In my younger days I had a habit that I thought was amusing but which I imagine most people found very annoying. It consisted of making up stories — okay, you could be uncharitable and call them lies — some preposterous, some quite plausible.
I didn’t do this for personal gain — not usually, anyway — nor with the intention of permanently deceiving people. The point of the game was to convince someone that what I was saying was true, then pull the rug out from under them with a, “No, just kidding.” It might be something innocuous like, “I ran into Mayor Feinstein and we had a nice chat about urban renewal,” or something more heavy-handed like, “Don’t panic, but the police are coming to arrest everyone in the building.”
Anne and I had only been together seven months, but she was familiar with this routine. Which might have been why she didn’t seem shocked or appalled when I casually mentioned that I had sunk my life savings into a house and land in the middle of the wilderness and was planning on moving there in a couple of months.
I was about 75% certain that once she realized I wasn’t making this up, she’d tell me to get lost. I figured that was okay. I was used to living on my own, and since this back-to-the-land adventure could turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life, it might be better not to have anyone standing over my shoulder saying, “I told you so.”
To my surprise, that wasn’t her reaction at all. She had her doubts, of course, but once she saw I was serious, she said, “Of course I’m going with you. What made you think I wouldn’t?”
I don’t know if it had any effect on her decision, but a few months earlier Anne had been part of a terrifying adventure that had helped crystallize my own desire to leave the city. We’d been to a movie at some artsy-type theater in an alley off Polk Street, and were walking back to my brother’s apartment on Russian Hill, where we were staying while he was in Mexico.
As we headed up Bush Street, a carload of tough guys rolled by and shouted, “Hey, faggots!”
Anne had short hair and a slightly androgynous look, but she was not someone you’d normally mistake for a guy, homosexual or otherwise. And I thought I would have been absolved, at least for the moment, of looking like a faggot on grounds that I was holding hands with a girl.
Such was not the case, apparently. Anne rolled her eyes the way she did when someone or something struck her as absurd, and we kept walking. The car came around the block again, this time very slowly. Its occupants were wielding 2x4s with what looked like distinctly unfriendly intent.
We ducked into a corner store and hung out for 20 minutes or so. The coast seemed clear, so we set out again. We hadn’t got halfway up the block before the car was back, accelerating toward us.
We ducked through alleys, hid behind hedges, ran up and down hills for the next half hour, but we couldn’t seem to shake them. Finally we made it to my brother’s street, one of those ridiculously steep ones filmmakers use when shooting San Francisco car chase scenes, and here came the thugs again.
We were within sight of my brother’s building, but they rounded the corner and cut us off. Anne shouted, “Downhill! Run downhill!”
It didn’t make sense. Downhill would take us away from my brother’s house, not toward it. And how could we outrun a car? But there was such a note of urgency in her voice — I preferred to think of it as urgency rather than panic — that I followed without stopping to ask questions.
The car was practically alongside us when Anne shouted again, “Okay, now uphill!” We turned and raced toward home; the driver slammed on his brakes, but his momentum carried him halfway down the hill. By the time he was able to get turned around we were safe inside.
I’d had scary experiences on the streets of San Francisco before, like the time that kid stuck a gun in my stomach at the corner of Church and Market (turned out he wasn’t really committed to shooting me and nothing came of it), and they’d been happening more often lately. As my fear receded, it was replaced by anger.
“That does it,” I announced. “I’ve had it with this place. I’m going somewhere and starting my own city.”
The prospect of moving to the country hadn’t occurred to me yet; I was just talking to hear myself talk. But the words seemed to resonate. Or percolate, or something, because when the opportunity came, I was ready. It was pure fantasy, hearkening back to childhood daydreams where everyone except the handful of people I approved of had vanished.
That’s how I imagined life in the country: a world of my own, where no uninvited person or situation could intrude. A new, better-designed Eden. Perhaps I’d call it Larryland. La-la land would have been more to the point.
We set out for our new home on March 1, 1982 in my little Honda Prelude, a wildly unsuitable vehicle for those bonebreaking backroads. We were loaded down with everything we thought might be essential for a hearty mountain life, but most of it was the kind of crap more suitable for poking around in a suburban garden. Accustomed to Bay Area seasons, where spring was already well underway, we didn’t pack much in the way of winter clothing. We shivered through the first few days, and then the weather turned warm, almost summery.
