Slideshow: California Improved
Lobo woke about noon, or maybe a bit later, feeling as if he had spent the night inhaling poisonous gases. He checked his tobacco pouch. Nearly empty, just a dry pinch or two left to roll. He realized at some point he had vomited, but he couldn't see it, so he didn't worry about it. Maybe it was outside or in the toilet. He wasn't that drunk the night before — it was more the long day that had preceded it. It had been promising for a while. Things had gone well, but he'd ended up back on his cheap rack: Bleary, dazed and exhausted after sleeping half the day. He had no money, few prospects — nothing to get excited about, other than having finally come to a place where he could save the world. His first thought was to write a poem about it.
His next thought was to keep his head down. He was beginning to feel conspicuous and vulnerable. His room wasn't much: Just a sagging dresser with a flimsy bed and a used mattress. Some chairs he had dragged in off the street. A dilapidated government issue desk of particle board and chipped veneer and a few books and periodicals. He had a window, one door opening to the common kitchen, shared with three other tenants, and another door to the bathroom, shared with one. The carpet was worn and had felt damp since the day he moved in.
He felt trapped in a world which violated many of his values, although, strangely, he lived in it because of a dispute with the values of his home town. To be frank, he wasn't at all clear on what his values consisted of. He suddenly felt conservative and old-fashioned, but he had felt stifled among the farmers.
His most visible and persistent problem, Harry Dupree, was about mid-sized, with a barrel shape, bowlegs, a pronounced limp and prominent, hairy forearms. Lobo recognized things about him that were familiar. He was agricultural in nature. There was something of the corn about him. But different. He walked around the apartment complex directing repairs, issuing commands, posting overdue notices and talking, sometimes at great length. When he got excited about a subject, his face reddened and his posture tilted forward. Inevitably, he steered things toward a punch line based on, for instance, a flock of sheep and a traveling salesman. He saved his best lines for all-male audiences, out of a sense of propriety. Around the women, he deferred in a gracious but servile way to those of better upbringing than himself, compensating by being cold with those he deemed beneath him.
Alice Dupree was a good deal haughtier. She knew anybody with a decent family would never let their young female student live in such a place. A good girl stood a good chance of going bad, and bad ones went rotten. It was best not to get her started on the subject of men: They disgusted and appalled her. She was cool and dismissive to everyone, running the front office tarted up in snug suit dresses and lipstick. She was a big woman but with a good, solid shape, motherly without the temperance of affection and professional without the gloss of civility. She demanded attention with smoldering blue eyes and a power of observation that kept people checking their flies and adjusting jewelry. She scared people, but they couldn't look away.
With his new, Buddhist view of things, Lobo's only regret was that he had not yet been arrested. He was sure he would be the day before, at the demonstration. Tension had built during the non-violence workshop, with its dark feeling of potential calamity, and at the vegan lentil dinner, with the lovely camaraderie among the Purple Irises and the forest defense tribe, but nothing actually happened at the actual demonstration.
They stood around in the road, but no news cameras were there. One TV station had arrived early in the day, but departed abruptly after the company security boss stopped by to visit with them. After that, it was just a bunch of activists, with signs and funny hats, standing on the county road, milling around and arguing over who was behind it. They looked for conspiracies against them, intrigues, betrayal. Some eyed Lobo narrowly. It was boring but not entirely without suspense. There was the sense that a secret was about to be revealed. Perhaps a vision.
Their adrenaline ran when they saw the security truck driving in their direction, but it cooled when he drove away without even coming over to warn them. There wasn't a sheriff's deputy in sight, to say nothing of the CHP officers and forest rangers who had obligingly dragged them off in chains before, so many they had once had to use buses. But not this time. This time their demonstration was simply ignored, and, since they had chosen a place rarely used, and of no importance to the mill's operation, the company simply posted a single guard who stood around spitting for a while before getting back into his white F-250 and driving away. What they wanted to be arrested for was crossing the line. That was the whole thing: The Wings of Hope Memorial Line Crossing, commemorating the untimely death of their late hero, Birdie Meadows, a year earlier, soon after her last demonstration, a resounding success which confirmed her legend.
Birdie had been quite a hand at getting together an unruly crowd and inciting them to do something colorful and provocative in the name of ancient forests. Her fame had reached even to the small town in central Illinois where Lobo, as a Kwik Mart employee named Michael, could read of her brave exploits in the USA Today. That was where he had first learned of forest names, reading about Birdie and her massive demonstrations, with quotes from people named Owlet and Jumping Spider. It all seemed so much more interesting and important than selling beer to farmers. There was nobody else with Birdie's genius for publicity and deft touch with civil disorder, getting everyone's name in the papers. Without her to run it, however, the memorial line crossing was kind of a dud.
