By Mikal Jakubal
One of my main documentary peeps lives in the Whale Gulch community, possibly the most remote region of the SoHum area, straddling the Humboldt/Mendocino County lines on the ridge above the ocean. You get there via a winding, one-and-a-half-lane mostly-paved road with blind corners and no shoulder. Deer and other wildlife, falling trees, landslides, boulders, mud, flooding, fog, rain, pot holes and vehicles driving on your side of the road are normal hazards. Though located in Mendocino County, people from “The Gulch” use Garberville, in SoHum as their town. When they go to town.
You probably won’t find yourself in this unlikely somewhere unless you go looking for it. The only indication you’ll have that a “there” exists will be the bulletin board at Four Corners and the Whale Gulch school, which you’ll pass a bit farther on. You’ll know you’re almost there when you see the sign on the treacherously-slim, serpentine, one-lane road with steep drop-offs that warns “Road Narrows.”
There is no green sign welcoming you to Whale Gulch, no store, no gas station, no post office or zip code, no rows of houses, no street lights or stop signs. And yet a vibrant community three-generations old lives all around, in homesteads intentionally out of sight, tucked into the comfort and insulation that this remoteness provides. This land is steep and rugged; the forests, dark and often foggy; the dirt roads snaking into the hills, unmarked and muddy or dusty, depending on the season. Large fences obscure the lives of those who live within eyeshot of the road. You may see the occasional helmetless, unlicensed ATV rider out on the road, going somewhere with an air of purpose. Slow down to let them pass or use turnouts when you can, because they will be going faster than you.
Like most of these hermit-ish hill communities, it is rare to see more than a handful of people out together in public at any one time. It takes an emergency, a funeral or a big party to bring people together. While disasters and funerals are ad hoc affairs, each place has its regularly-scheduled parties and gatherings. Elk Ridge has Sunday potluck/music/volleyball games during dry weather. Ettersburg has Sunday softball games. Salmon Creek has a famous Halloween party. Other places have similar weekly, monthly or annual events, often held as fundraisers for their neighborhood hill schools or fire departments. Especially at harvest, pot is the most common topic of conversation, followed by the weather and gossip.
After the Whale Gulch community center building burned down ten years ago, the intersection informally known as Four Corners has become the community gathering spot when they need a large, open area for events in this otherwise steep and forested landscape. The annual Labor Day picnic and barbecue is held as a fundraiser for the Whale Gulch Volunteer Fire Department, one of many such “bake-sale fire departments” that provide the first response in remote areas like The Gulch.
While Four Corners is an official Mendocino County road, the event goes on without a permit. Traffic can still pass slowly through, once the kids with their chalk and toys, the dogs and the random clusters of chatting people with plates of potluck food lazily clear the way. This event is emblematic of the community spirit that pervades much of SoHum, despite the isolation. It gives it it’s unique “placeness.” Food is mostly potluck—and good! In addition, there is a huge table of deserts and a barbecue churning out heaping pans of chicken that I could smell a quarter mile down the road as I approached. The donation jar was stuffed with cash—though mostly $20s, not the $100s you might have seen ten years ago. They made the intersection into a community center for the weekend like they owned the place.
Which, in a certain sense, they do. There is virtually no law here. The Mendocino County Sheriff would have to drive an hour and a half from the nearest small town in Northern Mendocino to get here. There is no County Roads crew here on Saturday and they wouldn’t care in any event. The Highway Patrol only comes here when called to a real emergency, especially on a busy holiday weekend. So, the road belongs to the people.
In sixteen years, this was my first time at this event. I came partly out of curiosity and partly out of hope to shoot my doc participant at just this sort of community event. While I’m formally done with principal photography, I’ve realized that I still need some pickup shots of participants being involved in grass-roots community events. I ended up not being able to shoot today, but did have some great food and caught up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while. I’m usually not much of a meat eater, but smelling that chicken for a quarter of a mile, I couldn’t resist. By the time I was leaving at dusk, some musicians were talking about where to set up. I was told the party will go into the night. In the morning, everyone will come back and there will be a big breakfast and more events throughout the day. And then it will all be packed up till next year. If I hadn’t already committed to working on the film at home tomorrow, I’d get up and go back. Maybe I still will.
Along the road from Four Corners to Whale Gulch, not far from the “Road Narrows” sign, a small, brushed-out clearing in the trees affords a zen glimpse of the ocean from the high ridge you’re on. Not a gaping picture window or an observation tower with a 360-degree view, but a narrow slot, more like a rifle port. Enough for a passing glimpse. The ocean, like the community, is always there, behind the trees and hills, visible only when the brush is occasionally cleared.
I see my film very much like this little clearing. It will be a sliver-thin window into a rich and complex world. My intention is not to try and bring you up to the bell tower to see the city spread before you like a map, nor is it to expose anything or to remove the mystery. If anything, you should come away with a deepened sense of mystery, or maybe awe, at this place. You will realize that there is no map to see. Hopefully you’ll also let go of every misguided stereotype you ever heard of about the Humboldt community and pot growing and come to understand why people feel so much is at stake.