My first trip up Spy Rock Road must have been late in the summer of 1980. My brother-in-common-law had bought a place at the top of the ridge just below the Iron Peak lookout tower, and was planning to move there with my sister and her two kids, until he ran into some problems with the authorities back east, involving, if memory serves me well, a trunkload of marijuana.
Prohibited by terms of his probation or parole, whichever it was, from leaving the state, he asked me if I could keep an eye on his property until he was allowed to travel again, and I, eager for an excuse to get out of the city for a couple days, agreed to drive up and have a look at it.
“The road where you turn off is nine miles past a little town called Laytonville,” he told me, and while it seemed as though I must have passed through it once or twice in my travels — I’d been up to Oregon and Washington at least a few times during the 70s — I had no recollection of anything north of Healdsburg. No, make that Cloverdale.
But everything north of the Mendocino County line, where the highway takes a sudden swerve into semi-mountainous terrain and the last of the palm and orange trees are left behind, appeared new to me. I pulled off at Ukiah for gas, had a quick look around, thought, “What a dump,” and jumped back onto 101. Willits, having not yet turned into the unsightly several-miles-long strip mall it has more recently become, seemed like a cute little town, but Laytonville… Well, to say it was a disappointment would be gravely understating the case.
Willits had had some tree-lined side streets, a reasonably pleasant city park, and at least a couple restaurants and cafes that looked intriguing, and for some reason I was anticipating Laytonville to be more of the same, if on a smaller scale. What I found instead was a ramshackle aggregation of two — no, back then there were three — gas stations, two stores (three, if you counted the liquor store), and a similar number of restaurants, none of which looked particularly inviting, spread along an unappealing, treeless and sun-blanched stretch of Highway 101. The Laytonville Inn appeared to be the classiest building in town, possibly because it had two stories and was built out of wood instead of cinder block. It also offered the “famous Logger Burger,” which sounded mildly intriguing to a city slicker like myself. Not intriguing enough to get me in the door, but enough to convince me that I was well and truly in the country now.
The temperature was in the low 90s, which I would come to learn was a mild summer day by Laytonville standards, but to someone used to the Bay Area, it was baking hot, so I didn’t linger in town. I picked up a few supplies at the general store (apart from old cowboy movies, I don’t think I’d ever seen a general store before), stopping to marvel at the fellow in full cowboy regalia (well, hat and boots, anyway) who was buying some ammo and repeatedly addressed the checkout lady as “Ma’am.”
Northern California in the dying days of summer is not always the prettiest place, especially if you gauge your rural landscapes by the amount of green they contain. Once I’d got out of town there were plenty of trees, true, but the fields and hillsides were fading from yellow to brown. The land itself looked weary, as I would have been myself if I had to sit out in that hot sun all day.
I’d been told to drive 8.9 miles north of Laytonville, where I’d find the turnoff for Spy Rock Road, and I figured that as soon I got off the highway I’d be wending my way through cool green forests, but such was not to be the case. If anything, Spy Rock was hotter and drier. Cars traveling even at normal speeds — given the hairpin turns and the slippery gravel surface, 20 to 25 mph seemed a sensible maximum — left a roostertail of dust in their wake, and although there wasn’t much traffic, the cars I did encounter seemed to be in considerably more of a hurry than I was. A couple times I had to pull off to the side to let a tailgater pass me, only to have to wait several minutes more for his dust cloud to clear. And on one vertiginous curve, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid getting hit head on by a truck that was straight out of the Beverly Hillbillies by way of Mad Max.
It was 5.9 miles to my destination, during which I’d also climbed from about 1,300 feet above sea level to 4,000. It took 25 minutes, all in second gear to reach the ridge top, and if you’d told me then how many hundreds of times I’d make that trip — and more, since I ended up living on the back side of the mountain, another three miles beyond the ridge and 1,000 feet below it — I’d have told you to just shoot me then and there. As far as I was concerned, the only thing that would cause me to venture onto that road again was the necessity of doing so in order to get the hell out of there and back to civilization.
My feelings changed a bit once I’d made my way up the long driveway to the house, which was a quaint and quirky little structure whose design owed more to whimsy than to blueprints or planning codes. Nobody had lived in it for a while, and it was hot as hell inside, but once I opened some windows, a cool breeze — at this altitude, there was almost always a cool breeze — made it a lot more pleasant.
