SAN JUAN JON: THE LOST COAST'S SINKYONE WILDERNESS
We planted and tended an apple orchard in the central New Mexico mountains while I was growing up. It was on the far side of the Manzano Mountains, made famous recently as one of the recurring backdrops in the TV series “Breaking Bad”. Not famous by name but by their unmistakable profile, filmed so many times while Walter White and his former student make meth and have epic adventures in the mesa country west of those mountains and the Rio Grande river valley. The other side of the Manzano Mountains was remote in the 1960s and although less so, still is today. It’s main inhabitants, in towns such as Tajique and Torreon, are descendents of the hardy settlers granted land by Spain in what would become northern Mexico and then the United States.
After losing my first job out of college I had a choice, to continue living in the rental house or sell my new Landcruiser. I still have the Landcruiser…. We had inherited a well driller’s trailer at our orchard. It was a Dutchcraft manufactured in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and perfect for a single guy on the road. Welders fixed up the hitch on the Landcrusier and I headed out like a lunar lander to northern California and an apprenticeship with a renowned cabinetmaker. James Krenov was the pied piper of handmade cabinetry and fine furniture in the 1980s and his tune had caught my ear.
It was still some days until wood shavings would curl in earnest and most of the other students were not there yet when I landed in Fort Bragg, California one late August day, rolling the rig into the school’s parking lot. Things were quiet in the shop.
There was a bulletin board in the foyer library and on it was a flyer: “Student with trailer wanted to board at small local farm”. I had to read it twice, even three times as I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. Then I called the number and soon was talking to one of the nicest people I have ever met.
The farm was out on the high bluff above the Noyo River south of town. I parked behind the barn on the edge of a small clearing, plugged in my electric and water lines and Eureka! I was home! The spot was a relatively short mountain bike ride from the shop. It was a great ride going in (and a little harder coming out), swooping down a private trail onto the old Georgia Pacific haul road that led to the lumber mills in Fort Bragg.
Life in the shop was busy and intense. While making hand planes and studying ways to cut up exotic planks on gigantic bandsaws a nagging thought kept hitting the back of my mind. This was northern, northern California. Almost 200 miles north of San Francisco the coastal highway was a narrow strip of asphalt that turned inland not too far north of town. Beyond this turn was coastal wilderness nicknamed “The Lost Coast”. I had to go there.
The local coffee shop was animated by an old hippy with long flowing white beard and hair. His sparkling eyes were intensely black, much like the espresso beans from which he concocted his magic brew. He flew about that little shop, whistling under his breath in his tennis shoes and t-shirt making the most extreme lattes I have ever had. Newspapers and flyers of all sorts were to be found there. While he danced about, I began reading about local indigenous groups including the Sinkyone and the sacred ground now known by their name. Along vertical cliffs, small creeks had carved their way to the coast, and in these little enclaves, great redwoods grew, right at the shoreline and the legends said that in these groves the Sinkyone buried their dead.
The shop was open on Saturday’s and we were expected to be there working. It was a shorter day than the rest of the week and we often got off around 3. After several months of reading and buying up local maps I took off one Saturday afternoon with a buddy and we headed north. The turn onto the dirt track heading towards the wilderness was not marked except for spray-painted cryptic signs on the pavement. The narrow lane was just a gap in the trees easily missed while speeding by.
We drove up that track for some time overwhelmed by the cliff views of the Pacific ocean. Eventually we drove down onto Usal Beach, the largest and first of many coves and the last accessible by vehicle. We parked, put on our packs and headed out on the trail in the late afternoon light.
We hiked for hours. The trail took us high above the coast with its pounding waves, deep into woods and out into open areas where we climbed even more. Night fell, the moon came out, and still we hiked on. Around 2 in the morning we dropped to sea level through moist, fern covered hills into our first great stand of Redwoods. We strolled in awe through perhaps 10 trees towering silently into the moon-lit sky. The grove was buried deep in the canyon where fresh water poured into the ocean. Climbing again, we came out once more into scrub bushes along rounded ridges above the pounding surf. Exhausted with hiking and the wonder of the place we dropped our packs, and slept right there on the trail.
Thus, was my first encounter with the sublime Sinkyone wilderness of Northern California.
Many years later, at a reunion of woodworkers at the school, some of us journeyed again to Usal Beach where the trail begins into this wondrous place. We trod above great cliffs that day before pausing for our picnic. Drunk on friendship, primordial beauty and the bittersweet sorrow that comes in such fleeting moments we exclaimed about the state of the world. It was September 9th, 2001. We all flew back to our respective places in America the next day, holding dear in our hearts these friendships and the ringing beauty of that magnificent coast.
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