North Coast Series: Please Lend a Hand, or Get Out of Our Way

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

Nothing like a snootful of cold seawater to wake a guy up. Paul McHugh launches off the beach at Fort Ross
Nothing like a snootful of cold seawater to wake a guy up. Paul McHugh launches off the beach at Fort Ross

By Paul McHugh

OCT. 4, 2005 — Some people wander into the magnificent landscape of the North Coast as trust-fund vagabonds, some purposefully drive up as leisure-seekers fueled by bulging retirement accounts, a few are billionaires who  choose to slum in the countryside. But if you arrive as an ordinary joe, a simple working man or woman seeking to settle here while trying to earn a living, you'll wind up wearing many hats – usually, more than one at a time.

So it was with Mitch McFarland. He not only managed the pier and harbor, he worked construction jobs he came across around town, and also ran his parent's horse-breeding ranch on the mesa to the south. Plus, he's performed formal and informal roles in local politics – a necessity in a town that holds only 500 citizens or so.

"We built up to a majority of what you might call Greens on our city council," he told me, "even before Arcata did!" (Arcata being a famous enclave of hippy, back-to-the-land, and alternative technology types in a college town just north of Eureka.)

Forging a Fresh Alliance

"It was back in the late 1970s when us newcomers and the old-timers really got to know each other. We gradually found out that the rednecks and the hippies basically all came here for a similar reason, which was to stay self-reliant and to be left alone. Once the old-timers realized we were ready, willing and able to pick up that torch, we got along pretty well."

It's a classic way to forge a true community: Do what you must to take care of yourselves.

In the eclectic community of Point Arena, a highly diverse array of players signed on for urban renewal, even Indians from a nearby reservation. After salvation projects for the lighthouse and the wharf got going, this impromptu alliance turned its attention to another dilapidated treasure: the 1920's vintage downtown theater. By the early 80s, it had declined into a shabby, leaky box. After the big storms of '83 ripped stucco off its west wall, sunlight leaked in past the main movie screen as liberally as rain leaked down through the roof. So the old John Wayne westerns that were the theater's usual fare often had their images blotted out by desert heat mirages – whether that fit into the plot or not.

After this tottering structure was finally condemned, the family owning it suddenly roused themselves and displayed a clear desire to get out from under it. No shock there, eh?

Abracadabra! – A Derelict Becomes a Jewel

Seeing then seizing this opportunity, locals formed a non-profit corporation dubbed The Arena Renaissance Company, and its six principals cobbled together $390,000. They acquired the property in 1986. Not much was left to pay for reconstruction, but a ton of ready and willing energy from local volunteers was already on tap.

Two big players in the building's reboot were Leslie Jones, an actress and alumna of the South Coast Repetory Theatre in Newport Beach, and Peter Reimuller, a local activist and entrepreneur. Reimuller and she had been students together way back when at U.C. Riverside. Over the intervening years, he says, "I kept her phone number in my little black book." They teamed up again in Point Arena, and threw themselves into the work. She generated outreach and publicity, he managed design and construction.

They scraped that old box right down to its bones. Then they gave it some new bones, as well as muscle, skin, and make-up. A steel I-beam was put up to secured a new proscenium, local carpenters installed premium woodwork, copper ceiling tiles were hand-painted, refurbished theater seats were bolted to new hardwood floors. After a decade of effort, the old vaudeville stage and movie palace re-opened to great fanfare to showcase a new sci-fi feature, "Contact," starring Jodie Foster. That debut has been followed by a years of a full menu of films and prestigious live acts, including blues god Charlie Musselwhite, the Dave Brubeck quartet, and singer/raconteur Utah Phillips.

It's unusual for a town of 517 people to even possess a theater. It's astounding to see one with a tidy art deco facade and ticket kiosk, a snack bar that's a carpentry jewel box. Besides a big screen, there's a dance floor for town celebrations and boogies, as well as a compact stage for the live shows.

Jones said, "What's been amazing about our town is that when something on main street begins to look derelict, we decided to build something new, and it just comes roaring back like a phoenix. Utah Phillips told us from the stage that we should all feel proud, and I guess that's true."

