Return to Devil’s Gulch
by Darla Hillard on July 01, 2009
Forget-me-nots carpeted the banks of Papermill Creek that March weekend my Aunt Ginny and I spent at Marin County’s Samuel P. Taylor State Park. It was 1994, and Ginny was in her early 70s. She looked less like my father’s sister and more like my own, in her straight-leg Levis and a khaki crush hat that hid her white fringe. The forget-me-nots, feral reminders of bygone days, were appropriate. Ginny was on a quest to find whatever might be left of a secret cabin my Uncle Van and his friends had built in Devil’s Gulch around 1930, before the land became part of the park.
“I hope I can remember where it was,” Ginny had said over the phone. “It was barely standing when Van and I were last there in the ’60s.”
I thought it both amazing and wonderful that my uncle and his friends had gotten away with having such a hideaway, trespassers as they were and considering how impossible such a thing would be today.
Back then the Golden Gate Bridge was still on the drawing boards. Nearly every weekend my uncle and his Airedale, Pat, would catch the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito. Dogs might have been allowed on the ferry, but not on the electric connector train or the North Pacific Coast narrow gauge that ran from San Rafael to Tomales Bay. Once smuggled aboard, Pat would hide under the seat until they reached Lagunitas.
Clyde Polk and Shorty Atkins were Van’s partners in crime. Clyde lived in Forest Knolls and Shorty in Lagunitas. They built their cabin from materials scrounged, scavenged, and packed in by the sweat of their backs. Van’s sister recalled, “It was a long hike, but the boys carried all the supplies up the hill as if it were a breeze. They harnessed the little waterfall and generated enough electric power for one light bulb to burn a couple of hours. Sometimes we would hike up the slopes of Mount Barnabe and gather mushrooms and feast on them that evening. None of us died, so I guess they were OK.” They swam and fished for steelhead in Papermill Creek (since renamed Lagunitas Creek). And, it must be said, they did a little poaching.
Dogs, horses, and camping had been vital ingredients in Ginny and Van’s 41-year marriage. She was grieving his long decline and recent death. Now at least she was free to roam again; it seemed the surest way to carry on. That I was to be part of her quest for the cabin was like a bridge to my past, and a chance to rediscover my favorite aunt. The summer I was 12, crazed by hormone overload, she had taken me on their annual pack trip into the mountains.
I’d always been half afraid of my lanky, gruff uncle. That summer I saw that he was in his element camping beside a high meadow, telling stories, trout fishing, and riding Early Dude, a racer he had rescued from the glue factory. He fed my cowgirl fantasies while Ginny fed something deeper, more enduring.
“Matilda and I will be traveling alone a lot now,” she explained as we headed out Sir Frances Drake in her small motor home. “I wanted something manageable for an old lady, and I thought it would be safer with an open cab.” I had to strain to hear her from my seat in the back; Matilda, an Australian shepherd, had the passenger seat.
In the late 1800s, what became Samuel P. Taylor State Park was a thriving mill town producing paper and blasting powder. The Taylor enterprises also included a fur tannery, firewood collection, and Camp Taylor. Where the campgrounds are today stood a 100-room hotel, dance hall, bowling alley, saloons, riding stable, grocery store, butcher shop, and laundry. Camp Taylor drew families from San Francisco to spend whole summers by the creek. The men commuted to their city jobs by train and ferry–an hour’s journey, free of “traffic updates every 10 minutes.”
Samuel Taylor died in 1886. Six years later, a nationwide financial panic doomed the town and its industries. Taylor’s wife and sons were unable to repay a mortgage for mill improvements. The lender foreclosed and then died, leaving the property to Taylor’s widow, Elizabeth. In 1905 Elizabeth, who lived in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, posted “no trespassing” signs and ordered the demolition of all the remaining buildings on the old Taylor property.
Though the train ran to Tomales until 1933, ridership declined without the industries and tourists. The streams and woodlands were returned, largely, to the wildlife. Elizabeth stopped paying property taxes, and by 1940 she owed Marin County $11,000. Still, acquisition of the park took five years. The state legislature would have to approve the purchase and the county would have to waive the tax bill. But the hardest part was convincing Elizabeth to sell. Finally, after her son-in-law took over her finances, she agreed to the deal.
Ginny and I arrived at the campground in early afternoon, with time to get settled and take a stroll before dinner. Matilda set the pace, half choking herself in her eagerness for the walk and the promise of a wade in the creek.
Early the next morning we crossed the road and entered the loamy-smelling shade of Devil’s Gulch. I picked a forget-me-not for good luck. Our map indicated that the trails were out of bounds for horses, bikes, and dogs. “Well,” said Ginny, “if Matilda gets caught we’ll just have to throw ourselves on the mercy of the ranger. This quest requires a dog.”
We followed the gulch trail until we came to a side gully that looked right, but there was no path up it, and it was thick with poison oak. So we retraced our steps downstream and found the trail to Mount Barnabe, named for Sam Taylor’s mule. We crossed over the gulch and climbed up the steep hillside. Ginny was worried. “The cabin was lower down; I don’t think I’d recognize the setting from way up here.”
The path leveled out and led along the contour. We passed through spreading coast live oak trees, pungent bay laurel, and orange-trunked madrone. “There was an orchard somewhere up the gulch,” Ginny said. “Van and the boys would filch a bucket of apples, and while the others peeled and sliced, Van made crusts and did the baking. The pies would be gone as fast as he could get them out of the oven–which was a five-gallon drum.”
We had crossed a little side stream and were heading for the next ridge when Ginny stopped. “There’s something about this place.” She walked back and looked uphill at a tree leaning over the gully. She looked down. Fifty feet below the trail lay an old piece of corrugated tin with red paint still showing through the rust. “It’s part of the roof! It had a red advertisement painted on it. I remember that madrone, too. Oh goody! We’ve found it!”
We made our way carefully down the steep bank. Broken boards were nearly obscured by trees and bushes along the gully where Matilda lapped at a thread of water. Ginny poked in the loose earth and found an S-shaped section of pipe. “It’s part of the hot water system. These coils were under the stone fireplace.”
“Pancakes for breakfast,” I said, picking up a rusted syrup tin. “They must have had good times here.”
“Oh, yes,” replied Ginny. “You know they came even in winter, rain or shine. They always had a good supply of wood. Shorty composed a poem that they left tacked to the door. It welcomed anyone who happened by and asked that the cabin be left as it was found. I never met Shorty, but Van’s spirit is sure all around here.”
Chickadees chattered in the trees. Sun warmed the hillside, and our thoughts turned to lunch and the beers, cool in their newspaper wrappers at the bottom of our daypacks. Ginny caught Matilda’s leash and got a free haul back up to the trail.
“It looks like the cabin just eventually fell down,” I pointed out between bites of my sandwich. “I’m surprised the park staff didn’t clear it out, but I guess most of the visitors wouldn’t have ventured out this far in the early days. They just let nature take its course.”
Ginny looked down into the gully. “Van and his friends were sorry to give up the cabin, but they had no regrets that we got a park and not ‘Taylor Estates.’ “
Ginny died last year, at 86. We scattered her ashes with those of Matilda, under a sugar pine in the mountains where years ago she had done the same for Van. Beloved remains enriching the soil of one of their favorite retreats. Surely by now the few traces that remained of my uncle’s cabin are gone, buried or consumed by the soil of Devil’s Gulch. But the cabin’s story will endure, the kind of gift that our family can carry in our being from generation to generation, an ode to our love for wild places.