Lobo had spent the previous night at the basecamp in a tent with Brown Creeper, a girl named after the small birds which ran up and down the fissures in redwood bark, etching a path in search of spiders and insects. The birds had shining eyes, like waterdroplets among the shaded leaves. She pointed some out to him in the morning after the vegan oatmeal, which he found a little chewy. The spirit of conspiratorial community, however, appealed greatly to him, as it did Brown Creeper. They both felt dedicated to honorable goals, cleansed and energized. She gripped his hand tightly as they walked under the giant timber in the county park along the Van Duzen.
He was excited by her winsome eyes, so large in her small face, and the way she had brazenly and eagerly invited him back to her tent the night before. At first he had been alarmed by her behavior, but by morning he was in favor of it. He hoped to get her phone number or find out where she lived so he could pack his duffel bag and move in with her. But no, she had another way of looking at things, even more Buddhist than his own.
"If I told you where I live, it would just create attachment, and lead to suffering," she had said, staring into his eyes with the burbling purls of a soft, undercut riverbank behind her. She looked good in boots and fatigues, with her playful headdress of crocheted yarn capping the dreads, red as a ripe mango. He had been surprised to discover how soft her dreads actually were.
"Anyway, the whole world is my home, not any one part of it ... I don't want to live by someone else's dichotomy. I just want to Be. It's not rejection of you, it's acceptance of something bigger than me. I think I might be on the path to enlightenment or something."
It was hard to accept. His 15-minute meditation, seated on a gigantic log, seemed to help, but he wondered whether, in the long run, he was actually cut out to be a Buddhist. He wondered if he would still be able to save the world as a Methodist, if he gave up and went home. He doubted it. That was a world-view he had left behind with the plaid slacks and white patent-leather shoes he'd given to his brother on the way out of town. Not rejection, acceptance. Lobo wondered what he would eventually be able, or required, to accept.
The line crossing had felt, briefly, like a crisis when Sonia Lee turned up missing. They were just at the point of counting heads to carpool home when her boyfriend alerted the Purple Irises to her absence. They quickly raised an alert and spread out along the half-mile of fence fronting the log deck. Lobo began to feel that something dramatic was about to happen. The mood was suddenly dark as it had been at base camp, during the non-violence workshop. It was an Us vs. Them situation, a clear case of right and wrong, something to become indignant about. He hadn't been sure he could remain passive while being pawed and pummeled by cops. He saw himself, enraged, making a glorious charge at the wall of shields and helmets. If possible, he would give his life to save the ancient forest.
For about 15 minutes there was frantic movement up and down the straight, narrow stretch of road, people taking up posts to watch eagerly for any sign of trouble or confrontation.
Meanwhile a pair of ravens hopped and croaked on the log deck. Lobo watched them for a while and saw that they were playing with a mouse. Picking it up and tossing it a few yards, then flying to surround it again and tease it. Ravens, also, were a new phenomenon to him. He knew instinctively they were more important than crows, even the vast flocks he had encountered in the farm country. He was on the edge of the earth, the coast, and the birds were wise beyond understanding. He saw them as messengers of the ancient forest, that limitless grove of the imagination, located somewhere just out of sight.
Emergency plans were made, people speculated earnestly about what might have happened. She had been taken by security, was the most common supposition, for straying too near the fence. Had anyone seen anything? Nothing.
Huckleberry thought she might have seen something: A strange blue pickup had come part way around the corner to the west and turned around in the road. She thought maybe she saw somebody in it yell at them and make a gesture, but she wasn't sure. She thought they might have taken Sonia Lee; she couldn't have just disappeared. She wasn't sure but she wouldn't have been surprised if that was it.
Lobo was slightly disappointed when Sonia Lee was finally spotted, ambling toward them between two deep mountains of logs, big ones on the left and little ones on the right. She was on a small road which led to a gate at the eastern corner of the fenceline. It had been the object of that day's exercise: Volunteers were going to cross the gate, climbing over the heavy steel framework of welded pipes backed by musical support from the rear, with chanting, organized movement and water bottles. They expected to be met with resistance, to which they would submit peacefully, according to the tried-and-true tactics of civil disobedience. It had always worked before, resulting in headlines and a euphoria that could last for days, a feeling that something big and historic had been done.
Sonia Lee sauntered forward, taking her time. It must have been 200 yards from the gate to where she first appeared, and it might have been five minutes before she reached the gate. She was met by the full remaining contingent of 30 activists, in a knot, not quite daring to touch the line, as she finally reached them. She seemed deeply relaxed. Maybe stoned even, despite the official prohibition on drugs among the activists.
