View from the front steps of The Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino
You can have Sedona’s supposed vortexes, rumored peaks of holy repute such as Shasta, Mayan pyramidal cenotaphs or Britain’s maze of sacred ley lines… For me, one of earth’s tiptop magical spots shall always be a wee town on California’s coast named Mendocino.
I cherish that tiny burg for a mix of reasons, many of them practical but a few ethereal. Here, I was able to birth a writing career. It was due to this place’s natural beauty, charming character, and supportive culture. Let us stipulate: this town does not retain every last bit of its former glory. However, happily, significant slices of enchantment do stubbornly endure.
Some bits have grown even better. For instance, The Gallery Bookshop at the corner of Main and Kasten—overlooking a vast seascape—might be the finest bookstore Mendocino has enjoyed over its entire history. Each time I stroll inside, this indy shop shows some improvement. And I’ve watched this phenom continue over the course of many years.
A much grander city would love to boast that it hosts any literary emporium of comparable quality.
This store is the one where I’ve launched most novels—including my very latest, “Splinter.” A practical appeal is that its owner and staff know me well and treat me well. Plus, some locals who recall me are likely to show up.
But my top reason for going back is that I’m a sentimental fool. This village nurtured me, body and soul, way back when I was forced to pinch pennies so hard I made Abraham Lincoln’s nose hurt.
I’ll always feel grateful to Mendocino for the opportunities and encouragement it bestowed, allowing me to not only survive but also forge ahead in my personal and professional lives.
MY QUEST, ALSO MY REQUEST
As regular visitors to this column know, I fled from Florida at age 22 via a summer-long motorcycle ride that took me all the way across the continent to California. Why? One way to put it is: I wished to live in a state where the musical messages of that halcyon era had a faint chance of coming true. Those beats constituted a siren song that lured me out to the West Coast.
However, let me state here and now for the record: I’ve not, at any point in time, worn a flower in my hair. Not that I’m wildly antagonistic to that notion. For example, flowers do tend to look ab-fab atop Frida Kahlo. Much better than they would on me. But I digress…
Once ensconced in California, I proceeded to perform an array of manual tasks for low pay by day, then would oft scribble on my first novel manuscript (“The Search for Goodbye-to-Rains”) in Marin Country’s pubs and bistros by night.
As I snuck up to spittin’ distance of the fabled music that drew me to California, I auditioned to sing bass in the Fairfax Street Choir that performed back-up vocals for Van Morrison. Even shared a two-person table with that very Van in the Sleeping Lady Café. But we didn’t converse (a common experience with this taciturn individual).
Once, I won an invite to a Grateful Dead’s private party at the Lion’s Share club in San Anselmo. Smoked blunts at a Leon Russell show out on the Coliseum’s lawn. Shook hands and chatted with Bonnie Raitt twice. Whereas Jackson Browne and Joan Baez ignored me. Of course, that might’ve been due to something I said… or, didn’t…
Anyway. We’re allowed to gaze up at the stars, but they do seem kind of hard to touch.
Meanwhile, our parade of halcyon days stomped ever onward, and began to shift into something unrecognizable. Sun-bleached denim was swiftly being supplanted by swaths of disco polyester, mainly after sunset. In Marin, heaps of cash and flashy possessions flooded back in style. Meanwhile, a simmering skillet of social consciousness found itself being shoved, slowly and steadily, perhaps even stealthily, onto a back burner.
And yet, everything wasn’t changing in every place in quite the same manner. As Einstein pointed out, how fast time seems to pass might depend on the speed that you yourself are traveling. The spot where you aim yourself likely wields some influence over the matter.
As my eyes lit on Mendocino for the very first time—its Victorian homes and storefronts decorating a broad plateau shoved far out to sea—I felt hooked in precisely the same manner as when I first glimpsed Big Sur during my initial ride up Highway One. That view inspired me to select California as my new home state. Now, I knew Mendocino would be my new hometown.
A WHOLE VILLAGE SAYS: WE DON’T WIMP OUT!
The Mendocino I moved into was populated by a fairly compact horde of artists, hippies, back-to-the-landers, environmental activists, as well somewhat conservative older settlers who at first seemed a tad flummoxed about what to make of all of these vociferous and creatively garbed newcomers.
However, I could make sense of it, seeing as I felt I belonged in the midst of that swarm. Most of us had spontaneously assembled to focus on crafting our lives in a way that aimed to be aesthetic and holistic and environmentally benign. A way which we thought might create a far more livable future for humanity. In brief, we still adhered to hard-won ideals of the 1960s and 70s. Whilst we lived out here on the edge of the earth with our backs to the sea, we strove our damnedest to go sane.
Our situation was fortunate, tragic, and odd. Much of the rest of the North Coast terrain surrounding our tiny Mecca was dominated by huge timber firms such as Louisiana-Pacific, Masonite, and Georgia-Pacific.
And their corporate view of right speech, right behavior, right action, etc., stayed stuck in a bonehead worldview from the 1950s. And so, conflict loomed.
