A Long Strange Trip: Travels Through The North Coast with Denis Johnson

“This is not a dream, illusion, or metaphor. This is California.”

-Denis Johnson, Already Dead: A California Gothic

On a bright, sultry afternoon at the tail end of last August, my wife Jill and I sat at a picnic table in the spacious courtyard of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, California. The town was quaint and pretty. Before strolling along its main strip where a ragtime band played on a street corner, we wandered unobserved through the Boonville Hotel, admiring its wood paneling and country-chic decor. A restored roadhouse from the turn-of-the-century, the hotel was so quiet and peaceful we heard the creaking of the floorboards as we wandered; and when we spoke to each other, we felt compelled to whisper. We ate a lunch made up of local, organic ingredients and browsed the shops—one calling itself a mercantile—before getting back into our car and driving to the brewery on the outskirts of town, where we were now enjoying the local brew. In California, everything is local.

In the courtyard of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, I continued to think about the chapter I read the night before inside our cabin at the Orr Hot Springs, about an hour’s drive from Boonville, due north. The Orr Hot Springs (clothing optional) lies tucked away along the Comptche Ukiah Road, a tight and curving mountain road that we accessed from the town of Mendocino.

We hadn’t planned on visiting these hot springs, or any hot springs for that matter; our seven-day trip through the north coast, bookended by two short stays in San Francisco, was very much improvised. On our second morning in Mendocino, over breakfast—maple-pecan encrusted bacon, walnut pancakes, tomatoes that the B&B1’s proprietor had picked that morning—I overheard a young hippie couple from the area recommend the hot springs to an eager-for-recommendations middle-aged couple who latched onto the young hippies2 after discovering they weren’t tourists. “People live here,” the middle-aged man said.

The young man calmly assured him. “Oh yes. We live up in the hills and come down for provisions.”

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The scene I read the night before inside our cabin at the Orr Hot Springs happens to be set in Boonville. The novel is Denis Johnson’s Already Dead: A California Gothic, published in 1997. In this particular scene, two of its dozen-odd characters—a local constable and his new girlfriend, both of whom reside on the coast—travel inland to Boonville for the annual Mendocino Apple Festival in late September.3 Johnson describes Boonville through the eyes of the constable, Officer John Navarro: “Boonville might usually have been a pretty town, but under the smoggy conditions [from a recent forest fire] it seemed jobless and tapped-out and felt to Navarro like the kingdom of desperate childhoods. When they’d parked in the pasture outside the festival, he locked his Club antitheft device to the Firebird’s steering wheel.” When Jill and I parked our rental, a white Chrysler, we hadn’t even locked the doors.

For much of our trip, I’d compare the Mendocino County featured in Johnson’s novel with the one Jill and I were traveling through, like someone holding up a landscape painting before its subject to check the likeness. Already Dead is a most unorthodox and inspiring travel guide. Johnson’s long, impressionistic descriptions of the north coast capture something essential about that spectacular and mysterious landscape, to say nothing of the eccentrics who reside there.

The Mendocino County of the early nineties in Already Dead is “where the Haight-Ashbury dialect flourishes unevolved” and “VW vans from the sixties survived […] inexplicably, like frail kites in an attic.” Many of the people who inhabit the hills of the small coastal communities like Point Arena and Anchor Bay, where much of the novel’s action is set, are themselves vestiges of the sixties, old Deadheads and “beatnik survivors and carnival types, people with self-created histories and fictitious names, tainted and used-up people.”

For Johnson, Mendocino County is where hippies of the Nixonian era come to die. It’s the precise locale of the decades-long summer of love hangover. Johnson’s central characters, however, are in their early thirties. They are either native to the north coast, having arrived there in pursuit of some “westward, golden dream,” or are there expressly to disappear. Thomas Pynchon focused on those so-called “beatnik survivors” in his novel Vineland. Some say the eponymous fictional town is a stand-in for Boonville.

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Both Already Dead and Vineland play on the notion that the north coast of the 80s and 90s4 is a bastion of counterculture lifestyle choices, some more felonious than others. But while Pynchon’s north coast lives under the watchful eye of the federal government and its agents, Johnson’s keeps with the myths of the lawless old west: the pot growers in Already Dead are more affected by forest fires than CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting); the local policing unit is depicted as incompetent at best, lacking in resources and motivation; and the novel includes five murders, not one of which is ever properly investigated. The one symbol of federal presence is the US Air Force radar station in Point Arena, next to a Tibetan temple with a matching twin-domed design. The only character concerned about the radar station’s activities is a bona fide hermit.

