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Spy Rock Memories, Part 10

From my back door the view stretched at least 30 or 40 miles. The hills fell away until they reached the Eel River, then began to climb again until they turned into the full-fledged mountains that lined the horizon. To the west of the river there were hippies, homesteaders, and a diehard handful of hillbillies, in other words, us; to the east was Indian land.

We mostly knew that, if only vaguely, but seldom talked or thought about it except maybe when looking for interesting tidbits with which to regale visiting city friends. “Indian land” sounded ancient and exotic, but I’m not sure the full implications ever sunk in, maybe because from that elevation and distance, the millions of trees carpeting the mountainsides look more or less the same, regardless of the color or culture of the people dwelling beneath them.

Northern California’s Native American tribes were among the last to be subjugated by Europeans, not necessarily because they resisted more fiercely, but because the place itself — remote, precipitous, often nearly impenetrable — resisted subjugation. But when, in the wake of the California Gold Rush, whites began arriving in significant numbers, they wasted no time in putting an especially bloody stamp on what had been a mostly peaceful land.

In Humboldt Bay, midway between Eureka and the Samoa Peninsula, lies a small island that was home to a band of Wiyot Indians. Accounts vary, but it sounds as though a group of what we might today call good old boys were up drinking late one Saturday night and decided to do something about “the Indian problem.” Armed with knives, clubs and hatchets, they descended on a native village and killed every inhabitant apart from one infant. All of the dead were women, children or elderly; the tribe’s younger men were out collecting supplies for a religious ceremony.

Bret Harte, then an apprentice journalist in Eureka, sent this account to the New York Times:

A more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span along, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.

Sentiment among local whites, however, remained notably unsentimental. The Humboldt Times, progenitor of today’s Eureka Times-Standard, editorialized:

For the past four years we have advocated two — and only two — alternatives for ridding our country of Indians: either remove them to some reservation or kill them. The loss of life and destruction of property by the Indians for ten years past has not failed to convince every sensitive man that the two races cannot live together, and the recent desperate and bloody demonstrations on Indian Island and elsewhere is proof that the time has arrived that either the pale face or the savage must yield the ground.

By the time the marauding posse had finished its morning’s work, as many as 200 Indians lay dead in several different locations. The tribe’s population was decimated, and continued to decline dramatically, with disease, hunger and displacement all taking their toll.

To the south, in Mendocino County, events unfolded in a similarly grisly manner. A militia captain named Walter Jarboe formed a paramilitary group called the Eel River Rangers that hunted down and killed Indians as if they were wild animals, and drove the survivors — “like cattle,” as many witnesses described it — into the Round Valley — that sloping, elegantly shaped expanse that I had looked out over and pondered ever since I came to the mountain.

Originally known as the Nome Cult Farm, what would become today’s Round Valley Reservation was chosen for its remoteness and inaccessibility, but neither factor stopped white settlers from tearing down fences and claiming its best lands. The reservation might have looked vast from where I stood, and was the largest single piece of property set aside for Indians, but its 23,000 acres represented less than one half of one percent of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, all of which had once been “Indian land.”

Native Americans made up about 5% of the area’s overall population, but in our neck of the woods, the proportion was much higher: nearly 20% of Laytonville’s citizens and close to half of Covelo’s. Yet they remained strangely invisible, an almost phantom presence in a place where for thousands of years they had been the sole inhabitants. Or perhaps the truth was that I — and, I think it’s safe to say, most of my neighbors — remained blind and/or oblivious to their presence.

Late one evening, I was chatting with the cashier at Albert’s Texaco in Laytonville when he asked if I could do him a favor by giving a lift home to “that Indian guy” who’d been hanging out in front of the station. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I agreed; the man hopped into my truck and the next thing I knew, he’d talked me into driving 20 miles out of my way to retrieve some tools he’d left at a residence north of town.

He didn’t even ask very nicely; it was more along the lines of, “Hey, before you take me home, drive me up Woodman Canyon, okay?” But there was something about his manner, not at all menacing, just quietly insistent, that made me want to do as he requested. Besides, I kept reminding myself, it wasn’t as if I had somewhere else I needed to be.

