Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bell Springs

     I just returned from a couple of days at the family homestead on Bell Springs Road in Mendocino County.  What a world away from Sebastopol this place is!  I actually grew up in an unincorporated section of eastern Los Angeles County.  My father was a steel worker who got fed up with the his work, his supervisors, and the way the semi rural neighborhood had changed  in the twenty plus years they had lived at that residence.  What had once been a safe, quiet, rural road , populated primarily with elderly neighbors and surrounded by orange groves had transformed into a tough neighborhood that was starting to show signs of serious urban crime.  Where once he had a spectacular garden and raised steers, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, and children, my dad now had to fear for the safety of his children and his property.  One winter in the mid-1970's, my father found his escape in a twenty acre parcel of undeveloped land, five miles up a dirt road off Hwy 101 between Laytonville and Legget.  It wasn't long before my parents  sold the house on Fellowship Street and began the real pioneer phase of their lives.
     It wasn't just my parents who moved to the primitive but beautiful rural Mendocino County.  Several of my brothers also purchased adjacent twenty acre parcels on Bell Springs Rd and together then have forged a simple and sustainable life in this often harsh country.  After over thirty years of living and developing the land, my parents, my brothers, and their families have become an integral part of the rural community.  Two of my brothers were popular and strong teachers in the Laytonville schools.  Another brother served as counselor and later program director with the Mendocino County Mental Health Department.  All three of these men are also very capable carpenters and builders (one has a contractor's license) and they have, over time, build comfortable and cozy homes for their families.  They have spectacular gardens, with veggies galore and always fresh flowers.  All the families have planted trees, both fruit and shade, and the families together have created a pond.  The pond not only provides water storage but also fire protection and a resting place for migrating birds.
Did I mention that this land was undeveloped?  Specifically, that means that, when purchased, the land had no electricity, no phone, no water system, no graded building sites, no nothing.  One of the first tasks was to get the building sites selected, graded, and a road graded to the sites. Simultaneously, an underground spring needed to be channelled into a useable, gravity fed, water system. Indoor plumbing needed to be put on hold while more immediate concerns were addressed (outdoor privy certainly can work ....).  Although it would eventually be possible to hook into the phone system (this was pre- cell phone days), PG&E would never be putting power lines up here - way too remote.  For years, power was provided by propane, a gas fed generator (used sparingly for many reasons) and candles.  The heat source was (and still is) woodstove.  Later a twelve volt battery system allowed more access or power and, more recently, solar and wind power systems have been developed.  The water system has been refined, reducing the need for the privy and enabling the residents to enjoy hot baths and showers.
     My father died in 1996 but my mother and brothers continue to live off the land.  It is not an easy life as much time and energy goes to sustaining daily life.  Valves for pumping water must be open and shut, firewood must be cut and hauled, brush needs to be kept trimmed (the ever present fire danger is a serious threat),  the pond and the septic tanks must be maintained, snow in the winter brings its own collection of issues, and, of course, gardens are always in need of something.  As much as possible, food that is eaten is produced in the garden and canned for use all year.  Keeping the garden going all year and preserving the veggies is a monumental task.  There is no quick trip to the grocery store to get lettuce for the salad.  It is 18 miles to Laytonville,  which has a grocery store, post office, bank branch, a couple of gas stations, a number of stores that are useful for those living a rural life, and several hamburger type joints.  The larger town of Willits is about an hour's drive and affords more opportunities for errands but, either way, that is a lot of driving.  And, since Bell Springs Road is not paved, the first five miles of the driving is done on a dirt road.  That also means that residents on the road need to make friends with dust.  You will never be able to completely get rid of it for long so embrace it or die trying.
     I  enjoy visiting on Bell Springs Road.  It is a relaxing drive, at least when it is not raining or snowing. No matter what season it is, the hills, vineyards, trees, and small towns along the way provide plenty of eye candy.  The gardens, no matter the season, are inspiring and the land is breath taking.  Sunrise, sunset, and nights are especially notable.  You want to see a star filled sky?  Spend a clear night on Bell Springs Road and you will never be satisfied with the night sky in Sebastopol again.  I deeply admire my parents and my brothers for making the choice to live in such a place.  I don't believe I have what it takes to be happy there - not yet, anyway- but I can be an appreciative and joyful visitor.


  1. No mention of the brother raised there! I never realized that Robert was motivated to move to Bellsprings by the changing La Puente neighborhood. It makes sense, but I don't remember it ever really being discussed.

    I would live up there in a heartbeat. I particularly like the stretch of country 10-14 miles up the road from the highway, overlooking Island Mountain to the East. However, neither wife nor children would be happy there so it will not happen.

    Those star-filled skies truly are remarkable.

  2. I actually thought about including the part about the brother raised up the whole piece was getting too long!
    You can visit A LOT! :)

  3. Thanks for finally painting a vivid picture of the Bellsprings experience. You've told me of it through the years, but this really brought the place to life. Truly a fantastic place to visit.