Ukiah, California, is a place to be, and I mean that in the strictest literal sense, that a human being can exist there. There is a sufficient quantity of breathable air, sometimes, a climate within acceptable ranges, barely, and gravity is Earth-normal so one won’t go spinning off into space. There is fresh water and sustenance available, paved roads, and purveyors of such merchandise as might be necessary to complement and accouter the average life, if your tastes are neither too specialized nor catholic. It is a place, and while I don’t mean to demean it, it’s hard not to be critical when you’ve been around a little and seen places that truly dazzle the eye and titillate the senses. I have lived in places of staggering physical beauty, of extravagant cultural richness, and of extreme and uninterrupted fun, and Ukiah seems, to the casual onlooker, to be distinctly deficient in all three of those categories.
Granted, I’m not your average American in that I’d experienced New York, London, Paris, and a host of other cities by the time I was 12, and I spent my best years— my early twenties—in Austin, Texas, and I put it to you that no group of people in the history of the world ever had more fun than those associated with the punk rock scene in that town in the early 80s. You had to literally elbow live bands out of your way as you left the house in the morning to go to the job you didn’t have because if you couldn’t find somewhere to get free food and beer, you just weren’t trying. There were parties seven nights a week and an atmosphere of purely dissolute and unrestrained hedonism. Immersing myself so thoroughly in it may, in hindsight, not have been the wisest course, and the lessons in irresponsibility those years taught me may have been a contributory factor in the years I spent languishing in some of America’s finest correctional institutions, but it surely was a good time.
To be fair, I have not delved overdeeply into Ukiah’s charms, whatever they may be— surely there are reasons beyond marijuana and inertia why some 16,000-odd souls call it home— and so I resolved to poll some natives to find out what, if anything, makes the region special, and to visit those places to give it a fair hearing. I’ve taken nightlife off the table, that no longer being my bag, and decided to start with one natural phenomenon, one restaurant, and one cultural center.
Despite having spent multiple years within these environs, most of those were spent in the grip of drug addiction, and one’s attention tends to be rather finely focused in that condition. Energies and resources are dedicated solely to feeding the beast and keeping a distance between you and anything that might hinder you in that pursuit. It would take a distraction of volcanic proportions to distract me, and I mean that literally; something on the order of a volcano violently erupting. On 9/11/01, as I plied the streets in my usual fashion, it was clear to me that something was going on, but I didn’t know what and didn’t care to find out, didn’t, in fact, until the next day. There are few distractions distracting enough to stay the single-minded addlepate that is the tweaker from his appointed felonious and destructive rounds.
And so, being blessedly free of those restraints and motivators, it was with a sense of freedom, joy, and discovery that I lit out last Wednesday for Montgomery Woods. Some people to whom I spoke suggested going out to the lake, but a), I’ve been there, and b) having been there, I am aware that as bodies of water go Lake Mendocino rates somewhere above a heavy-metals containment tank and below an untended koi pond. Last time I was foolish enough to immerse myself in that virulent broth I got a very painful ear infection, and besides, I think people who regularly employ the phrase “let’s go out to the lake” have some serious issues. I find lake-frequenting as clear an indicator as a Trump bumper sticker, and nearly as troubling.
I had literally never heard of Montgomery Woods before about a month ago, and I’m not sure why you guys are keeping it such a secret. That there should be a place so close that is capable of distancing you so thoroughly from Ukiah was amazing to me, and this one borders on interdimensional-portal effectiveness for doing that. It is an oasis, a concentration of life and stately beauty, and well-adorned with some of Nature’s finer flourishes.
The qualities of light, air and sound in a redwood forest observe different rules than we’re used to. The sheer mass of those trees, the deep, spongy layers of humus, moisture-laden air, and canopy filter the light, clip the sound, and give weight and density to the air, You have a feeling of being enclosed and safe, outdoors though you may be, protected and nurtured by these enormous sentinels and the magic they’ve been able to conjure by aggregating in this one spot and creating this isle of old-growth majesty. I went by myself, but the people I saw there in pairs or groups didn’t say much, because human speech seems trivial and unnecessary in there, no matter how sparkling. If you’re quiet and listen to the silence, or to the water both dripping from boughs and chuckling over rocks in the stream, you understand the existing soundtrack cannot be improved upon.
At one point in my visit the sun broke briefly through the pervading aura of mist and gloom and sent several dappled beams lancing through the trees, upon which rode, I am pretty certain, fairies, pixies, and other species I’d previously thought fictional. Somehow I’d abandoned my boring-ass earthly existence and crossed over into Middle-Earth or some such fantasyland. Who knew?
Next week: A Culinary Adventure.