The last resort
A defense of rebellion, small town tourism and wild-eyed Southern boys
Charwin Ward mops sweat off his ample frame with the flannel shirt he’s just doffed, swings the garment around so fast that misty beads of perspiration pinwheel off it, then sends it flying toward the low ceiling of the Spring Valley Community Center, where it sticks.
“Sometimes, we get accused of having too much fun!” yells the singer for the band Broken Ground.
The shirt is so loaded with beer and sweat and grime it just glues itself to the ceiling, hanging down by a sleeve in front of its owner’s madly grinning countenance. Ballcap twisted backwards on head, beer in one hand and microphone in the other, Charwin stares at the shirt with the cross-eyed amusement of a child playing with a new chemistry set.
“Rock ’n’ roll!” he screams.
The band crowded around him on the cramped stage breaks into a sizzling version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock classic, “That Smell.” You know the song. “Oooh, ooh, that smell. The smell of death’s around you.” It’s the stink of drugs and death Skynyrd was singing about, the one odor there’s no escape from. In Broken Ground’s capable, calloused hands, the tune is rendered in note-for-note perfection, and if you squint a little, Charwin & Co. might well be some wild-eyed Southern boys singing songs about the Southland for the score of hard-working men and women boot-scooting in front of them.
They’re not wild-eyed Southern boys, of course. Spring Valley is a tiny, unincorporated hamlet just east of Clear Lake, 80 miles northwest from Sacramento as the crow flies. About 1,000 people live in this grassy, tree-stubbled canyon, half of them retired, the other half still working, mostly in jobs that support Lake County’s two major industries—tourism and agriculture.
There are more than a dozen small communities like this centered around Clear Lake’s 105 miles of shoreline. Here you’ll find few of the amenities of modern living. Sure, there’s a Safeway in the town of Clearlake, but if you can’t find what you need at the store you’re going to have to drive at least an hour to Santa Rosa, or perhaps two hours to Sacramento or San Francisco. It’s the land in Northern California that time forgot, and most people here like it that way. Urban life, even the watered-down version offered in Sacramento, just doesn’t appeal to them. There’s too many people. Not enough open space. Not enough freedom.
We all crave freedom, but few of us ever get to experience it for any extended period of time. Most of us don’t really even talk about it anymore. But the people who live around Clear Lake talk about it, and some, like 38-year-old Charwin Ward, genuinely seem to experience it. He’ll tell you that as far as freedom is concerned, Clear Lake is the last resort. He belts out the lyrics to “Born on the Bayou” like he’s wrenching them from the swampy depths of an impoverished Southern upbringing; but he was born and raised here, and he’ll never leave.
The fact that he fronts a band that plays Southern rock, the music that time forgot, makes perfect sense in this context. Rock ’n’ roll has always been about rebellion, and while Neil Young may have slammed him all those many years ago, there was never any doubt that “Southern Man” could rock. During its peak in the 1970s, Southern rock, in all its beer-drinking and hell-raising glory, stayed true to its rebellious roots, and Broken Ground honors those roots now, at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, in the middle of no place in particular.
Rebellion, for Charwin, means doing what you know is right in your own heart, not necessarily what everybody tells you to do. You don’t want to cut your hair? Don’t cut it. You want to play Southern rock in the 21st century? Play it. You don’t want to pay electricity and telephone bills? Don’t pay ’em. Charwin doesn’t. He lives off the grid, no outside electricity, no telephone, in a two-story stucco chalet perched atop a 280-foot cliff overlooking Spring Valley. It’s his little piece of freedom, this cliffside niche, a testament to how far he’s willing to go for an ideal.
If that sounds a little further than you’d like to go for your freedom, well, you’re in luck. Just down the road apiece, on the south shore of Clear Lake, the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa is stirring up a little rebellion of its own, and the only thing you have to choose is the size of the room you want to stay in and the type of music you want to party to. In fact, the original wild-eyed Southern boys, .38 Special, are playing this weekend. They’re selling freedom at Konocti, weekend escapes from work and bills and family and the rest of the trappings of approaching middle age, and for a modest sum, it can be yours, here, in the land that time, and most of California, has forgotten.