Up here you had an unobstructed view to the east and west — to the Yolla Bollys and the Pacific Ocean, respectively, while to the north, across a heavily forested canyon was a wall of stark black cliffs, and to the south — southeast, actually — was the hulking, brooding presence of Iron Peak, with its pagoda-like (if you squinted) fire lookout tower.
Back then the tower was still manned during the summer, and you were still allowed to walk up to it (in the late 80s or early 90s some city folks bought the property below the tower and threw a locked gate across the road, and eventually, once cell phones came into common use, the tower was closed for good). I took a hike up there, arriving not long before sunset, and sat drinking coffee and chatting with the lookout guy and a friend of his while admiring the view that extended what must have been 50 or 100 miles in every direction.
By the time I thought about leaving, it was pitch black outside. I could see a few lights many miles below at various points along Highway 101, and the tower itself had solar electricity, enough to power some dim 12-volt fluorescents, but apart from that, there was nothing but starlight to guide my way home. A few years later my eyes had adjusted and wandering through field and forest in the midst of a moonlit night would be second nature to me, but that first night I was terrified. I remembered from my journey up the mountain that one side of the road dropped away abruptly, often on the order of 50 or 100 feet, and as if that wasn’t enough, I’d been hearing stories about how rattlesnakes often lay out in the middle of the road to savor the warmth that lingered in the gravel and sand.
It was about midnight when I made it back to the house, an hour at which, back in the city, I might be just getting ready to go out for the evening, but here I was at a loss for what somebody was supposed to do for entertainment. I strummed my guitar by candlelight for a while, and when I got bored with that, turned on a battery-powered radio that picked up a handful of country music and news-talk stations from all over the western United States, all of which, with the exception of San Francisco’s KGO, faded in and out to the point of being barely listenable.
It didn’t occur to me simply to go to sleep, and I probably couldn’t have anyway, both because of all the coffee I’d been drinking and because the life I was leading at the time took place mostly at night. I’d typically get up between 4 and 6 in the afternoon and get to bed — if at all — somewhere around 8 or 10 in the morning. It wasn’t the healthiest of lifestyles, I guessed, but I was still young enough that it didn’t seem to faze me.
Physically, that is. Mentally it was another story. I privately suspected I was going a little crazy, which was a big part of the reason I’d jumped at the chance to get away from the city. Back in the 60s and 70s — the early 70s, anyway — I’d been a bit of what you might call a sprouthead, awash in granola and Earth shoes, forever consulting the I Ching and babbling about “the vibes,” but between the cynicism that often arrives with one’s late 20s and the advent of punk rock, which I’d thrown myself into just as avidly as the mystical hippie bullshit I’d embraced a decade before, I was one jaded bastard.
Was I looking for something to believe in? To live for? You’re not likely to get me to admit to anything of the sort, but something odd did happen on my second or third trip up Spy Rock. It was in late March, and while a lush California spring was already having its way down in the valleys, it still felt like winter up here. I hadn’t left the city until about 8 in the evening, making it nearly midnight by the time I reached the ridge top. The moon was flitting in and out among some windblown clouds, creating a chiaroscuro effect that was hauntingly beautiful, but also, for some reason, a little frightening.
Just then the moon shook off the last of the clouds that had been dogging it, and in the sudden infusion of light I could see that the north face of Iron Peak was dappled with large patches of snow. I shivered at the sight, and a strange thought popped into my head. “A man could die up here if he wasn’t careful,” it went, and for some reason, I found that idea terribly appealing. This was the sort of place, I told myself, where real life happened, where actions had consequences, where one had to make choices far more crucial than the city-dweller’s dilemma of which restaurant to dine in or what movie to see.
And though I didn’t know it consciously at the time, it was almost certainly at that moment the prospect of my coming to live on Spy Rock shifted from fantasy to inevitability. My visits grew more frequent, and on Thanksgiving of 1981, I brought my new girlfriend up for the first time. It started snowing when we were halfway up the hill, and if I’d known then what I was to learn about mountain weather in years to come, I would have turned around and headed back to town, but at the time it just seemed like a big adventure, and I went plowing ahead, slipping and sliding all over the road in my wildly unsuitable sporty compact.
By the time we arrived at the house the road in either direction had become impassable; we had to leave the car at the bottom of the driveway and walk in through a foot of snow. We were hopelessly stranded, but completely unfazed, operating, I guess, under the assumption that the snow would melt in a day or two, just in time for us to return to the city before our food ran out.