But the town did not rest on Utah's laurel wreath.

Need a Bank? Build One!

Another local problem had been the lack of a bank in town, or even a functioning ATM. Bank of America had yanked its branch from Point Arena a decade earlier. Its replacement, WestAmerica Bank, pulled its branch in 2003. Then the town was finally able to lure a credit union to open by purchasing another dilapidated building on main street, rehabilitating it thoroughly, and offering it as an office. Inwood Credit Union, based in Oakland, took Point Arena up on the deal.

Beatrice Brown, a potential new branch manager for Inwood, said her boss asked her if she'd be willing to make a move. "I came up to check it out, and thought Point Arena was just beautiful, so we rented a house and moved up. Now I love breathing fresh air, hearing the birds, being able to go out at night and see the stars – all of them! People are so friendly, if I'm out standing in my yard, everyone who drives by waves to me."

Within a year, the branch had 619 members from the region and over six million dollars in deposits.  On the wall of the branch office is posted an intriguing photo of Point Arena's mayor, Leslie Dahlhoff, wearing tattered work clothes and dust mask, crawling beneath the floor joists of the building as its reconstruction neared completion amid an epic, last-minute push. That image intrigued me, and made me wish to chat with the major.

Coffee with the Mayor

Early Tuesday morning, I took a hot shower at the fishermen's bathroom on the wharf and buttoned on some items from my scant stash of clean clothes. As sun peeked over a ridge, I walked a mile up Port Road at the Dahlhoffs' house. I rang her up the day before, and she'd invited me to come over this morning for coffee.

A modest house located on a town side street, the home of Mayor Leslie and her husband Eric is distinguished by Leslie's intricate stained glass decorations, and a living room full of musical instruments, including a keyboard, piano, guitar and silver flute.

Leslie, 49, and Eric, 48, are immigrants to Point Arena, but swiftly adopted it as their home town. They met in the dawning high-tech neighborhood of the Bay Area, married in 1982, came up to the North Coast for their honeymoon. They decided that they desired to have many future honeymoons up this way. They quit their jobs and sold everything to make the move in 1989.

Down in crowded, Greater Bay Area, Leslie said, she'd had a feeling many development issues were beyond control, rocketing along at an incredible pace. Open space would simply vanish, apparently without much citizen input.

"When we moved," she told me, "I just knew I needed to participate, try to have some effect on our community and our future."

Over coffee, she explained further. "I got books on community planning from the bookmobile, and those seeds fell on good soil. I was in the right place at the right time. When I saw our town didn't even have a general plan, in 1992, I helped organize groups to form one.

"You can't be depressed about possibilities, when you take a say in what happens," Dahlhoff said. "There's never nothing you can do."

And Now, Let's Make a Library

For a further example of Point Arena's can-do spirit, the town's Mercantile store locked its doors in 1996. With goods still stocking the shelves, the place bid fair to become a mere ghost town exhibit, like the dusty pioneer shops of Bodie.

But those cobwebs were swept away in 2004 by another ad hoc civic group, The Friends of Coast Community Library. When formed in 1990, their original assets consisted of three boxes of books in the basement of a local church. But they proceeded to raise an astonishing $440,000 through coffees, bake sales, dances, dinner parties and bequests. They bought that Mercantile building and funded its restoration without a mortgage.

Peter Reimuller explained to me why he involved himself in this project, too. "In a place where getting everything done relies on networking, a good reputation becomes your most valuable possession. I just could not let that library be built in the store without letting our community know I also planned to participate."

Now, a huge pot-bellied stove radiates warmth beside the old Mercantile safe, the old store display cases are being revamped for a museum nook, there's a dollar shelf for recycled books, and six computers wired up to the Internet.

It's become an after-school "hang" for the town's youth, and adults as well. A conference room and table in front stays open for free use; a bridge club takes frequent advantage.

The place has just one, full-time, paid librarian. But around fifty volunteers make sure it stays open for more hours than any other public library in all of Mendocino County.

 

— See all posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on CanoeKayak.com almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 16th.