The Harbor Resort & Spa sits in the large shadow of Mount Konocti, a 4,200-foot high volcanic cinder cone that dominates the landscape of Lake County like a vast, verdant pyramid. The mountain is visible from just about any point on Clear Lake’s winding shoreline, a constant reminder that forces beyond our full comprehension are steadily at work. Its presence is both grand and ominous. Native Americans believed the mountain had mysterious powers, and as late as the 1930s refused to work or travel on Mount Konocti at night.
One of the few marks Native Americans left during their 6000-year tenure of the region was a network of trails radiating outward from the many natural springs in the area. They believed that the bubbling pools, some hot, some cold, had the power to heal various diseases. White settlers who came here in the mid-19th century shared this belief, and, after enslaving, murdering, and otherwise brutally repressing the few Native Americans who hadn’t already been killed off by infectious diseases, quickly moved to exploit the region’s mineral springs as a tourist attraction. Lake County’s first resort, Harbin Hot Springs, was established in 1868. By the turn of the century, dozens of resorts, some of them enormous even by today’s standards, were promoting the beneficial effects of Lake County mineral water, which was said to cure any number of maladies, ranging from old age to tuberculosis to syphilis.
But getting there was no mean feat. Tourists had to travel by train from San Francisco to Calistoga, then journey by stage coach across a perilous mountain road to Clear Lake. Writes Marilyn Eachus Johnson, a young woman who made the journey to Seigler Hot Springs in 1884: “The road is narrow and winding, twisting tortuously up the narrow mountain gorges and down the steep canyons. … There are times when the wheels of the coach go dangerously near to the edge of a cliff and the whole body sways as to give the impression we are sure to go over.” Freedom from ill health and disease proved to be a powerful motivating force, and thousands flocked to Lake County spas from all over the world.
However, the area’s relative remoteness prevented anyone who wasn’t wealthy or didn’t believe in the magical healing powers of mineral water from making the journey. The resort industry, while it flourished through the 1920s, was never capable of sustaining the region on its own, and its out-of-the-way location made attracting other businesses difficult. “Behold the land which was hid out of the old west,” advertised the cover of a real estate pamphlet printed by the Lake County Board of Supervisors in 1887. They were trying to get somebody, anybody, to move to Clear Lake. The area had an image problem before image problems were invented; it still has one today.
That’s one reason why, once a month, the Clear Lake Advisory Subcommittee meets to discuss issues surrounding the lake. The committee is a cross-section of all the groups who hold a stake in the lake: local government officials, farmers, business people, Native Americans. They know that the economic well-being of Lake County depends on the lake and the public’s perception of it, and that’s why they have a fairly complex public relations problem on their hands.
Clear Lake, the largest natural lake solely within California, is classified as eutrophic, or nutrient rich. Runoff from the volcanic soil that provides such fertile ground for local pear farms and vineyards also packs the lake with nutrients. Pesticides, sewage and other sources contribute additional nutrients to this already potent mixture. The lake is shallow, 35 feet deep, so the water is warm, especially in summer. Add it all up, and you’ve got the perfect medium for growing blue-green algae. Loads of it. Huge, thick mats of it that float to the surface and cover entire portions of the lake. During really bad years, like the droughts of the 1970s, locals say it’s so thick that animals can walk across it. Even during normal years, swimmers daring to brave the waters in July and August are more than likely to come up covered in blue-green slime. Visibility is at times measured in inches.
“The algae has been around here for millions of years,” says Bob Lossius, an assistant public works director for Lake County who sits on the subcommittee. He notes that Livingston Stone, a naturalist who came to the area in 1873, made light of the fact that settlers had chosen the name Clear Lake, since the water is anything but. Nevertheless, the lake’s eutrophic status didn’t stop the tourism industry from promoting the recreational activities available on the lake after the collapse of the great mineral water resorts and spas. During the 1940s and 1950s, scores of resorts catering to automobile tourists, fisherman and boating enthusiasts sprouted around the lake.