Already Dead is a kind of horror story, hence the subtitle, with a few nods to the gothic genre throughout. One character’s nickname is Frankenstein (he’s almost seven feet tall) while another bears the Hawthornian name of Fairchild. The wedding at the end of the novel occurs on Halloween. Yvonne practices wycca, which at some point sways even the most cynical of Johnson’s characters. In a semi-circle with her followers, Yvonne channels the spirit of a man with the perfectly ordinary name of Randall MacNamarra, who has the gift of prescience. She also feeds Officer John Navarro a trout pâté laced with a natural hallucinogen called Bufotenine.5 Psychedelic foreplay ensues.

And then there’s the spectacular, mysterious setting, with its obscuring fog, gloomy bluffs and massive, ancient trees. Johnson’s descriptions evoke the sublime, in the Romantic sense of the word. His main characters are Romantic figures, tormented and lonely souls, would-be Nietzscheans. The landscape they inhabit is not without its destructive potential—underneath lies the San Andreas fault, for one thing—and the same could be said for Johnson’s characters. As I wandered the bluffs of Mendocino one evening while Jill took a nap in our room at the Didjeridoo Dreamtime Inn, I couldn’t help but think of them. Mendocino, in addition to being known as a once-popular outpost for hippies and artists, is also famous among fans of the television series Murder She Wrote; though the show is set in Maine, the exteriors and several episodes were shot in Mendocino.

Earlier that morning, before Jill and I set out to see the redwoods, those “monster trees,” along the Avenue of Giants in Humboldt State Park, I heard one of the B&B guests, a seasoned California traveler, bemoan the expensive, chichi shops on Mendocino’s main strip. Maybe the town seemed a bit tame. The large group of senior citizens staying at the main hotel surely added to this impression. But at dusk, out there on the bluffs, the place wasn’t tame at all—not to me at least. I wasn’t alone either. Wandering the footpaths tracing the edges of the bluffs, beyond which lay a twenty foot drop to the craggy shallows below, were others. Johnson likens them to ghosts, these “solitary, unburdened travelers” peopling the north coast.

Walking back through town, I passed a green-and-red Chinese Taoist temple, which I discovered dates back to 1854 (older than another town landmark, the Presbyterian Church). I passed a number of seemingly “rootless dwellings,” dilapidated shacks with boarded-up windows and tireless cars on cinder blocks out on their unkempt lawns, perhaps “some Deadhead’s last burrow.” Later, Jill and I had dinner at a bar called Patterson’s. Just before two young folk musicians took the stage, an old hippie freak walked in with his entourage. His tie-dyed T-shirt barely covered a pot belly of epic proportions, and his thick ratty dreadlocks reached all the way to the floor of Patterson’s, which that night was covered in peanut shells. He had a burnt-out air to him.

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One of the more poignant metaphors in Already Dead concerns the Lost Coast, an isolated section of coastline disconnected from major highways. After I asked how to get there, one local said, “They don’t call it the Lost Coast for nothing.” For Johnson, the Lost Coast represents a place of no return: to venture there, to even desire to venture there, is a kind of death wish. Though his novel is borne along by an elaborate, impressively-spun plot involving five murder schemes motivated by—what else?—greed, Johnson is largely interested in the interiority of his characters, all of whom have lost direction. Choosing to live in the north coast is a resignation to that reality. To seek out a place even more remote and deserted is a sign of hopelessness.

Back at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, Jill and I were finishing our beers. Beside us lay a section of the Anderson Valley Examiner. On its front page was an article memorializing two Mendocino men murdered one year ago after crossing paths with a man who’d been squatting on private timber land, living in a makeshift bunker and growing opium. The murderer was eventually captured after a thirty-six day manhunt through the backwoods of the county.

It was time to move on. We planned to spend the night in wine country and hadn’t yet secured a room. The following day we were due back in San Francisco to return the rental. Jill didn’t take to my half-hearted suggestion to turn north again in search of the Lost Coast, and I guess I couldn’t blame her. I was reaching for any reason to remain where we were, even if it might cost us our souls. As soon as we got back into our white Chrysler and headed south out of Boonville, the north coast was already feeling like a distant memory.

 

 

 


1 The name of the B&B, remarkably, was the Didjeridoo Dreamtime Inn.

2 I’ve called them hippies, just to be clear, because I overheard the young woman introduce herself as Jamaica, and because her boyfriend wore loose-fitting pants and a beaded necklace.

3 We saw posters for the festival while walking along the main strip.

4 Reagan is an ominous presence in Pynchon’s novel and, to a far lesser extent, so is George H.W. Bush in Johnson’s.

5 Sweat from a frog.

 

Photos by Rob Sternberg.

About the author

Rob Sternberg

Rob Sternberg is a writer and college teacher. He lives in Toronto.

By Rob Sternberg