29 November 2007

This Is Where I Used To Live

Looks a bit Christmasy, doesn't it? But don't worry, I'm not about to go off on a paean to or rant against the holidays. Not just yet, anyway.

This is actually a picture of my old house up on Iron Creek and/or Spy Rock Road, depending who you're talking to and the degree of precision desired. For those few of who really feel a need to know, the entire area, probably covering 50 square miles or so, was known to not-quite locals (i.e., townies or residents of other canyons/watersheds/mountaintops as "Spy Rock," because it was Spy Rock Road that led up from Highway 101 into the rabbit warren of roads, trails, and wilderness where an eclectic collection of hippies, hillbillies, eccentrics, Deadheads, intellectuals (yes, there were/are a few), ranchers, cowboys and - especially - pot growers clung to the side of some pretty precipitous mountains.

But those who actually lived up there were more specific about their neighborhoods, unless of course you looked like you were a revenuer or a bill collector: they might be from Wildwood or Registered Guest, Simmerly Road, or the Loop (Upper or Lower). My neck of the woods was generally known as Iron Creek after the rather respectable little stream that came cascading off the back side of Iron Peak and tore itself a not always gentle path down to the Eel River Canyon.

I'm not sure why I suddenly felt impelled to post a picture of the old house or wax nostalgic about it; maybe it does have something to do with the time of year, since as you can see from the photo, it was well situated for celebrating old-fashioned, country-style Christmases, the kind you see in movies or magazines but not too often in real life. That being said, of all the Christmases I spent there, only one was picture-perfect, but that one was a doozy. One of the advantages of living in the middle of a vast pine and fir forest is that you can cut your own Christmas tree (and since you can just clip off the top of a larger tree, you don't even have to kill it), and one of the advantages of a house like the one I had was its 12 to 18 foot ceilings, allowing us to have a tree that, while not quite the size of the one adorning the front of the Rockefeller Center, was, considering the context, very nearly as impressive.

Part of that context was that we had very little in the way of electricity, having to rely entirely on solar panels, which were at their lowest output levels in the dark and stormy months of December and January, and the occasionally functioning generator. Because of that, winter was always a dimly lit affair, usually limited to one or two flickering 12 volt bulbs, the kind you see in trailers or RVs. But for the couple weeks leading up to Christmas, I would pull out all the stops to store up enough battery power to run several strings of lights, some of which, like the old-fashioned bubble lights, dated back to my grandmother's day.

In 1983 I bought a new set of batteries and added two new solar panels, and the resultant light show could be seen up and down the mountainside with spectacular effect because, well, because they were quite literally the only lights on our side of the mountain. If you've ever noticed how astoundingly bright and alive the stars look when you're out in an otherwise unlit wilderness, well, the same holds true for Christmas lights.

That year pretty much our entire extended family was there, something that rarely occurred, and my sister even had a newborn baby to add to the mix. It snowed just enough to make everything look like a Christmas card, but not enough to make the roads impassable (something that happened quite often up there; I was once stranded for five weeks). Even my dad, who hated the mountain and anything even slightly rural, was temporarily content.

Christmas 1983 was such a smashing success that I tried to do it up even bigger and better the following year. Taller tree, more lights, more people, too, with Olivia coming in from England to be with her grandchildren/my sister's kids. But this year there was more sleet than snow, my dad's car got stuck, a backdraft from the wood stove filled the house with smoke, and my nearly four year relationship with Anne was visibly and painfully unraveling.

By New Year's it was over, she and everyone else were gone, and life up on Iron Creek entered into an inexorable decline, taking me with it. Christmas 1985 found me broke, despondent, and barely able to muster the energy to cut enough firewood to keep the house warm. As often as not I couldn't afford enough gas to make the 40 mile round trip to Laytonville, the nearest "town," and in my darkest moments, imagined that I would die up on that mountain. And that my petrified corpse wouldn't be found before spring, if ever.

Of course a different set of events was, without my being aware of it, already in motion, one that, as the Rancid song puts it, "no premonition could have seen." During the previous year of my discontent, I'd half-heartedly started a little xeroxed zine and a laughably amateurish but almost painfully earnest punk rock band, and before another year had gone by, they'd start leading me off the mountain and back into the city I had sworn I was leaving for good.

I guess every place and time has its crystalline moments, when you know exactly why you're there and can't imagine anywhere in the universe that it would make more sense to be. But leading up to and away from those moments often involves a long, bewildering and tortuous route - rather like Spy Rock Road itself, as it wends its way from Highway 101 up into the clouds that wreathed Iron Peak - a route that we don't have any choice but to follow if want even a prayer of getting back to those moments that define our lives and ourselves.

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