I knew I was going someplace unusual when I walked onto the turboprop airplane this morning and hit my head on the ceiling. Big jets go to big airports. Little puddle jumpers fly to places not well travelled by, and Ferndale is one of them.
Lumpy rugged hills line up in fading shades of blue to the eastern horizon, and they are quilted with stands of pine and redwood. Ferndale is 30 ft above sea level on the coast and is enveloped in fog just like Pacific Grove is much of the time.
This is not LA. And who would want it to be when it can be as gently quirky as this place is? Only about 1,400 people live here, good-at-heart folks who keep their town tidy and neat, have good intentions and no idea what to tell you about when you push them a bit; a sweet, shy naievete that is practically invigorating.
Having had very little to eat by the time I arrived in town and feeling a nagging appetite, a burger at the Tavern at the Victorian Inn was a fine thing to savor. The Inn is a very large two-story building laden with gingerbread flourishes and grand style. It's now painted to accentuate its glorious facade's details. One may dine there or simply eat in the tavern, which I did, and one may stay if one wishes and has a good roll of cash.
When I asked, the bartender, dressed in old-timey vest and bow tie, stumbled on "what's fun around here?" and looked perplexed. The waitress couldn't even answer and deferred to him. She appeared to be startled by the question. He recovered and suggested going to the cemetery, checking out the three pubs on main street or going to a local park where I could see redwoods and the ferns that gave Ferndale its name. "Oh, and be sure to see the Kinetic Museum, too." He warmed up to the idea that a stranger was interested in diversions about town, told me about some movies that have been filmed there (Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman, and The Majestic with Jim Carrey).
A curiously interesting cemetery rises up on a hillside that's visible from most of town, and it provides a pretty vista of the assembled buildings far below. Even more curious though, there are guided tours of the cemetery by costumed guides who play the roles of notorious dead people who now populate the graves within. Some towns show off a haunted hotel room or a place where a criminal met his demise, but Ferndale offers to show you every grave in the cemetery and bring it all back to life through story and costume. It seems to tempt fate somehow, incite retribution from the beyond, but maybe not. Perhaps the spirits of those whose stories are regaled enjoy the attention.
Intrigued, I took a walk up the steep hill. About 150 years ago, says one plaque, the Shaw family came along, settled in and established much of what's here, lived prominent lives and then died. Now they're up on the hill overlooking what's become of their town. One epitaph of another long-gone citizen said, "He always left his camp cleaner than he found it." The cemetery is steep, terraced and a lies in some dishevelment here and there. It looks comfortable, though, well settled and at ease with itself.
After a reverent tour of the avenues housing the departed, I headed for the irreverent, down into town to see the Kinetic Museum. There, the infamous Kinetic Grand Championship Sculptures that have rolled and floated from Arcata to Eureka and then to Ferndale are on display. This is an event founded in 1974, by a man who wanted to build a more interesting tricycle. He came up with a pentacycle and the race was on. Artists and friends challenged each other, usually with a few beers under their belts, to build human-powered vehicles that had some elan, some style and certainly a lot of originality.
All vehicles are judged on appearance, water worthiness and ability to move forward with their Pilots ensconced within. In other words, winners must finish in fine style, and spectators are encouraged to leave their seriousness locked up at home. With tongue firmly in cheek, contestants create and then ride in outrageously adorned vehicles. They must have brakes and must be able to float. Beyond that, hilarity and creativity are valued to an immense degree. There is a giant rubber ducky, a huge shoe with a smiling face at its toe, a flying saucer, a giant crayon with wheels.
Outside again, I kept walking.
A tiny farmer's market was just folding its tables up when I chanced along. I met several members of the market association and bought bread from Lee and met Victoria and Gary who sell little fruit trees. Farming has been tough this year, they say, with a whole crop of potatoes plowed under. Their enthusiasm and pleasantries were disarming, endearing, and as open as the sky.
Shoulder to shoulder along main street are poignant, innocent businesses that are bravely holding up under strange market pressures out there in the big world. Ferndale is small, but not too small, and it has enough grandeur and notable dignity to hang its hat on but doesn't take itself very seriously. A citizen gets done milking the cows, goes to the Meat Company or the Mercantile or Poppa Joe's for breakfast with their buddies and catches up on news. They sip a cool beer over at one of the three bars later on, watch a ball game. Maybe later, they shuffle into church, look forward to a rodeo or take the kids to the town park. You can get along without taking much of it too darned seriously, from the looks of it here.
I'm in my motel now with windows open to let in the night air. A chorus of frogs is singing in the night. A few peacocks are lending their loud caws to the din, and just now a loud volunteer fire department siren has gone off, which is just about right, a very small old town five miles off the freeway and light years away from what's wrong with the world.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way