Continued from part 1 here.
Cazadero is at the base of King Ridge Road, one of California’s most scenic (and fun) stretches of cycling. But first you must pay the entrance fee: a steep, curving climb up, up, up alongside a river that becomes a creek and narrows to a trickle at the top.
Soaked with sweat, my water bottles nearly empty, I arrive to the top of the ridge, and I felt like a king. After 40 minutes of slowly grinding up a steep grade at no more than 8 mph, now I was gliding effortlessly 25 miles per hour along the ridge with expansive views across the valleys below to my left and right. I was tempted to take photos at every turn, but I was having far too much fun to use my brakes. Only the occasional crossing cow convinced me to slow down.
For 99% of visitors to Mendocino from San Francisco, there are two ways to arrive. Either you take Highway 1 as it wraps along the scenic coast, or you take the 128 through bohemian, hillbilly, rapidly gentrifying Anderson Valley. In between those two highways is a network of desolate forest roads that curve through pine and redwood forests, rising above orchards, ranches, and vineyards onto exposed ridges and descending down into shaded gulches.
My destination was Point Arena, a small fishing community with a pier, a movie theater, two restaurants, a library and a bar. I had reserved a room on Airbnb in a single family house on Main Street that belongs to a painter in her 50s with gray hair and sparkling, attentive eyes. “How long have you lived here?” I asked, and her answer was right out of a novel: “I was living out of a bus, traveling around the country with my two boys in the 1990s, and when we arrived here we decided to stay put. That was over 25 years ago.” A quarter-century used to sound like a timeframe beyond my comprehension. Now I regularly recall stories from 25 years ago, or introduce friends who I’ve known for over 25 years. I paused a moment to imagine the woman in front of me 25 years ago, then in her early 30s, younger than I am now.
In fact, her story was straight out of two novels I had read: Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier, and TC Boyle’s Drop City. My impression of the woman in front of me was shaped by my feelings toward the characters from each novel. As I looked around the house, scanning her bookshelves, I thought about the power of stories, how they fill the gaps of information about the people we meet, and how they inspire us to develop narratives that become the maps for our lives. From the stories we encounter come the archetypes we embody. Do we even have an individual essence that transcends the stories that shape us?
At one point in Martin Scorsese’s new documentary on Netflix, Bob Dylan mumbles into the camera that life isn’t about finding yourself or knowing yourself; it’s about making yourself, crafting an identity, creating a myth, something that Dylan did better than just about anyone, a Jewish kid from Minnesota turned philosopher-poet-prince of Greenwich Village. My Airbnb host, too, seemed to have crafted a life by chasing after a myth while the majority of us merely react to the opportunities that present themselves. Or don’t. My host and I finished talking and I excused myself to take a badly needed shower. Her artwork hung on every wall of the house, an eclectic mix of Renaissance motifs, playing cards, and pop culture. In one painting, the queen of arts is reading the New Yorker with a smirk.
The next morning I ordered a big plate of eggs, hash browns, and bacon at the local diner and then stocked up on snacks at the market across the street, where bluegrass streamed from Spotify on the stereo. A sign by the cashier asked for donations to repair the espresso machine. It didn’t strike me as any more ridiculous than the “living wage” surcharges that have become so common in San Francisco. “Just $12 for your avocado toast and a $1 surcharge to pay our employees a living wage.”
On the third and final day of my journey, I rode along the coastline from Point Arena to Mendocino, fighting against a headwind that wanted to blow me back south to San Francisco. But I didn’t mind, the views were too beautiful to be bothered by uncooperative wind.
The passing weekday traffic mostly kept at a respectable distance, at least until a raised white pickup truck came within a foot of me, accelerating to intentionally blow black exhaust on my face straight from the tailpipe as it sped past. My heart pounded for a few seconds of delayed reaction. I filed the experience away in my mental archive of evidence affirming a friend’s theory that trolling is merely the online manifestation of a deeper impulse to be mean, to poke people without reason, the way young children shine a magnifying glass on a harmless ant, or how a middle-aged woman turns to whisper a gratuitous critique as a friend leaves the lunch group for the restroom.
But then I was reminded of opposing evidence from two days earlier when I suffered a flat tire, my first in over a year, on the side of the highway. Not only did every passing cyclist ask if I was okay, but two drivers also slowed, rolled down their windows, and asked if they could offer any help. Why were they so eager to lend a helping hand to a complete stranger in distress? (Or not in distress, as happened to be the case.) I thought of a recent study suggesting that we have selectively bred dogs so that they give us that puppy dog look, those raised eyebrows, that conveys their dependence on our generosity. Bent over my bicycle, repairing a flat tire, I was the equivalent of a dog making puppy eyes, and the passerby in cars felt good by offering me their kitchen scraps.
These are part and parcel of the human experience, the unprovoked impulse to blow exhaust into the face of a solitary cyclist, the desire to help out a stranger.