I’d been warned to stock up on firewood, but I found it hard to believe we’d be needing more than a small fire to take the chill off mornings and evenings. Instead I set about planting trees and flowers. I made trips to Laytonville and Willits, where I’d buy rootstocks, soil amendments, and hundreds of pounds of potting soil, all of which I carried up and over the hill on my back, then down to the various holes I’d dug — 3’ by 3’ by 4’, as I’d been instructed by my “How to Grow Productive Fruit Trees” manual.
Most of the land was forest, a mixture of fir, pine, oak, madrone and, on the edges, manzanita. I didn’t know anything about logging practices at the time, but eventually I learned that the land had been clear-cut, then allowed to grow back enough to market it as “wilderness” to the homesteaders and hippies. Above and to the east of the house were stretches of grassy hillside, which was where my fruit trees went, along with a couple hundred fir and pine seedlings I’d purchased from the Forest Service.
By mid-March, I had built up muscles I never knew I had, and cultivated quite a suntan from working shirtless. Wildflowers were bursting into bloom, as were the buds on the almond, peach, plum and nectarine trees I’d put in. I ran out of easy places to dig holes, and used a pickaxe to break up slabs of rock that had had the temerity to plant themselves in the spot I’d decided was ideal for an apple tree.
It took me all morning and most of the afternoon, and even then the hole was shallow compared with the others (ironically, the tree that went into it is one of the few that has survived to this day). I stood there dripping with sweat, and thought that if the Eskimos really did have 28 words for snow (I’m pretty sure they don’t, but I was more impressionable in those days), they’d need a lot more than that to describe the multifarious shades of green that came cascading over the land for as far as the eye could see.
If it was this beautiful already, when spring hadn’t even officially arrived, what was it going to be like come May or June? Unwilling to wait that long to find out, I brought back flats of spring and summer flowers every time I went to town. I was becoming one of Weathertop Nursery’s best customers, but that didn’t stop young Jordan Celso from observing that it might be a tad early in the season for some of the plants and flowers I was picking out.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the last of the winter weather for this year,” I told him.
“They say only fools and foreigners predict the weather around these parts,” he amiably replied.
There are certain times of year when it’s colder in the valley where Laytonville sits than 3,000 feet up in the mountains, and this was one such time. In town there’d be a frosty nip in the air, but as I drove into the hills, the temperature would rise into the 70s. If there was any problem with the weather, I told myself, it was that we could use a little more rain to replenish the wells and streams before the summer dry season set in.
But there was not so much as a cloud on the horizon, let alone a hint of precipitation, and things continued that way until the last week of March. We were getting used to country life, we thought, though we hadn’t yet shaken off the urban paranoia that had us securing every door and window in the house against intruders, and even double checking that the car was locked before we went to sleep at night, despite having been assured we’d be more likely to be assaulted by Bigfoot than encounter a random burglar or prowler.
A few years down the line, I’d think nothing of leaving the place unlocked for days or weeks at a time — in fact, for the last 10 years or so the front door didn’t even have a working lock — but when we were new to the country, a crackling twig, a mysterious screech or yowl, even the loud thunk of a pine cone landing on the roof, would have me reaching for the shotgun to repel a home invasion.
Udo and his family had been by to visit, but apart from that we’d seen almost nothing of our neighbors, the nearest of whom lived a mile either side of us. Occasionally we’d hear a chainsaw or a truck engine revving up in the distance, and once in a while I’d hear somebody shouting or singing, but about 90% of the time the only sounds were those of nature. The one constant was the roar of the creeks, a small one at the bottom of our land, and a large one just over the hillcrest, each carrying a winter’s worth of rain and snow melt down into the Eel River Canyon.
We finally encountered one of our closer neighbors as we were pulling out of our driveway at 7:30 one morning. In fact, he nearly took off the front end of our car as he came sliding to a halt on the loose gravel. He had a carload of children, who I assumed he was driving to school.
“Howdy!” he shouted, lighting a joint and thrusting it out his window at us by way of greeting.
“Um, thanks,” I said, “but isn’t it a little early for that sort of thing?”
He looked at me as though I were an imbecile, then his face softened. You could see he was trying to take into consideration that we were city slickers who couldn’t be expected to have adapted to mountain ways yet.
“I’m on my second one already!” he said happily. “I’ve got a lot of errands to do in town, so I rolled up a bunch to tide me over.” He showed me a metal cigarette case containing nine or ten joints.
“How long are you going to be in town?” I asked.
“Oh, till noon at least.”
A word about dope: it wasn’t that I was against the stuff. In fact I still used it from time to time, though not like Anne, who was a daily smoker. I was well aware that marijuana growing was a major industry among the mountain people, though I hadn’t yet learned it was pretty much the only industry.
