After a super ugly divorce in Big Bear Lake, California – my mom was ready to go as far away from my Dad as she could – my dad seemed happy to be a single guy without kids encumbering his rock star lifestyle – so no one stood in the way of mom marrying a super tall alcoholic doucehebag wanna-be cowboy who was barely out of his teens. We left our last happy childhood home for the last time. This time there would be no return. He decided that the best thing to do with his wealthy new bride was to move her and her three kids as far away from where her family could interfere with his fucked up, violent, and drug fueled life choices. He moved us to Canyonville, Oregon – which, to be fair, is a pretty nice little Oregon town – but which for all of us became the gateway to hell. While he looked for the ranch of his dreams, we were all crammed into a tiny little house with a half dozen dogs – the house had been a drug dealers before we moved into it and it wasn’t uncommon for bikers and other shit-bags to come waltzing in the door looking for ‘Jim’ at all hours of the night. Guns were a regular part of our lives at this point. The shithole biker bar next door “The Snake Pit” was where mom and her new boss (because she just did whatever he told her to or he would beat the shit out of her) spent the majority of their time. We met a whole new class of bikers – not the friendly Hells Angels of Big Bear but the drug fueled and violent Gypsy Jokers.
On the positive side – we had a cherry tree and Canyon Creek ran behind the house. We would go down and catch crawdads by the bucketfull and cook them up with butter and garlic. I used to get old fashioned milkshakes from a place with a cow on the roof. Canyonville itself is set in a beautiful part of Southern Oregon and when we weren’t witnesses or victims of domestic violence and substance abuse – we swam in country swimming holes, hiked through beautiful pine forests, and spent time on the ranch of a family who saw the hell we were in, but werent willing to involve themselves further than letting us spend time with them. We were there for a bit less than a year (4th grade) …and then we moved to nearby Myrtle Creek – which I will write about next. Here is a bit about Canyonville, Oregon that is outside of my experience.
Canyonville has a population of about 1800 people (honestly, I thought it was larger) and sits in an area known as the ‘Banana Belt’ in Southern Oregon. It is classified as having a ‘Mediterranean Climate’ though, I’ve lived in the Mediterranean and Canyonville both and would beg to differ. Winters are cold, wet, grey, and rainy. Canyonville is the third oldest city in Oregon and was a stopping point of the Applegate Trail (part of the Oregon Trail migration) It is where the North Umpqua and South Umpqua Rivers meet and is a great spot for fishing, hunting, and outdoor recreation. Canyonville sits alongside Interstate-5 which runs from Canada to Mexico and is the main north/south interstate on the West Coast of the United States. Canyonville is most famous for President Rutherford B. Hayes once having lunch there. Today the 7-Feathers Casino is the big draw in Canyonville, but it was not there when I was a kid. When I was a kid, the biggest part of the economy was logging and mining at the nearby Hannah Nickel Mine in Riddle, Oregon. Ranching, farming, and resource extraction were the lifeblood of Canyonville in those days. These days, I’ve heard that it is the casino and meth production.
When I write about my childhood – it sounds bizarre, even to me. Shortly after I started first grade, my father once again decided it was time to go someplace new…but once again, it didn’t last long. The dynamics of my parent’s relationship were already terrible – so who knows if this had something to do with it – cause or effect, at this point it doesn’t really matter. In any event, my father had built a fairly successful painting business in Big Bear Lake but when he’d met my mother he had been a musician in several mildly successful bands…at some point in the 1970’s he started playing music again, hanging out in nudist camps and then he started taking tai-chi lessons from a nomadic puppeteer named Rio.
A strange friendship was born. Rio was building a live in gypsy wagon on the back of a RIO truck and he and his love, Nancy – were going to move to Mendocino. While the truck was being built, we started receiving huge numbers of packages from outdoor catalogs because it turned out that Nancy had been married when she and Rio met and now she was sticking it to her husband by maxxing out his credit cards and having all the stuff sent to our house (since they lived in a tent while the truck was being built). Nancy had two lovely little girls (Spirit and Isis) and a cool little boy (Gabe) and we all became great hippie friends. Rio was this amazing young Gandolph figure – he was a puppeteer, a carpenter and tai-chi master – his truck was being built as a traveling stage for his puppet shows.
