Sometime before I was born, my parents bought a piece of property in Mendocino County. The top 40 acres of a mountain outside Potter Valley, it had a mostly-burned-down house and an intact outhouse, and during the time my parents owned it my dad built most of a barn and most of a cabin. We didn’t get up there all that frequently, though I think at some point my parents had planned for us to move to the property. Many of my memories of the place are tied to specific events or stories they told me from when I was too young to remember, and to photos that were taken of me as a little girl, on a sled made out of the hood of an old VW bug in the snow, standing amongst tulips, walking along a wooden bench or the border of the sand box. I had to be rushed to the emergency room in Ukiah at least twice, once because my dad had thought I had swallowed a nail and I’m not sure what the other time was, but Bad Things always seemed to happen when we were up there.
I do have a memory of riding on my dad’s shoulders, and of him tripping and falling over some downed barbed wire fence, and me going sprawling and being scared stiff because I’d had the wind knocked out of me and I couldn’t breathe. Luckily, I wasn’t injured, just frightened, and I was OK after a while.
We’d go up to the property a few times a year, and it seemed like every time we were there we’d have to clean up all of the damage done by mice and squirrels and raccoons, and nothing stayed the way we’d put it the last time we’d been there. It was essentially camping in an unfinished, unheated cabin, with old blankets and old foam pads on the floor. I remember eating hot dogs and baked beans on paper plates, and drinking Pepsi out of the tall swirled glass bottles, and my dad’s old flatbed truck that had ended up there for some reason.
As the years went by, we made the trek up to the property less and less often. I went once with my dad when it was winter, and while he did a bunch of stuff I mostly sat on rocks or in the cab of the truck, reading my book and eating skinny pretzel sticks and making halfhearted snowballs to throw at nobody. I might have been 9 or 10 years old, and would have much rather been anywhere else, but those few hours weren’t really so bad, looking back on it.
The last time we went to the property, it was a summer trip, probably the summer of 1990, and I had been spending my school vacation swimming, hanging out with my best friend, and babysitting. I invited her to come up to the property with us, and it was one of the best times I remember up there, because I had someone to joke and laugh and sleep in a tent with; I didn’t have to sleep on the musty foam mattress or be anywhere near my snoring sisters. We walked up to the ridge where the barn was still unfinished, and over to the pond, and we talked about cute boys and makeup and whatever else middle school girls talk about.
My parents sold the property (which they’d always thought of as bad luck, not only because of all the bad things that happened to us while we were there but because of what had happened to the previous owners (a crazy firebug torched their house)) in 1991 or 1992. And only a few years later, someone who belonged to the people that bought the land from my parents ended up going to prison for some drug-related relative-killing. Bad juju, that land, and I’m glad my family isn’t tangled up with it anymore.
Today, Dan and I, wanting to get out of the house, decided to drive north for a while. We passed the Rock Shop on the way to Hopland, and then we passed the gas station where my family would always stop to get It’s-Its. We drove through Ukiah and all the way up to Willits, which has the first stoplight on Highway 101 north of San Francisco (a title that was held by Cloverdale until the freeway bypass went through in the mid-90s). I hadn’t been north of Hopland since 1999, and the road conditions are certainly better than they were back then, and the rest of it is just as beautiful as I remember.
We turned around at the north end of Willits, and headed back south. When we got back to Hopland, Dan suggested we stop at the little gas station/corner store to see if they had It’s-Its for sale. We did, and to my surprise, they did. We bought an It’s-It and shared it. It tasted exactly the way I remembered, an ice cream sandwich I probably last ate in 1990, on the way home from the last trip up to that cursed property in Mendocino County.