The Russian River has moods. Originally known by the Southern Pomo Native Americans of the area as “east water” Ashokawna, or “big water” Bidapte, in the short time I’ve lived here I’ve come to feel about the river like I did about Maui’s ocean: just looking at it lowers my blood pressure and fills me with contentment.
This morning the river’s placid, playful, flirting with the gilt edge of dawn. As the season has warmed and dried, the boomerang of water flowing by outside of our window has changed from the swollen, churning chocolate brown of imminent disaster to a jade-and-silver shimmer, chuckling over and around sandbanks of smooth gray pebbles and pierced by insouciant cottonwood saplings.
Playa Verde is similarly changing. Shutters open and windows are cracked. Junked cars are hauled away. Rotten leaves are raked. Rafts of weeds and choking brush are tamed with machinery. People emerge like salamanders from a chill, damp hibernation under the deep green redwoods.
And everywhere, the quivering, delicate joy of bright orange California poppies is an exclamation point celebrating spring.
I told you I’d write about my new home and I’ve found it harder to do than I thought, mostly because it’s such a small place that I worry that the fascinating denizens of my personal “Three Pines” will detect my surveillance and come after me with pitchfork and torch—and they are a feisty lot. (If you guess where it is that I reside in my tiny cottage overlooking Ashokawna, please keep it to yourself. Names and locations changed for obvious reasons.)
Inured to the terrifying prices of the Bay Area and paying what we charge for our Maui home in rent for a one-bedroom cabin, Mike and I initially assumed that this place was an upscale second vacation home spot for people from “The City” as San Francisco is called—and to a degree, that’s true.
But my many walks along tiny residential roads snaking through the trees have shown me a different truth: Playa Verde is deliberately hiding its light under a redwood forest bushel. The area is steeped in its own quirky history, and raucous displays of wealth are discouraged—even those homes clearly being restored by someone from out of town with money are painted muted colors and the Mercedes are hidden.
Many of the homes are simply returning to the forest like nurse logs, engulfed in ivy and heavy moss. Tarps are the main form of roof repair, and trash collection is an issue. Most of the folks who greet me as I do my twice-daily forest ambles with Liko are known here as “river rats.” Bad teeth, heavy drinking, tattoos and decrepit cars held together with anti-Trump stickers are featured heavily with this group.
The houses in my area are precariously perched on a steep hillside, anchored by the redwoods, hoping not to slide down into the river on a whoosh of mud. None of them would likely be permitted now, built as they are of plywood siding and two-by-fours, reached by slippery, ramshackle wooden stairs going straight up the mountain at crazy angles.
Our neighbors, river rats all, were frosty and ignored my big grins, waves and “aloha!” greetings, even with Liko straining to lick their muddy boots. “We’re bringing up the neighborhood. It’ll take time for them to see we’re not city folk,” Mike told me, as we wedged our Lexus SUV (ten years old, but still misleading) into our muddy parking spot between a battered Ford Astro and a Bronco that had seen better days.
I know how we must appear to them, and I deliberately decided to persist with friendliness. I lived in Hawaii for most of my life, and we “locals” are the same over there: newcomers must prove their worth and commitment. Aloha is actually earned, and it can take a lifetime to belong in a community entrenched in its own hidden and intricate norms.
One day, exiting my gate with Liko for another brain-ventilating post-writing walk, I looked up to see a woman on crutches, bundled leg extended stiffly, navigating down precipitous wooden stairs toward me.
Those stairs were slick with rain, thick with mulching leaves, and at least fifty feet of disaster waiting to happen. “Oh my goodness. Can I help?” I parked myself at the bottom of the steps to provide a landing pad for a tumble that looked imminent and life threatening.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she lied, but her rich brown complexion was ashy with pain and stress. “I’m trying to get to the doctor.”
“I’ll catch you if you fall,” I said, because I simply couldn’t think of anything else. The stairs were too narrow and slippery for me to approach or support her. A harrowing five minutes later she finally reached the bottom and we both sighed with relief. I heard how she’d torn something seriously in her leg, and after ruling out it being broken, her crappy state insurance didn’t want to pay for an MRI to determine what really was wrong—but in the meantime she was virtually crippled.
I introduced myself and she gave me her name as reluctantly as eking out a tip to a bad waitress. She refused to let me help as she navigated a puddle and managed the door of her rusted vehicle herself, all with crutches under her arms and her leg, wrapped in a bright red legwarmer over a massive brace, stiffly suspended off the ground, .
“I’ll clean off your stairs for you,” I told her as she got into her vehicle. “All that mulch on the steps is making them more dangerous.”
She raked off me with a glance. “Ha ha,” she said. “Right.” And she slammed her door and turned on her car.
I hate being misjudged and rejected. No one likes it. I know what I look like to her: a white do-gooder in a Columbia jacket with a frou-frou dog, not someone who would have a clue what her challenges were. I could tell she was surprised by my stubborn persistence.
Honestly, I just didn’t want to see her break her remaining good leg falling off those stairs.
After my walk I fetched the heavy outdoor broom and climbed the deathtrap stairs, vigorously sweeping off the wet mulch, leaves, moss, and twigs. The day was shaping up warm, and with any luck at all, the stairs would dry out by the time she came back from the doctor.
And then I went in my own little gate, shut and locked it (everyone here has little locked gates to pretend they can keep thieves out) and forgot all about the incident.
A week or so later I was coming out with Liko again and there she was, this time being helped into her vehicle by a man who looked like he drove up on a Harley and took off his Sons of Anarchy vest to help his woman into her car.
I waved and smiled, determined not to be intimidated. “Hey, Roxanne. Is the leg any better?”
She shook her head. “Not really. But at least they scheduled an MRI.” She petted the man’s massive chest. “This is the lady that cleaned off the stairs.”
“Oh yeah?” He spun around and grinned, a flash of teeth in a beard that looked like something off of that Vikings show on the History Channel. “We should have thought of that. You’re a sweetheart.”
“Just didn’t want my neighbor breaking her other leg,” I said. They chuckled politely. He helped her into the car and closed her door, then approached me. I held my ground and tried not to hold my breath as he loomed up and introduced himself as Ragnar.
“You like pot treats?” Ragnar jingled change in a pocket. He could break me with one fist. Liko liked him through, and wagged his feather duster tail over the man’s big chain-crossed boots.
I blanked out. “Pot what?”
“You know. Pot treats. Brownies, the like. I’ll make you some. A thank you gift.”
“Sure.” In Hawaii, when the kupuna (elder) offers you the ear off his roast pig, you eat it. Or the fish eyeball in Japan. Or the monkey brains in Thailand. Whatever it is, you eat it, and are thankful.
Ragnar smiled again and this time it wasn’t so scary because I was imagining those burly arms flexing as he stirred a batch of pot brownies—but still it seemed unlikely.
“You don’t think I’ll do it, but I will. Expect something in the next day or two. Thanks again.” He clumped off and they pulled out, waving.
After my walk, I went back into my cottage, shaking my head. “Mike, we’re to expect marijuana baked goods any day now.” We discussed California’s recent pot legalization. Neither of us are pro or con on the issue, we simply don’t partake. But the Viking was right—I didn’t think he’d do it.
But the next morning, balanced just inside the locked gate on the wooden strut, a pair of plastic-wrapped, strongly-smelling poppy seed muffins greeted me. They reside in the freezer as evidence that we’ve begun to be accepted on the Ashokawna, and every time I see them I smile.
(Click on any of the images below and navigate sideways for a slideshow.)