Tuesday, March 01, 2005

THUNDERPUSSY'S CAFE' / WAY FAR FROM THE MADDENING CROWD

My bride and I sought a place to have our first baby, now 30 years ago. My mother was recently deceased and my British wife was just stepping off of a whirlwind, 18-month theatrical tour. We felt we needed a divergence from our prior lives. Too, like most newlyweds we hoped the union might inaugurate a better each of us. It did me, and our sons are testimony to the union’s health.

Much like the Thomas Gray elegy, we sought a quiet place away from the calamitous rushes of our lives.

“Far from the maddening crowd’s ignoble strife
their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept their noiseless tenor of their way."

I had inherited a box full of cash, we were in love, and a honeymoon cum life quest became our manifest. We visited her family and friends in Britain, bought a sailboat in Florida with dreams of sailing the Caribbean, got pregnant, then newly navigated ourselves toward a sweeter place than the Devil’s Triangle to have our first born.

Some fool bought our cutter rigged, 49’ sail boat (doubtfully named, the “Halcyon”), and we loaded up our used Toyota’s U-haul trailer and drove off out of Florida. Bride, navigating from a road map of the lesser-traveled blue highways and headed west.

We knew there were extraordinary people out there and we wanted to find them.

We drove slow, so she could see rural America with all the windows down. My left foot, mostly perched up on the dashboard when not shifting and the seat kicked way back. Marlboro and Jamaican reefer smoke roiling out the windows. We cruised up, along, and around the rural American South West allowing the grid of normal life to drift off in our smokey trail.

We stayed one night in an old Texas Stage Coach stop, just anointed as a national landmark; it’s soul not yet trampled by the State. Miles and miles later, suffered good-old boy stares at my long hair and sailor’s tan in a few back road Texan coffee shops, and rolled on further West up Colorado, past Elephant Buttes (which my new wife thought charming to have been named after an elephant’s rear end); and, drove on and through Denver’s thick, yellow smog, turning further left up into the magnificent Rocky Mountains thinking the mountains a fine place to let our baby out.

But, no: most of the towns up there were either for the rich and fancy or inhabited by women wearing combat boots and calico dresses. None seemed the future reflection of our union.

We circled the mountains, ate here, slept there, and looked real hard. Finally, deciding to drive up toward Utah where a lady was making and marketing baby backpacks we thought were cool. (When you’ve got a pocket full of cash like we did, long wide turns in the road, like this one, come easy; and, who knows, we might have liked the place!)

We got our baby backpack and found ourselves in Salt Lake City, which we found to be an eerie place, on the West side of a big mountain. History being the only item of interest there, we grabbed a San Francisco newspaper and over breakfast my wife noticed an ad in there for a house for rent in Mendocino County, California, an area she had been shown when performing in San Francisco and recalled it as a Pacific Paradise. We called the ad. Then, drove straight to it. U-haul full of bathing suits and sailing gear bouncing along behind us.

The freeway out of Salt Lake only goes down, so the drive pretty much impelled us right into northern California. The house overlooked the Pacific Ocean in a gorgeous surround of pine, madrone, and redwood trees. I coughed up a few grand and we moved in to what I still consider the finest place in the world.

As dumb luck and good fortune would have it, we found ourselves surrounded by a reclusive colony of Artists who preferred anonymity in the vast Redwood forest to the film façade glitter of the town of Mendocino itself, a few miles north of where we were. Our town was (is still) called Point Arena. It had old-fashioned board sidewalks, a few stores, a breakfast café, and a tsunami blown out port with a fabulous bar still operating in it on Friday nights. Some would have called it a Hippie back woods Paradise; and, it was. Is.

The area is still famous for the Thai weed grown in its national wilderness forests. It was rumored that the Mexican Government was managing several thousand acres of weed way far back in there beyond anyone’s reach. Local gendarmes were afraid to go back into those woods on account of the legendary Vietnam vets who were big time growers; and, knew from the Vietcong how to booby trap an area.

