Before driving back to the city, the girl I had befriended in the city and I took a walk up to a stately rock formation that was straight out of one of those misty mountain Chinese scrolls. The previous winter a flock of wild turkeys had hung out there, following me around like puppies and kittens until the day I brought my rifle along, after which they’d decamped to my neighbor’s property across the canyon.
Ruf-Ruf ran ahead, covering ten or twenty steps for each of ours, charging into the bushes in search of grouse, wood rats, squirrels, or anything else that could conceivably be killed. Suddenly she gave a sharp yelp and reared up on her hind legs.
I spotted something moving in front of her; simultaneously I heard a chilling rattle. By the time I reached Ruf-Ruf, the snake had vanished, and Ruf-Ruf looked unharmed, if a little spooked by her close call.
We walked back to the house, with Ruf-Ruf as lively as ever as we left for San Francisco. When I got back two days later, I was surprised not to find her waiting for me in her usual spot at the top of the driveway. It wasn’t until I pulled up in front of the house that I saw her. She was standing, feebly swaying, as though the slightest breeze might knock her over, seemingly desperate to stay on her feet, as if she knew that once down, she would never get up again.
She’d lost half her body weight; hollowed-out flesh hung from her stomach almost down to the ground. I had no trouble locating the puncture wounds left by the rattlesnake, smack in the middle of her throat. It was a miracle she’d survived as long as she had.
I tried giving her some milk or water, but she could barely move her head or even her tongue. I managed to get a few drops into her mouth with an eyedropper, but she was too weak to swallow. Carrying her into the house, I begged her not to give up, though I sensed she was almost certainly a goner. Hoping to lift her spirits, I decided to play the piano and sing for her. But what sort of song, I wondered, was appropriate for a very sick dog?
The only one I could come up with was a big favorite of mine as a small child: “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” I sang it over and over, tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched for any sign that she might be perking up (or, alternatively, making tracks for the door to escape my mawkish caterwauling).
It was like a movie. There might as well have been a schmaltzy string section building to a dramatic climax as Ruf-Ruf tilted her head ever so slightly in that quizzical manner with which she always observed her master’s strange behavior. Her eyes opened a bit wider, and her head seemed to nod almost imperceptibly in time with the music. A few minutes later she was able to take a full-fledged drink of water, and soon afterward, some milk.
It would be a couple days before she was able to eat solid food, and several more before she was strong enough to wander around again, but the crisis had passed. There was some nerve damage, leaving her with a slight palsy that she never completely shook off, but apart from that, she made a full recovery.
Once again I felt guilty for spending so much time away from the land. If I’d been even a few hours later coming home, Ruf-Ruf probably wouldn’t have made it. But it was hard sticking around when so much was happening. The Lookouts were getting more and more opportunities to play, and Gilman Street was not just thriving; it was producing a crop of young new bands that were as exciting as anything I’d heard in years.
My San Francisco pied-à-terre was a two-bedroom-turned-into-4 apartment across from Mission Dolores (enabling Dave MDC, one of my flatmates, to bring his band up on the roof to serenade the visiting Pope John Paul II with the raucously anti-Christian “This Blood’s For You” and prompting the one and only Secret Service raid I’ve ever been involved in — so far, anyway). David Hayes, another of the guys I shared the flat with, and whose pet rat was responsible for it being known as “The Rathouse,” had been compiling cassette recordings of some of the Gilman bands.
He and I talked about the possibility of turning that project into an actual record label. The next thing I knew, I’d impetuously offered to put out a record for a band called Operation Ivy, who I’d just seen for the first time, and who’d been together all of three months.
They seemed surprised by my offer (many years later, I learned they also thought I was crazy), but said yes. Having created a record company out of thin air, I thought I might as well sign a few more bands (“sign” in those days meaning a verbal exchange along the lines of, “Hey, wanna do a record? “Um, ok, I guess.”). David, who actually knew something about making records, stepped in to help, and we soon had four 7-inch EPs ready for release the following January.
That girl I still had my heart pointlessly set on came back for another visit. This time we attended a Harvest Ball at Beginnings, a redwood hobbit hall of a community center several miles west of Garberville in Humboldt County, where she proceeded to dance with everyone in the room except me.
I suspected her of consciously choosing to do so, in hopes it would dispel any illusions I was still harboring. For that reason, I wasn’t as angry or hurt as I might have been. Besides, it was exciting to see her appreciating and embracing what I’d come to see as a unique, almost indigenous culture springing up across the Emerald Triangle.
To most Bay Area people, Mendocino and Humboldt comprised a mysterious land of unreconstructed hicks and retrograde hippies. Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to convince anyone that there was something powerfully authentic, almost elemental about this way of life that, like agricultural societies from time immemorial, revolved around the rhythms of the earth and its seasons.
By the same token, my North Coast contemporaries couldn’t understand the attraction I felt for urban culture. Nor could they see how today’s punk rockers, no matter how alien their music and appearance, embodied many of the same ideals that aging hippies seemed to think they had a monopoly on.
Seeing this very urban, very modern punk rock girl twirling around in the dreamy half light of a hippie harvest ball, I thought I must finally be making progress toward introducing the two cultures to each other and bridging the distrust and suspicion that divided them. By the time we drove back to Spy Rock late that night, she’d stopped making sarcastic remarks about hippies, and I’d stopped asking her why she would never love me.
The warm weather lingered late into November that year. I should have known better, but I let it seduce me into not making adequate preparations for the coming winter. To save face, I pretended to be surprised when the mountain was buried under a foot of snow that, combined with a hard freezing rain, left the roads impassable, even for most four-wheel drives.
