American Sabbatical 041: 10/28/96

Fort Ross

10/28.. Ukiah

We stocked up on roadfood
at the Arcata Co-op in the AM, rolled out onto California 101, tuned up the CW-FM, and let’er smoke for south. We took the highroad for about 15 miles before we jumped ship, heading for Ferndale. That hamlet is one long row of western falsefronts in wood and stucco, all tarted up in boutique colors. Ferns and eucalyptus.. maybe it’s all the rampant eucalyptus towering over the valley byways, but even the roadsides smell like boutiques out here.

We wanted to make a loop along the coast, but couldn’t find the sideroad out of Ferndale, so we stopped an elderly gent out on his morning constitutional. And got the entire history of the universe, centered on Ferndale. Well, we had to see Petrolia, where oil was first discovered in CA, and Honeydew.. well Honeydew used to be the heart of Marijuanna Country, he winked. OK!.. let’s go, we crowed.

In a blink we were inching along another paralyzing pathway scribed on the side of a mountain. 15-20 mph fish-hooks and rollercoasters with the Owl’s brakes smoking on the downgrades. Peggy is getting fingercramps from hanging on. But the views are spectacular. Behind us the coastal plain running up to Ferndale is green and steamy with agricultural fertility, just like the “reclaimed” marshes around Arcata. The onshore wind, starting to rise, is pushing a misty haze up against the evergreen hills surrounding the Humbolt Valley, as it disappears in our rearview, between the heights.

Over the first ridge, and we are in the Scottish Highlands. Leaping and diving moorland.. beige dry grasses with a lowering gray overcast. Occasionally we can spot the roof of a ranch house far below in the deep valleys, and there are horses and cattle scattered decoratively about the abrupt landscape. After 40 minutes of wiggling up and gasping down this sear upland we start getting flashes of a roiled green sea between the slopes. Then one long yodeling drop spits us out on the beach. Where we stop to cool the Owl, and our selves.

A great hawk hovers over us, frothering its wings, and dives into the grass alongside. The wind is up now, chill off the water, and we could easily be on a Celtic beach. The flotsam is all small junks of wood.. no seaweed, no shells, only the odd pebble.. a well scoured strand. And the nipping breeze drives us back to Red Owl after an abbreviated ramble.

Scot's Coast

A couple more miles of surf-stomped foreshore and we have our noses pointed at the sky again. As the land rises the vegetation lushens. First gigantic eucalyptus (an immigrant) and full blown hardwoods in the bottoms, and then mixed needle-leaf secondgrowth reaching for the sky. Our heart-in-mouth views are of staggered rows of conical upheavals, topped with dark evergreens and streaming mist, and pocket ranches on the green valley floors. We leave Honeydew behind us in the Matole Valley and crawl up and over the coastal divide. Skidding down through the switchbacks, the big trees loom up beside us. We are in another holy grove.

Roosevelt Grove
Our twisted path had brought us into the Roosevelt Grove of Humbolt Redwood State Park. There the pavement narrows and twines between the stupendous mist-catchers. The oldest of these ancient coastal redwoods have been drinking the oceanic precip since god was a boy (if you’re of the Christian persuasion), and their absolute indifference to our momentary passing is humbling. These are no kindred to our hastiness. Perhaps it is understandable they seem to play no part in the native mythology. They are simply alien beings who endure our insults without engagement.

The Roosevelt Grove lies in a creek bottom (the east fork of the Eel), unlike the Ladybird Grove which climbed a dizzy slope, and there is virtually no undergrowth beneath the exalted pillars. You can see row after row of impossible stems. Here are processional ways fit for the gods. And no birds sing. Sequoia sempervirens are so chemically hostile to insects and other plants that they create a solitary universe, and the hush of these cool dank aisles doesn’t entice you to linger.

We walked through the dripping silence to the foot of THE TALLEST TREE IN THE WORLD. 363 feet short of heaven. The ultimate neck twister and hush yo mouth. We put the Owl in 1st gear and squiggled our way toward the daylight. But our sideway turned into the Avenue of the Giants, twenty miles of tree dodging. Indeed it felt sacrilegious to be slaloming through the big sticks at 35mph with Californos at our back. In the breaks there were roadside attractions, especially chainsaw megacarvings. From Orick to Sausalito, Highway 101 could be called the kitsch-carvers’ hall of fame. Some of the burl carvings and gigantosculpts are figures of power, but most of them are a child’s nightmare of tacky trinkets. Everything is bigger out west.


