The Navarro Saga: Random Reflections

It's been an exhilarating two months recollecting and recording past and present times in Navarro. A French philosopher once said something like "...the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Does this metaphor fit the Navarro saga? Until two years ago the Highway 128 sign identifying our existence declared, "Elevation 272, Pop. 67. Well, yes and no: the elevation is probably about the same as fifty years ago, but the Pop. stretches today from Flynn Creek to the north, and let us say Christine Woods to the south and is probably about five hundred souls.

The good friend and Nash Mill Road neighbor, mid-western German roots sheep farmer/philosopher, Lyle Luckert and I used to ruminate whether Navarro was a unique community and experience in rural America or whether there were complex, character- and story-filled hamlets similar to it all over the US. Lyle and his wife, Grace tested the hypothesis when in the 1980s they bought an RV and drove all around the country from Arizona to Florida, Maine and back west through his old family farm replaced by the Minnesota Twins baseball stadium in Edina, and then home via the northern states route to Anderson Valley.

When Lyle and Grace returned from their eighteen month long journey, we met to discuss the matter. Lyle spoke with confidence to declare, no, nowhere had he found a place quite like Navarro. And my subsequent research driving back and forth across the country on America's Blue Line highways, camping out, going to restaurants and bars and talking with the locals, found no close comparison either.

Bits & Pieces: George X. Wendling

In Maurice Tindall's memoirs he notes that Wendling's first manufacturing activity before the mill was in 1902, when the San Francisco capitalist built a brick kiln, presumably to exploit the fine clay formation along Soda Creek behind The Store. I have found pieces of brick both here on Ingram Ranch and on Guntly that have a crude granular texture and lots of quartz typical of traditional commercial kiln brick remnants I have discovered myself elsewhere in early industrial America.

Malcolm MacDonald commented on one of my previous that Navarro's name change in 1917 was a consequence of there being another town, Wendling, in Oregon. Interesting. But my old 1950s Hammond Atlas shows no town of that name up there.

Winter Recreation in Navarro, 1920s

In an earlier article about town team sports in Anderson Valley, I commented on there being none of this kind of activity in milltown Navarro. Bill Witherell told me about another form of local recreation he participated in. He described winters in The Valley as pretty boring for young males, raining off and on for months, no work in the woods or on the farm, hunting and fishing challenging, no transport out of the valley.

He and his contemporary and friend Loren Bloyd figured out an activity though, kind of a two man motorcycle club. Both he and Loren owned Indian brand two wheelers, antiques now, but elegant road devices in their day, the late 1920s. Here's Bill's tale from one of the club's road trips.

Late in a wet winter there was a weather break, sunny days, dry nights, so he and Loren hit the highway on their cycles, no camping equipment or supplies. The McDonald to-the-sea Highway, Route 28, did exist and was paved, its route not exactly as straight as it is today (another story). So they motored up The Valley to the turn-off to Greenwood Road. In those days there was no bridge at Hendy Woods River Rest, just a wagon trail down southward to the River's gravelly shallow crossing, fordable on foot in winter after a week or so of dry weather.

Bill and Loren carefully pushed their cycles through the riffle and up the west bank, fired up their machines and headed up the unpaved Greenwood Road. First stop was probably at Hagemann Ranch up above Ham Canyon. After so much isolation from one another, no telephones or radio yet, so much to gossip about among kin and friends, and not many folks in the Valley owning a possession as exotic as a motor cycle. The Hagemann visit immediately turned into a celebration of shared local news that went on for hours. And if their timing was right there was no way an invitation to lunch or dinner would be declined. If it were evening hosts like the Hagemanns would offer spare beds.

And so it went up Greenwood Road. I wish I could remember all the family waystations Loren and Bill called at. Definitely I remember stories from different road trips about the Fat Clow family, the Fratis, Valentis, Faschauers, Sandkullas, Liljebergs, almost all the way to Elk.

From Liljeberg home was a half days' journey over Cameron Road, north to the Navarro and back home through the redwoods on the McDonald to-the-Sea. That trip Bill described to me was three days and two nights for the complete journey. Not a bad form of wintertime recreation.

The Caves

In my article about Navarro the working mill town, I described the source of water for both the plant's steam power and some of the town's other dwellings. One day in the seventies Bill Witherell took me on a guided tour of the caves. Bill's house up Soda Creek Road next to the Doctor's House, was one of the eight dwellings and The Store continuing use of water from The Caves even after the mill closed in 1929. And as a contribution to servicing the system, twice a year he hiked up the hill to The Caves to clean the filters at each of their entrances.

I was so intrigued by what I saw up at The Caves that I went back time and again the past half century first with Bill, later by myself or as a tour guide for my city friend visitors showing interest in rural water engineering.

