Covelo: Blackberries, Street Dancing, Camping and Grieving Spirits

Bic and Teresa

Bic and Teresa

During 2009, I spent a lot of time in Mendocino County, which gave me an opportunity to discover new places and unique events. One of those places was Covelo and the event in question was the Blackberry Festival.  The man I had been with at the time had promised to take me to the festival and then without a word decided not to at the last minute. It was one of the many disappointments that characterized the situation I was in at the time.

However, we were now in 2010, I was single and my friends Bic and Teresa thought that going to the Covelo Blackberry Festival was a great idea. Teresa reserved a camping spot at the Black Butte River Ranch and Bic was going to drive.  I took over the remaining task, which was  to talk nonstop – telling irrelevant stories and giving unsolicited advice – and why not? I’m good at it.

As we roared up the freeway Bic announced that she wanted to have a fire and better yet, cook outdoors – even though we had no utensils, no wood, no matches and nothing to cook.  A few minutes later, Teresa had an announcement of her own: all the food she had packed for the trip was still sitting in a bag by her front door.

That said, we pulled into the parking lot of the reliable Willits Safeway and stocked up on four critical camping components: hot dogs, marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars. The Apocalypse could come and go but armed with s’mores, we would crawl out unscathed from under the rubble.

View from the road to Covelo

View from the road to Covelo

Soon after Willits, we were on the brutal road down to Covelo.  Winding and remote, the 20 or so miles into Round Valley takes about 45 plus minutes on a clear summer day.  The arrival was revelatory.   Tucked into the valley is a busy little town with homes, stores, trucks, ranches.  It was an unexpectedly urban sight after the difficult drive down.

We found the Black Butte Campgrounds fairly easily, but it was not quite what we were looking for. More exposed field than forest, our site was right next to a flatbed trailer with some sort of contraption on the top.  Although it was scrupulously clean, both Bic and Teresa had something else in mind.  On the way up, we had noticed the Eel River campground across the road.   It was pretty, forested and only $8/night.  The only hitch was that Teresa’s credit card was now tied up at Black Butte.


View above our tent

View above our tent

We drove around, found a stunning site under a tree and against a massive rock.  Bic and Teresa left me sitting at the picnic table there, to “claim it”, since the Eel River Campground is a first come first serve deal. They then went back to see what they could do to break our deal at Black Butte.  To make a long story short, Black Butte returned part of the camping fee, but kept a couple of bucks.  This was fine, since it allowed us to feel justified in walking across the road to use Black Butte’s far superior restrooms and coin operated showers.  During our time at the Eel River campground I only saw one spigot for water on the other side of the campground and the toilets were disgusting.

Other than that, the campground was magical.  Within about 20 minutes, the tent was up and we were all napping.  Bic and Teresa went into the tent to sleep, I stayed outside and slept under a tree on a tarp.

Vendor Booth

Revitalized Flour Mill

Revitalized Flour Mill

We headed out soon after waking to the Blackberry Festival. It was pretty little event –  there was great live music and dancing on the lawn.  Plenty of food for sale and vendor booths.  Located in the center of town under the looming shadow of the revitalized Round Valley Flour Mill, green gnarled vines cover an arbor that encircles the park. Because half the population of Covelo is Native American, I had expected that this festival would reflect that.  It did not.  There were no Native Americans there, none at all.  Where were they? It was a mystery. There were, however, many, many hippies.  There were original hippies and there were imitation hippies and there were old weathered hippies and there were newly minted hippies.  Where did they all come from? It’s another mystery.  At one point, Bic said that she smelled a dead skunk.  Teresa said that the dead skunk smell was actually weed.  We soon discovered that was no shortage of dead skunks in Round Valley.

We also enjoyed some phenomenal music. Here are the Wronglers, who later played at the evening street dance.  I heard them playing while we were getting out of the car and I ran to the bandstand so I wouldn’t miss a minute.

We enjoyed the music, got our fortunes told in the fortune telling booth and then headed out to pick fresh blackberries from the bushes growing wild along the neighboring streets.

Abandoned Hotel Covelo

Abandoned Hotel Covelo

We had wanted to go to the evening street dance, located right outside the park We had an hour to kill between the end of the festival and the beginning of the dance so we wandered the dilapidated town of Covelo.