You have to give credit to the C state, though. The highways funnel down to a trickle-lane for the big trees. In fact 101 is a schizophrenic episode for the through traveler. Fourlane with a breakdown for slow traffic, pinching down to twolanes for 10mph hairpins, followed by a gawking meander through the redwoods, then back to fourlane flank speed.

When 101 breaks out of the lofty greenstuff you are back in rainshadow country. Crisp khaki grasslands, scrub oak and madrone parklands on the rolling slopes, and irrigated agriculture along the bottoms. Vinyards, orchards, hops. This is the landscape out of cartoons. Sweeping beige hills scattered with romantic cedars and junipers rising up to hardedged groves of evergreens. Every panorama looks like a storybook painting. All it needs is a turreted castle out of Fantasyland. You know that Disney was a Californian.

Disney Valley
The Russian River Valley is another of the fertile north-south valleys between the cataclysmic ranges. Only now the agriculture is crowding out the ranching and the grape is climbing the sidewalls. We sloped down the offramp into Ukiah as our local star finally gave up the contest with cumulonimbus and slid behind the coast ranges. We were hunting for a dry spot, and (billboard) rumor had it there was a Motel6 in town. But we got all turned round and ended up passing through the mandarin portals of Buddhist University. We hung a hard OM and stopped at the nearest grocery for directions. None of the East Indians in the place could find enough English to help us. Civilization approaches.

And that means vegetables! We actually followed our noses into Ellie’s Vegetarian Restaurant and Mutt House. We didn’t ask about the latter, just relished in the garden truk.. right out on the strip with Motel6. Almost heaven.

10/29.. Bodega.

Up in the morning and off to school.. heh heh, just joking. Actually we had multiple quests today. First the big solar calendar in Hopland, then Torbertville. We stocked up on fresh bread and java and wondered at all the bookstores and cafes in this county seat (Mendicino). Is it a good thing when lawyers read? We remarked on the educated diction of the downtown service people, and wondered if that was a sign of the educated choosing where they live over economic opportunities, or just signs of a lousy economy. Peggy quoted a friend who says only 50% of PHds get to work in their chosen field. Pass the latte.

Hopland was just a skip and a jump down the Redwood Highway from Ukiah, and the Real Goods Showroom and Futuristic Environment is just off 101. The site rivals classic KOA campgrounds.. between the interstate and the railroad on a dry flat abandoned industrial strip. But this is visionary reclamation, not Winnebagology. Real Goods is an alternate technology mailorder vendor and their roadside pitch is equal parts New Age and buy now, environmental design sophistication and yuppie consumerism, eucalyptus and barcodes.

Entering the grounds through radial lines of young plantings, which echo the agricultural linearity of the regional vineyards and orchards, we entered the carpark, whose drainage feeds into micromarshes designed to filter out the heavy metals from the runoff. LLBean take note. Then we picked up brochures for the self-guided tour. Vinecovered ramadas for oxygenation and cooling, trickling fountains and mossy ponds and winding channels for waste purification, fish to eat the algae.. the whole ark. The central courtyard, enclosed to the north by the showroom building, is a 1/4 acre solar calendar, with notched stones on the perimeter marking the solstice and eqinoctial sunrise and sunset, and a radial paving installation. The solarheated showroom is strawbale construction with huge south windows. In addition to all this passive organic design there are arrays of tracking solar panels, battery power grids, interstellar wire webs and architectology. Like a garden in a space station. Bucky Fuller and The Druids meets Mendicino County. A renewable resource technology is very attractive intellectually, and organotechnics smell good, but I found this prototype of the future curiously reminiscent of the 1964 New York Worlds Fair.. nice world to visit, but could you live there? Even so, we started talking about a ramada out back in Bowdoinham.. without satellite dish.

