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That Other Drought

The recent drought in Northern California made me think of the last one back in the mid-seventies when I was living about six miles up Sherwood Road on a friend’s 20-acre property without electricity or running water. Actually, my friend, Spencer, didn’t have any water, though he said he was going to drill a well and pump up to a water tank he planned to build next to his driveway.

We ran into each other while in town getting showers at Quail Meadows, a Campground and RV Park just north of Willits run by Al and Marge, a nice English couple, that turned out to be a haven for the surrounding hill people who lived without indoor plumbing or running water, or as in Spencer’s case, no water. He was filling up a couple barrels on the back of his flatbed truck when I caught his eye.

We both lived on sailboats at the Sausalito Gates in the early seventies, and shared the same old lady. Not at the same time, mind you, but after they had broken up she seduced me. I was hanging around the campfire behind the Ark, an old paddle wheeler called the Charles Van Damm that was beached years earlier, and became a party boat, surrounded by a parking lot and the entrance to the infamous Gate 6 water squatters.

Suddenly this dark-haired beauty hands me a lit joint. We talked and soon ended up at the houseboat she was caretaking at Gate 6 1/2. It was a round two-story structure called the Stone Soup. The next morning I’m in this comfortable queen-sized bed with Jean, and we’re about to go at it again when I hear somebody coming up the stairs.

“Oh, that’s just Spencer. He ties his boat up here and uses my bathroom.” She said it like it was no big deal. And there he was, smiling when he saw me in bed with his wife. Turns out they were still married, but he had only a friendly good morning for both of us. While he was in the bathroom I jumped up and got dressed. Jean cooked breakfast for both of us and we talked sailing.

It was a few months later, February ’71, Jean and I were now living on my boat, the Cowpie, a 22-foot steel lifeboat that suddenly appeared on the beach at Gate 6 after a storm in the spring of ’69. I guess you could say I rescued it. It had the beginning of a small cabin and that’s about it. Over the next few months I stepped in a mast, sewed some sails, had a half-inch thick steel keel welded on and soon I was sailing around the Bay. Rather than pay a dockage fee, I stayed anchored out, using my little 8-foot dory to row back and forth to shore.

Jean said casually while making coffee, “Spencer’s sailing down the coast today.”

“Really!? I thought he was going to wait until spring? “ I wondered why he would risk going down the coast during the storm-active winter months? “Who’s going with him?” I asked, but before I heard her answer I saw his boat, Tenderly, slowly inching toward us, him standing at the wheel, patiently drifting with the out-going tide. As he approached, he asked me if I wanted to go with him. He said he could sure use some help. He was going back to San Diego where he grew up, and said it shouldn’t take more than three, four days.

Rather than wonder why my girlfriend’s ex was inviting me to go sailing in February at the spur of the moment on a 26-foot sailboat with no engine, I thought instead, that sounds like an adventure, and said, “Okay, but I have to be back at work in four days.” I had a part-time job at The Tides Bookstore in downtown Sausalito, and had it arranged so I worked three straight days and then I’d be off for four, just so I could take off for short trips like this.

Spencer sailed in a circle, while I hauled up my 30-pound danforth mud anchor. Jean took the tiller as I hoisted the sails. We sailed toward downtown Sausaliito where I planned to anchor close to the entry to the Yacht Harbor so Jean would have an easier row to shore while I was away. (No, she didn’t want to go and wasn’t asked.)

Pretty soon we were sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and heading southwest. As the afternoon sun disappeared behind a mass of dark clouds approaching from the northwest, I asked Spencer what the weather forecast was, and he gave me a blank look, as if to say, “I knew I forgot something!”

As the evening darkened, the wind was picking up and the waves were getting bigger. Spencer decided to reef the main sail and hook up the storm jib. That may have been a life saving decision, I thought later that night as a storm tossed our little 26-foot ketch around like a cork.

We took 4-hour shifts at the wheel, and hardly slept during our down time, with the wind howling and the waves crashing against the hull. At one point, while Spencer was down below trying to sleep, I saw whitecaps and waves breaking and figured we could be off-course and heading into some rocks, so I headed more west, which put more wind on the starboard side, causing the Tenderly to heel over more, sending waves spraying on me, but figured I’d rather be wet and off-course than on the rocks.

In the morning when the storm broke there was hardly a breeze, our now full sails were limp, so we just drifted down the coast on the Humbolt current. When Spencer came up on deck with a mug of coffee, he didn’t like the fact that I went off-course, but he understood my fears, and like me was happy just to be alive. We couldn’t quite see land through a coastal fog that was slowly burning off, and we wanted to figure out where we were, so Spencer got out his Coast Pilot, a big atlas-size book with photos of the coast, including the longitudes and latitudes.

He figured we should be able to make it to San Simeon Bay by late afternoon, so I went down below and crashed. When we got to San Simeon Bay he decided with the weather so pleasant he could make it the rest of the way alone, so we tied up to a pier and found a little market, bought some supplies, and I hitchhiked back to Sausalito, spending the night on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk beach, then making it back to Sausalito in time for my next shift.

The next time I saw Spencer was at Quail Meadows that late summer of ‘75. After catching up, I told him we were looking for a place closer to town, and without a pause he offered his place. He suggested we get a trailer and park it next to this grassy meadow where his goats and chickens and ducks and a neighbor’s horses hang out. I introduced him to Yvonne and our two-year old, Eli, which pleased him because he and his lady, Candy, also had a two-year old, Ida. Then I mentioned that we had two dogs, two cats and a donkey. He laughed when I told him the donkey’s name was Don Quixote.

We had been living on another friend’s property further north off Highway 101, the last three miles up a treacherous dirt road that was made more impassible after the Big Snow of February ’75.