Closed up building

Boarded Up Building

Shuttered stores – a strange energy in town. A car honked at us and several people had approached us curiously and spoken with us at length.  None of us could put our finger on it, but Teresa was not feeling well there and I had unexpectedly burst into tears in the parking lot of the local Covelo supermarket earlier in the day. As nice as everything was, something was going wrong.

Night started to fall and fiddlers appeared in the street by the park.  People began strolling in from who knows where.  And then the music started.  It was magical.  Somehow there were always enough dance partners and no one was ever left on the side.  At one point, our dance partners asked us where we came from.  We said Petaluma – they asked if we knew anyone in Covelo, we said no, we had come specifically for the festival.  They were astonished and said how we had found out, I said “on the internet”  They looked at each other sagely and nodded their heads “ahh, the internet”.  Here is a video of one of the dances that I found by chance on youtube on oldtimegrrl’s channel.

It was late and we were getting tired and hungry. Our dance partners waved a fond goodbye and we headed out. We passed the Round Valley Indian Casino, a small structure, tented in the style of other local casinos.  During the multiple times we passed this casino to and fro from the campgrounds, I never saw a car parked there – one of the many ongoing mysteries of Covelo.  We had purchased some wood earlier in the day and broke out the hot dogs and marshmallows.  Bic knew one ghost story – and told it well.  It had all the correct elements:  including a boarding school for girls, a forbidden forest, and a mysterious disappearance.  The conclusion, which featured bloody stumps being dragged across the forest floor, was highly satisfactory.  Well done Bic!

CairnEel RiverWe showered across the road at Black Butte and slept solidly through to the morning. Upon waking, we finished up the hot dogs and marshmallows and then walked down the side of the hill and wandered the eel river.  Bic and Teresa made little rock structures known as cairns.  I had never heard of them, but here is a photo.  The river was low, but had a beautiful sound.  The trees in the valley were just starting to turn.  It was quiet and we were each lost in our own thoughts.

Our return trip included a side trip to a Covelo Native American event called Nome Cult.  It was in a field off of the main road.  There were many people there, but a strange silence blanketed the area.  Someone on the stage was speaking at length in a neutral monotone. A few vendors had set up tables.  One of the vendors told us that they had been excluded from the Blackberry Festival and that this event was the Anti-Blackberry Festival.  He told us to wait until 1 pm, because there would be free food for everyone.  Bic, Teresa and I did not wait.  We had to get back to Sonoma County.  I found a gull feather on the ground and I bought a peach from a vendor. She called them Summer Love. The peach cost $1 and when I got home and ate it, I realized it was probably the finest peach I had ever had.

Orbs at the Blackberry Festival DanceLater that day, after I cleaned up from camping, I started reading the history of Covelo, the Indian Massacre and the many painful and bizarre events that continue to characterize Covelo and Round Valley.  We had felt the existence of pain in that town, of desolation and of hopelessness.  When I downloaded the photos of the night dance I noticed the prevalence of orbs in most of the photos.  Some say that orbs are the result of dust and humidity creating havoc on the lense.  Others say it is the presence of spirits.  You be the judge.

5 Responses to “Covelo: Blackberries, Street Dancing, Camping and Grieving Spirits”

  1. Kent says:

    Very nice story.. I have an old friend that is in Covelo and I am investigating things to do there if I ever get there from Orlando, Florida where I live.. Thank you for the insight..

  2. Jendeog says:

    You missed the Sunday morning 5/10k run. And the awesome breakfast afterward. There are many amazing stories and people from Covelo. The video of the Wronglers is my sister-in-laws group. She is a wonderful fiddler: from a family of great musicians. You are right, though, the music is wonderful and there is an energy that you can’t put an explanation to. There is that feeling in almost every town. It is just that in a busy town it gets drowned out by the noise and chaos. I am very proud that Covelo is quiet enough to feel the history.


  1. The Psychic of Union Street | Destination:TBA says:

    […] that point, it had been a little over a year since I had gone to the Covelo Blackberry Festival and where I had my fortune told for the first time. The Covelo fortune tellers had told me that […]

  2. […] that point, it had been a little over a year since I had gone to the Covelo Blackberry Festival and where I had my fortune told for the first time. The Covelo fortune tellers had told me that […]

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