I dropped him off — he never did mention his name, or anything else about himself — at the Rancheria, a small reservation nestled among the pines a couple miles southwest of town. It was like a parallel, alternative version of Laytonville — one that I had never seen before and had only vaguely heard of. He wandered off onto a long dirt road that wound past several plain wood cabins and disappeared into a low-hanging mist.

I never saw him again, and I’m not sure I would have recognized him if I had, but he made a powerful impression on me. And the impression would abide: that once again my view of the county, the land, and its people had proved to be deceptively superficial.

Soon after that I finally got around to traveling out to Covelo, the county’s most remote and probably least visited town. As the crow flies, it was not much more than 10 miles from my back porch, but the drive, which required a long, roundabout route by way of Laytonville, took the better part of an afternoon.

Bruce Anderson often touted Covelo as one of his favorite places, and as one of the last remnants of the “real” Mendocino, but his opinion was, I suspect, a minority one. Many locals gave it a wide berth, considering it somewhat beyond the pale, even by Emerald Triangle standards.

I found it more sad than fearsome; despite the exquisite natural surroundings, the town looked fleabitten and hard done by, like something you’d expect to find in rural Appalachia rather than the prosperous precincts of the Golden State. To be fair, that had been my initial impression of Laytonville, too, and while our town still didn’t look like much, economically, it was booming.

For all the havoc it had wreaked on the community, CAMP’s attempt to wipe out the marijuana trade had achieved precisely the opposite effect: the increased risk involved in bringing a crop to harvest had caused prices to rise to unprecedented levels, which in turn prompted nearly everyone with access to a patch of land to throw a few plants in the ground.

As a result, the marijuana gold rush was producing riches even greater than before the crackdown, benefiting not only the growers, but also the many ancillary businesses that provided them with the necessities of their trade and the luxuries they could now afford. Even rank amateurs understood the basics — don’t grow out in the open sunlight and don’t get too greedy — and if they didn’t, an unpleasant encounter with the CAMP raiders would soon teach them.

Ironically — and, slightly to my chagrin — my own days as a grower were coming to an end just when I’d started to get halfway good at it. I planted my last crop in 1990, resisting the temptation to make it an extra large one. It turned out to be the right decision; I no longer had the time, energy or inclination to look after it.

Significant amounts of money were starting to flow in from the record label, not enough to make a living, but enough to encourage me to keep at it. That spring I released the first full-length album by Green Day, along with one by Neurosis, both of which sold far better than I would have dared hope. It still seemed like a crazy impossibility that I’d ever be able to rely on punk rock records as a primary source of income, but maybe not so crazy as I’d once thought.

Despite my improving circumstances, I spent way too much time worrying about my future, not just in a material sense, but an existential one as well. I was in my 40s now, and troubled by the idea that I might spend the rest of my life scrambling to make ends meet. I was also experiencing a gnawing discontent triggered by the notion that time was running out for me to do something “important” or “worthwhile” with my life.

True, the bands who were getting exposure for their music, not to mention actually getting paid for it, thought what I was doing was worthwhile, but I was consumed with fear that anything that easy and that much fun had to be morally suspect. Perhaps I hadn’t left my Catholic upbringing — the part that idealized suffering and martyrdom — as far behind as I thought.

There’d been a time, much earlier in life, when I’d had aspirations to be a teacher. Bombing out of college on five separate occasions, not to mention my criminal history and nearly nonexistent employment record, seemed to have put an end to that ambition, but someone pointed out to me that I might still be able to work part time as a substitute teacher. Apparently background checks were minimal, and the only real requirements were a college degree and passing a basic competency test.

It looked like the perfect solution: work two or three days a week doing something that both I and society at large could agree was “respectable,” and spend the rest of my time running the record label. I assumed, of course, that I’d be an excellent teacher; there were few things I enjoyed more than hearing myself talk, so it stood to reason that my students would feel the same way.

