I Saw Usal–Another Culture Passes


Black Sands, Shelter Cove, Needle Rock, Bear Harbor, Wages Creek—the names of my childhood camping spots are as varied and as evocative as the memories that go with them— and best of all, most frequented of all, was Usal.

As a kid, I thought its name had to do with the lumber company that owned it and I envisioned the title emblazoned on trucks and spelled U-Saw—a sort of log-it-yourself business. Now I know that this was an Indian word (probably no living larynx vibrates with the exact sounds of that language and no living soul remembers the nuances of its meaning).

Logged hillsides lined each side of the old road into the area. The logging was fresh and raw then but there were still some thin trees standing. Ragged ferns and bushes survived in scattered clumps around the bases of trees and beside the several shallow streams we forded to get to the ocean.

After we set up camp, my brother and I explored primeval redwood forests almost untouched except for a faint road struggling through them. This was the trail the Mendocino settlers trudged up so they could record their land deeds and buy supplies in Eureka.

A hundred years ago an old town lived here. Now, it was dead and had been dead for decades but its bones were remarkably well preserved. There were several tall buildings of long thick redwood planks bleached white with age that stood on either side of the old road.

The buildings had false fronts and echoed the structures in western movies we watched in black and white at home. But the ones in the flickering box stood on desert sands amidst tumble weeds but these were in a wet redwood wonderland.

The only building I can really remember was the stagecoach hotel. It was clean, not just clean of stuff but literally swept clean. The inside was large and echoing and oddly sunlit for such dark surroundings.

Dad enthralled my brother and I with descriptions of Black Bart and his outlaw attacks on the stagecoaches around here, of settlers who had struggled to hand hew the wooden planks and build this town.

I don’t know that he ever told us in so many words but some how he managed to convey that these buildings were old and holy relics of a time long gone. They were meant to be worshiped in—to remember the old ways. Sometimes we came here as a family and sometimes my brother and I came alone but we came quietly—looked, touched and left no sign we had been there.

This last time though, nothing remained. Not a single board, not even a charred black circle where the structures had stood. The buildings had turned to ghosts and disappeared like fog in the sunlight of a new day.

Thick air pushed like cotton balls against me. The trees crowded taller and closer than before. Ferns were thicker and stiffer. The clearing began to get dark. Nothing moved. There was not even a simple bird call. Everything was still, dead almost.

Like bars on a jail cell, the lines of the trees were vertical, unbending. There was no color either… or rather just drab remnants of color, a bit of dusty olive and shades of gray.

We didn’t move quickly, that seemed impossible but we turned towards each other, our eyes meeting and flitting away. Small and shaken, we moved so our shoulders touched warm flesh through thin t-shirts. In my memory, I took his hand but I know I didn’t. We never reached out to each other.

Then, we didn’t exactly back out of the clearing but we didn’t turn our backs on it either. We got out of there. By the time we hit the main camp road, we were taking turns running and walking. Up ahead a great glowing ball was melting into the ocean and spreading like red butter over the nearly flat surface.

“Gone.” I think my brother said it first but my words tumbled over his.

“Dad? The town is gone, all gone.”

Dad looked up from the abalone he was cleaning, his legs straddling a white bucket while one brown hand held a beige and black fleshy disk and the other held a bone handled knife he was using to trim the black back skin off. The muscles in his forearm flexed under the tattoos as he kept a steady pace.

“The Company burned it last fall. Damn hippies kept camping out in there leavin’ their trash.” He sliced the last dark piece off and it landed with a thunk into the bucket.

He leaned over and slid the now nude creature into another bucket that was partially filled with water and other abalones. He stood, picking up the pale turquoise and pink iridescent shell, which he then tossed casually to where others lolled about—priceless, fragile bowls at the base of an old stump.

“The idiots coulda caught the whole place on fire.”

I didn’t ask Dad, but when he sauntered out into the bushes, I asked Mom. “Why did they burn down buildings to keep people from settin’ fire to them? Why didn’t they just wait? Maybe there wouldn’t have been trouble.”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I guess it was to keep the flames from spreading, if it did start.”

From the nearly dark edges of the camp, Dad added as he returned buttoning up his fly, “The Company couldn’t risk those crazy fools burning up valuable timber. It’s not reasonable to expect them to risk losing money. That’s not what they’re in the business for. Don’t blame the company. They could just shut this whole place down and not let anybody camp here. We’re lucky those damn longhair kids didn’ get everybody kickt out.”

That was when I realized that someone could just stop us from going to Usal. I had thought of it as ours. Not just our family’s but all those who loved it—who took care of it. Today, when I think of my bewilderment, I wonder if maybe there was some vestige of Native beliefs that trickled under my ancestors’ progressively whiter skin and down to me with my red hair and freckles. Maybe, to some of us, some land, at least, belongs to no one . .. and to everyone.

A link to the Usal plan

A fiction piece based on my memories of Usal

Memory feathered up by Cristina’s comment on Ernie’s blog.



  • Wonderful tale. I remember losing some favourite camping spots to clear felling (No, that ain’t logging!) in our Jarrah forests in Western Australia. People get all upset with me when I talk about my ancestors being head-hunters just over a thousand years ago. They don’t want to acknowledge that the Irish were once wild barbarians – with a mystic attachment to land and trees and bards.

  • Archie, Thank you. This place is very special and luckily, some part of it was bought by the state for a park so now everyone can visit it and find that connection. After all these years, I still feel sad though that the buildings were destroyed. To me, it was like a cathedral burnt down.

    BTW, I went online to figure out what Clear Felling is and all I could find were sites that made it sound a lot like a logging practice we call Clear Cutting here.

