Introduction to COUNTY NEWS

louis martin
cns news & features

MENDOCINO COUNTY IS beautiful, as women were once described; she is also handsome, as men once were. Therefore she or he is fought over. That is the rule of wanting. People see, let us say "her," and they yearn. For some people the yearning goes beyond all other yearnings, and they chuck their old lives and move here. But soon they find out it is not quite like they had thought it would be.

Then there are others who yearn but are too attached to what they have, the creature comforts of city or suburb. They yearn but they let the yearning go. They make the visit, are refreshed by mountain, seashore, a touch of country living, and go back to their lives feeling better for the little getaway. Maybe they are even the wise ones, not stopping long enough to compare reality to their own fanciful conceptions.

Part of the attraction has to be the county's size and small population: 86,200 people and 2.25 million acres--about 26 acres per person. In a sense that invites loosening up a bit. Body and mind seem to know and appreciate the difference. That is, till the reality of the county's economy sinks in. There are few real jobs in the county, and wages are low. There's logging if you were born into it. There's farming and ranching if you have land, or you're Hispanic. And there are B&Bs if you don't mind washing dishes, changing beds, and taking insults. Logging is "high paid" employment--$15 per hour. B&B's are low--$4.50 if you're Hispanic, $7.00 if you're college educated, white, and can take orders.

But wages are not counter-balanced by a lower cost of living. In fact, the cost of living is higher on the coast than it is back in the city where wages are high. The environment is said to be the compensation, but soon one is staring at a beautiful sunset through redwoods or from a bluff over-looking the ocean, and one sees not beautiful smoldering reds or egg-yolk yellows but, rather, poverty.

Now while one might think that the beauty of the environment would unite people who pay heavily for it, it often seems like the opposite is the case. The beauty, the handsomeness, too often brings out the competitive urge. Males competing for the beauty of the female, or females competing for the tall rugged guy with the good looks, clash. But of course no one acknowledges what is actually going on, other than the crustiest old rancher.

Which is to say that conflict, politics, and self-righteousness are as abundant in the county as the city. Environmentalists, like religious sorts, seem not to see the common cause, only the little difference. Sure, backed against the wall with the whole county threatened with destruction they work together. But short of the threat of off-shore oil drilling, citizens mostly knit-pick each other.

But of course it's not just environmentalists tearing each other apart. Moving up to a higher level, there is the age-old conflict of old-timers versus new-timers.

In the city such a conflict would be harder to maintain. In San Francisco, say, it is hard to tell who is new on the scene and who isn't. In the country, not so. In small towns, everyone knows. The visual field is totally different in a small town where each individual stands out like a one-of-a-kind card in hand-painted pack. There is no chance of mistaking, say, Billy Mitchell with Robby Loganrheimer. Or Sharon McGurty with Karen Glockzeiler. It would not happen.

But beyond the issue of how long one has been around--something that one can't do much about except stick around another day and hope to blend in--there are more dynamic issues. Take that of logging. Some maintain that the county's forests are in fine shape and that the lumber companies know what they are doing--fewer and fewer are saying that--while others maintain that they have been horribly overcut and that streams and creeks have been destroyed by over-cutting. Fact: from a distance all looks green, but take a walk in the woods and you may feel differently about this. Outside parks you are going to see virtually no trees of any size; and in the parks, you are going to see mostly second growth.

While the logging companies have gone at the county like a rapacious army over the last hundred years, developers have not been far behind. These days the choice spots are on those rugged cliffs overlooking the ocean. Dream houses with white-water views are the prize of retirement or the rich. And that is why the Coastal Commission came into being--to preserve the magnificent view along the California coast.

While the Mendocino coast has not been built up as much as other parts of the California coast, it is becoming a highly desirable place to have a house. New houses are just beginning to eat up historic farmland along the coast, and there is a rule at work here: the closer a developer can put a house to the ocean, the greater value of that house. It's been estimated that an ocean-view house with a white-water view is worth about $35,000 more than an ocean-view house with just a blue-water view. That in itself makes it desirable to push the house as far as possible into the scenic area of a parcel.

Needless to say, development has created some major conflicts in recent times.

B&Bs, or Bed & Breakfast Inns, are now the biggest economy along the coast. Not long ago it was timber; now it is the cost of a room for the night, and a croissant and hot jasmine tea in the morning, that pay the bills for the common and uncommon people who live on the coast.

Inns are often run by drop-outs from the city. People who visited the coast in a former life or former role and thought how easy it looked. All you did was buy an old house, fix it up a bit--but not too much, because you want it to still look "rustic"--then you rented out the rooms for a hundred and some dollars a night. Oh, yeah, you left a little something out by the door of each room in the morning for breakfast. But not too much. You billed it as "continental" style where less is fancy.

And then if you were smart you hired some local folks to change the sheets in the morning. Big deal.

Privately you thought the whole thing looked like a scam. Or a pretty ideal retirement life, anyway. If you were the manager of a business back in the city--say an accounting firm that had begun to make you quietly sick of life--then this looked like the proverbial piece of cake. Quite days in the country, time to think about what had gone wrong with your life, read, perhaps, and piece things back together--what could be better? And why had no one else thought of such an escape? Why were you the only clever one to spot this way of beating the system without literally robbing the bank? Well, who knows. Other people were just not very smart.

So you sold your house in the city and bought the little country inn and hired some help and began to relax a little. But not so much as you had thought. Not if you wanted to survive in the nice country environment. For you found that there were things that needed fixing in your little country inn, and the people who now worked for you did not care as much about the little details as you did. Sometimes they didn't even see the little details. And when you pointed them out, you got a blank stare, like they didn't see you either. $4.50 or $7.00 per hour did not seem to buy great attention to detail. Were these people composing poetry while cleaning rooms and baking muffins for the morning trays, or were they just hateful and indifferent people?