When our 6-month lease ran out, we bought a house of our own back in the woods nearby, with a driveway that curved right down to the ocean’s edge at Route One. Our nearest neighbor was a half a mile away to the north. Once immersed into the culture there, a quiet world of Artists and fellow recluses opened up to us. Our days were spent in idle, watching my wife’s tummy grow, and embracing the awesome beauty of the area we were living in. And, total commitment to raising our new son.

On hot summer days we would load up our rusty ‘45 Dodge pick up truck, drive it back into the vast national forest to our East, and forage wood for our fireplace. (It rained six to seven feet of water every year there; and firewood was our only source of heat. The last year we lived there we burned up six cords.) On these wood foraging missions we would park the truck near a little offshoot of the Gualala River, and plunk our baby’s plastic baby chair in the cool creek so the cool water could slide over his chubby little body, while we chain sawed a cord or two of oak or madrone trees that had fallen near the river. We’d do this as naked as our baby was in his little chair in the creek. Load up the wood and drive it home. This was life appropriately distant from the maddening crowd for me; and, delicious to live.

Made more so by the amazing people we came to know. Recluses like “Redwood”, who was a tall, blonde man who owned and operated a very successful, several thousand acre commune well back in the woods. One day I had coffee with him at the little breakfast café in Point Arena, and as he left he said, “Well Randy, I’m off for India.” And came back a year later! Far, far from the grid.

I also became very fond of a man named “Kentucky John”. You’d see him in his overalls and long beard, riding his bicycle along U.S. Route One almost everyday. His mission was to be out there helping kids keep their bikes running. A few years prior to being the area Bike Angel, John quit his job as Principle Photographer for Architectural Digest magazine in San Francisco, bought an old school bus, drove it up to Mendocino, turned right into the woods and drove it in there as far as she would go, then shut it down and turned it into a metallic home on rotting wheels, finally turning it into a live in-shop and turning out world class metal gates and doors.

Brian was another oneovakind man there who fascinated. Having grown up on a busted down little horse ranch in rural Montana Brian, graduated high school there with a four year, full ride scholastic scholarship to Harvard University. He graduated Harvard with honors; after which, he drove straight back to his home in Montana, got his rifle and mountain man gear and drove off to California, landing smack dab at the beach in Point Arena. The day I met him he was washing down a carburetor part in oil in the musty garage next to his beach shack in the sand hills north of town. Within days he had me out in the mountains behind us hunting wild mountain goats and boar. For Brian lived entirely without cash. He traded for everything except the fish he caught, wild animals he killed, skinned and ate, his garden and the odd mechanical part that he might fix in exchange for lead and powder for his guns. For all I know he’s still living off the grid somewhere in the California wildnerness.

Even a girl of with a name like: Magnolia Thunderpussy could find a home there. Magnolia was a California girl who married a Native American named, “Chief Thunder Pussy”. The magistrates in San Francisco, who married her, wrote her new name on the record books as Magnolia Thunderpussy; which set in motion her famous cafés. The first, I am told, was in San Francisco, and simply called “Thunderpussy’s”. Her second was in Point Arena. It was on the second floor of the area’s only retail shop and open on one or two weekend nights. You could buy a coke or a coffee in there, but most customers just smoked that fabulous Mendocino weed on the way in. It was broadly known that blues singer Taj Mahal used to hitch hike up the Mendocino Coast with his guitar. Apparently, he played at Thunderpussy’s café, but I never saw him there. One night when my wife and I were in there with about eight or nine other locals, a lone guy was playing guitar and singing like an old, black blues man. You’d of thought he could-should do it for a living, so good he was. Later I was to learn it he was John Fogarty of Credence Clearwater fame. I don’t think the café made any money because it wasn’t there for long. But, it was world class while it was. I have found nothing like it in the planet’s more urbane environs.

When we allow ourselves to be like cattle buying into lives of constant repetition, never straying from the grid, and suffering the false security of ‘normal’ lives, we miss the music playing out there in places like Thunderpussy’s Café. That is a no no by me.