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by John van der Zee

  Ray's Resort brochure

In 1976, the author published a longer version of this article in the California Living section of the "San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle". It is republished here with his permission.
     There were other resorts like this all over Northern California once -- rustic retreats whose minimal accommodations -- my father once turned on the shower in a Ray's cabin and a toad popped out of the spout -- were part of their charm for middle-class city people before they took to the suburbs. But for us, there was no other Ray's.
          We approached it like wagon-train emigrants, scanning the horizon for signs of the promised land, a stifling July car, running on rationed gas and therefore overloaded with brothers, sisters, cousins, sometimes a dog, a crammed box of rivalries with a beleaguered father or uncle suffering three hours of songs, games, squirming and bickering like three on the cross.
          A shout of recognition was allowed, but it too was rationed; you had to save it till you saw The Sign -- a round, rusting, once-white metal disc, posted at a fork in the road outside the town of Philo, with a faded name above a faded arrow. We would all cut loose then, with a release of emotion the driver no doubt shared even as its noise was about to burst his eardrums.
"Much of my life since has been, I realize, an attempt to return."  
          A landscape full of forest magic opened around us, a barely cleared meadow dotted with huge, blackened stumps, land grudgingly won from dense, endless ranks of redwood and spruce; a biblical flock of grazing sheep; and, at the road's dead end, a colonnade of oaks so huge they all but shut out the sun. Within it, darker still, was a cluster of log-and-clapboard cabins rich with the promise of screened. cricket-noisy rest on sagging spring beds with mushy concave mattresses.
          Each day produced exotic, pastoral wonders: the dark, bay-and-urine secrets of an old barn; icy water from a rusty pump; water dogs; hikes through the cathedral floor of Hendy Woods, a dead, decaying deer. Once, my uncle, coming upon me fishing unsuccessfully, advised me that the proper way to catch trout was to sing to them. And left me, amiable greenhorn, standing alone beside the stream, bellowing at the top of my lungs: "Hut-sut rawl-son on the rillera." I still got skunked.
  Ray's Resort cabins
          It was the best summer, and the last. By the next June, my sisters, heeding the migratory urge to go where there were "boys," led us to the Russian River, Boulder Creek, Tahoe, "better," more upscale, more glamorous places by any objective measure. But a poor substitute by mine.
          I never had enough of Ray's. Much of my life since has been, I realize, an attempt to return. Yet I resisted going back to the original from simple fear that, like so much of the best of California in these years, it would be too good, too tempting to resist change. Someone would see possibilities. Develop. Improve. Incorporate it into what Tom Wolfe has aptly dubbed "the big shopping plaza of life."
          So it was with wildly ambivalent feelings that, faced with absolute deadlines -- my own fortieth birthday, my son's onrushing teens -- I drove with my wife, son and daughter, on the day after New Year's, up the narrow Mendocino County sideroad that was anticipation itself of so many years before. Returning to the home I'd have liked home to be.
  "... down the shady street, crackling with dry oak leaves; up the gap-toothed steps of our old cabin..."
          There was no listing in the local phone book, but the road remained, winding through land so choked with vegetation that cattle rustled about in it unseen until their heads poked out like squirrels or quail. A short way down was the sign, rusted into anonymity. Trees -- bigger than I'd remembered -- gave way to the hard-won meadow dotted with charred stumps -- eerie, monstrous figures once to us, walking this road in the dark. In the distance was the water tower, a relic the most hard-hearted developer would have kept, and below it the same large white house where the owners lived and we overate. Just beyond was the row of small cabins, our cabin, vacant, boarded as if condemned, yet dilapidated only in degree. The resort had aged, but not changed, and the general disrepair gave the place a curiously distinguished, autumnal survivor's glow.
          We parked beside the stained white chest where bottles of pop had competed with slugs for space around the ice block. A woman came out of the house, young, kitchen-busy, wiping her hands, wearing jeans, curious at our familiarity. Mrs. Ray, she told us, long widowed, had remarried and moved to town. The young woman and her husband had bought the place several months before. She invited us into the firewood warmth of her kitchen, introduced her husband, tall, intelligent and recently moved from Marin: people with suburban options, who had chosen to settle here. We exchanged information, names, dates, anecdotes, filling in each other's history: their Ray's for ours. The deed they bought, they told us, had been in the Ray family since the original homestead, and was signed by President Grover Cleveland. They intended to restore the place, a cabin at a time, would be taking limited guests, might allow people to pay part of their way by work, were looking to contact the old families. Ray's and its ideal owners, it seemed, had found each other.
Ray's Resort tennis court  
          They invited us to walk around, down the shady street, crackling with dry oak leaves; up the gap-toothed steps of our old cabin, onto the slightly listing porch with the meadow sloping away to another row of cabins below, the Navarro River beyond, and the smoky blue-green forests of the Coast Range.
          The life that Ray's and resorts like it represented -- modest family joys, indulgence within limits, an inward-looking husbandry of summer freedoms -- has all but disappeared from the California of these years, obscured by clouds of speedboat spray and camper dust. Yet it's restorable, through work and love, like a woody station wagon forgotten in a barn. It's about time for people to rediscover the pleasures of going to a place you don't send postcards from, and the joys of going away and staying home at the same time. It's a good life to bring back -- if indeed it ever fully left us. "There is no present or future," Eugene O'Neill, that most family-ridden of writers, once wrote. "Only the past, happening over and over again -- now."
  Editor's Note -- Judging by the many letters that the newspaper received after publishing this article in 1976, it seems my aunt's resort had a profound effect on the many guests who were lucky enough to have summered there.
Mr. van der Zee now lives in Healdsburg. His books include: "The Gate, The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge", "Bound Over: Indentured Servitude and American Conscience", "The Imagined City: San Francisco in the Minds of its Writers", and "The Greatest Men's Party on Earth -- Inside the Bohemian Grove", among others.
           -- Bill


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