I was fine with that. In fact, I romanticized the notion of outlaw growers carving out a niche for themselves and their families where they could live off the grid, disconnected from mainstream society.
But I didn’t want to be part of it myself. I had agreed that Anne could put in a small garden for her own use, though I would have preferred to have no marijuana at all on the property. I was determined, however, not to be a grower myself, something I was able to stick to for several years, but more about that later.
On the 26th of March the weather turned cold. Not exactly freezing, but chilly enough that we had to keep a fire going all day. I wasn’t happy about that, since it meant having to find more firewood. But while I was spending most of the day outdoors, Anne was doing equally important work inside, and I couldn’t very well begrudge her the heat.
Everybody on the mountain had a chainsaw. That was a given, and though I heartily disliked them for being noisy, smelly and dangerous, I reluctantly accepted that I’d probably have to get one, too.
But not, as St. Augustine had prayed, just yet. I had a quixotic notion that I could, through careful husbandry and a little extra work, get by with just a handsaw. You know, like the old time pioneers. They didn’t have chainsaws and still managed to keep warm, so why couldn’t I?
Because of the unusually mild weather, I’d been able to make do by picking up scraps from around the land and occasionally breaking out the hand saw to cut up some smallish branches. By the time the cold weather came back, I had decided I would put off buying a chainsaw until next winter at least. This firewood thing wasn’t as big a deal as people made it out to be, I told myself.
My resolution was sorely tested by that first chilly day, and all but vanished the next morning, which had dawned even colder. I was collecting firewood from farther and farther afield and lugging it back to the house, only to discover that the stove was eating it up faster than, I could deliver it.
About 4pm I decided to go to town and buy a chainsaw. Anne suggested that I wait till morning, when I’d have time to do some other errands, but I wanted to get it over with and jumped into the car with only a few minutes to spare. It had clouded over earlier that day, and a cold wind had sprung up, but it wasn’t until I got to the ridge top that I saw just how dark and menacing the sky had become.
Bailey’s Logging Supplies, located in a log cabin style building that now houses the Laytonville Post Office, was the sort of place that people like me tended to avoid. I’d heard rumors that the owner was none too sympathetic toward newcomers, especially those of a hippie bent, but rumors notwithstanding, I was treated courteously and helpfully, even though I was the last customer of the day and they were anxious to close up and get home themselves.
I pulled out of Bailey’s parking lot at five past five, the proud owner of an orange Husqvarna with a 20” bar (“Anything more than 24 inches and a guy is just showing off,” the salesman assured me). It was a lot of money, more than I’d planned on spending, but it was the right piece of equipment for my needs, and would almost certainly end up saving both of our lives.
I picked up a few groceries at Geiger’s and headed up the hill, anxious to get home before dark so I could try out my new saw and get some wood in for the night. I heard some people talking about the possibility of a storm blowing in, but my radio, tuned to a San Francisco station, didn’t seem to know anything about it. The windshield stayed dry all the way up Spy Rock, but by the time I got to the ridge, I was in the clouds. It was slow going, even with my headlights on, and as I reached the end of the ridgeline and started my descent toward home, the first snowflakes started to fly.
From the top of the ridge to the bottom of my driveway usually took between 10 and 20 minutes, depending how much of hurry you were in. During that time the snow thickened to the point where I could barely see where I was going, and when I finally reached my driveway, I left the car on the side of the road rather than drive up to the house. That’s what I’d been told to do: sooner or later, the roads would get plowed, but unless you paid someone to take care of it, your driveway might be snowed in until spring.
But it already was spring, I protested. The 27th of March. This snowstorm had to be some sort of freak occurrence, like the one at Thanksgiving, when a foot of snow fell one day and melted the next. In what was now almost complete darkness, I carried the groceries and my new chainsaw the last quarter mile to the house.
Anne was in a good mood, especially now that I was home. The house was a little chilly, but what the wood stove lacked was made up for by the warmth emanating from the kitchen, where Anne had all four burners of the propane range going as she prepared a feast to celebrate what we assumed would be a night or two of being snowed in.
We sat in front of the fire until we’d used the last of the wood scraps, then went upstairs to bed. We woke up around 8am, but when I opened my eyes, I assumed it was much earlier because of the gloomy half-light that filled the room. Another thing I noticed was the quiet. No bird calls, no wind sighing through the trees, none of the creaks, cracks, groans and sighs that constantly emanate from a wooden house in the forest. Most disconcerting of all was that that it was absolutely freezing.
