I sit on a rumbling island of steel enwrapped in clouds. Work is slow and my mind wanders to projects at home: getting the woodstove done finally, making a cider press that works and won’t try and electrocute me and what exactly is that smell in the living room? Hopefully a mouse. Outside the window the shore slides by as a surfer struggles in the breakers and a lone sea lion sleeps on buoy 9. In the distance the outlines of Eureka and Arcata can be seen; islands of man in vast swath of woods and mountains called “The Lost Coast” it is an area steeped in beauty both real and imagined: giant trees, abandoned forts, misty rain and clouds as well as ghost tales, sasquatch and pirate pot farmers who still resist coming in from the cold with recent legalization in California.
To the North it blurs into the mythical State of Jefferson and to the south it fades into Napa, Sonoma and Marin Counties. Even people who have never been to the west know many of these names; from Bottles of wine, poems and songs. California is another world, a land I always imagined I would live in but at fifty it looks unlikely now; even my California-born wife balks at the price of living here. It is for the rich like Portland; one cannot work hard enough to buy a house but must bring your money from elsewhere.
There is another California, one that comes from the South. A place of freeways, gridlock, strip malls and standardization. The land of pam trees, McDonalds, cul-de-sacs and smog. It is the birthplace of modern America. Where car companies bought the LA streetcar line and ripped it out because busses burn diesel and use tires, and builders sprawled streets with no schools, stores, churches, parks. I have been to every state save Hawaii over the last thirty odd years and they look less themselves over time and more like the Outskirts of LA: Pomona at best, Fontana at worst, and less like themselves. I here fewer accents; less nasal Boston or southern lilt as we blend becoming homogenized culturally even as we polarize politically.
But the Southern Californian ecosystem cannot break through the masses of trees and winding roads, planes struggle to land at Foggy Eureka Airport, built by the Navy to train aviators how to land with poor visibility; Southern Ohio is more like LA than Northern California. It requires flat land for subdivisions and straight highways to run between them. It also requires jobs and Northern California has few enough of those. Mining eight hundred year old trees can only go on for so long and beyond that the land is most rich in rocks and fog. Fishing is poor from polluted rivers, the American Salmon run is a shadow of it’s former self, and to the North the Rouge, Umpqua and Columbia are only slightly better. All that’s left is weed and dreams both they have both in abundance. And so Humboldt Country rambles along on its raggedy way to it own tune, making ends meet with a mix of weed, college student spending money, tourism and what few lumber jobs remain. I have a fondness for love-among-the-ruins stories and drink this one in like old wine.
I hesitate to tell people where I live for fear it will happen there too. It is inevitable; near an airport along a freeway not far from a city. They will come like the Colorado locusts plauuged early settlers in the Dakotas. Californians are already starting to appear. They like big lots filled with big houses and big roads upon which to drive speedily from one place to another. Living next to California in our small and rather less-wealthy state is like living next to a bear. Both beautiful and fascinating, they have a bad habit of showing up at your place and wrecking everything. In time they will come and the little houses that dot my valley will doubtless be torn down for three, four or even five thousand square foot mansions. I await the day some new neighbor complains about the sheep or my rooster crowing. Maybe the bees will frighten them or some future pig will offend their delicate sense of smell. The question is not “if” but “when”.
Just as cul-de-sacs encircled and choked my Grandparents land until the Becker’s farm was gone, the creek once clear brown and the woods a thin strand of swampy grove where no houses could be built it will come here too. One of the last times I was there before my Grandparents moved to a smaller dwelling I was walking in the narrow band of woods in a deepening darkness. The line of oaks that stretched through the scrappy pine and birch marking the old road stood giant sentries. Sudden foots steps froze me and a black bear rose from the undergrowth to smell me as I stood cautiously, talking lowly so he new where I was. Snorting once he landed on all fours and unhuridly ambled into the thicket. Despite all that had built up around that place the bear still found shelter. The bear it seems, had learned to live in a world patterned after California.
And someday I will learn to live with Bears.