As the Vietnam War wound down, firms like Dow Chemical and Monsanto discovered themselves saddled with excess stocks of their defoliant Agent Orange. Also, they had hotly humming factories that could easily brew much more. So, they figured a shrewd move might be to go on to defoliate parts of the United States.
They sold this brilliant idea to said timber firms. Who then began to spray carcinogenic herbicides (2,4,D and 2,4,5-T) onto entire watersheds under their control. They proceeded to poison with drips of toxic dioxin everything from the headwaters of salmon streams to random patches of huckleberries and blackberries that otherwise might have formed great food for bears, birds, and/or humans.
They dubbed it, “chemical release of conifers” achieved by killing off the “trash trees” (like oaks, madrones and buckeyes)—as opposed to “manual release,” which would mean paying human beings to clear brush and saplings out of their clearcuts. The big advantage, here? Hey, they might make a big mess, but it would be a much cheaper big mess.
Next, they discovered that we dwellers of Mendocino were gearing up to fight them tooth and nail. We… Just… Would… Not… Have… It…!!!
RALLYING OUR HIGHLY IRREGULAR TROOPS
The movement leaders were ordinary folks, like Betty Lou Whaley, Gail Lucas, Warner Chabot, salmon fisherman Nat Bingham, and even a skinny, balding hippy who had rebranded himself as Albion Moonlight. They led the fight against the timber firms with demonstrations, with constant hearings, news releases and PR outreach. They lobbied for enforcement of existing laws, and for creation of newer and more relevant laws and ordinances. They mounted campaigns to oust county officials from the pockets of the timber firms, and to install in public office a few people who were genuinely public-spirited.
Year after year we refused to give up. Ultimately, we won. I watched these campaigns raptly and participated in them sporadically. I learned that one can become much more than some town’s mere denizen; you can achieve a worthy transformation by becoming an active citizen.
My own sweat was invested in such issues as improving coast access, preserving open space, increasing wilderness designation as well as the protection of wild and scenic rivers. Much of my effort manifested in freelance news stories and video documentaries. Gradually I built up an expertise in reporting on natural resource use, the varieties of pernicious exploitation, and our crying need for more safeguards. However, to keep that gig from being a grind, I felt I also had to add some fun—Vitamin F is a key nutrient, folks!—so I also plunged into coverage of outdoor sport and adventure.
The upshot was, I scored a job as The San Francisco Chronicle’s outdoors feature writer and part-time editor, due to being in the right place at the right time with the right background. I clung to my post for 22 years, and during that time, never once forgot what I’d learned up in Mendocino.
In fact, I applied such lessons vigorously and endlessly, both in the topics I selected and the sort of writing I did. Those themes of empowerment and real civic virtue I bear in mind even now, as I charge onward into novelizing.
IF THE ORDINARY ARISES, THE MIRACULOUS SHALL OCCUR
That’s why the story of Norway’s resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II has been such a good fit for me as a topic for research, and it’s why I wrote the novel “Splinter.”
I got tipped off to this epic tale when I interviewed famed Beat poet and peacenik Lawrence Ferlinghetti about his experiences as a U.S. Navy sailor during the war. I figured this would make a good feature for The Chronicle to run on Veterans Day, which it did. In doing that reporting, I learned much more than I ever imagined.
I found out that Ferlinghetti had transferred subchaser vessels to Norway’s resistance, and taught fishermen how to use these boats for a top-secret commando run called The Shetlands Bus.
As I dove further into this topic, I discovered that Norway’s resistance was not a simple matter of young men vanishing into the hills to act-out upon occasion as guerilla fighters and saboteurs. No, that nation’s resistance to the Germans went full-on and country-wide. It included schoolteachers, ministers, sailors, trade unionists, athletes—vast swaths of society. And they not only kept their fight up for five years, they steadily grew better at it.
At the height of the occupation, the Nazis had to post one soldier for every eight Norwegians, merely to keep that nation under their thumb. Needless to say, these soldiers could not then be sent out to fight anywhere else. Thus, Norway’s resistance created a huge impact on the overall progress of the war.
So, I wrote “Splinter” to tell a tale of ordinary youngsters in Norway who choose to rise up and take a hand in determining their own fate and that of their nation.
This is, as it must be, a never-ending story. Which is what the people of Ukraine show us today. At the start of their war—when Putin invaded Ukraine in much the same way and for many of the same reasons that Hitler invaded Norway—heroic deeds by small cadres of citizens put a quick kibosh on Moscow’s overall scheme. I’m particularly impressed by the few hundred guardsmen who prevented elite Russian paratroops from taking over the airport near Kiev, and the volunteer fighters who slowed and ruined the Russian armored column sent in to relieve the paratroops.
Had those Russian forces not been stopped and stymied by determined opponents, that war might already be over, and the world would face an outcome undesirable in the extreme. Since an emboldened Putin would soon be looking for his next domino to topple.
Your clear takeaway, then, is to resist, resist, resist, until you can make the SOBs desist. Or as a pidgin Latin motto goes, “Illegitimi non carborundum”—don’t let them thar nasty bastids wear you down. If you wish to live in a livable world, you do what you have to do. And you don’t ever, ever quit.