Fort Bragg, California

Trip Start Apr 12, 1992
Trip End Jun 15, 1992

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Flag of United States  , California
Friday, May 8, 1992

We're insured by Smith and Wesson.
Fort Bragg, California
Cool, fog,hot after the fog burned off

This started off a special day. I was parked on the roadside overlooking the Russian River valley. The highway winds around and crosses the river directly below and the river flows to the left, west to the Pacific. Nearby, on the mountainside, there is an unpainted farmhouse built of redwood, which has weathered almost black. A small trailer court is nestled down near the bridge and beyond the bridge California-1 follows the river north to the town of Jenner. A side road branches east just past the far end of the bridge and heads off up the river valley.

A blanket of fog caused noises from the early morning activity in the valley below to flow up the mountainside. I could hear a dairyman urge his cows from the milk barn toward a pasture upriver. The cows answered with discontent. Two or more cats were either loving or fighting. Women's laughter and talk rose from the trailer court. Somewhere a power saw ripped through lumber, and automobile tires slapped against the joints in the bridge pavement. Invisible birds sang, loud and clear.

I lingered to watch and listen, waiting for the fog to lift. After a bit, only the hill tops were hidden in the gray, then the sun began to burn through. I became sleepy again and returned to my sleeping bag. By eight o'clock the night chill was leaving. I felt rested, content and in no hurry to rush through my morning routine, which goes something like this.

First I picked up items which were scattered about the van, the tape player, radio, soiled clothing, etc., Bathed as well as I could in the sink (cold water), then got dressed. When the shivering subsided I poured some orange juice and gulped the mandatory morning prescription pills, and heated water for coffee. I use melted ice water from the chest for drinking. I sipped coffee and poured a bowl of cereal. Then I made my initial daily log entry, prepared a shopping list for supplies I would buy at the first opportunity, washed dishes, brushed my teeth, and I was ready to get under way. But today I just sat to enjoy the view and the morning. A bit after ten o'clock I moved north.

Beyond the Russian River and Jenner the road climbed up into a low, thick cloud. I moved along very slowly because I could see nothing but gray mist covering the Pacific below and the wall of a sheer rock face that towered above on my right. From time to time I came to a spot where there was room to park on the ocean side of the road. By switching the engine off and rolling down the windows I could hear the surf crashing on the rocky beach far below. It was good to leave the van to sit on a rock, to listen and feel suspended in time and space, to see the scene with my ears and imagination. I'll never know which is more impressive, the scene as I imagined it, or the scene as it would appear in sunlight.

I eased ahead, through the fog. to Fort Ross and Salt Point, frequently crossing cattle guards built into the highway. They reminded me to be extremely alert for livestock on the road. And they were there. Frequently the image of a cow would materialize out of the mist, standing placidly in the road,slowly chewing and looking straight at me, and not consenting to move until I eased up so that the front bumper was almost touching her. Then, very calmly and deliberately she would move off the blacktop.

By 11:15 the fog lifted. The sky was clear blue, the water a deeper blue with specks of whitecaps riding waves near the shore. The road clung to red, brown, and black cliff-sides, every now and then it darted inland through redwood forests. Off shore, rock pinnacles rose starkly from the water. At their bases waves crashed, sending up sprays of miniature rainbows.

Osprey watched from the peaks to select their dinner from the menu spread in the water below. Graceful gulls circled until they spotted an entree, then plunged straight into the surface, most often rising to rock ledges with a fresh treat for their young. I watched one large old gull mentor a fledgling, who clumsily dived in the manner of his teacher, as he learned to catch dinner for himself. I could hear the parent gull squawk encouragement and, when junior was successful, the old gull filled the air with raucous applause, sort of like human parents at a Loittle League ball game or a piano recital, or when a kid finally learns to tie his shoes.

The pelicans worked differently. They lumbered along like boxcars, back and forth just inches above the water. At the end of each sweep they rose slightly to pivot on one wing, then turn to make the return glide. Sudden stops, then wings thrashing for take-off, signaled another morsel captured. On this beautiful day I visited Stewart's Point, and Sea Ranch, and Gualala, and Anchor Bay, where I pulled off the road once again to savor the view. A biker had stopped to rest and eat. He was one of several to be seen, traveling in both directions. This biker spoke with a British accent. He said he had started from San Diego and was en route to Seattle. This is a distance of about 1250 miles. Lots of making the old pedals go round, eh chap!

He resumed his trek first. Soon I followed. We were bound for the same destinations;Point Arena, Elk, Albion, Mendecino and Fort Bragg. When I passed him he was slowly pumping his way up a long grade. He waved me on, appearing confident of his stamina, and happy with his project. I think I would like to know him better.