Once the truck was built and all the dried foods, survival gear, etc was loaded – it was time to go and Dad once again decided he would rent out our house as an income property and leave all of our possessions locked in the garage/storeroom he had built. Off we went…I think my dad was planning on starting a new band or something, but we ended up in Mendocino. We rented a creepy white house that was high on a bluff above the ocean. I’m pretty sure it was haunted or that some Manson murder shit had gone down there. My brother and I were enrolled in school in nearby Fort Bragg and all went well that winter – except in terms of my parent’s marriage. Dad and Rio would disappear for weeks at a time. Eventually, mom had enough and we packed it all up and went back to our house in Big Bear where once again, short term renters had trashed our house, broken into the storeroom, and stolen anything of value.
That’s my personal story of Mendocino – but here is a bit about the town itself:
Mendocino, just north of San Francisco was founded in 1850 as a lumber town because of the proximity to the mighty and beautiful redwoods. In the 1940s it became a sort of artist colony and has been known as such ever since. The town sits on huge bluffs above the Pacific Ocean and is home to one of the oldest Chinese temples in the USA, dating back to 1854. The temple of Kwan Yin is dedicated to the goddess of medicine and peace.
Mendocino has appeared in a lot of Hollywood productions, most prominent was the TV Series “Murder She Wrote” in which the town was fronted as being a village in Maine. It’s a beautiful and cool place. Here’s a few bizarre facts –
The nearby town of Booneville had it’s own language called Boontling.
The Manson family actually did rent a house (well before we lived there) in Mendocino and I’d bet money it’s the same creepy one we lived in
It rains a lot in Mendocino
Mendocino has less than 1000 people and a lot of Bed and Breakfasts
I’m happy I had the chance to live outside of the USA as a child – I’m also glad that I got to experience Mexico first hand before the racist bigots who surrounded me growing up had a chance to completely distort my view of this beautiful country and the warm, generous, and hard working Mexican people.
It was common among white people in California during the 60s, 70s, and 80s to denigrate, belittle, and trash talk about Mexican people – sadly, this was especially true in hillbilly places like Big Bear Lake which tended to be filled with bikers, outlaws, and descendants of dustbowl migrants from the 1930s. As a white person, I’m ashamed of that truth – but a truth it is.
As I mentioned though, I was heavily innoculated against it by my father making a terrible decision. “Let’s rent out our house for the winter and drive to Mexico” Never mind that our car was a barely running piece of shit Ford Pinto station wagon. Off we went.
The car broke down and my father was either unable or unwilling to fix it for several months so we rented a house in Mazatlan, made friends with a bunch of Mexican people, and even attempted to go to school without knowing even a little bit of Spanish. I made some friends, played football (soccer), and played on the beach a lot. My friend Manuel and I found a dead whale on the beach once…
Eventually, mom forced dad to fix the car and back we went to Big Bear Lake where renters had trashed our house and stolen most of our possessions. That’s my story – but here’s a bit about Mazatlan.
Mazatlan is in the state of Sinaloa – roughly parallel with the southern tip of Baja, California. This is weird given the Octoberfest connection to Big Bear Lake. Mazatlan was founded in 1531 by Spaniards and Indigenous people but it was settled largely by a group of Bavarian immigrants in the 1800s. Bring on the Polka Tots!
Mazatlan is most famous for the miles and miles of beautiful beaches, the old lighthouse and famous cliff jumpers, and the longest boardwalk promenade in the world. It was the first town in the world to suffer an aerial bombardment and for decades had the only English language newspaper in Mexico. Mazatlan is home to the largest carnival and the largest aquarium in Mexico.
I need to go back…I wonder what ever happened to Manuel?
There’s no place I’ve lived (with the possible exception of Hawaii) that has had such a huge effect on who I am as Big Bear Lake, California. My parents moved there around 1972-73 from Tacoma, Washington – most of my mom’s family followed us. I lived in Big Bear for two distinct periods – my normal, privileged and happy childhood from 1973-1981 and then an incredibly dysfunctional early-teen period from 1985-1988. Like many kids, my life changed dramatically after my parents went through an ugly and violent divorce. Most of my happy childhood memories come from the 73-81 period. At the time, our family was prosperous – we were surrounded by uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and friends. Here are some of the amazing things I remember from Big Bear Lake.
