Rancho Erodo (April 21, 2004)

I don’t guess many folks remember old Don McKee. Back in the 1970s Don McKee was a legend up by Yorkville. Or he was about as much of a legend as a person could be in a little place like that. Especially back then when the whole way between the Stanley Johnson Ranch and the Fish Rock Fork there might have been living 100 people. And most of them were sheep men or kin of sheep men and so not the types to be hollering from the mountain tops. To be a legend in Yorkville just meant that everybody either knew you or had heard of you. And if that was the case then your reputation hinged on just how handy and reliable, or unhandy and unreliable, folks considered you to be.

I first heard of Don McKee during a Poker game. A bunch of us were playing cards and I announced that I was looking for some firewood stumpage. Redneck Dave offered that he knew this old fellow who lived nearby on 60 acres of steep, real steep and too steep forestlands. So far as he knew, the old man wanted at least a sometimes wood cutter seeing as though he was looking to retire from having to do it himself. Then Redneck Dave went on to explain that old Don McKee was about as handy as they came. An operating engineer, the old fart had supervised the construction of the first launch towers at Cape Canaveral. He’d built bridges, aqueducts, factories — you name it.

By the way, does anybody remember Redneck Dave? I can’t say what his last name was, though if I recall right he was married to a Prather. A genuine son of the pioneers and 5th generation sheep man, Redneck Dave didn’t like sheep and he refused to work with them or to even look at them. As a result you’d never see any mud splattered on Redneck Dave’s belt buckle. You wouldn’t catch him with any dirt under his fingernails, either. If by some chance he got reckless and a ring of sweat stained his Stetson, he’d wash if off right away, all the while promising himself to be more careful in the future. In short, Redneck Dave liked looking sharp. He was a gentleman.

So I went and saw Don McKee and we hit it off. Over the next couple of years I’d make some firewood for him, help him with various projects and, during rainy or lazy days, join him for long sessions of cribbage. Born about 1910, Don held a job throughout Great Depression and volunteered for WW2. Though highly successful in his chosen field and blessed with a talent for numbers (I was brought up playing cards but Don would always win our cribbage sessions), he was still salty and skeptical, hard-boiled, stubbornly straight-forward and, when it came to the ways of this world, profoundly cynical.

Like when it came to egg-headed environmentalists. Old Don McKee trusted environmentalists about as far as he could spit. He’d bought his land in Yorkville in order to have a place to live while he was helping to build Warm Springs Dam, that big earthen plug now blocking Dry Creek upstream from Healdsburg. The Lake Sonoma Project, as it was advertised, was the sort of big time pork barrel enterprise that Don thought would provide a fitting crown to his long and celebrated career. He’d be getting paid a king’s ransom and when the dam was completed and he retired all of that big money would further boost the size of his pension. Don’s new homestead would be paid off and he and his wife Jane would be looking forward to a comfortable, carefree retirement.

Then the environmentalists threw their monkeywrench into the works. They filed a nuisance lawsuit claiming that the proposed dam was sited atop an earthquake fault that was about ready to rumble, that if the dam was built one of the main centers of Pomo civilization would be lost forever under the reservoir, that the upper reaches of the main tributary of the Russian River would be lost forever to spawning steelhead and salmon, that wildlife corridors would be destroyed and open space eliminated. And if all of that weren’t bad enough, because the reservoir would never fill or, if it did, stay filled for long, with its bathtub rings “Lake Sonoma” would forever be butt ugly.

Which was all a crock so far as Don was concerned. What the environmentalists really couldn’t stand was the prospect of anybody making any money. Because with the new water supply would come even more state and federal pork barrel in the form of freeways and sprawling “infrastructure.” And accompanying the invasion of government money would be an invasion of corporate money in the form of cookie cutter subdivisions, corporate retail chains, corporate vineyards and “regional” shopping and entertainment centers. All of these capital improvements would lead to a population explosion that would create a real estate boom and everybody — or at least everybody who counted — would make pot loads of money. Windsor, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Cloverdale — buy cheap, sell dear.

But the eggheads saw things all different. Talking nonsense about “rural values” and “quality of life” and warning of impending “Californification,” they went before a judge and — damned egg-headed judges — the judge granted them an injunction. So everything ground to a halt and Don, who had just invested his life’s savings in his homestead in Yorkville, was thrown out of a job. He was not only thrown out of a job but now he was living out in the sticks where there were no jobs. So Don was forced to go to work down by Livermore where they were erecting giant metal boxes like Castle Lego’s. This meant Don had to rent an apartment down there and could come home only on weekends and then only after he’d spent maybe two hours snarled in Friday night traffic. Come Monday to beat the inbound traffic he’d have to leave Yorkville at 4:00 o’clock in the morning. To make matters much worse, him having a way with numbers meant that Don knew exactly just how much money, time and aggravation the environmentalists had cost him. He went to his grave cussing them for it.

Now I mention Don’s attitude toward environmentalists because I think maybe it had something to do with how he treated his land. At the very least, Don’s grudge against environmentalists meant that he wasn’t about to listen to their science, their arguments or rationales. When it came to his land, it was his land and he had the papers to prove it. He’d bought his land with the money he’d earned and that was that. His land was his castle, his little bit of liberated territory, his final bastion, his playground, his legacy to the world. You could tell a lot about a person by the shape of their land and hiking through Don’s place you’d know the owner was, at the very least, industrious.