But while Clear Lake was and continues to be a top attraction for sport fishing, it never regained the grandeur of its early days, and the resort towns on the lake’s north shore, Nice, Lucerne and Clearlake Oaks, where Charwin Ward and the other members of Broken Ground grew up, have been in decline for many years. Boxy cabins once painted in gay summer colors have faded and fallen into disrepair. Old boats, rusty industrial equipment and other flotsam and jetsam litter the shore. These towns reek of depression. There’s also another odor.
In late summer, it rises to the surface, dries out, and stinks to high heaven. It’s a pungent, mossy stench, so powerful that tourists passing through the area roll up the windows and keep right on driving. When the smell becomes unbearable, citizen volunteers man pontoon boats mounted with fire pumps and courageously motor out onto the huge floating carpets of green slime, spraying them with water to force them to sink below the surface, temporarily abating the smell, until the algae inevitably resurfaces. No one is really certain what killed Lake County’s tourism industry, but it’s a safe bet that the algae had something to do with it.
On the west end of the lake, 1500 acres of wetlands at Rodman Slough were restored. These efforts have helped reduce algae, improving the water’s clarity and Lake County’s image. But now there’s a new problem. For the first time in ages, sunlight can reach the aquatic plants in the lake, and they’ve been growing like wildfire.
It’s not really a problem, according to one subcommittee member. The lake already has enough problems, like the Sulfur Banks Mercury Mine, which operated for nearly 100 years just 750 feet from the lake’s shore, contaminating the fisheries with mercury. The state declared the fish unsafe to eat except in limited amounts in 1986; the feds declared the mine an EPA Superfund site in 1990. Lord knows, the lake already has enough problems, the subcommittee member says. The rapidly growing aquatic plants, which can hamper water-skiers and swimmers, clog up intakes of jet skies and power boats, and generally make life miserable for many of the lake’s recreational users, are “an incredible pain in the ass.” But not a problem.
Subcommittee member Maile Fields, a former newspaper reporter turned pear farmer, listens to such equivocations with wry amusement. It’s the sort of hair-splitting that drove her away from journalism and into farming. She likes listening to trees better than bureaucrats. She also likes serving on the subcommittee. It suits her idealistic, democratic nature. She’s proud of the work the subcommittee has done; it has definitely had a positive impact on the lake’s ecosystem. But as the meeting adjourns, she has something else on her mind. Her farm is going under, and she needs to get back to it.
Curiously, there is no representative from the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa at the meeting. The resort offers a myriad of recreational opportunities on the lake, from ski boat and wave runner rentals to overnight mooring services. You’d think someone from the resort would have been there. Some locals, Maile Fields for instance, will chalk this absence up to the resort’s alleged indifference to the community’s problems. But Konocti president and general manager Greg Bennett will tell you a different story. There is no problem, as far as the lake is concerned, he’ll tell you. His guests almost never complain about the algae, the weeds, or anything else. He’s in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion. Business is booming.
That might be the kind of double-speak that drove Maile Fields out of journalism, but you get the feeling Greg Bennett knows something other business people around the lake, maybe even a few people on the subcommittee, haven’t figured out yet. Recreation alone ain’t gonna cut it in Clear Lake. It’s eutrophic, for Christ’s sake. Something’s always going to be growing in it. You’ve got to give the people something more. A little taste of freedom, for instance.
You’ve got to give them rock ’n’ roll.
Why else would they come?
As the subcommittee disperses, Maile, a soft-spoken woman with medium length red hair and a smooth, peaches-and-cream complexion, sidles up. “I have a story for you,” she says. “Come out to my pear farm tomorrow. You can watch us knock down trees.”
During weekdays in the off-season, the Full Moon Saloon at the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa can be a lonely place. Bartenders sometimes go days without seeing a soul. Not that they’re complaining. Back in the old days, eleven years ago, before rock ‘n’ roll came, the resort closed in the wintertime. Now it stays open, plying convention trade, gearing up for the big name musical acts that perform nearly every weekend.