We had Thanksgiving dinner followed by a starry-eyed walk through the wondrously wintry landscape, sat up for a while by candlelight, and woke the following morning to discover that a warm southerly wind had sprung up. Just as we’d imagined it would, the snow swiftly melted away, and by mid-afternoon, the road was clear enough to drive on, and we headed back to the city.
I came back by myself in January, and this time there was snow all around, though the roads were mostly clear. I was poking around the house, contemplating whether to go out in search of more firewood, when I heard someone drive up. It was the first time that had ever happened since I’d been visiting the Spy Rock house, so I was a little wary. I looked out the back window and saw a smallish, bearded guy eyeing my car suspiciously. Then he looked up, noted the smoke coming from my chimney, and nodded as though he’d confirmed his suspicions.
I slipped on some boots, went out the front door, rounded the house, and came up behind him.
“Hello,” he answered, and then, as though it were part of his greeting, “What are you doing here?”
I explained my relationship to the house’s owner, and he in turn told me that he was the one who had built most of the house (there’d been an old cabin there, which he’d built around and over), and subsequently sold it to my brother-in-common-law. Apparently he’d had no idea Jeff had gotten in trouble with the authorities, and had been stopping by from time to time in hopes of finding him there.
In what I was to learn was a near-universal gesture of mountain hospitality, he offered to smoke a joint with me; this being back in the days when I still used the stuff, I took him up on it. It was powerful, almost hallucinatory, but unlike the jagged, paranoid highs I often got in the city, this felt almost, dare I say, “organic,” leaving me feeling more connected to the land, the landscape, and this gnomish (he was quite short, and spoke with a distinct German accent, not that I’d ever assumed gnomes were necessarily Germanic, but it seemed plausible) stranger.
Udo (a name which, I learned, is very common in Germany, but at the time had never heard before), told me about his childhood in postwar East Germany, his hair-raising escape therefrom, and the bizarre chain of circumstances that had led him to become a carpenter in the mountain backwoods of Northern California. Then he invited me for dinner at the new house he was building on “the other side of the mountain.”
The plan was for me to follow Udo back to his house. I agreed, whereupon he jumped into his car and took off as though he’d just merged into the fast lane of the Frankfurt-Dusseldorf Autobahn.
I’d never driven past my brother-in-law’s place before, but as I soon discovered, the road quickly took a turn (quite a few of them, actually) for the worse. It headed sharply downhill and into a snowy area, and before Udo’s car completely disappeared from sight, I could see its back end swaying from side to side as he took the curves like a slalom skier. I gave up even trying to keep up with him and concentrated on trying to follow the tracks he’d left while not sliding off the edge of one of the cliffs that materialized from time to time.
It must have been almost half an hour before I caught up with Udo; his car was parked on the side of the road, and he stood there clapping his hands to keep warm. “What happened to you?” he said. “I thought you changed your mind and decided not to come.”
“I couldn’t really go fast enough to keep up with you. I was afraid I’d slide off the road.”
“Nonsense. The trick to driving in these conditions is never to slow down.”
I didn’t argue, being too shaken up by what to me had felt more like a near-death experience. “So how much further is to your house?” I asked.
“We’re here! But we’ll have to walk the last little bit, because there’s too much snow on the driveway.”
I could see what he meant. The “driveway,” which actually looked like just another road, only in even more primitive condition, wound around a steep hillside before disappearing, and on the parts of it that faced north there looked to be at least a foot of snow. We clambered up a steep hillside, through alternating patches of snow and mud. On reaching the top I gasped, not just for air, but because the view was spectacular: snow-topped mountains off to the east framed a panorama of rolling fields and forests that undulated their way to the bottom of the Eel River canyon.
We had rejoined the driveway as we crested the hill, which on this side, with its southern exposure, was snow-free and level, but which then took another gentle dip downward into a grove of fir and pine. Nestled among them I could make out a two-story wooden house, smoke curling upward from its chimney. Out in front of the house two children were tossing snowballs for their dog to chase. It looked like a postcard, perhaps even a Christmas card. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.
Inside the house was a revelation as well. Unlike my brother-in-law’s house, which, though it had its nice features, was in some ways just a shell of a house, this was a real home. There were electric lights, albeit rather dim ones, as they relied for power on the two solar panels atop the house, and a fully equipped kitchen where Udo’s wife Josie was preparing dinner. There was a piano in the living room, and I sat down to play a couple tunes, discovering that the wooden walls and beams seemed to act as an extended sounding board, turning the entire house into what felt like a musical instrument.
