Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Mark Andre was marking trees in one of the Arcata Community Forest’s most remote sections recently when he happened upon something that wasn’t there the last time he’d been in the area. That was back in 1985, when Arcata’s Environmental Services director was a city forest technician.
The sturdy shack, measuring perhaps eight by 12 feet and 15 or so feet high, features a concrete block foundation, stout frame, peaked roof, small porch with wooden awning, multiple windows and walls of plywood covered on the outside with brown tarps, black plastic sheeting and lots of concealing forest duff.
Take a few steps away, turn around, and the building is all but invisible. “I didn’t see it until I was 12 feet from it,” Andre said. “It’s in the perfect out-of-the-way spot where it wouldn’t be detected.”
No trails lead to the small home, and the faintest of footpaths in the immediate area trail off to none of the environmental abuse normally associated with forest campsites – no trash piles, no discarded clothing, no open-air latrine strewn with toilet paper; nothing to show anything but scrupulous regard for the natural surroundings.
A Friday trek to the site required serious bushwhacking through dense woods, over fallen trees and through brush and brambles. Environmental Services Forest Technician Javier Nogueira had last visited the cabin three weeks earlier, but, along with fellow Forest Tech Nick Manfredonia (in his first day on the job) and APD Park Ranger Heidi Groszmann, had to fan out across the general area to re-locate the stealthy structure. After a few minutes, Manfredonia’s voice rang out: “I found it!”
Groszmann, the ES crew and a reporter peered in through a dislodged side window, which offered a partial view of the interior. The ranger had to make a decision. If the cabin was in use as a residence, then even though it is located on public land, a search warrant would be required for entry.
But if anyone was inside, possibly incapacitated or worse, leaving them unaided would be irresponsible. Nogueira said the cabin looked unchanged and unvisited since he had last been there. After multiple shout-outs to any occupant went unanswered, Groszmann gave the go-ahead for Manfredonia to cut the padlock on the plywood front door.
The ranger entered the cabin with gun drawn, announcing “Arcata Police!” But no one was inside, and she began to inspect the quarters for clues to the user’s identity.
The cabin’s interior appointments are spare, tidy and yet more than ample for comfortable habitation in an idyllic spot. One enters into a combination kitchen and living room, where well-organized cans of food and housekeeping supplies line the walls, their product labels facing forward. A rocking chair sits next to a pot-bellied stove across from a cushioned seating area. Small lanterns are located about the space, while shelves hold a variety of tools and curios ranging from a vintage Royal typewriter to a small library. One title is Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale. Storage bins contain fabric, camping equipment and other long-term supplies.
Thick curtains and small wooden panels made to fit window frames keep telltale light from escaping. The kitchen window opens to a gorgeous view of redwoods. A ladder leads to a roomy upper berth, where sleeping pads await. There is no bathroom.
Decorations are sparse – a print of A Young Girl Reading by 18th century painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a pair of crossed knives at the edge of the second floor, a postcard here and there. One slip of paper lists species of plants and trees found in the area, while another “Things To Do And Get” list includes tasks, some lined out, like “Build Bench” and “Big Spoon.” A few entries bear dates, presumably when the item was accomplished, the oldest being “Get tongs 1/22/11.”
If 2011 was the oldest habitation, the most recent would be a copy of the March 25, 2015 Humboldt State Lumberjack, found in a kindling bin by the stove.
Little identifying information was found. A shipping label and a California driver’s license bore two different names, but they may have been random objects found in the woods by the resident.
Andre speculates that the cabin is used as a seasonal retreat. A major mystery is how so many cumbersome, weighty objects such as lumber and the wood stove were physically transported to the site, leaving no mark on the land and undetected by forest workers who travel the trails daily. “Someone took a long time to walk in heavy items,” Andre said.
From the cabin’s contents and their arrangement, an overall portrait emerges of a settled, possibly older individual with life experience and minimal material needs. The thoughtfully composed, uncluttered tiny house appears to be the work of someone who knows who they are and what they need, guided or inspired by a succinct declaration of principles stapled to a wall.
Titled “Different Everywhere,” the single sheet of paper features a nude woman holding a knife. In typewritten, white-on-black text, the photocopied micro-manifesto states that “every community creates its own outlaws,” and celebrates “those individuals, who, willingly or not, have not abided by the laws of the gods or authorities [and who] have always been banished.” Concludes the statement, “we will carry our difference everywhere as individuals determined to subvert the rules of the community.”
The rules of the community, having been subverted – or at least eluded – for at least four years, are now about to end the cabin’s utility as a secluded getaway. Camping on public property is, of course, illegal. And despite its ultra-low impact and thoughtful design, the structure exists in what is supposed to be a nature refuge.
A warning notice and Groszmann’s contact information were left on the cabin’s front door.
The area, last logged in 1984, is set for a harvest next month, so the structure will have to be removed. If the responsible individual can’t be located beforehand, their possessions will be packed out and stored for later retrieval.