Highway 101 leaves San Francisco across the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge and heads north. Not too many years ago, the 'highway' ended at about Petaluma, the 'Chicken Captital of the Universe.' It's not that way now. Petaluma is currently a sprawling mini-metro community filled with mile after mile of cheap looking crowded half-million dollar suburban houses with no yards and granite kitchen counters. The only chickens left are those who try to cross against the light or realize that 'Cinco de Mayo' is a thug event, not a family values celebration.
Between Petaluma and the next big town, Santa Rosa, dairy farms still exist, but are quickly fading to more new homes and future backyards suffering from methane leaks of a buried century of cow dung. Our destination is around the next major stop- Cloverdale. To get there, the highway rushes past Healdsburg. What a difference the landscape takes after Petaluma disapears behind us. A hundred years of apples, plums, apricots, and cherry orchards have given way to industrialized viniculture. For endless miles, neat rows of vines creep across the valley floor and up into the hills.
It looks like Tuscany on steroids- complete with hilltop castles and mock villages built by the new rich to simulate culture and antique patina. From a distance, it looks quite believable. If you labor there or are left behind from earlier simpler times its not picturesque. It's frightening and unattainable.
Never is that more true than in the little valley of Dry Creek, through whose magnificant scenery you can take the back road to Cloverdale and visit some of the worlds most delicious boutique wineries. It is also the way to Lake Sonoma and the beer/boat fun of the young and watching-the-young. It is also the termination for summer Harley runs, which sometimes number in the hundreds.
The scenic beauty of Dry Creek Valley is ancient and was treasured by indian tribes, who from the dawn of its history, fished from it's Russian River tributary and hunted the verdant woods rising above the valley floor. Everyone who visits the place experiences a 'Shangrala' and no one wants to spoil it, but tourist and vine commercial traffic are testing its sustainability. Crooked county zoning commissioners continue to chip away at old protections to enable villas of urban summer people to dominate the views atop liquefaction bluffs.
For five years, we had the joy of living there. We lived not in one of the new Tuscan villas, but in a small out building left over from the days when the Yokum family prospered from farming at the turn of the last century. We occupied what was the original tiny clapboard homestead, settled along side a small stream that had carved out an arroyo tangent to the main valley. It was reached by a narrow dead end country lane a mile long and an eon away from the fashionable world of Dry Creek.
In 1903, The Yokums built a lavish new house down the other end of the road. Its spacious rooms, hallways bigger than most rooms, high ceilings and exotic paneled gum-wood walls were elegant and in the mode of the fashionable craftsman style flourishing then among prosperous California families. It also had the unique feature of a garconiere, a relic of ancient southern roots to house young men of age and keep them from the feminine world of sisters and aunts who commanded space in the big house.
The kitchen was enormous, built to feed an army of farm workers. It opened out to several acres of vegetable gardens and formal designs of magnolia, lilac, heritage roses, peonies, bay, laural, Gravenstine apples, peach and cherry trees. Cement Baroque fish ponds were well stocked, and life in and around was bustling with a self-sustained abundance of another age. The old house can still be seen today at the second stop along Dry Creek Road at Yokum Bridge. Behind high walls, it is undergoing restoration, and will once again be in glory for some lucky new inhabitants. From its haunted turret room, they will be able to look out over the verdant hills and fields around them much as did the Yokums well over a century ago.
After the family moved to the big house, the little three room homestead became a worker's barracks. Then, in the 70's, it was extended and turned into a cottage again. Years later, it had aged gracefully, covered in a thicket of old world roses like a Sleeping Beauty's castle. It remained isolated and somewhat cut off from the developmental changes out in the valley. As the valley transformed from orchards to boutique vineries, and farm houses were torn down for palladian villas and faux haciendas the little cottage remained.
The land around the arroyo was unsuited for planting, and an 80 acre section at the end of the road higher up in a protected meadow was held onto by a family as old as the Yokums. They wouldn't sell– no matter what. On the property, they kept a dilapidated barn and a toothless mean old horse.
Everyday around 11:00 in the morning, Old Jake would drive by in his antique Ford, park at the end of the road, open his heavy wooden gate and disappear into the hills to hand feed his old nag. Jake was the youngest of four farm boys and he was 60 then. The two oldest had died in Korea, and the two youngest lived at home unmarried taking care of their invalid mother.
For the first few years Old Jake never said a word as he drove buy. He just nodded and went on his business. We were probably like all new newcomers, even the fancy ones, who came and went as fantasies of rural life faded and became impossible. We were different though. Outside the cottage a former tenant had built a large chicken coop out of rusted corrugated tin sheets and a dozen glass-paned wooden windows of various sizes and shapes. We fixed it up and painted it with a multitude of colors found in leftover cans stored in the barn. We also glued shiny broken tiles on its new found glory and dubbed it The Coupe DeVille. Then came the chickens.