The Big Snow of February 75

We were renting a geodesic dome on the north slope of Shimmins Ridge, meaning, we hardly saw the sun all winter. When daylight came you knew that big orb was up there somewhere, but for most of November thru February not a ray of sun hit our house. On sunny days I would take Eli for a hike to the sun, which was about a mile down the road on a south sloping meadow. He was always eager to go “find the sun,” and toddled happily all the way. Then after playing in the warm sun for awhile he’d sit on my lap and fall asleep. I’d put him in my Snugli and carry him back home. Yvonne would keep the woodstove going and cook us a nice hot meal from the bulk food we got in Willits once a month, and we’d take our afternoon nap.

Then one day in February it snowed more than a foot in just a few days, with drifts that changed the look of the landscape. We were running low on supplies so Yvonne talked me into going to town even though I couldn’t see the road. My 1941 Dodge M-50 was 4-wheel drive, and this was the opportunity to test this World War II vehicle, so what the hell? I got to the end of our quarter-mile driveway, where it turned slightly to the left… but I didn’t, and drove into a 3-foot snow drift next to the road.

Suddenly the truck tires were spinning and it slowly started tilting to the starboard side, so I turned it off and marveled at how different a familiar driveway looks covered by a couple feet of snow. I was stuck and there was nothing I could do, so I walked back up the hill. The old truck sat there for a month before I could move it, and every time Eli and I would walk past it on the way to the sun, he’d point and say, “Fruck!” We had another vehicle, a 1960 Volkswagon bus, but it wasn’t going anywhere till the snow melted. What this all meant was I had to hike down the hill and hitchhike to town, filling my back pack with food, and return before dark.

Then the cold snap that followed the Big Snow ate up most of our firewood, leaving us wanting to be somewhere in the sun and closer to town, in a bad way. We both knew there was no way we’d spend another winter in that dome, or that we’d ever want to spend the winter on the north slope of any forest covered mountain!

Shortly after running into Spencer at Quail Meadows we bought an old 18-foot aluminum trailer called an Alma, copying the look of the more expensive Airstream, and moved it to his property. I built a 12 x 18-foot add-on with a Dutch door I made one-half at a time. We lived with just the bottom half for awhile, but then one day our Bantam rooster, Gregory Pecky, alit on the door, eyes scouring the room in a threatening manner, or so I perceived, motivating me to finally build the top half of that door. Scary part was he already had killed his dad, Johnny, and attacked me, jumping straight up, flapping his wings madly while he poked my knee with his talon. My knee was sore for a week, and all Yvonne would say is “if you didn’t act so macho around him he’d leave you alone.”

One of my favorite memories was when Hote, our donkey’s nickname, would stand up to the door with his head inside ala Mr. Ed. And I wasn’t the only one who talked to him. Another fond memory is when Yvonne would put Eli up on Hote and walk them down the road, followed by the dogs, the goats, the cats, and sometimes the ducks, in that order. Birdie’s three horses would join the parade too, if they were grazing nearby.

Birdie was a neighbor down the road who owned, besides the three horses, a huge hog and a big dog. Problem was Birdie was getting her vet degree from UC Davis, which required her to spend weekdays in Davis, leaving her horses, pig and large white husky–looking dog home alone. I don’t think anyone was feeding these animals while she was away, which meant she left the food outside to share with the squirrels and the blue jays, and apparently the big dog didn’t get enough. One day Spencer came home telling me her dog chewed on the back of her pig.

“How do you know it was her dog?” I wondered.

“Come and see for yourself.” We drove down the road and sure enough, the dog had blood all around his mouth and neck. Then we saw the pig. She had hunks of flesh chewed off her shoulders. She was bleeding and walking wobbly, making snorting noises, with a scared look in her eyes. I remember saying something to Spencer, like “Gee, I like pork too, but this is going too far!”

The next thing I remember is Spencer pulling a rifle out from behind his truck seat, and looking at me with a got any better ideas? look. Bam, bam, and she went down on her front knees…bam, bam, bam…and she slowly toppled over. He then got out a chain and some rope, we tied her rear legs together and hung her upside down from an old oak tree, which didn’t make Birdie too happy when she came home for the weekend to see her bloody hog hanging at the entrance to her driveway.

It wasn’t long after the pig episode that Spencer and Candy split up and sold the property to Dick DeWitt, who didn’t mind us being there as long as I helped him build a water tower, the one Spencer never got around to. After it was completed he had a water witcher come out who walked around following a Y-shaped twig he held loosely in his hands, apparently waiting for the twig to point to water. DeWitt had two holes drilled where the witcher told him there was water, but no water. That’s when I learned when you hire someone to drill for water, they don’t guarantee water, just the hole. But what about the water witcher? When does he get paid?

DeWitt also informed us, shortly after we finished building his water tower, that our trailer and add-on was actually on his neighbor’s property. He told me that with a twinkle in his eye, but don’t worry, he assured me, the owner lives in Santa Cruz and has no plans to build up here until after he retires.

For the year and a half we were at Spencer’s/DeWitt’s we always got our water from Quail Meadows, but it wasn’t because of the drought. Other parcels had water in their springs and wells, the city of Willits and Brooktrails Township had enough water, and it did finally rain late in ’76, totaling about 15 inches.

For me the drought ended when we’d finally had enough of no water and no electricity, and rented a real house in Brooktrails, which marked the first time I had been on the electrical grid since coming to California in ‘69, and the first time we had indoor plumbing (a shower and flush toilet!) since we’d been together in California. I liked it so much I decided to cut my hair, shave my beard, put on some shoes, and go back to school and get my teaching credential. So that’s what I went and done.

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