe even a little excitement. It was a huge change from the desperation that had reigned a year earlier, but I still felt far from secure, far from sure that anything I was doing would end in anything but more trouble, sorrow and frustration. At least, I kept telling myself, I wasn’t stuck in a rut anymore; there was no longer any doubt that my work and crazy ideas were finally getting me somewhere. Whether it was anyplace I’d want to be remained to be seen.