My exaggerated self-regard was further buoyed when a Eureka High School teacher I met at a punk rock show asked me, “How do you do it? I can’t seem to get these kids to read anything, but everywhere I look I see them with their noses buried in your magazine.”

“Write about interesting things,” I somewhat arrogantly answered, failing to consider — and as friends with actual teaching experience would point out — that kids were probably attracted to Lookout magazine by its irreverent attitude, its generous use of swear words, and its tendency to reduce complex problems to simplistic sloganeering. They might not be so receptive to scholarly tomes about the decline of the Roman Empire or the evolution of English literature.

Untroubled by — in fact not even contemplating — that possibility, I decided it was time to acquire that seemingly trivial piece of paper, a college degree, that would enable me to pursue this latest scheme. My last and best attempt to acquire one had crashed and burned in a miasma of alcohol and drug abuse back in 1977, but I was so much better than that now, or so I’d managed to convince myself.

Between then and 1965, when I’d made the first of my star-crossed attempts at higher education, I’d amassed a fair number of credits. Exactly how many, I had no idea, but guessed I must be at least halfway to graduation.

Decades of pumping up my self-esteem through various means, many of them chemical, had convinced me there was not much I actually needed to learn at college. It was a matter of jumping through the necessary hoops and filling out the appropriate paperwork, I told myself. Something I could master in my spare time, probably with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back.

With that attitude, I looked around for the college that would be fastest, easiest and cheapest to breeze through. Humboldt State in Arcata was the obvious choice. It was the closest four-year school, and the only one I could attend without leaving the Emerald Triangle. I knew people there, liked the area, and, judging from its reputation, it was not exactly the toughest place to get into or graduate from.

Even enrolling at HSU would mean leaving the mountain temporarily. Arcata was two and a half hours away, so I could get back for the weekends, and, if necessary, the occasional daytrip, but it was too far for daily commuting to be a realistic prospect, especially once the winter snows set in.

But it would be worth it. Once I started teaching, I could put in a phone (when I’d first moved to Spy Rock, extending phone service to the back side of the mountain would have run about $30,000, but the phone lines had been creeping closer over the years, to the point where between $3,000 and $4,000 might do the job), allowing me to turn my home into a full-fledged office for Lookout Records, which in turn would enable me to live happily ever after in my mountain aerie.

It would take one and a half, maybe two years to get my degree, I discovered. I also learned, to my annoyance, that because of something called a “breadth requirement,” I’d have to pass at least one course each in science and math, two subjects I’d made a point of avoiding ever since high school. Being logical, orderly and systematic had never been my strong suit.

Knowing these would be the toughest hurdle, I decided to get one of them out of the way and simultaneously give college a trial run that summer by enrolling in a basic environmental science course at Eureka’s College of the Redwoods, widely known by irreverent locals as “College of the Retards” and/or “College of the Deadheads.”

John Denery, who sang and played guitar for that most Arcata-ish of bands, Brent’s TV (their hallmark was playing most of their shows on street corners and parking lots, or, most legendarily, in laundromats), was going away for the summer, so I sublet his apartment, packed a few belongings, and headed north to Humboldt County.

The dogs and cats, accustomed to my constant comings and goings, looked on bemusedly. By now they’d come to trust that, if nothing else, I’d always show up in time to replenish their food supply. Neither they nor I suspected that I’d never again be back to stay.

Its disparaging nicknames notwithstanding, CR provided a good if not overly arduous re-entry into the world of formal education. Class and homework took up three or four hours a day; the rest of the time belonged to myself and Lookout Records.

Gone was the unrelenting sunshine of a Spy Rock summer; here, where the mountains flattened out into a broad coastal plain, life was lived under an almost perpetually cloud and fog-shrouded sky. If the Humboldt Bank sign was to be believed, the temperature hovered at a constant 54 degrees from June right through to September.