I was in the Bay Area at the time; if it had been up to me would have stayed there until spring, or at least until the snow melted. But I couldn’t do that; I hadn’t left enough food to last the dogs and cats more than a few days. I would have to travel in on foot to re-supply them.
Spy Rock Road, much of which is maintained by the county, had been cleared up to where Iron Creek Road turns off and heads for the back loop, and it was there that I left my truck. It would be four miles to my house, including a 1,000-foot climb up to the ridge and a similar descent on the other side. I was on snowshoes, and carrying a pack filled with 50 pounds of dog food. By the time I got started, it was the middle of the afternoon, and the darkening, lowering skies made it look even later.
I made good time, though, and reached the house about 4 pm. It was a good thing I’d come, because the animals were down to their last few scraps. I refilled their bins and went inside to rest a few minutes before starting my trip back. I was tempted to spend the night, realizing that if I didn’t I’d be walking most of the way in the dark, but I knew it would be a bad idea, both because I hadn’t brought any food for myself, and because the radio was full of dire warnings about a more severe storm moving in. If I didn’t get out tonight, I wasn’t getting out for a while.
I had hoped the snow would hold off until later, but already I could hear the wind driving it against the windowpanes. I knew it was time to get going, no matter how tired I was. Snow levels were forecast to drop another thousand feet, which meant that if I didn’t get to my truck in time, I wouldn’t be able to drive it out, and would be marooned, five miles up Spy Rock from the highway.
Darkness had fallen by the time I reached the bottom of my driveway. Wary of feral dogs (some pot growers abandoned their pets at the end of the season) or other wild animals that might be attracted by the smell of the food I’d been carrying, I took my shotgun along for protection.
Striding along in my long dark trench coat, gun strapped across my back, I imagined myself as the modern incarnation of a Soviet soldier fleeing the Nazis across the Russian Front. Before I’d made it up the first small hill I was completely, hopelessly exhausted. I could manage no more than ten steps at a time before having to stop and rest. I’d anticipated a hike of one and a half to two hours; at this rate, I calculated, it would take eight or nine. If I made it at all.
It was by no means certain that I would. A round trip of eight miles, even on snowshoes, shouldn’t normally be that big a deal, but hauling the 50 pounds of dog food had taken a lot out of me. To make things worse, I was hiking straight into a blizzard, with wind gusts of 30 to 50 mph, and facing a near-continuous climb of at least three miles.
I wasn’t sure I could do it, and toyed with the idea of turning back to the house, where, even if there was no food, I at least had enough firewood to keep from freezing. But given the intensity of the storm, I knew it would be a long time before I’d get out again. A lot longer than I would want to go without eating, I reckoned.
By sheer force of will I continued my pace, ten steps followed by several minutes of rest, for the first mile. When I started up the main grade I was managing thirty steps, with commensurately longer rest periods. At 9 pm I still had almost a mile to go before the ridge, then a mile down the other side, which meant I was about halfway. Given the storm’s intensity, it was possible my truck was already snowed in, but it was way too late to turn back now.
I made it onto the ridge, in complete mental and physical agony, but at the same time exhilarated at the knowledge it would be all downhill now. The blizzard was at its worst up here, with the driving snow feeling as though it might rip the flesh right off my face, but as I began my descent, the wind subsided and the stinging icy pellets changed to great fluffy flakes.
It was easier to walk through and much prettier to look at, but it also meant the snow was piling up faster. I stopped taking rest periods and charged straight ahead. Finally I saw the dim outline of my truck in the distance. It looked as though I might still be able to drive out, but only if I could get there in the next half hour or so.
I almost made it. I was three or four hundred yards up the road, and in my semi-hallucinatory state imagined I could almost reach out and touch the truck I was counting on to bear me away to warmth and safety. I softly congratulated myself for having been tough enough to weather this journey.
And then I fell.
I don’t know exactly how it happened. I suspect that my snowshoes got entangled, causing me to trip over them. The next thing I knew I was face down in a snowdrift, unable to move more than a few inches in any direction. I couldn’t get my snowshoes separated, and somehow the shotgun had gotten stuck in there, too. Eventually I managed to roll myself over so I was looking up instead of down, but I couldn’t move my feet or anything else below my waist.
A sinking feeling told me this was as far as I’d be going. Already the snow was beginning to cover me. And I was so tired. So very tired. I’d read stories about people freezing to death, and this was exactly what it had sounded like. I struggled a bit more, but nearly all my muscles had gone numb. I was actually starting to enjoy lying there, as though it were the most comfortable, deliciously luxurious featherbed I’d ever have the privilege of lying in.
I knew that if I lay there much longer, I was going to die, that in fact, the process of my body shutting down might already have begun. I felt a great sadness about this, not so much because I was afraid of dying, but because so many things had been left undone, so many hopes left unrealized. I supposed those records we’d recorded would come out without me — David would take care of that — and that a neighbor might come by before the dogs and cats ran out of food, but as for me, it would be days before anyone would travel down that road and find me lying there half buried in the snow.
Ah well, I sighed, nothing to be done about it now. I wished it could have ended differently, a little less ignominiously, but we’re not always given a choice in such matters. I marveled at the soft beauty of the night, at the bitter irony of it all, at the way thousands and millions of snowflakes floated toward me, displaying the same effortless grace with which the firmament of stars had danced above me on long-ago summer nights. Whispering a bittersweet goodbye to all that had been, that could and should and would have been, I closed my eyes and slept.