Our next stop was an experiment in recent historical research. Our friends Jim and Theta Torbert lived up in the Mendicino hills twenty years ago, raising goats and living the life. They decamped due to a collapse in the goatmilk market, and after sojourns in Arkansas and Maryland, have been our neighbors and compatriots in Maine since 1983. We’ve been curious about the world they left. Their tales made it sound like a rural paradise being swallowed by exurbia. How would it look to wandering outsiders?

The road from Cloverdale to Yorkville fishtails and swivels into the sensuous hills, past pocket vineyards, tilted pastures, and the occasional archispicuous new consumption. This is sheetmetal edifice territory, rust-streaked barns and tapdancing roofs. To the ignorant eye this was still rural backcountry set in romantic panoramas. Cowboy Tuscany.

At the local watering-hole all we could elicit was headshaking. Nope, before my time. Sorry, all the oldtimers have moved out. Well, maybe those goatwomen in Boonville would know, but I wouldn’t go up there, at least I wouldn’t send a man up there, might get shot. So Bryce uses the old stand-around-and-wait technique. Tell a few stretchers about the Torberts. “Well, maybe Larry would know..... LAAARY!”

Sure enough. “Used to live next door. Always like Jim, nobody ever had a bad word to say about Jim, even after.. Course I never liked those goats much. Specially that old, whaddycallit, buck? Stink? Whew.. and mean? The big old buck took to butting the D8 we were using to root up new vineyard. Blam. Blam. He just wouldn’t quit butting that D8.” It sounded like an emblematic story to me. Goatman beats his head against mechanized development. What mythic tales will each of us leave behind?

Larry pointed us the way to the Torbert ranch of old, now sub-divided into tickytak houselots, and muttered about too much building, too many newcomers.. not like the old days (when he got here from Brooklyn in the 70s). The same noise we tend to make in Bowdoinham. Maybe we have to move every 20 years so we can have good old days in new places, without memories of how it was before THEY started to move in. We didn’t stop to price house lots.

Native Settlement

We’d been warned not to take the crossroad to the coast through the Mailliard redwoods.. all washed out in last night’s downpour. So we ducked into the Point Arena road, and were back on the snakeway again. The array of microclimates in the Coastal Ranges, with their assorted vegetation, makes crossing to the coast an education in gradients of moisture and verdure, and an exercise in breathlessness. This corkscrew bit of engineering sure pulled our corks. Another stretch of spectacular heart massage. When the final descent was marked “16% grade for the next 10 miles,” even the Owl hooted.

Peggy kept saying, “I can’t imagine trying to drive a truck down this.. I wouldn’t want to drive a bus down this.. I wouldn’t...” I was quietly wondering if Red’s brakes were holding up better than over by Honeydew. If, like Maybelline, the water blowing up under the hood was maybe doing the motor good...Maybelline, won’t you be true. And suddenly there are flares in the road, somebody flagging us down, and we come shuddering and smoking barely-in-time to a stop, nose-to-tailgate, alongside a big truck that’s lost it on the downgrade, rolled over, and crumpled into the trees. The first responders are there, and the sheriff. A helicopter is clattering overhead, about to set down for a rescue. And we pull into the next turnout. Let the Owl’s brakes cool for a spell. I’ve had nightmares about hills with no brakes since our brakeless beater days, and here’s a reflash reminder. Even new brakes, on little cars, get too hot on the steep pitches. Cool it.

Point Arena
We secondgeared it onto the flats, and into another plant community. Now our road was lined with grand aisles of planted eucalyptus, 100 feet tall and shedding their long peels of bark and New Age aroma. Alternating with the boutique trees were 40-foot explosions of Juniper. Their divided trunks and radially ascending branches, carrying their tight-clustered scaly foliage, make these evergreens look like huge hurrahs, throwing it all to the wind. And behind the trees the coastal lowlands displayed the wheaten grasses Peggy finds so com
pelling. Another California beautyspot, with the Pacific spuming at the base of its cliffs. The lighthouse on Point Arena is a lofty white pinnacle whistling in the wind, and blinking at the breakers.