  • Kym, thank-you so much for this post. As you might guess, my family has deep history there. My Great Grandparents Lafyette and Laura Middleton lived there and made Redwood splitstuff. They knew Sally Bell, or my grandmother did. But, I remember stories about Sally Bell being a midwife. And I remember hearing stories about Sally’s sister also.

    All of my family history swirls like mist in my brain, some of the stuff that I remember as a child, now connects to places that I knew nothing about then. And all I can say is, wow! I wish that I had written down some stories that I heard as a kid, because they mean so much to me today.

    I used to be able to just ask a family member about the things that I knew a little bit about, but couldn’t remember the specifics. There are few of my family left that knows anything about the history of Usal.

    I’m going to steal your link to the Redwood Forrest Foundation Usal Plan. Thank-you!

    If you go to the photo section and scroll to the bottom, there is some history of the town of Usal written by a member of a family that lived there. It tells the tale of what happened to the town.

  • Ernie, I didn’t see that full story. Thank you, Thank you for pointing it out. I felt like I was seeing my face from another angle. I can’t wait to show this piece to my parents and hear their memories.

    The link at the bottom of the photos to her memories had me choking up.

    Especially right at the end. “1986 was the last year we all went camping there, the State put up entrance fee signs, outhouses and picnic tables, you could no longer drink the water and there was trash and people everywhere we couldn’t go back.”


  • It was so different back then, camping in California during the 1970s and even into the 80’s. My family had lots of favorite spots, too. It seemed like there were so many “informal” camping sites where as you say, the places belonged to me and everyone at the same time. Reading your post makes me sad that I never saw your town. It sounds great…just the kind of place where rich childhood memories and inspirations are born…

  • Kym, Not to change the subject….BUT, good letter to the Journal.
    Thanks for sticking up for us.

  • That was……well….so beautiful. Sad too, but wonderfully spun.

  • Ekovox, No problem. I got all hot and bothered–spit steam and words–now I feel better.

    Fork, Some places steal your heart but others steal into your heart and never go away. Usal is that place for me.

    Chris, Even today there are some informal camping sites but every year there get to be less and less. You would have loved the old town.

    To people who have never been there before, Usal still seems wonderful but it is just a crumb of the real cake.

  • Regarding the clear-felling. That is the method of using two dozers with a long chain stretched between – and pulling EVERYTHING down! It is an obscene use of technology and has absolutely nothing to do with the logging ethos. Trees are far too important to be carelessly destroyed. My culture (the Celtic) had a habit of planting a seed every-time a tree was felled. That custom was also mentioned in volume three of the Earth’s Children series of novels by Jean M Auel.

  • Archie, Thanks for explaining about clear-felling. It sounds ugly and destructive.

    In my piece I tried to let my sadness at the passing of all the cultures that had inhabited the area come through–Native, settler, rural Northwest, and now the free spirited back-to-the-land which is all being supplanted by modern, safe, ordered state-run society. What I have seen here is as each new culture destroys the old, they demonize it.

    It is inevitable that new growth will take over from old. And, it is probably inevitable that the new sees the old as flawed but until we can see that we are all flawed and relish and respect the traditions of our elders while incorporating new practices, we are going to be as unhappy as children who always blame their parents for the things that are wrong in their lives.

  • Wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you for the history. I have only been to Usal beach once after driving the Usal Road from Whithorn along the ridge to the beach.

  • Thank you Carol. Even tamed, I still think Usal is a wonderful experience. Especially if you come over from 101 towards Fort Bragg.

  • Kim,
    Loved the story. Glad you noted the passing of the back to land culture as well. This demonizing thing seems to be a very human, and age old, tendency, doesn’t it? A theme in No Country for Old Men: “You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t about you.”

  • Jim, thank you. I’m not that old but I feel like I’ve seen the passing of several cultures. I don’t know why. Have events begun speeding up or has this area just had an extraordinary amount of flux?

    Maybe because I can see so many cultures passing that I don’t feel like any of them are wrong or any are right. I’ve loved them all and I’m sad they’re gone.

  • Kym,

    The picture and your story certainly bring back a lot of memories. I can only remember going to Usal once or twice, but I feel like I spent half my childhood years between Black Sands and Shelter Cove.

    I learned to drive when I was about ten years old on Black Sands beach. My dad was part of group that built Dune buggies from cut down VW bugs. We used to go out to Black Sands beach most summer weekends during the early 70’s to picnic. My parents would let us race up and down the beach in the Dune Buggie. Great fun when we were that age.


  • Scott,

    Black Sands and the Dune Buggies–I never got to ride in one but I loved the whole joy of watching everyone out there. You Redway kids spent a lot more time at the Cove. I lived down by the Piercy line and tended to go Usal because it was closer. Also, I think the development of the Cove started sometime in there and my dad almost always headed towards the wild side. But Black Sands remains special to me.

    I have a wonderful memory of a teenage party there and sleeping on the beach. I woke up before everyone else to a clear morning and wandered in the wet sand as the fog slid in from the west to meet the sunrise in the east.

  • Wow, I just now ran across this post. After SoHum revealed her latest tale, I grew curious about Whale Gulch, which led me to Bear Harbor where I decided to do a little research about the California Coastal Trail from Usal to the Mattole, something I’d like to do in the late spring if possible, and all of that led me to this post.

    I had heard stories about Usal as it was during the logging days, much like many of the other doghole ports and mill coves of what’s now the Sinkyone coast. I think my first trip to Usal was in the ’80s with my mother and of course you read about my one camping experience with my friends back in the ’90s. The place to me has a powerful vibe to it.

    I’m glad everything led me back to this post, as it was a good read, and now I really want to hike through the Sinkyone and into the Lost Coast.

  • Eric, i don’t know if you picked up those links in the comments above. They are worth a long look. Amazing information about Usal.

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