The 120-acre spread nestled at the base of Mount Konocti features 250 hotel rooms, a 1000-seat indoor showroom, and a 5000-seat outdoor amphitheater. There’s a fully equipped gym and full-service spa, featuring more than 60 body treatments. There are two outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pools, two pools for the kids, eight tennis courts, and all the aforementioned lake-going activities. It’s a sweet, if slightly Las Vegas-cheesy, setup.
When Greg Bennett came here in 1990—like many people who move to Lake County, he and his family were seeking escape from the pressures of urban life—the then 30-year-old resort was a wreck. He immediately did two things: he started a long-term renovation project by constructing a 350-seat showroom. Then he began contacting his connections in the touring talent business—the dinosaur rock circuit, as it is known in less polite circles. Bands like the Doobie Brothers, the Beach Boys and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Performers such as Air Supply, Dan Fogleberg, Art Garfunkel and Jethro Tull, artists not even presumed to be living, let alone still playing live music. Greg Bennett booked them into that tiny little concert hall, and guess what?
People came in droves. By 1994, the concert hall had been expanded to 600 seats and was the No. 1 grossing small venue in America. The buzz was on, and big-name acts, legitimate contemporary stars such as Chris Isaac, Lyle Lovett and Sheryl Crowe, came out to play. New groups like Marcy Playground got in on the act. The resort became a must-stop for almost all of the major country western stars, past and present. Willie Nelson. Faith Hill. Clint Black. George Jones. Sure, there’ve been some real stinkers over the years: Billie Ray Cyrus, Sammy Hagar, The Spin Doctors. But for the most part, the acts just keep getting better, and the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa just keeps on getting bigger.
So now it’s like nothing to see, on a bright, sunny, Friday afternoon, .38 Special vocalist Donnie Van Zant, black cowboy hat pushed down over pudgy face, stumpy legs shoehorned into a pair of jeans two sizes too small, ambling down the street in front of the registration office like he’s in sweet home Alabama. Here it must be admitted that Donnie had nothing to do with the famed Skynyrd anthem—that was his late brother Ronnie—and that .38 Special never was anything more than a second tier Southern rock band. Still, these Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, as they titled their 1981 platinum LP, cranked out a number of good-timey, grab-and-grope hits like “Caught Up In You” and “Hold On Loosely” that retain a certain charm, as evidenced by the automobiles and Harleys that have been filling up the Konocti parking lot since before noon.
The people driving these vehicles range from their early 30s to their late 40s. Keep in mind that most of them came of age in the 1970s, a time when America was still reeling from the excesses of the 1960s. The androgynous rock of the early 1970s that was so popular with music critics turned many of these people off. Southern rock offered a more simple interpretation of the world, where men were still men and women were still women. It is to this world that our friends have returned to, to take part in a one-night-stand specifically designed by the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa to recapture the lost freedom of their forgotten youth.
It may sound a little plastic, a bit contrived, and it is. The .38 Special performance goes over so smoothly, it almost seems like an afterthought. The theater’s acoustics are so good, the band so tight after playing the same songs together for 25 years, it’s almost too easy. Only a few rough edges are visible. Age is wearing on the band, especially Van Zant, whose playful moves and antics have degenerated into something more akin to the jerky motions of a beginning aerobics student. At the end, the band rolls three of their biggest hits into a medley that short changes all three songs, but the nearly packed house goes crazy anyway, standing on their dinner table chairs, hooting and hollering like cats in heat.
No doubt more than a few of these people are in heat, appetites whetted by a reasonably-priced dinner, thirst slaked by copious amounts of alcohol billed to their rooms, the foreign taste of a little rock ’n’ roll freedom still tingling on their tongues. Konocti saves the best part for last. Remember meeting that guy or a girl at a concert in your youth, only to have to part ways when the show was over? Well, you’re an adult now, and there’s a live cover band playing in the Full Moon Saloon. Charwin Ward and Broken Ground have played here many times; once, they played after the Waylon Jennings show, and Jennings liked Broken Ground so much he gave them a 3-foot-by-5-foot rebel flag. They’re not playing tonight, it’s another cover band, but the dance floor is hopping with manly men and curvaceous women. If you haven’t brought a partner to the dance, chances are good that you’ll find one. Whether it leads to his or her hotel room is up to you. That’s the kind of freedom granted here, in the land that time forgot. The dark silhouette of Mount Konocti looms over it all, cool, detached.