We always let the fire die down overnight, but in the morning there would usually be enough hot coals remaining to put off some warmth and spring back to life as soon as some new wood was added. Not today. There wasn’t a spark to be seen; the stove was cold as a coffin.
“I’d better get some wood before we do anything else,” I told Anne. When I opened the front door, I found myself confronted with a chest-deep wall of snow. I knew where I could find a few pieces of firewood, but the only way I was going to get them was to dig my way there.
And so I did. The first half of the morning was spent carving a path to the meager remains of my woodpile and the second half digging my way back; it was snowing so hard that my path filled in behind me as I worked. In the afternoon I repeated the process.
By nightfall I’d spent eight, maybe ten hours digging through snow and cutting and hauling wood. All that activity kept me warm personally, but it wasn’t doing much for the house. The bits of wood I retrieved were wet, burned poorly and gave off very little heat. Just about enough, in fact, to keep an area of maybe 10 square feet at livable temperatures.
We dragged our mattress down from the bedroom and set up camp in front of the stove. The battery pack kept our lights going for the first couple days, but with the solar panels that charged it buried deep beneath the snow, they gradually faded away until we were living mostly by candlelight. Water was a problem, too; we had to leave it running at night to keep the pipes from freezing, but the tank wasn’t being replenished, which meant it would eventually run out. Of course there was plenty of snow to melt for cooking and washing, so it was more of a nuisance than anything else.
At least we wouldn’t starve; as recommended, we kept what was meant to be a month’s supply of food on hand. It might have lasted a month, too, if we hadn’t eaten so well those first few days. After all, it was almost April. How much longer could this freak blizzard last?
Twelve days, it turned out, and even when it finally stopped snowing, the five-plus feet that had accumulated showed no sign of melting. For the first several days, I was confined to a 150-foot radius of the house, which was as far as I could dig my way and back. Within that area I had to find and cut enough wood to keep us from freezing. Inexperienced with such things, I didn’t even know that green wood — i.e., from living trees — would burn only with difficulty and give off very little heat. The first time I fired up my new chain saw, I came within inches of cutting off my leg.
On day two, or maybe three, I found I could no longer open or close most of the doors. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until first one, then another, of the wooden awnings that shielded the windows came crashing down from the weight of the snow.
A glance upward revealed that the roof of the house was noticeably sagging. I remembered hearing about houses collapsing under the weight of snow. Our roof was steep and high, especially on the north side, where the accumulation was at its heaviest. The one time I’d been up there, in warm, dry weather, I’d been terrified. But there was nothing else to be done. I had to get up and clear it off.
I was pretty sure I was going to die. Even if the roof didn’t cave in under me, even if I didn’t take a wrong step and go sliding off, the vicious southeast wind felt strong enough to lift me up and hurl me to my doom.
But once I’d cleared enough of a patch that I could stand on shingles instead of snowdrifts, I felt more secure, and then it was just a matter of several hours of hard physical labor. The roof stopped sagging, the doors started working again, and there was an added, unexpected benefit.
I haven’t mentioned our dog yet, because frankly, she had been kind of a disappointment. We’d rescued her from the San Francisco dog pound the day before setting off for Spy Rock, thinking that we’d need a watchdog, and in observance of the principle that two stooges are generally in want of a third.
She proved to be less than ideal watchdog material, not least because she was so timid and high strung that she’d wet herself if you made a sudden move in her vicinity. Oh, and there was the fact that she either couldn’t or wouldn’t bark.
She’d been raised in a small apartment by an elderly gentleman, the dog pound people told us, and we theorized that perhaps she’d been beaten every time she made a noise. At any rate, she was as nervous as the proverbial cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and since she was missing half her tail, I speculated that she’d been the victim of some excessively vigorous rocking on the part of her former owner.
I tried everything to get her to bark, but without success. The nadir of my efforts (or zenith, perhaps, from the standpoint of unintentional comedy) came when I resorted to crawling around on all fours and barking myself in hopes of showing her how it was done.
We’d all but given up on her, and might have considered returning her to the pound if she weren’t so cute and we weren’t snowed in. But as I pushed snow off the roof, she attacked it, barking her fool head off. She was tireless, too; the entire time I was up there, she never allowed a single shovelful to fall to earth unbarked at.
Until then she’d been nameless, referred to, perhaps a bit disdainfully, as “the dog,” but from that day forth she became known as Ruf-Ruf. A bit foofy for a ferocious watchdog, perhaps, but you had to work with what you had, in her case, a cute but runty blond lab mix.