Our next target was Fort Ross, a reconstructed Russian trading base which was occupied into the 1840’s, and we had just about enough time to get there before the gates closed. So we hotfooted down the coast road, another scizzy feat of engineering, one minute fourlane speedway, next a twolane serpentine cliffhanger. I suppose the Californos get used to skidding past the washouts and straddling the rockfalls, but these slaloms still turn me insideout.

It was raining intermittently again, which made us wonder at the parched grasslands around us. And we were surprised by the thinness of development. As Mendicino turned into Sonoma we were only 50 miles, as the crow flies (more likely big ravens, here), from San Francisco, but the coastal hills only sported the odd manse. Huddled in the rivermouth valleys were sparse settlements, the requisite oysterbar, maybe an inn or two, but not the vacationland crowding we’d expect.

A rainbow bent over us as we pulled into Fort Ross. Peggy strode into the fortifications and I strolled down toward the shore to do a sketch. As I’ve come to expect along this shore, it turned into a wetonwet exercise in the rain. With the Pacific swallowing the day and squall-lines scampering ashore, we put Red’s lights on and started weaving and bobbing again. We were determined to camp by the beach, if the weather would clear (as promised). We’d been shelling out to motel owners like our pockets were bottomless, and the scale was going up as we neared higher civ. And our stomachs are happier when we cook for ourselves.

Russian Rainbow

It took us 3 tries to find the entrance to the Bodega Bay State Park, and we groped into a niche in the dunes, nestled under exuberant junipers.. cooked up a feast from the food locker.. and zipped ourselves in by 8PM. Owls came to serenade us, while the waxing moon played peekaboo through high clouds. Hoohooh..hoo..hoo.

(Memo #37)

Fort Ross
Oct. 29 - Russian Fort Ross, CA.

Who? Russian colonists

What? Russian colony

Where? northern California

When? 1812-1831

How? plan to support colony by boatbuilding and sea otter fur trade

Topics: Russian exploration and settlement in North America

Questions: How big was the Russian presence in North America? What was the dominant form of contact - by fur traders, settlers, missionaries? What remnants of Russian presence are there in North America?

Every so often as we travel in the northwest there is a Russian River or a Petersburg to remind us of another movement to the area - from Russia EAST to North America. I’ve also seen pictures of Russian Orthodox churches in tiny Alaskan villages that still show Russia’s presence. It is a history I want to explore, one little covered in the US history texts except in a paragraph about the competition between Russia and Great Britain and the United States for the northwest territory. Another paragraph will tell of our purchase of Alaska.

Fort Ross is the reconstruction of a Russian fort on the coast about sixty miles north of San Francisco. I had read a story in a north California newspaper about ongoing excavations there and didn’t know entirely what to expect. We approached from the north down Route 1 - the two-laned coastal road that twists and turns on some heart stopping cliff shelves above the ocean. At Fort Ross the high hills are a bit further back from the sea, so there are low, gently ascending slopes that provide a coastal grassland with scattered woods. The Russians occupied Fort Ross from 1812-1841. At one point there were 59 buildings at the fort.


Today there is a reconstruction of the fort enclosure with about twelve buildings, only one of which is original (the Rotchev House which served as the residence for the commandant). The fort is a plank-fenced enclosure about three hundred feet across. There are two blockhouses two stories tall and about fifteen feet square at the northeast and southwest corners of the fort. The buildings were all of wood planks with small glass windows. There was a two-story storehouse with goods in barrels and crates with Russian labels. One room had the arsenal with guns hanging on hooks and powder etc.


The church was perhaps my favorite building as it had the onion dome of Russian churches in wood. The building was perhaps thirty by forty feet and unfurnished, there was a small altar area with two small icons on the wall and a huge hanging lamp. The enclosure was grass and dirt with a few small trees growing.

Russian Church

Icons in Church
The Russian colonies in northwest North America were established for the fur trade (especially sea otter). Fort Ross was also intended to be a shipbuilding center for trade on the coast.

California has a complex history with many First People nations followed by Russian and Mexican and American colonies. Our first searches in libraries and bookstores have turned up few sources on the Russian presence in California and I hope to explore further.

Front page
Previous dispatch
Next dispatch
Index of dispatches