In the spring of 2011 my wife and I moved from Texas back to northern California. Not to our house in Berkeley but to a cabin on the north fork of the Smith River, a few miles south of the California-Oregon state line, in the river-laced and mostly overlooked lands of Del Norte County. We rented in Gasquet, what the locals call a hamlet. Our little bend in the road, high in the Madrone and Manzanita, was named after a French businessman who settled these parts during the gold rush, making his own luck and fortune by setting up a business supplying a good portion of the timber used to build out the infrastructure which supported the state’s exploration for gold. Horace Gasquet lives on in the town’s name and various other structures named for him — the short bridge that spans the middle fork of the Smith, the old toll road that connects this little hamlet to the even tinier crossroads at Patrick Creek. Gasquet’s wife is buried in a small plot of land a hundred yard or so above the confluence of the middle and North forks of the Smith, supposedly in earth shipped over from France, the result of a demand that she be buried in French soil. A good businessman, Horace Gasquet knew all the tricks.
Our cabin was a redwood-sided beauty on the banks of the Smith. When full, the river throws off a huge crashing sound which fills the air and provides an uninterrupted backdrop. It is the sound of car tires on loose gravel, the sound of a fan that’s never turned off.
Getting to Gasquet meant taking a two-lane state highway that spurs off the 101 north of town. The asphalt twists and snakes through dense redwood groves of the Jed Smith Forest through to Hiouchi. Climbing out of Hiochi, the road enters National Forest land and hugs a much narrower, rock slide-prone road that twists and rises slightly as it closely parallels the Smith, heading upstream through the canyon. On the final approach to Gasquet, the trees drop back and the sky opens up. Having crossed the Mary Adams bridge a mile or so back, the river is now on the opposite side of the roadway, on the driver’s left. For about a mile, the river rushes down over a hundred small riffles. In the fall, the Maples, set among evergreens, mostly Doug Fir and Oak, are alight with glowing leaves of gold. In the winter, the color drops out of the trees and it is mostly greens and browns. As the hillsides rise to the north and east, away from the west-flowing river, tall spires and branches of redwood trap the clouds and hold on tight. This vision of smoke-strewn sky and amber light paired with the ambient sound of the river are striking in their steadfast presence — day in and out, no matter our moods, the river, trees and wind stand their ground.
We lived on the loop road, above Highway 199, behind the post office and just past the turnoff to the dump. Ours was the house, fourth on the right, with a huge Magnolia tree in front. From a distance, the exterior wood siding of the cabin looks soft, plush, like velour. The windows are single pane, heat when we needed it — which was nearly year round — comes from a wood-burning stove. A deck facing the river runs the full length of the house. Decommissioned propane tanks are scatted out behind the garage. Rain spills off the gutters at either end and sometimes from the middle.
When we moved in I pulled nearly a hundred nails in the walls — picture hangers, for towels, guides for Christmas lights, key holders…it was, after all, just a cabin on the river. Kind of derelict, with a scent of cedar hanging in most corners and drawers, the house for some might qualify as a dump. For me the house had good genes, way above dump status. The west facing yard which catches the afternoon light, even the diffused light of a cloud-stocked winter’s sky, is a reminder of the luck we grabbed when we decided to rent far from town.
Dump, castle, whatever, there was a lot of poetry to this place. We fell asleep to the sound of water rushing over a thousand rocks and woke to embers that easily stoked a new morning’s fire. Coffee was set to brew at 5am and by the time I sat down to read the paper or write some emails, was already steeped and savory.
We’d been dropped in the middle of postcard others leafed through at the gas station as they raced home to Napa or Lodi or Medford.
Meg works as nurse — it was her job that brought us to Del Norte County in the first place. After three years in the south — bouncing from New Orleans to Fort Worth, places where Meg could get experience as a freshly minted nurse — we were finally back in California, albeit a rainier, colder version of what we’d left in 2009.
At the time of our move to Gasquet, I was chipping away at a consulting job that tapped the contacts made as a journalist over the preceding 12 years or so. But the ties that bound me to my sole client were slowly loosening. I was forced to think about a second act though I wasn’t sure what that might be. Truth is I’ve never been shy to dream, but I’ve rarely had the fortitude to pursue one. Thinking I was sly and smart, I joked around with the adage “always the game plan, never the game.” Like most things, I turned my fear into shtick. But in reality, it was more like camouflage to hide the truth. I was scared to try new activities, hesitant to lead, and loathe to put self-reliance to any test. I dreamed big but mostly fell into the pack, letting others cut a path in front of me. I was a pretty good follower though you’d never get me to admit it. My own career-focused wish list was well-defined in ways only the truly timid can construct — photo-journalist behind enemy lines, raconteur-owner of a wine bar in a sleepy-yet-terribly-romantic village in the south of France, chef-story teller and entertainer of plebes who might frequent my pizza joint in Osaka or Tokyo. (Notice the hyphens to connote my explosive talents and skills.)
Somewhere in that mix of game plans was owner-operator of a pension or B&B where world travels might hang their hammocks and stay up late telling tales of trips to Halong Bay, jungle walks in Tikal, or riding the rails of the Patagonia Express and other far-flung routes.
The reality was a bit different. I developed a semi-successful albeit late-blooming career as a tech journalist and conference programmer, not wising up to financial responsibility or commitment (of any kind) until I was 40. Nothing to be proud of, but nothing that would put me in jail either. The dreams were there when I needed or wanted them, but they remained unrealized.
During those years from 40, I had a marginally good run — got myself out of debt, married, and even charted some minor successes on both professional and personal turfs. Not huge, and none that indicated promise or a legacy, but I kept myself out of trouble.
But that run was coming to an end and I knew, no matter how much I tried to ignore it, at least one tough choice would have to be made. And I hated choices.
It was about that time, some six months into our move, that we stumbled up a real estate agent with an inside track to a beast of house, also on the banks of the Smith River. 2,700 square feet of interior space, a monumental deck overlooking the Smith, more windows than siding, and hot tub to boot — the house was in Hiouchi, the hamlet a few miles closer to town. We weren’t even in the market to buy. On a whim, some weeks earlier, we’d taken a look at a nearby property on the river and met a local agent. That house was a disaster, but we connected with Kurt S. and his low-key style. When he called to see if we might be interested in another property, we said sure, why not, let’s have a look. Having been burned twice in previous negotiations to sell this house, the beast, the behemoth, Kurt knew exactly what it was going to take to get the property sold. And even though the asking price was astoundingly high, Kurt advised us to offer a price that was astoundingly low. Meg and still have no idea why Kurt picked us to reveal these certain truths to — how low the bank would go to consummate a sale, where the seller was in pricing — but after looking at the house and thinking through a strategy, we made an offer that was nearly half the asking price. Nausea and second thoughts notwithstanding, our offer was accepted and in November of 2011, in the parking lot of the gas station a mile or so from the house. Kurt S., with a wicked smile I recall, handed Curt F. the keys.
Even scarier than thoughts of dry rot and peeling paint, leaking skylights or substandard wiring, was what we called The Plan, which would require a crazy effort and way more cash then anticipated.
And therein lies the tale.