"That was great," she said, "I walked in there and met these two guys working with some kind of a saw. It made boards one at a time. I thought mills were much bigger." She talked for a while about how friendly the lumbermen were, and how she had discovered a casual, life-affirming activity where she had been led to believe dangerous, destructive tasks were being performed by extraordinarily large and aggressive men. She remarked that one looked like her uncle and the other reminded her of her brother, the pharmacist.
More knowledgeable activists, after conferring privately, informed her that she had seen a portable mill, nothing like the monstrous facility they knew lay deep inside the company land.
Lobo came home alone, frustrated that so little had happened. He had been prepared for the showdown, the grand act of defiance. He ended up visiting some of the other tenants, who were smoking weed and collecting change for 40 ouncers.
The office had already called and there was no rent. He could see Fat Jack, in fact, right now headed his way with a sheet of paper rustling in his hand. But he was on the second floor and Fat Jack couldn't make it up the stairs, so his business was elsewhere.
He had plenty of typing paper so he was OK. He rubbed a little salt out of his eyes, inserted a sheet in his vintage Royal portable, and turned to the window. Coffee. Cigarettes. Nuggets. There were so many things he needed. But a poem, expressing his emotional state and his awakening sense of duty to the planet, was what he wanted. He stared out the window into midday light, idly watching some of the girls from the complex walk in and out of the laundry room located in the middle of the enclosure formed by eight two-story buildings.
The girls were handsome, casually attired in sweatpants and loose T-shirts, with their hair undone. If he possessed a nugget he would have invited one or two of them in to smoke it with him. But as it was he gazed as they passed to and fro, thinking as deeply as he could, but feeling somehow that whatever he might write would be insufficient against the majesty of the ancient forest. How could he do it justice? It was out there somewhere, needing to be saved.
He watched the maintenance man plucking dead flowers from a brilliant euryopis at the bottom of the stairs. Above him, between buildings, hung the gigantic red-lettered "For Rent" pennant visible from the freeway. That was how he had found the place, arriving in his beat-up Escort wagon after a little over 60 hours' nearly continuous driving across plains and mountains. The red letters appeared to him as biblical indicators of where to go in search of housing. He felt like a swooning pilgrim as he stood in the office, counting out his deposit and first month's rent, signing documents in which he pretended to promise to stay for one year, paying rent the first of each month, by the fifth at the latest, and management pretended to promise to provide him with a clean, furnished apartment.
His first sobering discovery had been the lack of work to be found in Arcata. The available jobs were hard to get and not worth having. So he was two weeks behind on the second month's rent, and he got a daily call from Mrs. Dupree, reminding him of the fact and making dark hints about finding his skinny ass out on the street. So he was thinking perhaps he would pack what he could in his duffel and light out for the hills. Maybe that was what he had come for. Sell the Escort, buy sacks of rice and tea, and set out on foot in search of the ancient forest. He had never been much of a camper but he'd enjoyed himself at basecamp. He could escape the Duprees and their leaky faucets. He would write a poem about that. But he needed some weed for inspiration. The first thing was to sell the car, get as much as he could for it, and finish his journey, find out where it led. That was the Buddhist thing to do, whereas the Methodist would have been to stay there, get some job cleaning greasetraps, and not buy weed.
He saw Harry Dupree coming his way, holding a sheet of paper which fluttered in his hand. Harry was moving briskly, directly toward the stairs. This could only mean one thing. Lobo dove under the bed.
In a few seconds, Harry was knocking at the door. Then he was talking. "Michael? You in there. We never seen you leave this mornin. You in there? Whenever you moved in you signed a lease, so you can't just hide in there. We'll come in after you if you don't come out on your own. You'll lose your deposit, Michael."
Screw the deposit, thought Lobo. He felt a strange sense of conviction and peace, knowing how easy it would be to sneak out, sell the car and then, some early morning very soon, hike out over the ridges toward the ancient forest. He would get a survival book and live off wild plants. He would grow a beard and become an expert on things. Wise, like a raven.
It wasn't long before Harry was gimping it down the stairs and making way for the laundry room. He stepped inside to watch the girls folding their clothes and then stepped into the room with the big-screen TV and couches, where people without cable sat and argued over which game shows to watch.
He drew up a For Sale sign for the Escort, then had to figure out how to get down the stairs without Harry seeing him and getting him in a corner about the rent. That meant he would need to go through the kitchen into one of the adjoining studios, then out onto the balcony, where he could hop down behind an overgrown rosebush and follow a narrow path against the wall and around the corner toward the parking lot.