I’m not talking about little snowstorms or a foot on the ground. I’m talking about full on blizzards where our house got buried. We had to jump out the second floor window to get out! 8-10 feet of snow. Big Bear is in the mountains above Los Angeles but it sits at an elevation of nearly 7000′ feet. One great thing about all that snow was snow days, snow forts, and playing in the snow all winter long. There were two ski resorts in Big Bear in those days Snow Summit and Goldmine (now Bear Mountain). We had annual season passes at Snow Summit and ski lessons were an essential part of being a kid in Big Bear. Our winter jacket’s were festooned with colored B’s to denote our level. If memory serves – the Red B was the expert skiier.
Big Bear Lake, Jenks Lake, Baldwin Lake
There were a number of snow fed lakes in the area, so summer was a time of swimming and water skiing. We would also wander the shallows searching for giant orange carp in the lake or fish for blu gill, bass, and trout. Jenk’s Lake was a tiny lake where school trips would go to learn about nature and do camp activities. In the winter, the lakes would completely freeze over and it was common for ‘dumb flatlanders’ (our term for weekend visitors from L.A.) to fall through the ice.
Fawnskin and Fawnskin Caverns
On one side of the lake is the tiny village of Fawnskin (which is strange because my sister is named Fawn) – as a teen, I wandered and drank all through this area. During all of the time I was living there, it was a fun pasttime to hike and climb in Fawnskin. There was a huge complex of boulder made caverns which were most fun to climb in (and most dangerous) during the winter months when they were filled with ice and snow.
Old Miner’s Days and Hell’s Angels
Every summer there was a festival celebrating the rough and ready miner’s who had flooded the valley in 49′. This weeks long festival included a multi-day burro race around the valley, burro baseball, a parade, a Miss Clementine and Mr. Kadiddlehopper Pageant, and much more. The Hell’s Angels were always around during this time – in fact they loved Big Bear and were frequent visitors – they sponsored school picnics and some of the teachers were even members of the famous biker gang.
Big Dick Rock
Big Bear has huge boulder piles everywhere. I’m not sure what geology created that – but every kid in Big Bear knew about ‘Big Dick Rock’
Big Bear Dam (old and new)
Big Bear has an old dam which is usually under water and a new dam that traffic crosses. The ‘New Dam’ was built in the 1930s.
There’s a tiny island in an area called Boulder Bay – that has a bunch of Chinese houses built on it. My aunt and uncle lived there for a year. It’s scenic and pretty strange….I’ve heard the owner lives on Maui.
The Rifle Range
There’s a rifle range in Big Bear and as kids we used to go there and collect lead bullets. Sometimes when people were shooting. We got chased away many times – it was incredibly stupid.
Old Mines and Cabins
Big Bear has lots of National Forest land and if you dig around in it (as we did a lot of) you will find mines, old caverns, old cabins, and in the 1970s – things like boxes of dynamite. We did incredibly stupid things with all of that stuff and somehow never killed ourselves.
‘Down the Hill’
When you live in Big Bear – every other place is ‘down the hill’ and people from other parts of California are called ‘flatlanders’. Going ‘down the hill’ meant going to Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, or other places.
The Old Juniper Tree fort in Whispering Forest
Generations of kids have built tree forts in the old Juniper tree that sits across from my childhood home. Despite the itchy bark, the big drops, and the territoriality of kids like me – this tree has been the dreaming and hanging out space for many growing kids.
Holcomb Valley with it’s decrepit town of Belleville, the abandoned shacks, hidden gold mines, rifle and shotgun casings, herds of mules and packs of coyotes, hidden springs, and deep desolate and lonely hidden places – there should be songs written about this place.
The Crow’s Nest, The Poop Deck, Chad’s, and The Bear’s Den
I don’t know how many of these bars remain – but Big Bear Lake had the most colorful drinking establishment names of anywhere I’ve ever lived. Sure, maybe Chad’s doesn’t sound that exciting until you see three hundred Harley’s parked in the streets in front of it. As kids, we spent a lot of time at the Big Bear Arcade across the street and would all pile out to watch bikers beat the hell out of each other in the streets during the middle of the day.