Access to The Caves was simple. Just cross The Highway at Wendling Soda Springs, walk across the mill flat, not much chamise back then, push through the alders along a small seasonal stream coming down from the village to the west. At the base of the hill up to The Caves was a well-worn trail through the soft and hardwoods about six feet wide and running straight up parallel to the three inch galvanized pipe rising a hundred yards or so to a five thousand gallon redwood water tank on a cement slab and redwood blocks. Here was the gate valve out of the tank's bottom that Water Commissioner Emil Niemela turned off each night, on each morning to preserve this reservoir from pipe or toilet failure in Navarro's community water distribution system.

From the tank on up the hill the grade got less steep, the piping changed from steel to 2" black plastic, the trail continued comfortably wide for a single person another two hundred yards though in some places it had been cut into the sidehill rather than running a ridge back. As the trail graduated to horizontal, there was a Tee in the pipe and a one inch plastic pipe coming from the left joined the main one, and ahead one could see on grade two tunnel openings in the sheer rock wall ending the pipe trail.

Each of the cave entrances was about six feet high and six feet wide. When one looked inside, you saw bits and pieces of rotting redwood four-by-fours every three feet shoring up the tunnel sidewalls and two-by-fours somewhat the ceilings. At the mouth of the cave was a clayey loam dam high enough to trap the water flowing from the its back into a four-by-eight foot wide pool emptying through a wire mesh homemade filter tied around the pipe going down the hill. Bill's job was to pull off the filter the various kinds of debris accumulated since his last visit, leaves, twigs, dead grass hoppers, salamanders, etc. Sanitary engineering for the health of the town.

On the way back down the hill from The Caves on my second trip with Bill, I began speculating about doing an exploration of their interiors. When I asked him about it, he had no recollection of anyone in his time trying it and had no idea of the risks involved.

Next time up the hill I brought my explorer's kit, a pair of heavy socks and tennis shoes and a flash light. After we cleaned the filters, I chose the cave with the larger entrance, the more inviting of investigation. I started in wading a step at a time through the catchment pond, studying each of the cribbing pillars and ceiling blocking and fractured sandstone itself for the kind of structural sturdiness I wanted to see. As I left the reservoir and hit the wet gravel floor the cave began gently curving to the right, the natural light got dimmer and the temperature started going down from, let's say 75 on the side hill. Also the wooden cribbing had ceased, the flashlight went on, and I was surrounded by the immediate sound and echo of both running water at my feet and streams dripping out of cracks in the cave's sides and ceilings.

I was keeping score of the cave length by doing measured paces I guestimated at 30 inches each. So when I had gone, say, fifty feet, I decided it best to make a comm check with my mentor and guide, slowly turned around toward the entrance where there was now total darkness and reported to Bill my location, more or less.

As the journey continued with the echoing sound of water growing louder, and the temperature continuing to drop, I began to see pattern to the geology. The brittle sandstone walls and ceiling were fractured every five or ten feet, and out of these cracks came in various volumes, from a steady drip to a trickle or a steady stream this cool, pure tasting water, no sulfur, no iron. And as I measured on step by step for what seemed forever, the underground temperature continued to decline. The cave was now straight and in my flashlight beam I could see its headwall getting closer.

A dozen steps short of the tunnel end I heard a louder echo of water and saw on the left wall a formidable fracture, say a three inch vertical opening running from floor to ceiling. Out of this seam flowed a steady stream of maybe a gallon a minute. I shined my flash light from eye level into the fracture to see how deep it was and encountered the most remarkable creature. About six inches into the crevasse was a large glistening wet spider, its four legs straddling the crack, water trickling over its body, and it was looking right at me. How do I know? Its two "eyes" were on three inch skinny tentacles, about an eighth of an inch round balls staring at this stranger. And the spider was albino white.

What an encounter; I've been reflecting about it off and on ever since. Albino, does that mean never any contact with the sun; are those large leading protuberances some kind of device to enable the spider to navigate around its habitat deep in the cave; how big is this underground community, what do they survive on? Any reader out there today know?

So after inspecting the cave headwall, I carefully pivoted around and headed back out, doing a second measurement of its length on my way back to the entrance. My guestimation yielded a number of about 165 feet.

As I readjusted my body to the surface world temperature, I reported to Bill my findings inside the subterranean one. Then we went back to the pipe tee and followed that trail southwardly as it gently rose to the third cave. The trail, maybe four feet wide, more often than not cut into the sidehill with hand tools, took us on a curve about a hundred yards to the third cave. This one's entrance was lower than the first two, had no wooden cribbing, carried less water, and I had to duck my head most of the way to the headwall, I guestimated at about 130 feet.