He didn't have to worry about the maintenance guys, but Fat Jack and The Sea Lion were to be avoided. They were both too fat to do any work, so their duties were restricted to shaking people down when they got behind on the rent. Out of the 200 rooms, of which 175 were occupied at the time, at least 50 people were behind on rent at any given time, in addition to those who had skipped out on leases and had no intention of coming back to square up accounts. The debt-collection team weren't exactly intimidating figures, but they thought they were, cornering 100-pound English students beside the vending machines and pretending to be tough guys as they threatened eviction and dispossession.
Many of the tenants were young, naive and had little to lose in the way of material things, and often had just arrived at unique philosophical positions encouraging the denunciation of worldly goods, so many of the classic dunning threats meant nothing to them. Fat Jack and the Sea Lion, approaching 700 pounds of combined inertia, could block most anyone's escape for a short while, but neither could move well, so the students had an advantage over the long term.
Eventually everybody paid something, enough to keep the whole operation moving forward, though the maintenance budget was, apparently, a sort of afterthought. Things got around to being fixed, at least in a casual and temporary way, but sinister gurgles from the plumbing hinted at and sometimes provided inconvenient disasters. It was not unusual for a wall or a ceiling to become damp, then swell and finally collapse, revealing leaky pipes in the walls. They managed to patch up what actually fell apart but some of the more obsessive tenants had dark, possibly paranoid fears, which they generously shared. The overall mood at the Coventry swayed between that of a hemp marathon and an asylum break, but it was home.
The Duprees lived on premises, rent-free in the manager's residence, a single-family unit with four rooms, next to the laundry, TV and mail room, at the core of the complex, where they could see everything going on around them and make some attempt to monitor it.
They were apparently paid well, for they drove a sporty BMW and were buying a small sailboat moored at the Eureka marina. Gossips believed they had at least a $300-a-week weed budget. In short, they were living the dream shared by half their tenants who, like Lobo, had come to Arcata from elsewhere, lured by the legends of free weed, streets paved in weed, cops smoking weed, weed pancakes. They had come on buses or in beat-up cars, washed ashore, as it were, with maybe enough for a deposit on a room, a cheap place where they could start their new life oriented around abundant supplies of weed.
To a casual visitor, the Coventry Lodge appeared to be something between a college dorm, a mental clinic and a drug experiment. Illicit scents wafted through the breezeways and clouds of blue smoke tumbled off the balconies. Raving lunatics stood in their bathrobes in front of the laundry, asking of people important but inscrutable things. How to reorganize the police state along humanitarian lines, or find a new form of freedom, one without restrictions and laws, or why Snoopy comics were a sign of the coming apocalypse.
As demographic statistics suggest, a number of tenants were hardworking or comfortably supported, paying rent on time, keeping their rooms neat and standing around in the courtyard at all hours in snug-fitting jeans or loose hippie skirts. At times they combined both looks: Skirt over jeans, in a way that managed to appear sexy and alternative without exposing any skin. It was an atmosphere of inspiration and homework integrated surprisingly well with a mood of apathy, emotional instability and cheap, starchy food.
In the maintenance workshop one could usually find one or two handymen, although sometimes all three of them were in a room or out behind the parking lot, smoking weed. At times they discovered garbage bags of stems in the dumpster, from which they were able to glean small stashes. But more often, a tenant would invite one or more of them into a shade-darkened room, where he or she would produce a bazooka bong and a little wooden casket crammed with nuggets.
Lobo got the Escort going, after a bit of cranking, and he drove it over the little hill into town. In the Safeway lot he parked and affixed his little hand-lettered sign to the window, then stepped over to the coffee shop to wait for something to happen. He could afford only a yerba mate, small, but it felt good to be drinking something hot. He hoped to get $500 for the Escort, but he wondered if that would be fair. What would Buddha do? Sit under the cherry tree and wait for something to happen.
There was a conversation going on among a group of patchouli-stinking, bearded young men in corduroys and ratty sweaters. Some of them wore caps, some had long braids and one, the apparent leader, wore dreadlocks sprouted from a receding hairline which made him look crossbred and a little demented. Their topic was how to be a good Christian and still work for forest defense. Lobo could remember some of them from the aborted demonstration of the day before, but the others were really just random hippies, and not of the best sort at that. They were hollow-eyed, scrawny, phlegmatic and given to coughing over their hand-rolled cigarettes. They argued scripture and tabloid science with the rhetorical finesse of someone ordering a Big Mac.
"Dude, I think the Lord has big plans for us. We're greater vessels. I think we are definitely chosen for something, some big event that we're going to be the cause of."