Maile Fields’ pear farm is a mere five miles away from the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa, but it might as well be light years. Mount Konocti still dominates the view, but Maile’s world is as different from the resort’s as day is to night. Big-boned in a gingham dress, she looks every part the farmer, and only her detailed knowledge of world and local events gives her away as a former journalist.
Her roots in the area run deeper than most of the trees in her orchards, some of which are more than 110 years old. Her great, great, great grandmother came to the Clear Lake area in 1848 to escape a typhoid epidemic—yet another malady the region’s mineral baths and other healing powers could allegedly cure. Members of her family have lived here on and off ever since, often returning when times in the outside world got too tough, like in the Great Depression, or when Maile’s attempt to relocate in Argentina failed. Returning to Clear Lake was an act of desperation for Maile, a last chance to make the world fit her idealistic view of it.
So she and her husband Lars donated a large tract of their 240-acre orchard to a government-sponsored project that used alternative methods to standard pesticides. The project was a success, the woman running it for the government won some fancy award. But during their years of farming, Maile and Lars have learned that freedom has a price. Unfortunately for them, the money they’ve been getting for their crops hasn’t been enough to cover expenses.
“Commodity prices are global, costs are local,” she explains, walking through rows of knocked-over pear trees with her tow-headed young sons, Chance and Seth. A bulldozer rumbles in the distance; its exhaust plume rising above a row of trees signals Lars’ location. When the pears are ripe, Maile continues, they must be picked and shipped to a packing plant within 12 hours. From there, Maile and Lars lose all control of their product. Global commodity brokers will search the world—South Africa, Argentina, Oregon, Washington, all places that don’t have as stringent environmental regulations as California, and can therefore grow produce more cheaply—for the lowest-priced pears.
“The packing plant sells them for whatever they can get,” Maile says as she reaches the row of trees where Lars is operating the bulldozer. Too often, the price has simply not covered the cost of growing the pears. Which means Maile and Lars lose money. That’s why they’re knocking down the trees. Lars lifts the bulldozer’s blade and guns the machine toward a 110-year-old pear tree. The blade lowers and sinks into the dark, loamy earth, ripping the tree out by the roots and knocking it off to the side like an insignificant weed. Then he moves on to the next tree.
“We’ve been thinking about putting in a vineyard, but it’s expensive,” Maile says, trying to catch up with Chance, who has disappeared behind a row of still-standing trees. Wide expanses of Lake County have been devoted to growing grapes during the past decade; impossibly parallel rows of vineyards carpet the hills that encircle the lake. “Whatever happens, we’re going to do whatever we can to hold on to our land,” Maile says. “It’s going to be valuable.” She has mixed feelings about the possibility of losing the freedom farming has granted her. “To be able to look out my window and see open space is the greatest gift in the world,” she says. “But I often wonder. What gives me the right?”
Once upon a time, the Spring Valley Community Center was nothing more than a pole barn with no walls and a dirt floor. Over the years, valley residents have pitched in materials and labor to make it a respectable town meeting place. A concrete floor was laid. The building was sided in. A kitchen was added. Nowadays, as many as 200 people will show up for Sunday brunch and other special events held at the center. About 100 turned out Saturday night, before Broken Ground took the stage, to attend a spaghetti feed for Craig Russ, the new owner of Spring Valley’s only store. He recently slid his motorcycle into another vehicle and broke his hip. He has no health insurance, and the money raised by the dinner will help pay his hospital bills.
Most of the older people leave after the raffle, content to win a few door prizes, eat homemade sauce over cold spaghetti, and forgo the evening’s more serious partying activities. Broken Ground has been practicing here for years, and the older people know the band plays pretty loud, too loud for ears that have listened to the empty talk of freedom for too many years. They know that everything, even freedom, has its price. Charwin Ward, switching drinks from Coors Light to vodka and cranberry juice in between sets, does not share their knowledge. He’s not going to put up with authority. Not now, while he and his band mates are kings.