Well, after awhile you found yourself doing it yourself. And that wasn't as pleasant as you had anticipated. Work had not been in the plan for your--what shall we call, it?--little retirement. And some stuff, like replacing a stove pipe or locating a buried septic tank so you could dig it up, you were not trained for. Well, it was nice to learn new things, but . . .

And those people you hired. Always composing poetry or being so hateful! They were not like dealing with a bunch of overpaid accountants in the city. Not at all.

And worst of all, you discovered after awhile that other inn keepers were so much like yourself. They were not quaint country folk whose parents and grandparents had been born in the houses whose rooms they now rented. They were mostly former accountants, school teachers, realtors, bankers, and administrators who had grown deeply tired of accounting, teaching, property, banking, or administering anything whatsoever--and were now in the process of growing tired of stove pipes and septic systems as well.

Sad to say, even those nasturtiums--so lovely when you had first moved to the country--were now looking more like weeds.

But so much for the B&Bs. They're a business--don't let 'em tell you otherwise.

But they're not the only business in the county other than logging. There's retail, of course. Shops. Lots 'em. But you've noticed, or your seeing-eye dog has.

There are also businesses in the seed stage. As seeds they are hard to spot.

Take one that is not real obvious. The satellite business. Now does that sound like an obvious match for Mendocino county? Not to most minds. But in the mind of 5th district County Supervisor Charles Peterson of Point Arena an idea clicked. For years it has been rumored that the Point Arena Air Force radar station was closing. No one has ever officially told the commander of the base that, but it is commonly thought that the base is closing. Even the commander of the base believes it, as he has been ordered to clean it up, toxic dump sites included.

What Mr. Peterson spotted was a good match for a changing economy. Private satellite companies are the wave of the future, thought Peterson, and what do such companies need? Remote locations, solid "infrastructure," radar, and launch pads. The Point Arena station has all that. It is by no means a done deal, but Mr. Peterson has begun the process. It could happen. And who would have thought of it? Not too many ex-administrators renting rooms to tourists, that's for sure!

One way that some less original minds have found to get by is abalone poaching. The price for abalone is just too tempting for some. It sells for something like $35 to $38 for legal size ones. Pick a few, sell, 'em, and you've got some cash. Pick a lot and you can get rich. The limit is 4 per day during the season that runs from April through June and August through October. For some that is just too confining. For Van Howard Johnson of San Diego that was way to confining. "Hojo" spotted opportunity and took full advantage. According to Fish & Game code you can only take abalone by free diving--that is, without scuba gear. A snorkel is okay. But what is a little silly code, thought Hojo. Hojo rented a house in Cazadero, a few miles off the Sonoma coast, and supplied divers with scuba gear and marine scanners to keep track of pesky Fish & Game wardens. Hojo got caught but not before a lot of Sonoma county got shipped to China, and some say the penalty is so low it sends the message to other poachers that it is well worth the risk.

Computer technology has taken firm root in the county--something that one would not have guessed a few years back. Particularly the Internet. Perhaps it is the remoteness of the location that creates a desire for a connection to the world. Some say this Internet thing is all out of proportion--that it is ruining the minds of an otherwise simple people. They argue that it was to escape "all that" that people moved to the country. "So how come you turn around and hug all these Power PCs and fast modems and Netscape-escapist kind of things?"

Hard to answer. Hard to say.

Some issues stick around. Like the weather. Not exactly something to be fought over, but always of interest.

Some issues fade away. Like homelessness. Awhile back that was a big one. A group of squatters at Navarro Beach had that one heated up for about a year--until State Parks booted them out. Now no one talks about it. The boot-out occurred on February 3 of 1994. Children as well as adults were thrown out on the open road in mid Winter with no place to go. Not the most compassionate settlement of the dispute. But the courts decided that the county had no moral obligation to help out. For awhile the squatters formed a small, tight-knit community. Now they are spread out here and there. Some are doing okay. Their leader, Robert Jarrell, the "mayor of Navarro Beach," lives in a house. He looks well. But the sense of community is gone. It was based upon a strong common need--that of survival--yet it had a party atmosphere. There was something of the wild nuthouse present too. It was a place to go or fall back upon by those who could not cope. It was a special place in space and time. It was crazy; it was human; it was raw and natural; it was art. Neighbors hated it, of course.

One thing you can count on, though not exactly when it is going to occur, is crime. For the most part not heavy-duty crime, but nevertheless crime. It's a big county with a lot of backroads, so getting there can be half the problem for those in law enforcement who respond to calls. A lot of crime would go unnoticed, given 26 acres per individual, but most crime involves other people--often punching or pushing them. According to Fort Bragg police chief Tom Bickel, domestic violence is the biggest problem his town has. In fact, Fort Bragg is the biggest town along the North Coast between San Francisco and Eureka, and it has more crime than the combined coast districts of the Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, excluding Fort Bragg. While Fort Bragg has been criticized for having a large police force, the chief says it is needed. The figures appear to back him up.

So much for an introduction to "County News." The stories in that occurred over the course of a year--September 1994 to September 1995. All but one, Auntie & The Town Computer, are real, although the latter could have been. There are twenty-four stories in all--six for each season of the year. Some were printed in the Mendocino Beacon newspaper, others in the Mendocino Outlook. Most can be viewed in the Features Page of CNS News & Features on the World Wide Web of the Internet.

And that is enough of an introduction for a county that is both beautiful and handsome yet not without interesting defects. Take a hard look and enjoy it for what it is.

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