The Pygmy Forest

November 5, 2006

This afternoon I crossed the Hacienda Bridge over the Russian River for the first time (oddly, I’d kayaked under it months ago).  We stopped to collect tea/coffee in the picturesque town of Guerneville and then went on to the Sonoma coast.

Sonoma Coast The Sonoma coast

I’d driven up Route 1 from Thousand Oaks to San Francisco three years earlier and seen Big Sur.  The Sonoma coast is on a par, and is much less developed because it’s that much harder to reach.

We stopped in Gerstle Cove, Salt Point State Park.  There’s a peculiar local ordinance banning mushroom gathering on the seaward side of Route 1, so we stopped in the State Park on the landward side.  Shannon went mushroom-hunting whilst I went for a run up to the Pygmy Forest.  The Pygmy Forest sits on a beach from the Pleistocene era, which has been raised up by the violent faulting activity in Northern California.  The growth of these ancient trees has been stunted by the poor, acidic soil.

As I ran back down the trail into the ‘normal’ forest I could hear pinecones and acorns falling.  In American parks at this time of year it’s possible to be wonderfully alone with nature in a way that one can’t normally be in the UK.  Off to the left I heard a rustling in the leaves but ran on.  A huge buck deer trotted across the path in front me just thirty feet ahead and disappeared back into the forest.  I stopped to look at it, and it turned to look at me, just thirty yards away.  Then it turned to face me.  I wasn’t sure whether it was going to charge me, because I noticed a smaller deer deeper into the forest.  What was remarkable was that the simple act of turning to face me made the animal almost invisible against the trees.  I stood still for four or five minutes, as did the deer: I was keen to see which of us would blink first.

Spot the deerSpot the deer

After a minute or two of staring, my eyes began to see it as a kaleidoscope of green and brown just a few feet from my face.  It was a remarkable effect, and if this was how the Native Americans viewed the spirit world in their trances.

The deer looked away first, then back at me.  There was an element of trust, so I took the chance to take some photos.  It moved into a shaft of light, and suddenly became visible.  An acorn hit the ground to the left of me.  It was time to run on.

Dog Gone, Part II

November 4, 2006

We visited the pound again on Monday, looking for Skip.  The pressure was on because Zoe was due back with us that evening.  The same dogs were still   Buster Brown’s tennis ball was missing, and he looked at us mournfully.  He’d been in nearly two weeks.  I saw his ball in the sewage gutter some way off.  Shannon retrieved it, washed it and popped it back in his cage.  “It breaks my heart,” I said.  We hugged each other as we leave the facility.

I went out again for another reconnoitring run on Monday afternoon, calling his name and looking on the grass verges, checking further towards Santa Rosa, rather than Forestville.  I passed another fresh roadkill deer, and even a little finch.  The verges on River Road are near-vertical, because the road is built on a causeway above the Russian River flood plain.  I noticed that – despite the slope and the likely 55mph impact to the animals – their bodies were all within a few feet of the road.  The road itself has a reputation as a killer, and I passed a shrine to Luis C—-, a teen driver.

I told Shannon later that the distance of the animals’ bodies gave me hope in a way: I would have seen Skip if he’d been killed.

Zoe’s face was red when Shannon brought her back from school that evening, but she was composed as we ate dinner.  “She’s taking it really well,” I said.

“God, you weren’t in the car the first twenty minutes after I broke the news to her.  She was beside herself.”

After school the following afternoon we put up day-glo posters with photos of Skip on them.  “I miss him so much,” said Zoe.  “He’s like a little brother to me.”  Shannon and I look at each other and cringe.

“Hey, Zoe,” I said.  “You know how we’re going to get the FBI in on the search?”


“We’ll tell them that there’s a terrorist called Jack Russell on the loose and his codename’s Skip.”  She giggled, and I wondered how much more she’d suffer.

Three days later he’d been missing a week and we were all missing him.  We were lying in bed that evening I broached the tricky subject of What To Do If Skip Doesn’t Turn Up.  “I don’t know how long we give it,” I said.  “But Buster Brown’s sheet said he’s good with kids.”

