Guest Blog by Jennifer Hotes
Fort Bragg has provided a respite to my family for decades. Before it was the permanent home of my father’s second family, Fort Bragg was our yearly escape from the stagnant, hot, dusty Central Valley. We’d overstuff the car with luggage and kids, boom the La Bamba soundtrack on the stereo, and wind our way to the coast. Twisting, lurching, singing, laughing and puking, we’d cut through the woods to Fort Bragg. When we finally spilled to the curb, we were coated in goldfish crackers and barf. Sure, the fancy B & B’s of Mendocino would have turned us away with one sniff, but not Fort Bragg. You welcomed us with open arms. Loving.
Back then, Fort Bragg wore a layer of gritty industry, a lumber mill blocked the view to the ocean. Locals scowled at the sight of seasonal tourists and the marina still bustled with crusty fishermen and their weathered boats. No wonder we fit in so well. We were not pretty, but we had substance—a salt of the earth quality no layer of silk or perfume can feign, just like Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg, you do what all of us should. You make no apologies for who you are. Like us or get the hell out of town. Authentic.
When I first dared to dream of writing a novel, I knew I’d come back to you, Fort Bragg. I’d been away for sixteen years, but needed to wander your streets, eat at your restaurants, sleep with the sound of trains in the background, walk your cemeteries. And that’s what I did. Adventuresome.
Sure, you’d grown prettier over the years. The revamped Pudding Creek trestle, the new North Coast Brewery, the renovated historic homes—God, if only I had aged so well. I got reacquainted with you surrounded by my loving parents and old family friends. Over the course of three days, accompanied by my father and Jared Williams, I visited a handful of local cemeteries. Jared shared the story of a baby whose burial was delayed by the county because she had died from meningitis. Once cleared by the bureaucracy, Jared lovingly dug the grave by hand. I was touched by his tenderness and intimate care of the child. Tender.
There were places in the cemeteries where the terrain made it hazardous to walk, but we treaded softly, our steps light and slow. This was the poor part of the cemetery, Jared explained, where the deceased were buried in thin, redwood boxes, boxes that decomposed within months of being lowered into the ground. Fragile.
Over the next few days, I returned to a few cemeteries with my loving step-mother and her dogs. We visited the graves of her friends who had passed, and Kate related their stories. We laid stones on their graves to mark our visit and acknowledge that their lives continue to matter. We cried a little. We laughed. And all the while I wrote down names, took pictures and scratched sentences into my journal. Mindful.
As the airplane carried me home, I felt as though I’d been wrapped in a security blanket, safe and snug. The visit had healed me somehow. I’d spent three days in the loving care of Fort Bragg, and not once had someone mocked my idea to write a novel. In fact, I was encouraged. I left your loving arms, Fort Bragg feeling bold, strong and determined. I was ready to wear the title of ‘writer’ and complete my working manuscript, which is what I did. Emboldening.
Today, after trading in my title of ‘writer’ for ‘author,’ I can’t help but wonder. Would my dream have died without you, Fort Bragg? Magic.
Thank you Fort Bragg, friends, loved ones and strangers who make this unique place your home. I hope to see you again soon.
Jennifer Hotes is author of Four Rubbings, the first novel in the Stone Witch Series. She illustrates children’s books, designs book covers, and blogs when she’s not helping to raise funds for Providence Hospice of Seattle Foundation. She loves to hear from her readers, so drop her a line at www.jenniferlhotes.com.