Like when it came time to punch a pad to fit his double-wide retirement home. No way was he going to hire some “soils engineer” to ride out to his place, walk around some, scratch his head and then point to a spot on the ground and charge Don $1,000. Nor would Don hire a gyppo catskinner aboard a big old bulldozer to come and move the dirt when for maybe twice the money he could buy himself a little bulldozer and do all of the work himself.

Don sure loved that little bulldozer. I’ve got a picture of him sitting on it and he looks about as happy as a clam. His logged over, scraggly land was laced with old skid trails and in his spare time Don used his bulldozer to “open up” his backlands. If an old skid trail led to a place where Don thought he might someday want to go, then he made it into a road.

While Don enjoyed hunting, he was too old to be humping carcasses over hill and dale. So come hunting season he’d use his bulldozer to punch a road into a likely spot and at dusk he’d crank up his chainsaw and fell a white oak tree to provide the deer with a feast. The next morning at the crack of dawn there’d be the crack of Don’s 30-30 and very soon and without much trouble his freezer would be full of venison.

Although Don had situated his house in a deep, forested hole, getting TV reception was no problem. He punched open a road to the ridge top above his house and there, using telescoped sections of steel pipe and a welding torch, he manufactured a 40 foot tall tower anchored to a hinged nubbin set in about 20 bags of concrete. Using his bulldozer and a block and tackle, Don raised the tower a bit off the ground so that he could attach a Radio Shack TV antenna atop it. Then he climbed back aboard his bulldozer, slowly pulled ahead and swung the tower erect. Next he inserted a steel rod into a hole he had drilled in the pipe and, using walkie talkies to communicate with his wife who was in the house in front of the TV, Don swiveled the tower one way and then the other until the reception was perfect. After Don had set a stop in the hinge and had tightened down the tower’s guy wires, from then on he got all four TV stations just as clear as a bell.

When Thoreau wrote that the best fertilizer for a plot of land was the footsteps of its owner, he didn’t have Don McKee in mind. He didn’t have any of us in mind, come to think of it. Thoreau was referring to freehold farmers and America has long since done away with nearly all of its freehold farmers. Like virtually everybody else nowadays, Don was city and you can never take the city out of somebody. I know this because I left Chicago as a child in 1953 and still, even after 30 years of working these hills, I’ve got Chicago in me. I was brought up within a large clan of Chicagoans and I can’t help it. Nobody escapes their upbringing, nobody ever really thinks outside of the box. Not for long, anyway. It’s just plain too taxing on the imagination. And so with others we create societal myths and use the myths to make sense of our world which is, in our case, self-created and divorced from history and nature. I don’t think even a visionary like Thoreau could have predicted just how far removed from the aesthetics and ethics of farmers 21st Century Americans would become.

Anyway, when the ground was saturated with rain and a gully-washing, mud-pounding downpour laid in overhead, rivulets of red clay loosened from Don’s roads and grew into liquid fingers that ran into arms reaching into miniature creeks that swelled and gathered into a chocolate and strawberry milkshake of cascading runoff that, just past Don’s property line, splashed into Beebe Creek. And Beebe blended into the Rancheria and the Rancheria blended into Anderson and Indian Creeks and, sometime the next day, Don’s mud joined with the rest of the Navarro River’s mud in making a mile-long brown stain in the blue Pacific Ocean. Given the currents and the tides, who knows? Maybe some of Don’s little spit into the bucket of sediments found their final resting place on the floor of San Francisco Bay.

Driving the Ukiah road I’m often reminded of Don McKee. It seems most every mile along the way somebody has punched a new road into some nook or cranny and built their own little piece of liberated territory. Since even now in 2004 the County of Mendocino is still without a grading ordinance, washout roads get built around here that even Don never would have attempted. For while nobody could ever have accused Don of being environmentally sensitive, still he wasn’t a fool or a vandal. Even without rules and regulations, Don’s roads were engineered well enough.

Not so with some of these new roads. Take the little development along the Boonville road on the first bench above Ukiah, across from the vineyard next to the old redwood corrals. I’ve always admired the aspect of those corrals, seeing how they seem to be set just right in the landscape, built by somebody who knew what for. But now there’s freshly dug roads there, private driveways that make the corrals look obsolete.

Actually, since the roads are narrow and one way, what you really see is a cute little cul-de-sac. Prestige Homes tastefully set down on ranchettes accessed via a quiet country lane is what is advertised. Yet it was clear to me the first time I laid eyes on the new roads that they’d been punched in on the cheap by fly-by-nighters. Either that or by a contractor who would do anything to keep a contract — build a road to hell if it paid well enough. Yet I can’t necessarily blame the contractor because some of these new bucks-up dudes and dudettes taking over around here are mighty impressed with their own knowledge of things and are not about to take any sort of advice from anybody who’s beneath them on their food chain. Even if they are paying you to do a job it’s no guarantee they’ll listen to your advice even if it amounts to no more than gently pointing out to them a little bit of common sense. So it’s entirely possible that the guys who actually built the cul-de-sac were more or less forced into it.

However it was that the roads got built like they did, the cut banks are so ridiculously steep that landslides are inevitable. And last winter landslides are what they got. From the highway you can see ugly landslides large and small. What was once a beautiful little hollow has been trashed and ultimately the blame can be laid on the County Board of Supervisors for their steadfast refusal to enact a grading ordinance.

We may as well call Mendocino “Rancho Erodo County.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.