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Mendocino and the Mountain Spotted Beaver


Manchester State Park

Did I mention that I just really enjoy driving along the beach? Both California and Oregon deserve credit for preserving these old cliffside routes after IH5 took most of the traffic. In Oregon a whole tourist industry has grown up along 101. In California, Hwy 1 has benefitted from what appears to be benign neglect.

When I drove down into Mendocino, I really didn't know what I was getting into. I remembered the name from the label on a wine bottle. I expected a vineyard or two, maybe an old cannery.

It's a pretty little town with way too many cars parked in it, perched on a small peninsula jutting out into the sea. Hold that. It's not a real town. It's kind of an outdoor theme park and shopping mall. Every old building has been turned into some sort of chi-chi shop, with overpriced merchandize that no one living within a hundred miles of here could have any use for. Certainly not a wandering hobo of an Rver like myself.

I saw a nice coffee table for $7500, some so-so art for even more. Cocktail dresses hung in a window. Restaurants had hand-written menus in the window, the sort where price is not mentioned. There may be a grocery store in town. I didn't see it. But there's plenty pricy coffee and croissants in every block.

Who knows if anyone actually lives there? Maybe at 10 pm a chain link fence pops out of the ground around the manicured perimeter, and the whole place is abandoned to rent-a-cops carrying thermos jugs and flashlights in their holsters, doggedly making the rounds, rattling doors.

What you've got to remember is that this place is pretty isolated up here on the rural north coast. But it seems to be dedicated to vacationing urban types who live to shop.

I put the question to a clerk in the bookstore.

"What do people do for a living around here?"


"Well, you know. Real people. I don't know the area. I just blew into town, but I can't help but notice there's tons more cars than houses here."

"Oh, this is nothing. You should see it in summer. You couldn't park within miles of here. You can't walk down the sidewalk without turning sideways."

"But why do people come? Just to see each other?"

She looked at me blankly. "Why, to shop, of course. Is that all you want? A paper?"

"That's it." I smiled. "You want paper or plastic?"


Perversely, I made her wait while I fished around in my pockets for coins. Nickels and pennies. She could barely contain her disgust. It was great.

And there you have it. Mendocino, the little Mall by the Sea. It is a pretty place. And you can buy most anything you don't need. Good luck with anything else.

Whoever thought of this was a frigging genius. In the middle of nowhere, and packed with shoppers. All it lacks is a casino.

It was not far south of the Mall that I ran into the perfect coastal state park. Nearly empty. Behind the KOA. Manchester State Park. "No checks." No host. Okay, I'll wait till someone comes round with change. I settled in among the Cypress trees, and walked to the beach. Two days later someone knocked on my door. They took a check after all.

When I say Manchester Park was perfect, I mean perfect for me. Quiet, lonesome, a long view across meadows of coastal grass bending in the wind. A great place to rest up and recover from the rigors of the Mall. When I arrived, there were perhaps 7 or 8 RVs in some 40 sites. Everyone had a circle to himself. After a couple of days all but one besides myself disappeared, and a fellow in a parks hat came out and started setting up signs in each site: "Closed for Environmental Protection. Do not Cross." I asked him what it meant.

"There's an endangered species moving in here. The park is closing. You're going to be the last one to occupy that site."

"Which one is it this time?"

"The Mountain Spotted Beaver."

"I thought beavers stayed in streams and lakes."

"Well, it's really not a beaver. They just call it that. It's a kind of rodent."

"They're scarce, are they?"

"Well. They're all up and down the coast. But in every area they're a little different, and considered a separate species."

"So they're gonna close down an entire State Park to make way for a rat?" I was amazed.

"A rodent. The plan is to move the campsites away from the beach, maybe half a mile."

"The KOA's going to love that. Won't it be horribly expensive? I though California was running out of money?"

He shrugged his shoulders, and moved on round the circle with his signs.

This was interesting. I sat up late by the fire, thinking about it. Listening for movement in the grass. For anything.

I'm only a visitor here. But I thought it my duty to hunker down a while, giving up my wandering ways to stand in as California's last lonely outpost in the Kingdom of the Spotted Mountain Rat. It seemed the least I could do. In all that time I saw crowds of deer and quail and gulls and park rangers and even what looked like a lone coyote in the distance. But nary a beaver. They must be sly boogers.

On my last day I got to talking to the camp host, who had been gone days moonlighting as a roofer. Let's call him Howard. He and his 5 boys were living in and out of a 23 foot trailer. The youngest was 4. I asked him if he was going to lose his position when they closed the park. He just laughed.

"The bird lady has been trying to close this place for 9 years. It's still here. They'll move those signs out come summer."

"Bird lady?"

"Yeah. She even wanted to uproot all these nice cypress trees. Been here forever, but she said they weren't "native". Then the rangers got together and got them declared historical monuments. That put a cork in her."

It turns out he was shooting the bull one day with an old ranger, and found out how the spotted beaver and gophers and other rodents had been exterminated decades ago in the park.

"They'd let propane down the holes and set it off. Sometimes the earth lifted up an inch or two over a considerable area."

Then one day a while back he saw someone four-wheeling out in the open field, headed for the beach. He called the rangers. Definitely a no-no. Several of them showed up quickly, hoping to get the 4wheelers out of the park before the bird lady showed up and smothered them all in paperwork. When they followed it down to the beach, they saw a bunch of guys roaming around down there with metal detectors, talking into lapel mikes.

It was the FBI. Turns out the beach and park were right under the flight path of the Space Shuttle as it was breaking up. They were looking for fallen parts throughout a hundred mile swath cutting clear across California.

The FBI guy said there was two ways this could go. The rangers could help, or he could shut them down. He didn't want a bunch of looky-looky civilians running around the area, so he'd rather have cooperation. That was okay with the rangers.

But right in the middle of all this, Bird Lady showed up hot and bothered, worried about the rats. She poked her bony finger right in the middle of the FBI guy's tie and proceeded to tell him what he could and couldn't do on 'her' stretch of coastline. The FBI guy took about a minute of this, then put her nose down in the sand and handcuffed her. Then he raised her up by her hair and told her to shut up and listen. In a minute he was going to take the cuffs off. She was going to leave, quietly, and he didn't want to see her anywhere around there for 60 days. If he did she was going to jail for interfering with an investigation.

She left.

"And sure enough we didn't see her for 60 days." Howard tried unsuccessfully to remain sober and stone-faced.

This whole thing got me to thinking about environmental laws, and how I felt about them. As usual, I'm caught in the middle. I don't want to ever, ever contribute to the extinction of any species of animal. Especially not just so I can camp on a particular stretch of beach. I'm willing to put up with considerable inconvenience and some curtailment of my freedom to try and prevent anything like that from happening.

I don't much hold with blowing up gophers, for that matter.

But any environmental plan that attempts to exclude man from nature posits a world as artificial as a cracking tower or a microwave oven. Man as a species is part of nature, and has been living and dead for as long as any of the species these laws seek to protect.

If man is not there, it is not natural.

So here I am in my accustomed place, caught between extremes, trying to camp on the border between. We moderates always try to have our cake and eat it too.

Why not? What else you gonna do with cake, anyway?

Feed it to the spotted mountain rats?


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