I have an old friend who lives in Navarro, California. I haven't seen her for a long time now, but she is a writer, an artist, and a gardener at heart, and she put me up in her house in 1979, when I worked as a short-order breakfast cook at the Philo Café. Her name is Anna.
Navarro is located along Route 128, in Mendocino County, about 15 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The road winds through the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, before connecting to Route 1 along the coast. It is a very quiet place, with a general store, and no tourist attractions other than the park and the campground. Anna’s house sits back off the road, surrounded by woods, and behind it is the neatly tended garden where she grows her own vegetables and flowering plants.
I left California in 1982, and settled in northwestern Connecticut, but in the summer of '84, I was presented with a unique opportunity: another friend, Chris, wanted to take a cross-country road trip to California and back, and asked me to come along. I didn't have to think twice, and in a matter of days, we had her car, a small Chevy Cavalier, loaded with sleeping bags, blankets, a tent, cooler, dry food, and all the utensils and equipment we would need to camp out in many of the state and national parks along the way. We covered 14,000 miles, from Caribou, Maine, to Riviere-du-Loup, Canada, across to Toronto, down into the states, out to California, and up to British Columbia and back to Connecticut in two months. We had camped in Kanab, Utah, so we could see the Grand Canyon, lived out of our tent in Yellowstone, the Redwood Forest, Crater Lake, the rain forest in Washington State, and a lot of smaller parks in remote areas not normally visited by tourists, and at one site, we had an encounter with a group of campers I will never forget.
When we got to northern California, I made it a point to stop in Navarro, so Chris could meet Anna before we continued on to Mendocino, and north on Route 1. We spent the morning laughing and talking about old times, and after our visit, Anna gave us a bushel of large zucchini and squash plants to take with us. She had picked them from her garden, knowing we would be cooking that night at a campground along the coast known as Westport Union Landing, and wished us well as we loaded them in the car.
It was early in the afternoon when we left Navarro and took 128 through the redwoods. The trees were so tall and majestic that they nearly blocked the sun, but when we emerged from the darkness of the forest, we were met with clear blue skies, and breathtaking views of the ocean. We followed Route 1 north, and stopped often to walk along the beach, and explore the sand dunes, arriving in Westport just in time to set up camp before the sun set.
When I had lived in California before moving back east, I spent a lot of time at the landing, so I was familiar with the area, and wanted to take a few days to show Chris my favorite spots. Westport Union Landing is not a typical campsite. It is a flat strip of grass the size of a football field, open to anyone with a tent or an RV, and sits on top of a bluff overlooking the Pacific, with just the basic facilities. The Usal Mountains rise north and east, blocking the morning sun, and there is a small community of Native Americans who live in the area and occasionally seine for fish in the surf below the campground.
There are no formal sites for camping, just patches of hard earth, so we decided to set up our tent about 20 feet from the edge of the bluff, where previous campers had built a small fire pit out of rocks. We had a full view of the ocean as far as the eye could see. Before nightfall, about a dozen other campers had arrived, some with tents, and a few with RV’s and trailers, but we were too busy unloading the car, and building a fire with the few pieces of wood we had, to notice that the three men who were our nearest neighbors were Native Americans. I knew that Chris and I would never be able to eat all of the zucchini and squash that Anna had given us, so I set aside a few for ourselves and offered the rest to them. I didn’t expect anything in return, but they smiled and nodded to each other, and after we walked back to our site, they came over carrying armfuls of firewood, and stacked it next to our pit. It allowed us to keep a fire going for the next three nights, and before we left, we had eaten all the fried zucchini and squash we could stand.
When it was time to pack up our tent and load the car, I thought about our experience at the landing, and the stories we had read in school about the early settlers in America. We were told that they had "traded with the Indians," and although the term is not often used these days, it seemed to me that our exchange of vegetables for firewood connected us to a time in history when the settlers and the Indians enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship that has long been forgotten. I may not have been the only one who felt that way.
Judging from the smiles on their faces as they handed us the firewood, the Native Americans we met at Westport Union Landing may have thought the same thing long before I did.