Jake liked the chickens, and we had one of virtually species and variety. But, that's another story. Because of the chickens, Jake began to stop and said a 'howdy' with his nod. By the end of that year he was telling stories the like of which have virtually vanished in our modern culture. Jake was something out of 'Grapes of Wrath', a simple giant of a man more comfortable with animals, hunting, fishing and farming than limousine tours and $200.00 lunches at gourmet wineries. He seemed a product of the 20's or 30's, of a seemingly simpler and more grounded culture than our own.
Through Jake's eyes we saw a world wonderful, even exciting, held by all in that place, before it became status property. We learned to see there: baby koho salmon in the stream beneath our porch, or the swarming tiger salamandars. An occasional egret, or even rarer, a blue heron, would discover the treasures of the stream. Quail families and wild turkeys by the dozens lived all around us, as did a family of deer. Even a grey fox and owls hunted the night. It was magical at times, particularly at night when we could actually see comets and the clarity of the Milky Way.
But times were getting tough. Our resources grew thin and we needed to become more inventive at survival. That's when Jake suggested we open a fruit stand like he did when a boy. So we did– at the beginning of the dirt road near the high walls of the big house, but hidden from the cottage. We opened a stand to entice summer folks roaring down Dry Creek for fun and mayhem somewhere ahead. They had to stop. It was a stop sign (only the second) on the long road that eventually ended miles further up in Mendecino County and the river-rat town of Guerneville.
There were distinct types of customers: the locals; the party Sonoma Lakers, which included an odd mix of bad boys, bad girls and families; the winos; proud new aristocrats and tourists. Our commerce table, shaded by an umbrella, contained potted bonsai, homemade jams, eggs and cherries for sale. Folks called it the Cherry Stand.
The locals never bought anything. They stopped just to tell stories, share old family recipes, and complain about wine tourists. It was a great way to meet the folks who had been there for a few generations, or those so genuinely in love with the land and dedicated to its traditions. Particularly kind were some who were connected with a winery founded by the actor Raymon Burr a bit off in the distance. On several bad days when the old '64' Mustang broke down, Mr. Burr's lifelong partner would give us lifts into town. He was a great man. We didn't talk about grapes as much as hospice work, at which we had both spent some years . In this manner, we met some of the most interesting and wonderful people to grace our experience.
And the local animal folks were enlightened in the manner that old farm families were wise. Animals were treasured both as pets and as valued members of livelihood. Goats for the making of chevre and sheep for spinning wool were not uncommon.
From one good woman we learned the term 'fur persons' as she leaned out of a big truck loaded with rambunctious dogs. Even our dog HarryHound became 'Country.' We always knew when he barked at Jake's fence, that the old horse had come down to safety because a mountain cat was hunting the meadow. Harry was a puppy then, and was afraid to come out at night because the barn owls made him paranoid.
The wino's were fun and generous. On their way to various famous wineries, they felt no pain and were out for a good time. Once, a big 'stretch' pulled up and a woman that looked and sounded like Rosie O'Donald popped up through the limo moon-roof with a champagne glass in hand and said "Honey, I'm home." They bought everything in sight.
The lake crowd , except for families, were rough and tumble. One day, a big Dodge truck hauling a horse trailer pulled up and out jumped two very curvey young women who went on to explain that they had just ridden naked throughtout the lake park. They were famished, and wanted cherries. They lingered awhile, but unknown to their youthful enthusasism, they were barking up the wrong tree. "No dog in that fight" as they say.
Not so much fun were the Healdsburg and Valley new gentry. Most notable among our encounters with this group, was the day a black Mercedes SUV with tinted windows pulled up a short distance from the cherry stand and just sat there. After a while, I went over to see if anything was wrong.
The window silently swished down and a beautiful young mother with perfectly blond, expensive hair commanded the order of two baskets of cherries and could we bring her a selection of the jams from which to choose– she was having guests that weekend. So we fulfilled her requests for Her seated curb-service majesty, and I jokingly said that'll be an extra five for window service. She paid it and drove off.
Most telling of the changes in the valley were the 'newbies', of which we were the low end, but redeemed by knowing folks like Jake. The high end too often consisted of people like our closest neighbors, who typical of their kind, had traded highly successful urban careers to assume a gentlemen farmer's paradise. These were the folks who thought they could buy several generations of genuine experience on the land for a few million dollars and hire Mexicans to do the reality of it. These were the sort old Jake saw come and go with a snort and chuckle.
Our neighbors, to their credit, did have some sense and are still there to this day operating a fancy winery called Yokum Bridge. They kept part of the old orchard before turning under all the fruit trees for vines. And they kept the old farm house. To their discredit though, they were snotty, entitled, and bad neighbors. When they erected a huge gold gilded, black, iron gate (resembling an entrance to Versailles), we lost all respect for them– not that it mattered. They were even rude to old Jake, whom they thought an addle-patted old farmer, but whose landed family, unknown to them, could have bought and sold them several times over.
The last thought to share with you about opening a cherry stand is the value of so much time spent staring at the ground for hours– a patience in waiting that, like meditaion, opens up the universe in a microcosm. And, it's free.