The driftwood sign on Larry Spring‘s Fort Bragg storefront does not beat around the bush: “Experimental Analysis of Electromagnetic Energy.” Spring is a retired TV repairman who, back in the 1950s, he says, discovered some things about the movement of electrons that caused him to believe Einstein’s relativity theory was all hooey. On any given day you can find this self-schooled octogenarian sitting in his shop on Redwood Avenue, patiently awaiting visitors to stop by and talk physics. His window display is a strange assortment of lapidary achievements (stone lamp shades and bacon-and-eggs), physics (solar-powered whirligigs) and nostalgia (an ancient Victrola).
Welcome to the Crank Coast, that long, wayward curl of Northern California that stretches from Humboldt Bay to the mouth of the Russian River, a fog-enshrouded archipelago of isolated ranches, pioneer cemeteries, and towns peopled by the loggers, pot farmers, hippies and dropouts who drifted through Denis Johnson‘s elliptical novel Already Dead. Some subsist on questionable diets of alcohol, crank and tobacco, while others batten on organically grown vegetables and rainwater. What unites them all is a regional contrariness, the chronic need to go against the grain — any grain.
The Crank Coast’s northernmost tip is marked by the college village of Arcata, a hotbed of tree hugging and alternative alternatives. Due south is blue-collar Eureka, population 28,600, which might be called the Place of Dead Lawns: a forlorn town of badly painted Victorians that serves as the Crank Coast‘s Rome. Cheap motels hug the main southbound drag, Fourth Street, and are located reassuringly close to both bail bondsmen and cocktail lounges — the Woodcutter is one of the few bars I’ve seen men stumble into.
Although Eureka is in a steep financial downturn, last summer its electorate was ornery enough to resoundingly reject Wal-Mart‘s proposed redevelopment of the rotting Union Pacific engine yards. To some outsiders, the vote may have looked like the heroic act of a small town preserving its identity, but one could also see Eureka’s rejection of a billion-dollar suitor, and with it any chance of developing a deep-harbor port, as an act of economic self-mutilation. And while the city was farsighted enough in the early 1960s to preserve a large tract of its rough-and-tumble past, don‘t confuse its Old Town with San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter or San Francisco‘s Cannery — this former warehouse and office zone may be home to some coffee shops, Irish-wool boutiques and several decent restaurants, but many of its gaunt wooden buildings are weathered to the bone, and vacant.
What strikes a visitor is the Crank Coast’s selection of excellent bookstores. Eureka has Booklegger and Eureka Books. E.B. in particular features a breathtaking stock of used books — there are hardbound editions of Huxley and Hemingway, and a California-state section that gives the L.A. Central Library a run for its money. Perusing some books stacked on a table, I found a slim volume of poems published by my Cal Berkeley advisor in the year I graduated, a quarter century ago, and dedicated to another professor of mine. There‘s something restful if not restorative about browsing Eureka Books, its air heavy with must and mildew — and the soothing notion that a world exists somewhere out there.
About 25 minutes south lies Ferndale, a farming village whose main attractions are its tricked-out gingerbread houses, Eureka Books’ sister store and a saloon said to be the westernmost bar in the continental U.S. A travel rule of thumb on the Crank Coast is to visit as many of the cemeteries as possible. Ferndale‘s is strictly out of Stephen King — a brooding, hilly necropolis of graves eccentrically decorated with toy trucks, plastic dolls and balloons, violating all norms of funereal decorum.
Continuing south is that area known as the Lost Coast, an eerily silent, depopulated area of tiny farm towns such as Petrolia (hear the swish of locals’ heads at the Yellow Rose bar and grill as they turn in unison to consider a stranger entering the cocktail lounge), the ghostly “resort” town of Shelter Cove, and on down to Fort Bragg, home of alternative physics, a bar that defiantly proclaims “Smoking Allowed Inside” and, yes, more bookstores, such as the splendid Estates Gallery Books, whose 70,000 titles are guarded by an enormous, tuxedo-pattern cat.
At the moment, “Bragg” seems doomed to be known chiefly for the Skunk Train that connects the town with inland Willits and that provides tourists with four hours of sylvan vistas and lumber-industry propaganda. There is some attempt, mostly in the form of wishful thinking, to transform downtown‘s groaning wooden storefronts into the kind of antique-and-hotel tourist traps that have taken root in California’s gold country, but the place seems obstinately to stave off redemption.
Like Eureka, Fort Bragg has also resisted the Mammon-call of Wal-Mart, another act of Crank Coast defiance. Scoff if you like, but it‘s nearly impossible not to love a place where outside consensus is the enemy and all one needs to be content is a book, a space heater and a cup of coffee as strong as your opinions.