Fort Bragg, California is situated at the mouth of the Noyo River. As soon as I drove into town I could see it was a unique place. A traffic control sign warned, "No Skateboards, Bicycles, or Horses Allowed On Sidewalks." Also, in contrast with most small towns nowadays, the downtown business district was bustling with activity. Retail stores, real estate and insurance agents, saloons and restaurants, automobile dealers, the full range of commercial activity seemed to prosper. there had been no flight to suburban shopping malls from Fort Bragg.

I parked on the main street in front of Terry's Bar and found a seat at the counter where i sipped a Bud Dry and entered into conversation with Nick. He is a California native who grew up in Fort Bragg. He revealed that the fort for which the town was named has been gone for many decades. By odd coincidence Nick did his military basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After undergoing advanced training he became a Green Beret and served in Vietnam. Now Nick is a commercial diver. He supplied the following information about Fort Bragg,California.

The town's fishing industry developed around a natural sheltered harbor on the Noyo River. A couple marinas provide dockage for the mix of private, party fishing, and commercial fishing craft. Numerous seafood processing firms attest to the importance of seafood to the local economy.

Timber is the other major source of income. Concerns for the Spotted Owl have crippled the timber industry.

In years past salmon was the main money maker. Fairly recently salmon became scarce in local waters and salmon fishing was subjected to government regulations which greatly curtailed the allowed size of catches. The town came on hard times. Then someone learned that patrons of Sushi bars in Japan would pay enormous prices for the roe of sea urchins, which, to the Japanese,is a culinary delicacy.

That discovery set off a boom here in Fort Bragg. Sea urchins blanketed the nearby underwater rock cliffs. Divers capable of working in scuba gear at depths up to 90 feet swarmed in as soon as the news spread. They harvested the creatures from rock formations all up and down the coast. Fort Bragg enjoyed an economic rebirth. Nick described how the divers deposit the sea urchins in baskets which hang from lines dropped from boats hovering above.

Initially individual divers measured their daily haul in tons, which earned them thousands of dollars daily. The prospect of sudden wealth set off an additional mass incursion of young men eager to become divers. Quickly they seriously depleted the Sea Urchin population.

Environmentalists reacted. They persuaded the Federal government to regulate sea urchin takes. Soon divers were working only about 10 days per month. Takes by individuals and boats became constricted. Now divers measure their daily haul in hundreds of pounds. But a good diver can still earn up to $1000 per day.

As one would expect, the influx of young, adventuresome males and sudden wealth set off another explosion, after hours entertainment. Fort Braggs streets are lined with saloons, poker clubs, prostitutes, etc. All compete for the sea urchin dollars. It's like gold rush days, like oil wells suddenly gushing wealth into the sky.

After dark, I abandoned Nick at Terry's Bar. I enjoyed a smoked salmon dinner at a nearby restaurant, then explored the streets of Fort Bragg. Late evening, I drifted around a corner to the "Welcome Inn" saloon. I found a seat next to a tall skinny guy who introduced himself as "Cotton".

Cotton was about thirty-five. He wore neat casual clothing and spoke with the vocabulary of one who reads much. He was very drunk. Cotton immediately attempted to work several good natured scams on me. He proposed to sell me "his" key to a local hotel room-cheap, or sell me his watch-cheap, or sell me some hi-fi speakers-cheap. Our conversation stretched into the after-midnight hours. I was able to piece together the following narrative.

"Cotton" lives with a 68 year old woman in her mobile home which is parked in a trailer village about 10 miles out of town. Four days ago, on Monday, the old lady, who is too crippled to walk, gave him part of her latest social security check to buy groceries at a nearby store. Cotton took the money and hitched a ride into town. He spent the grocery money for booze, and was sitting here, still drinking heartily, on Friday night. Meanwhile, his room-mate was left with no nourishment except a 12 pack of beer, which Cotton generously left with her. Everyone who came into the saloon seemed to know Cotton and good-naturedly tolerated his efforts to work some scam on them.

Fostered, I'm sure, by the free spending divers, a custom has taken hold in the Welcome Inn. Several suddenly wealthy divers were gathered at the far end of the long bar. Whenever it came time to order a new round they rolled high dice, the loser being obligated to buy drinks for everyone in the house. Following each new roll of the dice, the barmaid, Cheryl, distributed a deck of "rain checks", one rain check to each customer in the crowded room. The cards were redeemable for a free refill of whatever you were drinking.

In a short period I accumulated a sizeable stack of rain checks by my glass. I redeemed several, gave some away and still had three in my pocket the following morning. This explains how Cotton, having no money since Wednesday, could support a continuing drunk. Each morning Cotton waited for the saloon to open, holding a fist full of rain checks from the night before. He followed a routine: drink all day and sell a few cards for $1.00 each to raise food money and play pool. All the while his reserve stock of free drink chits was being replenished. At one point I noted eight rain checks remained in front of him and the stack continued to grow. Cotton had found his Heaven.
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