We lingered over dinner, talking for what must have been a couple hours; eventually the children got bored and went upstairs to their rooms. Somewhere around the time we’d been eating dessert, a crazy idea had crept into my head, and even while the conversation drifted all over the map, onto a dozen or more different subjects, this idea kept dancing around the edges, refusing to let go of my attention.
My initial thought had been, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place like this?” That soon turned to, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in this place?” And then finally, “Well, why not?”
The most obvious reason was that there was already a family living there, but I knew Udo had already sold his previous home to my brother-in-law, so perhaps it wasn’t so far-fetched that he might be willing to sell this one as well, even if he had told me just an hour before that he was building this particular house as a permanent residence for his family, and had no desire to move again. Anyway, it was an idiotic idea from start to finish. I’d never lived in the country in my life; I knew nothing about, well, about anything people needed to do to live in places like this.
Cut firewood? Put snow chains on tires? Deal with trees falling on houses or roads blocked by landslides? I couldn’t even do minor household repairs; my girlfriend handled things of that sort or else they didn’t get done. And besides that, my whole life revolved around the city. If there weren’t restaurants and bars and cafes and theaters practically on my doorstep, I didn’t really see the point of living.
So it was a stupid idea from start to finish, barely worth considering. At the same time, it was a pleasant fantasy to let roll around in my head while we smoked our second or third after-dinner joint. I excused myself to use the bathroom, and it was there that the fateful die was cast.
Udo was still in the process of finishing the interior of the house, but the bathroom was the one room that was not only pretty much done, but also seemed to represent the pinnacle of his craftsmanship. With half a dozen shades and textures of new and recycled wood, painted tiles and a vintage tub and sink, it was like a perfect little jewel box. Well, as much as a bathroom is ever going to resemble a jewel box, anyway. By the time I returned to the dining room table, I had made my decision. I was going to buy this house and live here.
I’d never owned a house before, never even seriously considered it. And while I guessed that I could possibly afford this place, I had no idea what I’d do for income once I’d spent all my money buying it. Didn’t matter. I wasn’t about to let petty things like rationality or logic impinge upon my vision. I casually asked Udo and Josie if they’d ever consider selling the property, and before they got over being taken aback at that prospect, I’d offered them a sum of money that I figured would leave them in no position to say no.
Once again, insanity reigned. The previous few years had been good for me financially, but not that good. If I were really determined to have the house, I probably could have negotiated a more reasonable price, but I didn’t want to risk not getting the house. It was sort of like sky diving, I guessed; once you make the decision to jump out of an airplane, you’d better go ahead and do it. Second or third thoughts, let alone extended periods of meditation, are not going to make the prospect look any more inviting.
And that was that. By the time I headed back to the other side of the mountain, we’d shaken hands on the deal and I had the rest of the night to lie awake wondering what I’d done. It was the most beautiful house in the world, I was sure of that much, but it was also nine miles from the nearest paved road, five miles from the nearest power line or telephone.
All that I could handle, I told myself, but then another thought came to me, one that made my blood run distinctly chilly, if not downright cold. In all my fantasies I’d sort of neglected to think about the other person in my life, namely my girlfriend Anne, who’d only recently moved in with me. She was even more of a city person than I was, and the only question about how she would react to the news that I’d decided to move to the back side of nowhere was whether it would be with stupefaction or rage.
She’d probably break up with me on the spot, I figured, but even that wasn’t enough to sway me from my course. I knew she’d want to know why I hadn’t consulted her before making such a dramatic decision, and at least I had an answer to that one: no phones. Where the conversation might go beyond that point, I simply couldn’t envision, or at least didn’t care to. If she didn’t want to come with me, I’d be a jolly old hermit, talking to the trees and the animals, living in harmony with nature and enjoying the pure and simple life in complete and blissful solitude.
If I had known in that moment the course my life was going to take over the next couple decades, if I’d had the faintest idea what life in what was almost a wilderness was going to be like, if I’d had an inkling of some of the challenges and terrors that were to come, I’d almost certainly have headed back to Udo and Josie’s the next morning and tried to laugh the whole affair off with, “Wow, I was really high last night, I hope I didn’t say anything too embarrassing.”
But that was the key: I had no idea, no idea at all, not a single, solitary clue, and that’s exactly how I bumbled into what was to become the greatest adventure of my life. So far, anyway.