With a bugle at my lips and riding a fast horse, my retreat into the mists of The Lost Coast would have been no less dramatic than it turned out to be. I watched Ferndale recede in my rear-view mirror, drove 35 miles on a twitching and nervous tail of a road to the middle of nowhere. There, I was cut off from all radio, newspaper, internet, TV, and cell phone access. No one really knew where I was or when I would be seen again. Cell phone service was sketchy in Ferndale, but as soon as my car faced west and I began the drive, it ended for good. I was on my own, I thought. No looking back anymore.
The Mattole Road is the highway builder's equivalent of the flight of a butterfly, going up, down, sideways, inside out to get from here to there and beyond. In the circumstances of getting lost on purpose, I could not have taken a more zig-zaggy road; the twists and turns made me drive as if by the seat of my pants. I saw giant bulls with rolling eyes grazing on the treetops - or so it seemed. I saw islands in the distant mist, hills furred with golden grasses and flanked by bristling redwood forests. Bouquets of flowers, millions of them, danced at the side of the road. On I drove. I had no choice.
I had decided months before to put as much of modern life out of my mind and get back to the simplest living possible. Work, media, oil spills, war, poverty, overpopulation - all the negativity of all that junk - felt heavy and dispiriting, sickening really. (Run for my life! Retreat!) It felt like I needed to shove it all aside and flee, jump the sinking ship and save my soul. I looked around and found exactly I was looking for: The Lost Coast Writers' Retreat.
Ask the universe in no uncertain terms for something and you will get it. In exact measure; no more, no less.
It took one hour and a chunk of another to go 35 miles. Then, I spent a week going nowhere but up. I was at Camp Mattole hard by the Mattole River in Humboldt County, seven miles from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies. It's halfway exactly between two little what'sitcalled towns where a collection of our fellow citizens live, part of a scattered and remote population partly made up of "farmers." I hardly saw anyone as I drove.
The intention topmost in my mind and the stated reason for the retreat was to, well, retreat!, but also to learn more about the craft of writing from other writers and teachers who love literature and writing. I wanted to meet people who care about the written word. I got lucky and found about 20 such folk. The perks? They also love good food, acoustic music, conversation, nature, rivers, and a few other things I enjoy. Lots of common ground, tons of it, almost for the first time in my life.
I think that's called finding your tribe.
The camp is an outgrowth of The National Writing Project. These days, the local chapter of that group calls itself The Redwood Writing Project, and carries on the work locally in Humboldt County. They develop teachers to use best practices in their profession in order to teach students about writing. A teacher who can write better can teach better, they say, and can teach writing using new ideas and appreciation for the craft.
They know it's a lot of work to formulate a concept and communicate it through words. As with all other art forms, good writing is nuanced and leaves plenty to the imagination, spurs more ideas, pries open our minds and nudges us to think. Teachers who have experienced this through writing of their own then pass it along to their classes.
My car rolled to a stop. Tall redwoods, a long clearing covered by a lawn that was dotted by small wooden cabins, spread out before me. There stood a large building with a broad deck and wide steps, surrounded by the lawn. Down below me, beyond a stand of pines, oaks, and redwoods flowed a gurgling gentle river whose sweeping graveled banks beckoned and invited exploration. Tranquility and beauty smiled from all sides. The caretaker walked up to me with a big grin on his face, his dog Rusty at his side, and said, "You're early, but it only means you have the whole place to yourself to enjoy. Help yourself!"
Later, after I'd napped, walked and left stress and worry in my car, I began to meet staff members as they arrived followed by other campers. Dan and Vinnie, apparently in the Poet Mobile, came first and said hello. Dan travels throughout several school systems in Humboldt County and beyond, teaching poetry in the schools. Vinnie teaches in a middle school and writes poetry, sharpens his wit quietly and listens very attentively, I found later.
Jim arrived, said he works as a mediator and has taught many levels of school in his career, and is retired from law. Linda and Will came next, two kind people who have taught for a combined 60 years between them. She photographs, makes books and could very well wear a halo. As a matter of fact, I'm going to bet she does. Will is a luthier and writes songs as well as teaches in a middle school. Guy and Cindy have also taught for over 60 years. He's retired now and sings his way through life with a rich baritone voice and a love of almost everything. Cindy, with penetrating blue eyes and a kind, supportive nature, teaches yoga and writes poetry as well as teaching recalcitrant kids to be human. Bob, who teaches teachers all the time now, loves riding trail horses and is the de facto leader of the staff, having been with the RWP the longest.
I had asked, and I was beginning to receive - almost immediately - help with my ability to see myself as a writer. Now the fun would begin.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way