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.

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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?”

“No.”

“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.”


Royally Scared

October 31, 2006

Shannon’s Front DoorOur Front Door, Hallowe’en

This year, Americans are forecast to spend $4.96bn (£2.61bn) on Halloween, versus £120m ($200m) for the UK.  “It’s the second-biggest celebration after Christmas,” said Shannon.

Zoe was throwing a party for her friends the Saturday before.  Shannon is a Halloween veteran, and has been throwing them since Max (now 16) was three.  On Friday night after our weekly bookstore and dinner trip we stopped off at Joann’s Fabric’s in Santa Rosa to get material for Zoe’s costume.  She pointed out the perfect quarter moon on the way back.

“It’s going to be very scary tomorrow night, Zoe,” I said.

“I like being scared,” she said.  “But I don’t think you can scare me.”

“I’m going to make you pee your pants,” I said.

“No way,” she replied.  “You could never get me that scared.”

“Oh, we’ll see,” I said.  Moments later I had an idea, and chuckled.

“Oh-oh,” said Shannon quietly.  “He’s got something planned, Zoe.”

Just days before, Zoe had told us that she’d seen the ghostly vision of a king and his entourage in the forest adjacent to the house.  She said he was on a quest to find his missing daughter.  I was going to capitalise on her vision.  I laughed myself to sleep that night as I thought through the details.

Whilst Shannon and Zoe were out getting party supplies the following morning, I gathered several cubic feet of leaf litter and made it into the shape of a fresh grave a little way out into the woods, under a gnarled oak.

The kids arrived in late afternoon and so did my helper, Matt – father of one of Zoe’s friends.  Shannon, ever-resourceful, had managed to buy a fake gravestone.  At half-six Matt and I went out to the ‘grave’ and he dressed me in bandages and toilet paper.  In the ten minutes it took, the darkness thickened.  I lay down on the ground and he covered me with leaf litter.

“As soon as I leave, the maniac who’s been watching us will kill you,” said Matt.

“Farewell, then” I replied.  My nose immediately began to itch but I couldn’t move for fear of revealing myself from under the leaves.

Eventually, I heard the distant sound of adult and children’s voices.  I knew that Shannon – an expert storyteller – would have pumped up her audience to maximum fear levels.  I’d asked her to tell the kids that the king looking for his daughter had pined to death and been buried here – and that his grave only appeared every hundred years.  I learned later that she’d invoked the king’s spirit by getting the kids to chant his name, and blow out a candle.  Several kids refused even to be left in the lighted kitchen without an adult, let alone venture out into the darkness.

After another minute I heard Matt pretend to come upon my grave.  Through the leaves over my eyes I began to see the blue light cast by the storm lamp.  My heart beat faster – when to spring my surprise for maximum effect?

I heard the crunching of leaves next to me.  Zoe’s voice was near and the light was dazzling through the gaps in the leaves covering my face.  If I didn’t move, I’d be uncovered.

I reared up through the leaves and roared.  I’d forgotten how deafening the screams of ten-year-olds are.  Shannon said it went on for 12-15 seconds.

I went to bed tired, but satisfied at a job well done.  At one o’clock the following morning we were woken by Zoe at the bedroom door.  She was having nightmares about the story.  I’d passed my first American Halloween with flying colours.
My ‘grave’The ‘grave’ I rose from


Dog Gone, Part I

October 30, 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, the barks and whines echoing around the bare room.  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 his 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…


Maximum Competition

October 30, 2006

We were about to go out for an afternoon run, having been delayed by numerous calls.  The phone rang as we were leaving the house.  “Forget it,” said Shannon.

“I think you should answer it,” I said.

It was her 16-year-old son, Max, who lives with her ex-husband.  Things have not been great between him and either parent recently.  “We’re going for a run,” said Shannon.  “Fancy coming?”

Max and I had not met, so this was a big step for both of us as he jumped in the back seat ten minutes later.  We shook hands.  He began talking about relationships, and I turned almost every sentence he spoke into a double entendre, some of them Shakespearian.  Max is extremely intelligent, and a very accomplished lyricist, so I felt it was deferential to him in a way.  Shannon kept cackling with laughter and he eventually admitted defeat, hands on his head.  The ice was broken.

We reached the canal and got out of the car.  I slipped a lead on Skip but he was only wearing a flea collar.  It fell straight off so we had to leave him in the car.  We set off running, and I left Shannon and Max to talk at their own pace.  After quarter of a mile I heard thundering footsteps behind me on the gravel.  I knew who it was before Max steamed past me.  When I passed him a couple of hundred yards further on he was doubled over, recovering his breath.
He stayed for dinner back at the house.  “I gotta find something I can beat you at,” said Max.  This was the genetics of Shannon’s competitive ‘Willinuts’ side of the family expressing themselves.

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“How are you at baseball and basketball?” he asked.

“We don’t pay them in my country.”

“So I bet I could whip you at a few moves, right?”

“No, because I simply wouldn’t play you.”

“So could we play a game like soccer, which you do have in your country?”

“It’s not a game I’ve ever participated in, so I’d not do it.  I run and I do triathlon.”

“You could learn American games like baseball and basketball, since you’re in this America.”

“Did you know that they originated in the UK?  Baseball is called ‘rounders’ and is played by girls.  Basketball is called ‘netball’ and is also played by girls.”

“What?  No way!  Basketball has some really mean and vicious moves!”

“You haven’t met many British girls, have you?”

We said our friendly goodbyes and Shannon took him back to his father’s house.  I guessed Skip must have gone with them in the car because he wasn’t in evidence.  She came back half an hour later.  “Did Skip go with you?” I asked.

“No,” said Shannon.  “He must just be out and around.”  I had a bad feeling about it before we went to bed.  Skip habitually chases after the car when either one of us is in it, and he’d chased us the three-quarters of a mile down the drive the previous day.  He was nowhere to be found the next morning.
To be continued…