We left the heater on in the tent cabin, as directed, and blessed the electric blankets. Going to the bathroom in the night, though, was an adventure in chilblains. Awake most of the wee hours, listening to the bird and animal calls, I realized the familiarity of the terrain, and suddenly put two and two together: Safari West was situated on land, though separated by a mountain, which must have been less than ten miles as the crow flies from a site I had camped maybe fifty times during my first twenty years in California. No wonder I felt so at home there. It evoked many memories, one of which follows.
The Highway Patrol Officer, making a megaphone with his hands, tried to yell across the creek over the roaring waters, a challenging task. “Are you alright?” he bellowed repeatedly. We nodded up and down. “Do you have food?” Again we nodded. On routine patrol along rural 128 he noticed our car thirty feet below him along the creek bank and thought we had careened off the highway rather than driven along the old rutted track, now invisible with the rising waters, that followed the east side of the creek. The flow had been so sleepy when we waded across two days previously.
The rain started gently about 7 pm Friday night. We zipped our two old sleeping bags together, delighted that the zippers were compatible, to make one snug envelope. We spent the night warm and dry inside the old cabin,oblivious to the outside world. All seemed perfect. It was the last weekend of April, 1956. only three weeks following my big move to California from Washington State to live my lifetime with my sweetheart, Lee. It turned out to be the camping adventure of a lifetime.
We’d been pen pals for a little over a year and our friendship had grown into a lasting, tender, passionate love story that would endure until her death fifty one years later.
We were young adults, poor, and starry eyed. A free weekend alone at her friend Dr. Jane’s cabin north of Calistoga seemed like the perfect honeymoon. We would haul in our own food, wading across in less than knee deep water through the sleepy Maacama Creek to get to the tiny old cabin. I remember we had picked up a barbecued chicken from PayNSave, two blocks from our little Berkeley bungalo, and a big bag of Grandma’s Oatmeal Cookies, seconds because they were cheaper but just as delicious. Though without electricity Jane’s cabin boasted an outdoor fire pit and was complete with hand water pump and freshly refurbished outhouse. After all, I was a professional Girl Scout. Roughing it was right down my alley. Though she was underweight, Lee projected all those qualities I so admired (and personally lacked). At that time she worked for Harvey Williams Wholesale Hardware and was mighty gifted with any tool ever invented. She had the physique of a gymnast and the muscles of a softball athlete, which she was. This will be important later in the story. Her pride, a new ’56 red Ford sedan would take us safely anywhere. The two hour drive North from Berkeley led us through the Napa Valley to Calistoga and beyond, a landscape I had never seen. Grapes were not the big cash crop then as now, so most of the land was uncultivated Oak hillsides interspersed with the occasional run down farm.
Between dark and dawn the waters rose steadily. We noted it, but were not alarmed. By dusk the rain had increased and the creek bed was showing signs of overflowing. Small logs and debris were piling up, forming eddies and dislodging stones, some ther size of boulders. The water level was getting close to our car on the opposite bank, but still three or four feet away. We lit the kerosene lamps and snuggled down for a second night.
By Sunday morning the rain, if possible, increased in volume. Maacama Creek, rising sleepily from the North slope of Mount St. Helena, was now impassible, probably chin deep in places. How come the soil did not absorb the downpour, like it did in Western Washington? By noon we could see the waters creeping to the running boards of the car. Now larger boulders and whole limbs were crashing down the stream. The tumult would enter into the Russian River near Healdsburg. Would Lee’s new car be carried downstream with it? Would we?
The nearest bridge was a quarter of a mile away, but the mountainous terrain made it impossible to reach, even in summer. Wading across was the only viable option for reaching the other side, and now that was impossible. What kind of a new and scary world had I entered? To be continued next week.