Redwood Summer kicked off with a mass demonstration at the Samoa pulp mill, but after all the planning and anticipation, it did so without the benefit of my presence. Instead, I spent that afternoon on my back in the emergency room at Mad River Hospital, convinced that I was dying. It turned out to be nothing more than a painful bout of kidney stones, but I spent the couple hours it took them to make that diagnosis tearfully composing my goodbyes and regrets.

Much as when I’d been buried in the snowbank, I became fixated on the notion that my life was ending just as I was finally figuring out how to live. By the time I was discharged, armed with a bottle of painkillers and a warning that I could be looking forward to months or even years of similar attacks (which turned out to be true), I’d undergone a fundamental shift in attitude.

It wasn’t that I’d lost sympathy for the redwoods or the environment, but I had lost interest in putting my body on the line in their defense. I was not proud of this; in fact I was rather ashamed, but some of the fiery, confrontational spirit had gone out of me.

I could still shoot my mouth off in print, but couldn’t find the heart or the courage to go face-to-face or toe-to-toe with riot cops, undercover FBI agents, and pissed-off mill workers. Though I did attend a couple events, including the summer’s closing march and demonstration in Fort Bragg, in a replay of the self-obsessed 70s, I spent most of the summer “taking care of me.”

Could this change of heart have had anything to do with the bomb that had exploded in Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney’s car a month earlier as they drove to a Redwood Summer organizing meeting? Like many people, I had responded with a mixture of fury and fear, but in my case, the fear seemed to predominate. In an ongoing debate with myself, I wondered if my pullback from frontline political activity was a cowardly retreat or a prudent withdrawal.

I was reminded of the way I’d reacted when Diana Oughton, a woman I’d known casually — though well enough to develop a crush on — blew herself up making bombs for the Weather Underground. That, combined with the shootings at Kent State, reduced me to an apolitical — and, it might be fair to say, self-indulgent — state that lasted until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan finally managed to rekindle my sense of outrage.

In any event, honesty requires me to acknowledge that as the battles of Redwood Summer unfolded, I was preoccupied with making records, learning to skateboard, and falling in love with the cool, gray dream world that Arcata had become for me. The passion I felt for that place was unlike any I’d experienced before, all the more so because I couldn’t even put my finger on anything particularly special about it.

Its attractions and charms were subtle and small, to the point of being invisible to casual visitors, and maybe even to many of the locals. Perhaps it was the pervasive sense of timelessness and tranquility, something, friends pointed out, that would largely vanish once the HSU students began returning from their holidays.

And with summer fast disappearing, a decision loomed for me, one I wasn’t looking forward to but would have to make nonetheless. Would I stay on in Arcata, as I very much wanted to do, and finish my degree at HSU? Or would I have to bite the bullet and admit that Berkeley was the better choice?

I’d been a student there in the 70s, but had always assumed that I’d destroyed my chance of ever returning when I simply stopped showing up in mid-semester. It wasn’t the first college I’d pulled that stunt at, and each of the previous times I’d tried it, I had unceremoniously been given the boot.

Berkeley, it turned out, was far more forgiving. A visit to the registrar’s office in Sproul Hall revealed that not only was I still a student in good standing, but that I’d somehow managed to obtain a B+ in one of the classes — a graduate seminar, no less — that I hadn’t attended for the last two months of the term.

Re-enrolling at Berkeley, I was advised, would entail nothing more than filling out a few forms. It would be far easier, in fact, than arranging a transfer to HSU. Even still, I had little desire to return to the Bay Area, and was desperately unhappy at the prospect of leaving Arcata.

I went anyway, and to this day occasionally wonder if I did the right thing. Was it vanity, the notion that a Berkeley diploma would look better on my wall than one from HSU? Or a determination to get the best possible education? Some of both, I suppose. I remember the day I made my final decision: I had just read a San Francisco Chronicle article about graduating high school seniors and the desperate measures they were resorting to in hopes of gaining admission to the crown jewel of the UC system.