“Yeah, he’s a cute dog,” said Shannon.  “I’d want another Jack Russell, though.”  Silence hung for a minute.  “You said you’d had dreams about him the last three nights.  Don’t you think that’s a good sign?”

“Yeah, they were really lucid dreams.  I don’t know what to make of them.”

Dog Gone, Part I

November 2, 2006

Skip the Jack Russell disappeared on the night of Thursday the nineteenth.  He had disappeared before, but usually it had been when Shannon was travelling and the person responsible had not fed and watered him properly.  “He’s smart, he’s with neighbours,” said Shannon, to reassure herself as much as anything else.  “He’s probably sponging food off them.  He’s a very smart dog.”

We called his name along the driveway, and she checked with the neighbours at the bottom of the hill, who’d been known to take him in.  We widened our search but there was no sign of him anywhere.

The following day we went to the dog pound in Santa Rosa to see if he’d been brought in.  Shannon had retrieved him from there twice before, at great cost.  As we waited to be given access to pound, we saw a dog being handed over by its owner.  It whined and howled as it was dragged off into the cold concrete cellblock.  Presently we were allowed access, the pungent smell of urine and faeces assaulting our noses.  Each block had two rows of three-by-four feet cells with bars at the front.  Our hearts leapt a little as dogs Skip’s colour came into view in the individual cells.  And our hearts broke a little each time we saw perfectly loving and loveable dogs abandoned to the lottery of lethal injection.  There were half a dozen dogs we would have loved to have given a home to.  “Did you see that lively brown dog?” asked Shannon.

“You mean Buster Brown,” I said.  “He picked up a tennis ball and bounced it just like Skip.”

I changed my run that afternoon to accommodate wide sweeps of town.  I ran through the neighbourhood calling Skip’s name.  I ran up and down Trenton Road and River Road, hoping I’d not find his remains.  There was a deer and a dog, but no sign of at all of Skip.

“This is my fault,” wailed Shannon.  “After the last time I should have had a new collar and a chip inserted.”

“He’ll turn up,” I said.  As I stacked firewood that evening I put logs in the pile that I’d thrown for Skip just days before.  I wondered whether it was bad karma to be burning them.

“He’s out there,” said Shannon, fighting back tears.  “Something tells me his story’s not over yet.”

To be continued…

Halloween — the American Dream

November 1, 2006

I had my first proper American Halloween (Hallowe’en for Brits).  You can’t grasp that $4.96bn figure for their spending on the event until you see it in on the night.

First up, there’s this curious salutation that people start using first thing in the morning: “Happy Halloween!” they cry to each other.  Two days ago I ran past the local high school and the same greeting was on their announcements board, in letters nearly a foot tall.  Surely ‘Happy Halloween’ is an oxymoron—isn’t it supposed to be anything but happy?

Zoe is with her father this week, so we had to pick her up.  But she was already out trick-or-treating with her friends Jonah and Scout.  We met them out on Mirabel, a quadruple cul-de-sac neighbourhood that could pass for a movie set.  And there weren’t just a few kids—hundreds of them roamed free in the darkness dressed in elaborate costumes.  Many had blue or green glow-rings around their necks so parents could keep track of them, all of them had swag bags full of goodies.

Halloween House

Many of the houses had gone to town to celebrate the evening, decking out their houses with fake spider-webs, pumpkins, life-sized horror mannequins—even a smoke machine.  The Speers—owners of the main local grocery store—had a complete mock graveyard lit by a strobe light.

I was asked by friends how it compared to the UK.  Although it’s only taken off in England in the last decade, when I was a five-year-old in Glasgow, and at primary school in the North East of England, we had something much akin to it—but nothing on that scale, and no one would ever have decorated their houses so elaborately for the event.

“What I find amazing,” I said to Scout and Jonah’s mother, Lauri, “is that America is the most practising Christian country in the world by far, with church attendance up around fifty percent.  Yet no one celebrates this very pagan festival the way America does.”

“It’s very American,” she said.  “Any excuse for a party—that’s the American dream.”