For an instant Lobo felt like he shouldn't be involved with such people. They were not like him. But they talked about values and what Jesus would like them to do and so on, especially the half-bald one, whose sweater was holed through in several places and whose shoes showed signs of wear.
"Brother, is that your car out there for sale?" The balding one pointed a bony finger toward the Escort, then at Lobo. "Do you want to serve the Lord and help save the ancient forest?"
Those were his intentions, except that he was now a Buddhist. He wondered if the Devil had anything to do with it. Yet he was willing to take the risk. He could see a plan hatching, and a half-dozen bearded faces turned toward him in expectation.
"We need to get into the ancient forest tonight. We're going to set up a sit and we were trying to do logistics. So we need a ride, dude, and we were just praying for one when you showed up. We could tell you were a brother."
Lobo touched his head as if to neaten the hairdo: Something must be wrong if they saw him as a brother. Then he remembered. The demonstration, camping out, a long night afterward drinking cheap beer and smoking bowls. He probably looked more like them than he realized.
"That's why I'm here. That's what I'm about. Where do you need to get to?"
After an hour smoking weed and another hour packing, they had burdened the Escort with tarps, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and hippies. Two in the front seat, three in the back. The car made it out of town just fine, and only hit bottom once or twice as they curved along a small road through broken forest and subdivisions. Old ranch houses and barns among newer homes. Then it became woodsy and the road turned uphill. Steep, in-and-out curves, sometimes in deep woods, sometimes in open places full of stumps, sometimes quickly through small meadows. The Escort groaned and struggled with the hill, which went on and on. Every horizon was revealed as but a step toward something greater, and they rose until at last they were in a wide meadow and could see for miles up and down the coast. It was just about dark by then. The lights of the towns were distant and romantic. But they did not stop.
The balding hippie turned out to be named Branch, and what he wanted was to get the car over the hill and down the other side, then a few miles up the road. He explained how the Lord had brought them together, and given specific instructions to sit in some trees back in Yager Creek. In this way, they could prevent a planned logging operation and save one small part of the ancient forest.
Lobo wondered if he would end up being arrested. He privately felt a vast uncertainty. Now they were leaving all lights and humanity behind, going down the back side, as steep as the climb had been. The Escort's brakes squeaked and chattered, the shock absorbers clunked stiffly and the lights aimed up into the sky at a weird angle. Great tree trunks swung up to them and passed into shadow, deer and raccoons stood and watched them go or ran awkwardly before them on the increasingly unpaved road. As the car neared, the animals swerved suddenly over the bank and were gone, back into the dark where literally anything might happen.
Lobo began to feel as if he really were in the ancient forest at last, a place farther from his native cornfields and neat little towns than even a buzzed frontier village like Arcata. Out where things were unmeasured and still raw. It thrilled but frightened him, and he could feel it all swirling around. The hippies in the back seat lit a joint and passed it around. Soon the car rolled with exhaled smoke, and they commented on how sweet and dank it was. It only made him feel yet farther from anything familiar. The lights illuminated a forest that leaned in over the road and threatened to cover it entirely. Plainly, this was not the kind of trip one returned from unchanged.
The Escort had changed in many ways. It rattled harder, the engine gasped a little less competently, the brakes felt soft and the bald tires had no real bond with the gravelly surface. They slid forward, spun around corners, were swallowed and forgotten by the forest and the night. They passed the joint until it was small and then smoked another. Lobo began to feel the ride would last forever.
Then suddenly Branch tapped his shoulder and whispered, "Here."
He skidded to the side of the road. Another, smaller road led at a right angle into the woods.
The hippies had little flashlights, including a clever type they wore on their heads, like coal miners. They struggled into packs and clanked with equipment, all amazingly swift and practiced. In a few moments they were assembled, standing around chuffing like horses before a ride.
"Thanks, bro. For the ancient forest." Branch gave him a little wave and the others nodded. Then they shifted in their packs and headed up the road. In less than a minute, they were out of sight. Soon after, he heard the last clank of equipment and there was nothing to see or hear but the stars and the sighing of his car. He had assumed all along that he would be going with them into the ancient forest, to face possible arrest and accumulate glory. He leaned against the car, which seemed quite small and inadequate. His thoughts were dark. He felt abandoned, stunned.
When he tried to start the car nothing happened. The battery was stone dead. Not even the dashboard glimmered. He had no idea where he was, except he was in the one place he had dreamed of being. He couldn't see past the alley of sky above his head. The woods crowded close. He heard something odd, a rushing sound unlike anything he remembered. At length, he understood that it was silence. The silence of the ancient forest, at night, the sound of nothing.