My favorite time of year is just around the corner. When we were kids, we called it "Indian Summer,” and it always came in October. The weather would turn colder, it rained more often, and just when we thought winter was coming, it would warm up again, and for a week or two, we would be treated to clear blue skies and colorful leaves, a mixture of summer and fall weather that stood out like a separate season all by itself.
Indian Summer is probably not unique to our area, although it may be called by different names. I remember a similar change of seasons when I lived in Vermont, Ohio, and Connecticut, but there was one place I lived where Indian Summer was missing altogether.
In the summer of 1980, I was staying with a family I had befriended in the small town of Boonville California, 3,000 miles away from home, without a job, a car, or a place of my own. Boonville is located along Route 128, which runs east and west between Route 101 and the northern coast of California, about four hours north of San Francisco. It's an area known for its sheep farms, logging operations, and rural lifestyle. The road winds through some of the most beautiful areas of California, and I came to know it well.
While I was living in Boonville, I hitchhiked often to Mendocino and the small town of Fort Bragg, farther north, thinking I would like to move out to the coast, and settle down. Traffic was not heavy on 128, so there were times when I was forced to spend the night on the side of the road. I had everything I needed in a small backpack, so having to do that was never a problem; I even had a favorite spot. It was along the Navarro River, about 100 feet off the highway, with sandy banks and lots of trees along the water's edge where I could camp out and not be seen by anyone passing by. On several occasions, I chose to make that my destination, rather than the coast, just so I could spend time alone, sitting on the bank of the river.
When it became clear to me that I had left Boonville prematurely, and the prospect of moving to the coast was not very good, I decided to set up a camp in the mountains and spend the rest of the summer living in the woods. I followed a river known as Indian Creek about half-a-mile or so into a deep gorge, to a place called "The Crossings,” where another river joined the creek. I had been there before, and knew of a small clearing with an old lean-to that hadn’t been used for years. The lean-to was made of fir boughs lashed together and set against a huge boulder. The roof was covered with fir branches, and along one side of the frame, a short wooden platform had been built for a bed. A small hollowed out area at the base of the boulder served as a fire pit, and as I discovered my first night there, smoke from the fire would hug the boulder as it rose up out of the lean-to, and pass through an opening in the roof which was obviously there for that purpose.
I spent the next 6 weeks enjoying the solitude. I swam in the rivers, fished for trout using a fir pole and salmon eggs, followed the sheep trails over the mountains, and read and day-dreamed the time away, sitting by the fire every night, and sometimes, when the moon was right, hiking to the top of the gorge just so I could get a closer look at the stars. I followed the river upstream and ventured into new territory whenever I could, stopping to explore the deep pools and waterfalls along the way, and then sat out in the sun to dry before moving on, always coming back to my camp before nightfall.
I was perfectly comfortable in my surroundings, and realize now that it was a comfort I had always felt in the woods, going back to the 50's, when, as a kid, I went swimming in the rivers that ran through the woods behind our house, hunted for turtles and frogs, and built “forts” and “lookouts” in the trees so I could pretend to live in the woods. Little did I know that many years later, by necessity or choice, that fantasy would come true.
From the time I had arrived in Boonville, the weather had been consistently warm and pleasant. I didn't miss the snow or the bitter cold days we had back east, but in October, the “rainy season” began, and the sky turned gray and gloomy. I packed up my things, hitched a ride to Mendocino, and rented a room for the winter. It seemed like California only had two seasons. I might have stayed longer, and settled down out there, but the following year, I came back home again, partly because the one season I missed most of all was Indian Summer.