I arrived to the Navarro River, a deep turquoise blue that flows under a fairytale redwood forest until it opens up at the mouth of the Pacific. Today it mostly attracts hikers, fishers, and whitewater rafters. It is pristine, protected, and unpolluted, just like it was 170 years ago, when it was one of the main sources of nutrition for the Pomo People, who settled the area around 6,000 years ago.
6000 years! Think about it: the Pomo people inhabited this region for 97.6% of the past six millennia. Then in the middle of the 19th century, an unlikely combination of Russian settlers, Spanish priests, British fur traders, and poor European & Chinese migrants in search of gold came to the region and violently forced the Pomo people (those that did not die from smallpox and measles) to relocate to the Round Valley Reservation further inland. When the Pomo people rebelled against their inhumane treatment, they were shot down in a massacre by the United States Cavalry.
How did I not know this history? How is it that I’m more familiar with the Ottoman Empire’s attempted genocide of the Armenians in 1915 than I am with the genocide of Native Americans in the 1850s? How is it that I’ve read so much more about mass murder and repression in Germany, Yugoslavia, Zaire, Rwanda, Tibet, and Xinjiang than in neighboring Mendocino County?
What we know about the 19th century Pomo Indians comes from the observations of European settlers. “Until the lion tells the story,” as the saying goes, “the hunter will always be the hero.”
In this case, the hunter is a sympathetic figure with good intentions who nonetheless contributed to the white savior trope that still dominates Western storytelling, from Friday Night Lights to Game of Thrones. (The list of films on the Wikipedia page on White savior narrative in film is overwhelming.)
The most prolific documentarian of Pomo culture was Grace Carpenter Hudson, a progressive, feminist artist, who painted nearly 700 portraits of Pomo Indians in Mendocino, mostly children, and advocated for their protection from exploitation. She also spoke openly to the New York Times in 1895 about deceiving Pomo mothers, who opposed portraiture, in order to photograph and paint their children without consent. It’s complicated to judge such actions today; our future generations will, similarly, judge us harshly for our meat-eating, gas-guzzling, and self-deceit. Hudson’s most famous painting, above, is titled “Little Mendocino” and features a crying baby meant to provoke sympathy from the viewer, just like puppy eyes or a stranded cyclist changing a flat. In fact, Hudson’s first portrait of a Pomo child did include a dog with puppy eyes to make the association explicit.
Notice the difference between the dignified, muscular, independent Pomo fisherman in the canoe photographed above compared to the vulnerable and dependent Indian babies in Hudson’s portraits, which became a cultural meme stamped onto post cards and advertisements.
I shifted into an easier gear and climbed the last hill approaching the coastal village of Mendocino. To my left, down on the beach, was the site of the area’s first timber mill, which carved up century-old redwoods from upriver and shipped them down to San Francisco to build a city to support a gold rush. My left knee was beginning to ache and I was looking forward to a hot coffee and slice of pie. With just 20 minutes of cycling to go, I thought of one last excerpt from the Ezra Klein – Alison Gopnik podcast. Klein brings up a Wall Street Journal column that Gopnik wrote about the difference between how humans interact during the day versus the evening. An anthropologist working in Southern Africa in the 1970s recorded the daytime and evening conversations of the Ju/’hoansi people:
The daytime talk was remarkably like the conversation in any modern office. The Ju/’hoansi talked about the work they had to do, gossiped and made rude jokes. Of the conversations, 34% were what Dr. Wiessner scientifically coded as CCC—criticism, complaint and conflict—the familiar grumbling and grousing, occasionally erupting into outright hatred, that is apparently the eternal currency of workplace politics.
But when the sun went down and the men and the women, the old and the young, gathered around the fire, the talk was transformed. People told stories 81% of the time—stories about people they knew, about past generations, about relatives in distant villages, about goings-on in the spirit worldCampfires Helped Inspire Community Culture, Alison Gopnik, WSJ
They told these stories sitting around the glowing embers of a fire facing one another. We still structure our days this way, exchanging criticism, complaint, and conflict during the day and mythic stories at night. We stare at the glowing embers of our flat screen TVs and handheld devices. Just last night, my wife and I were enraptured by a story about past generations, distant villages, and goings-on in the spirit world. It was called Stranger Things.
We tell stories because they give our lives meaning, and meaning is the life force that convinces us to keep on keeping on. I am telling you this story, a quilt of reflections and observations, because it made my cycling journey to Mendocino more meaningful to me. It poured out of my fingers onto my keyboard, almost in its entirety, while eating a slice of pie with a cup of coffee in Mendocino. But then as I left the coffeeshop, I began to doubt whether I would publish it online. Why add to what David Foster Wallace called Total Noise, “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective”?
That hesitation stays with me now. But deep down, every storyteller wants an audience. And so if you made it this far, I am grateful to you for the time you’ve allowed me to tell my story around the glowing embers of some device somewhere in time and space.