It was not a moment too soon for Ruf-Ruf to redeem herself, either, because she’d been in the metaphorical doghouse (the actual one being buried under several feet of snow) since the first night of the storm, when we somehow heard, over the howling of the wind, the pathetic cries of a tiny kitten.
She couldn’t have been more than five or six weeks old; where she’d come from and how she’d survived was a complete mystery. We brought her in and tried desperately to nurse her back to health by feeding her warm milk with an eyedropper. Most of it fell on the floor; she was too weak even to hold her head up, let alone swallow.
But eventually, she began to perk up, managing to get to her feet and take a few tentative steps across the kitchen floor. Ruf-Ruf, who’d been sitting there keeping an avid eye on the proceedings, gave a quick snap and with one bite broke little Mew-Mew’s (there’d been a kitten by this name in my first grade reader who I’d never forgotten) back. She died almost instantly; Ruf-Ruf lay on the floor and gave us a plaintive look that seemed to say, “Now that that annoying creature is out of the way, how about playing with me?”
By the fourth or fifth day things had settled into a more comfortable routine. I’d gotten better at using the chainsaw and finding the right kind of wood; while the snow was still falling, it didn’t seem to be getting much deeper. Occasionally the skies would clear up enough that we could see down into the valley, where everything was green and spring-like. Did anyone even know we were up here? The blizzard was the all-encompassing fact of our lives, but to judge from the news and the weather reports we heard on the radio, it had never even happened.
On the sixth day there was a hard freeze, which left the surface of the snow solid enough to walk on. I no longer had to dig my way out in search of wood. I ventured down to where I had left the car, but it was nowhere to be seen. I started digging where it should have been, and when my shovel hit metal, I realized I was standing on it.
By the second week life was much easier. More sunshine, less snow (less snow falling from the sky, anyway; what was on the ground didn’t seem in a hurry to go away). The main issue now was how long the food would hold out.
One morning we heard a racket outside, giving Ruf-Ruf her first chance to do some serious watchdog barking. Some neighbors had been making their way up the road on skis, had seen smoke coming from our chimney, and stopped to investigate.
They’d run out of food, and were trying to make it to town. Because their house was equipped with a CB radio — phone lines and cell phones were miles and years away, respectively — they’d been able to keep in touch with the outside world. Apparently the drifts up on the ridge were over 10 feet deep, and even the Caterpillar D4 that had tried to bust a path through had gotten stuck.
But they reckoned they could make it out on foot, and asked if Anne and I wanted to come along. We had one pair of skis that we’d found under the house. I’d never skied in my life and had instantly fallen on my behind when I tried them on, but Anne, who came from upstate New York, was an experienced cross-country skier. We decided it would make sense for her to go. On my own, the food would last at least another couple weeks, and anyway, Anne had some business to attend to in town. So off she went, and I settled in to wait for the roads to clear.
“What did you do up there by yourself?” people (city people, invariably) would ask. Not a heck of a lot, I’d answer, and yet my days were strangely full. I played the piano and the guitar, read, listened to the radio (on this side of the mountain, I had a choice of KGO from San Francisco or canned country music from the Ukiah station). There was also plenty of time for staring meaningfully out one window or another.
By mid-April the sun was putting in regular appearances, and on south-facing slopes patches of green emerged from the snow. In the daytime, at least, it was warm enough to believe that spring had finally returned. But I only needed to round the bend at the top of my driveway to be transported back to midwinter; in the perennial shade of the fir-lined north slopes, the road was still blocked by drifts as tall as I was.
Eventually there came a week of unbroken sunshine, when even the nights stayed warm enough to do without a fire, and the snow washed away in torrential streams, sometimes taking large chunks of the hillsides and roads with it. The flowers that had survived began blooming again, especially the hyacinths, which filled the house with a heady perfume of possibility and promise.
I took long, meandering walks now, venturing ever farther from my land until one day I realized that if I could get this far on foot, chances were pretty good that the car would make it as well. And so it did; on the first of May I drove out, almost effortlessly except for a little slipping and sliding on the ridge top, where the drifts still stood waist-high on either side of the road.
As soon as I’d dropped below the snow line, I could see that the road was already kicking up trails of dust. The emerald green fields, dazzlingly bedecked with wild flowers, seemed to herald a languorous interval of respite and peace, but it was not to be. Spring fluttered by in the blink of an eye and the long hard summer had begun.