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Anderson Valley High

Could it possibly be that the mobile phone vibrating in one's pants pocket, the 40-minute download of alumni newsletters, with attached JPEG's, the nagging insistence of BlackBerrys and instant messaging were what E. M. Forster envisioned when he composed his most celebrated aphorism: "Only connect"?Or is the vaunted loop of connectedness we are all constantly assured is such a necessary and good thing really more like a psychic dog collar, tethering us to the capricious demands of those strangers yanking at the business end of an invisible leash?

These thoughts floated through my mind as I made my way to a sleepy valley a mere three hours by road from San Francisco and about a million light-years from the electronic detritus that defines 21st-century life. A New York Times story I had tucked in my backpack made mention of a place that the reporter R. W. Apple Jr. referred to as California's own Shangri-la. "When you turn off busy Route 101 at Cloverdale and head up into the hills," Mr. Apple had written, "you leave one world behind and enter another."

The world Mr. Apple evoked on the page had the quality of a pastoral dreamscape, a place where timbering and sheep farming had yielded to such industries as wine growing, but cautiously, and with such gentle anachronisms as strong community values. In Mr. Apple's account, the Anderson Valley was depicted as the anti-Napa, blessedly lacking that area's bogus Tuscan villas, its dot-com retirees, and its stretch limousines filled with bibulous yahoos too drunk from serial wine tastings to even notice the inevitable traffic jams along Highway 29.

As I made my way northwest on 128, a road that seems less engineered than scribbled on the landscape with a stick, I crossed into Mendocino County and the landscape itself announced the transition. The sere hills of Sonoma drew in. The vegetation changed; the western hills were now covered with dense groves of redwood, the grass-meadowed eastern slopes with moss-hung clumps of madrone. In about two hours I was in downtown Boonville, population 974.

Shreds of fog hung over the small town, funneled down from the northwest where the Anderson Valley opens to the Pacific Ocean. With an elevation of 250 feet above sea level at Navarro, the Anderson Valley, I was to learn, ramps upward gently to 950 feet at the southern end. Regular fog creeping up-valley works to temper the climate in a way that suits the ripening process of certain cool-weather northern European grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. Since at least the 1970's this meteorological fact has attracted adventurous winemakers to an area whose most lucrative agricultural product until then had been pot.

It seems worth pointing out that the Anderson Valley, unlike Napa or Sonoma, remains substantially a rural place, and a working-class one, its citizenry well distributed among loggers, farmers, upscale vintners, and their even more prosperous competition—the ex-hippies who secrete their cannabis plantations in the hills. As Mr. Apple reported in the Times, the police confiscated 24,500 pot plants over two days in the Anderson Valley during the summer of 2002, although the district attorney, a man "of sturdy libertarian principles," declined to prosecute.

Parking my Lincoln Navigator outside the Boonville General Store, a plain one-story building where you'd be hard-pressed to find a jar of Dijon mustard, I flipped open my cell phone to check messages. A woman pulled in ahead of me in a beat-up Ford Explorer whose cargo bay overflowed with straw and a motley assortment of dogs. As she hopped out, I took note of her luxuriant dreadlocks and the unusual fact that her legs were dyed blue. I smiled wanly through the windshield at this apparition and she—taking visual note of the picture I presented at the wheel of an obscene gas-guzzler with a StarTAC pressed to my ear—grinned and stuck out her tongue.

I decided to treat this as a sign of welcome. Given a choice between the usual rehearsed insincerities of the hospitality trade and a greeting with a distinct local tang, I'll take the latter. As one comes to understand in short order, the Anderson Valley has set about adapting itself to tourism, but in its own appealingly balky way, and at a pace that has yet to skew the place's fragile balance.

Logging trucks still barrel down Highway 128 past immaculately groomed vineyards that continue the practice of offering visitors free tastings. Retired timbermen still solve the world's problems over scrambled eggs each early morning at the Redwood Café. Ranches still operate along the main highway, sheep grazing the high hummocks that strict zoning protects from such visual blights as ridgetop vineyards. The dining room of the Boonville Hotel offers superb meals whose ingredients, in true California fashion, have pedigrees (lamb and pork, for example, are identified as coming from the celebrated Niman Ranch). But delectable tacos are sold at a trailer parked across from the fairgrounds, to be eaten standing in the sunshine with salsa dripping down one's chin.

I had booked myself a stay in the Boonville Hotel's studio, just behind the main structure in a small annex facing a creek. The hotel itself is a frame building with a broad porch that gives it a more-than-passing resemblance to a set from a Paramount western. I settled in and proceeded to do...well, essentially nothing, essentially nothing being what I had come for, as a respite from decidedly too much.

The studio had a sitting area, a fenced-in private patio, a capacious bathroom, no laptop jack, not even a phone. Mobile phone use was also unpredictable, as I discovered outside the Boonville General Store when the StarTAC display screen kept flashing its futile existential message: SEARCHING. It became clear to me why there was never any reception when a checkout clerk explained that in Mendocino County there are few mobile phone masts, and so the cell phone sat forlornly on the console of my car during my time in the valley, occasionally springing to life without warning, its electronic birdsong like the trill of a quail.


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