The road north of Cloverdale on Highway 101 is one of my favorite stretches of road in California. For me it’s where the real Northern California begins. The Bay Area fades away and it’s just windy roads, fewer people and forests for miles.
I grew up driving this highway each summer with my dad heading to the Marble Mountains and Trinity Alps to go backpacking. After several great days in Sonoma County I was eager to push north and see some of this beautiful country.
Our destination was Covelo, a Mendocino County town in a place called the Round Valley northeast of Willits. I’d never been there before. All I knew was were going to visit Stephen and Gloria Decater, two community farming pioneers who inspired two generations of ecologically minded farmers.
With the sun fading, we lumbered up Hwy. 101 past Willits and looked for the turn-off to Highway 162. I found it and to my surprise it tracked right along side the Eel River, a beloved steelhead trout river and one of the my favorite rivers in California. We climbed up the vertiginous one-lane road with purple and yellow wildflowers growing on one side. Deirdre begged me to slow to 25 mph because she said the trailer tires where coming too close to the edge of the road and the steep a canyon wall below.
We finally reached the top and the views were stunning. The middle fork of the Eel River cuts a wide swatch through wilderness with no signs of human habitation. Dropping down, I wondered what Covelo would look like. Nothing prepared me for the sight of the valley below as we rounded yet another hairpin curve: a perfectly flat valley ringed by snow-capped mountains. Dropping further to valley floor, it remind me of Montana, high plains surrounded by mountains. Tall, tawny grass and cattle dotted the landscape along with broad, redwood sided barns.
The Round Valley, eight miles across and threaded by Mill Creek, felt like arriving in another place, another time. The town is remote enough that despite its stunning appearance there are few people here, about a 1,000. Sadly, many of them are pot growers who have disrupted what was one of California’s most picturesque small towns. The valley was only “discovered” in 1850, well into California’s Gold Rush.
Although rampant with transient marijuana growers who have flooded the valley with guns and money, it’s still undeniably beautiful. Best of all was what I discovered at Stephen and Gloria’s Live Power Community Farm, a thriving 40-acre farm powered largely by solar and animal energy. It’s also a vision for a different kind of agriculture and food system, one that’s wholly supported by a community of 200 families.
The Decaters opt out of farmers markets, grocery stores and wholesale markets and instead get all their income from their network of supporters. In this way, Stephen told me, he doesn’t have to play to race to the bottom (line) dictated by a profit driven economy. And he can produce food that doesn’t externalize costs and instead, give member-supporters a full accounting of where their food came from and what it truly costs.
More on this in my next post.