Entrance standards had grown far more stringent since I’d started at Berkeley, making it unlikely that I’d be able to study there if I were starting out as a freshman. Wouldn’t I be foolish to pass up an opportunity that was afforded to so few? My brother had a $98-a-month rent-controlled room just three blocks off campus that he’d been using as a workshop to build windsurfing boards; he agreed to turn it over to me for my college residence, and the die was cast.

With my decision made, the remainder of the summer tore by, tinged with growing sadness at the prospect of saying so long to Arcata and Humboldt. My tight-knit little coterie of friends threw a farewell party for me, and I very nearly cried — okay, a tear or two may have inadvertently escaped — at the thought that I’d no longer be randomly running into one or several of them at Los Bagels, crossing the Plaza, or perusing the racks at People’s Records.

On the bright side, it had been a productive — and profitable — summer. Determined to prove I could run the label on my own now that David Hayes had jumped ship, I’d gone on a record-releasing spree, coming out with 10 7” EPs in June alone. I also got together with my band, the Lookouts, to record a few songs. We’d been drifting apart over the previous year, not because of any bad blood, just that life had taken us in different directions and it was rare for all three of us to be in the same vicinity at any given time.

It would prove to be the last — and easily the best — work we ever did. Hoping to beef up our sound, I asked Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to join us on lead guitar and backing vocals. It would be the first time that Billie and Tre played music together.

Around that same time, Green Day began their first national tour with a stop in Arcata. As often happened in that very laid back town, the original show fell through — it’s possible, even likely, that someone had completely forgotten to book it — and they wound up playing in the living room of someone’s apartment across from the Greyhound station on 10th Street.

Soon afterward it emerged that Al Sobrante, their original drummer, wanted to put the band on hold while he spent a couple years at HSU having, as he put it, “the full college experience.” Billie asked Tre if he’d like to fill in on drums, and in November I watched Tre play his first show with Green Day at a student co-op on Berkeley’s North Side.

They’d always been an excellent band, but Tre’s skill catapulted them into a whole new dimension. I knew on the spot that Green Day were headed for much greater things and that the Lookouts, after five and a half years, were history.

That disappointment aside, Berkeley was turning out better than I’d expected. Still, it felt a little unreal, as though I were on an extended holiday in an educational theme park. Home still lay high atop Spy Rock, on the hind flanks of Iron Peak. In the midst of a less than enthralling lecture, or while plowing through some abstruse passage of Marx or Freud, or as I blearily compiled sales and disbursement charts at 3 o’clock in the morning, my mind and heart inevitably went drifting back there.

Getting my body there was another matter. It had been easy when I was living in Arcata; I’d drive down to Garberville on Saturdays for the radio show, then continue south to Laytonville. After my class at College of the Redwoods ended in late July, I’d usually go twice a week. But the trip from Berkeley took much longer because of the greater distance and the traffic nightmare that was Santa Rosa. Increasingly, it became easier to say, “I’ll go next week.”

I’d come to rely on a neighbor stopping by to feed the animals, which encouraged that kind of procrastination. I never doubted I’d be going back for good when my education was done — which, at the rate I was proceeding, would be in late 1991 or early 1992 — but while I was too busy to notice, life was busy making other plans.

There were new friendships and relationships, there was my growing reliance on the conveniences of urban life, but most of all there was the record label, which continued to grow faster and larger than I would have imagined possible. By early 1991 I had two fulltime employees, a roster of a couple dozen bands, and a balance sheet that, while full of promise, was also a daunting challenge to someone with my limited understanding of bookkeeping and accounting.

Still, it didn’t seem that terribly complicated: as long as we paid our bills and didn’t spend more than we had, we should be fine, right? This fundamental principle carried us forward while our business was roughly doubling in size every year.

Another year or so, I kept telling myself, and this will all get a lot simpler. Once I graduate, I’ll have more time than I know what to do with. Meanwhile, my visits to Mendocino County continued to grow shorter and less frequent.

I saw the same people — though far less often — and the same places — though missing the subtle changes one notices when passing regularly and constantly through a landscape. My connection to the land was fraying, if not yet broken; instead of getting back to where I had once belonged, I was slowly fading away.

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