So those are the Navarro Caves, hand dug with Chinese labor at the turn of the last century, maintained by the citizens of Navarro to this day, August, 2020, and as I noted earlier visited regularly by me and chosen guests until about ten years ago. Haven't been up there since, and after that dramatic day of deep exploration never tempted myself to visit their headwalls again.

"What do you Hippies want Anyway?"

This one Tom English related to me one day when we were tree-planting back in the seventies somewhere on Masonite land, so I can't entirely testify to its accuracy. He and Clams softball team center-fielder Whacky Wayne drove into Floodgate's parking lot after a day in the woods ready for the late afternoon beer. As their eyes adjusted to the relative dimness of the bar, there was sitting over by the cash register slumped over his draft the old gyppo cat skinner and friend, Glenn Schaeffer.

Glenn was a treasured Valley specimen. Born and raised in Ten Sleep, a village on Highway US 12 at the Rocky Mountains continental divide about forty miles west of Buffalo, Wyoming, Glenn had migrated to the Valley during the post World War II logging boom, became a gifted caterpillar operator and by the seventies owned his own old Cable Blade D-7. All over The Valley he was a trusted project operator whether for dams, roads or housesites.

He was also physically an imposing piece of work, broad and firm everywhere, about six feet tall, square forehead, jaw, shoulders, hips and boots, sometimes a stogie in his face, always a greasy grey hardhat on his head. This afternoon as Whacky and Tom sidled across the floor to join their friend and neighbor, Glenn whirled around beer in hand, eyes narrow slits, feet braced on the floor, butt on the bar stool and roared in his thunderous growl, "What do you hippies want anyway...?"

Tom and Wayne stopped dead in their tracks, their eyes swinging from one another then back to Glenn; Wayne's eyeballs glazed over at twice the speed of Tom's, his brain racing at full RPM ordering glances at the route of retreat, the front door: what exactly was Glenn's question asking?

The old Valley conundrum had arisen again: Who was a Hippie, who planted trees, who logged trees for a living, who were good friends among one another, who cared for the forest and River? Did Wayne and Tom have an answer to Glenn's question; did Glenn?

Hunting Field Trip, 1950s Style

Bill Witherell told me this one during one of our autumn late afternoon story-telling "hunting" trips along the Navarro's logging roads in his 46 Ford jeep. What he described was basically the equivalent of the modern family big holiday event, camping out in the RV or trailer on Lassen, in Yosemite, or Yellowstone for a week or two.

This adventure, around the fall of 1956, went way beyond the typical Valley male weekend hunting adventure with kin and friends up on Clow Ridge above Day Ranch or in Modoc County near Tule Lake that ended the farming and logging year. Bill, his brother Pete and a good friend, L.E. Dew, spent half a day packing up for a three day hunting and fishing trip to the Uinta National Forest in the eastern Utah Rockies near Helper and Price. Transport mode for the three and their gear, a Chevy V-6 pick-up, no air conditioning, six volt battery, hand-operated windshield wipers. Route was US Fifty and US Six, two lanes all the way, but not much traffic back then. Trip plan was pretty simple, just keep going. One person drove, the window seat person navigated and told stories, the one in the middle snoozed.

Campground was along a shaded trout stream high on the Rockies east slope, supplies they either brought with them or caught or killed, a restful long weekend way away from home after a long dusty, noisy logging summer in the Anderson Valley woods. But after three days full of serenity and comradeship it was time to head back home. The return plan was the same as the outbound, except as a reward for a lovely adventure, they decided to get up at sunrise on departure day, drive into either Helper or Price, I forget, and treat themselves to a big breakfast at the local restaurant.

Well, they hit it right, omelets, fried this and that, toast, grits, good coffee, and so on. Bill's younger, brother, Pete, always, according to Bill, kind of a scamp, a Billy Carter type, surprisingly offered to pay the breakfast bill. Toward the end of the meal, Bill noticed Pete surreptitiously reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a little match box. To Bill's horror and fear Pete opened the match box, extracted a good sized dead horse fly and put it daintily on the remains of his hash browns.

When the waitress emerged from the kitchen, Pete pointed out the fly to her while feigning signs of gastric distress. Bill didn't know what to do. The waitress looked deeply troubled, retreated back into the kitchen, emerged in a minute with the proposal that they accept all of their meal ticket free of charge. Pete smiled graciously, arose, and as the waitress stooped to clear the other meal plates, adroitly removed the fly from his own in anticipation of further use. Bill knees were still shaking in fear of discovery as they went out the restaurant door; Pete was smiling happily from ear to ear.

The rest of the trip back to Anderson Valley was uneventful.

Next week: More Recollection remnants.

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