The Bear Statues and Octoberfest
Big Bear used to have these beautiful standing bear statues that would welcome you into town. Visitors and residents would dress the bears which stood on top of rock pillars. Sometimes in snow jackets, goggles, hats, or winter gear – other times in bikinis. They were the childhood mascots to the town.
Each October there would be a week long drinking festival – I don’t think there were a lot of Germans in Big Bear but there were certainly a lot of drinkers so it was a big deal. Our parents put us in a children’s dance troop called the Polka Tots and we would train in Bavarian dance and travel to events throughout Southern California to dance in leiderhosen for the boys and frilly dresses and braids for the girls. It was a very strange thing to do.
Pan Hot Springs
I learned to swim in beautiful thermal pools that smelled slightly of sulfur. I was never a particularly good swimmer but I will always appreciate the fact that I learned to swim in pools created by mountain hot springs.
Rattlesnakes, Scorpions, Coyotes, Raccoons, Burros, Mountain Lions, and Bears
There’s a lot more to remember about Big Bear – it was an amazing place to be a child – but probably the most striking memory is the proximity of nature to us. We used to encounter rattlesnakes on a regular basis – we would flip stones and catch snakes and scorpions with old glass jars. The yip yip of coyotes was a part of the lullaby that would put us to sleep and the braying of the wild burro herds would startle us awake – at which point we would watch them be chased from yards and gardens in the neighborhood. We didn’t see a lot of bears in those days – but they and the mountain lions were about – we’d catch sign of them on the trails – pawprints, piles of poo, the acrid musky odor of a mountain lion or lynx.
This was my childhood. It sounds like a time long ago – and I guess as I write this it was generally four decades ago – but when I look at pictures or think about how different the world was then – it seems like it was much much longer. I love the memories of my childhood in Big Bear Lake, California.
This is going to be a series of twenty-five (and maybe more later) articles about the cities and towns around the world where I have lived. First of all, some definition is required. In the childhood period, I define a place where I lived as somewhere where my parents had jobs and worked and I lived with them. In adulthood, I define a place where I lived as anywhere that I had a space of my own and worked. So for example – hotels don’t count unless I was living in them for extended periods and had a job in the same town (so conferences don’t count). At the moment in mid-2019, I’ve listed twenty-five places – there are a few places that I’ve left and gone back to which I don’t count more than once – and since I’ve written pretty extensively about Hawaii – I’ve combined my first stint in Hawaii (2001-2008) into one place even though it included Oahu and Kauai – and made my current stay in Honolulu(2017-present) into another. This isn’t a formal study or anything – but I wanted to explain my methodology. Why am I doing this? Not for any particular reason except there are interesting tidbits about each of these places – and I want to share.
So, to start – I was born in Tacoma, Washington. My father’s family has been in Washington since early pioneer times. Our family is listed in the state archives as some of the first European descent settlers in the region. Mostly our family lived in the Aberdeen, Tacoma, Puyallup, and Seattle areas. My mom is a native Californian but my dad managed to get her to live in Washington for a couple of years around the time of my birth.
Tacoma is named for the Native-American name of Mt. Raineer. It is a port city and was once the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The region was mostly known for lumber and paper mills and during the 1960s and 1970s it was a pretty rough place to be. The paper mills created a fart smell that was known as ‘the Tacoma Aroma’. In the early 1900s, Tacoma was a hotbed of radical union organizing and was the site of a massive wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World IWW) strike. In the 1920s, Tacoma was a formidable rival to Hollywood to become the center of the movie industry. California‘s better climate proved to be an insurmountable advantage. Tacoma declined in the 20th century to become one of the least livable cities in the USA with high crime, high unemployment, and many abandoned buildings. In the 1990s, the city began turning itself around – today, it is known as one of the most livable cities in the USA! Pretty amazing!
There are really two things I love about Tacoma – as a child when we would visit my grandfather – we would always take a trip to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Point Defiance Park which itself is more than 700 acres. The zoo and aquarium are world class and made it hard for me to appreciate lessor facilities later in my life. Tacoma is also well known as a center for glass art – world renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly comes from Tacoma and his beautiful large scale glassworks are seen throughout the city.
Like many cities – there is much more to Tacoma than just this – but you will have to go there to experience it.