They open the second set with a blistering version of “Radar Love” that sounds twice as fast, three times as loud and maybe even a tiny bit better than the original by Golden Earring. The thirty-something audience is whipped into a frenzy of sweating, heaving bodies. No cocktail mini-dresses on the women here. No thigh-high patent leather boots. Just good old fashioned blue jeans, filled out quite nicely. The men twist and gyrate and shuffle among these women like nervous, hysterical dogs, deliriously happy their master has finally returned home.
“You know, when we played Konocti the night Waylon Jennings was there, he gave us this big rebel flag,” Charwin informs the crowd. “We wanted to use it as a backdrop, but we knew some people might get upset. So instead, we wrote this song. It’s called ‘Rebel Flag.’ ” The band launches into a raunchy blues riff as Charwin sings:
I’ve been to Atlanta, I’ve been to L.A.
I’ve been in the desert in the pouring rain.
I’ve been in the ocean; it’s cold right to the bone.
I’ve lived in the mountains and felt so all alone.
I fly my rebel flag way, way up high.
I’ll fly my rebel flag till the day I die.
They’re amazingly tight, this band of wannabe wild-eyed Southern boys. They are wild-eyed Southern boys. Dean Brandon on bass, Ray Phillips on rhythm guitar, Chris Brewer on lead guitar, Tani Fillari on drums, all led by this bearded crazy singer who’s just cocky enough to tell PG&E and Pac Bell to stick it. Charwin Ward lives off the grid, he plays Southern rock, and he’s damned proud of it. He may have to go to work on Monday, slapping up wallboard for the local construction contractors he works for—but tonight, he’s free.
After the show, Charwin’s truck climbs and weaves up twisty Wolf Creek Road beneath a moonless, star-filled sky. His house is at the end of the road. Charwin and a woman who was at the show stagger out of the truck. Be careful, he says, there’s a cliff on three sides here. They enter the two-story dwelling, Charwin flicks a switch and four deep cycle 12-volt batteries bring the house to light. Spread out on a couch is the 3-foot-by-5-foot rebel flag.
The batteries run through a DC-AC converter Charwin picked up at Wal-Mart for $65. They make enough juice to drive the band’s 4500 watt sound system. In the daytime, the batteries are recharged by solar panels that also supply direct electricity to the house. In the summer, a solar-powered swamp cooler keeps the temperature indoors bearable. Propane handles the heating and cooking chores. Charwin points to a bank of eight solar panels he hasn’t hooked up yet, because four panels have been enough to do the job so far. But he’s not throwing the extra panels out yet.
“My goal,” he proclaims with great bravado, “is to eventually sell power back to PG&E. Or at least sell it to all my neighbors for half the price PG&E is selling it to them.”
Maybe he’s kidding. Maybe he’s not. This isn’t some fad borne of the state’s current electrical crisis. Fourteen years ago, right about the time he started singing in a Southern rock band, he paid his last PG&E bill, stood up on this bluff overlooking Spring Valley, and waved his solar panels at the world, in victory or defeat, he wasn’t sure. Now, he feels vindicated.
He won’t hang the rebel flag up in the community center because he knows some people perceive it has a racist symbol, and he’s no racist. For him, the flag symbolizes a need all of us feel, the need to follow our hearts, to do our own thing, to be left in peace. Playing Southern rock, living off the grid—these are the only ways he knows how to feel free.
In the morning, like Maile Fields and her husband Lars, like all of us must do at some point in our lives, he will discover freedom has a price. He will hear it ringing inside the aching confines of his hung-over skull. Likewise, the guests who have spent the weekend at the Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa will awaken in the land that time forgot, to find that Mount Konocti still looms overhead. As they depart, perhaps they will recall moments during the weekend when they themselves felt free. But the mountain will still be there, omnipresent, immovable, even as it disappears in their rear-view mirrors on their long journeys back to Oroville, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose.
On Monday, all of them, Charwin Ward included, will return to work.