In the cool, green quiet of Northern California, there lies the Republic of Willits. Some say it's a satellite of Texas, and may be the last stronghold of the American cowboy. There's a reason people say that.
Things occur in Willits which may seem odd to those uninitiated in the ways of the Real West. A visitor to Willits, for instance, may find he's driving the only car in town that does not have a gun rack.
There's not a whole lot of difference between the legendary cowboys of the Old West and certain Willits residents of today, who manages to achieve the same laconic effect as John Wayne, Sam Elliott, and Gary Cooper, not to mention Annie Oakley. It derives from the Cowboy Code of Honor:
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his country's laws.
10. The Cowboy is a patriot.
In Michael F. Blake's new book, "Code of Honor: The Making of Three Great American Westerns", the author states, "But it is the code of the cowboy that appeals to us most, that sense of dealing With life in a straight-forward manner. "A cowboy speaks what he feels. There is no pretext of trying to find a hidden message in what he says, his word is taken at face value. The cowboy, like the plains through which he rides , Endures. He is honest and real. And his code is one we can declare …. If a cowboy strikes a deal, he does not have a group of lawyers draft a hundred-page document to bind it; he simply consummates His deal with a handshake and an oral agreement that we can be sure he will honor. His word is his bond …. No one has to tell a cowboy how he should feel or act. From his heart and conscience. "
The men of Willits are like that. The women, too. Best not to mess with them.
"Guns are our protection," advises Michelle Friedman, nicknamed "Rubee Dub" by racetrack and fairground jockeys who masseuse she has been for years.
Michelle was once attacked in her own back yard by an unkempt man of no acquaintance. Lucky for him that she was enough of a lady to merely knee the hairy stranger and not shoot a bullet into his groin, a temptation she later lamented resisting. She carries a weapon, even while doing housework or caring for the pug dogs and poodles she raises. She did not disclose on which part of her anatomy the weapon is concealed, only that she has a right.
Michelle's horse-trainer husband, Bill Nolan, is putting together a syndicate for his colt, Notsuchanangel, much like that formed for Funny Cide. Back in the days when Bill was training Getaway Prince at Golden Gate Fields, Hall of Fame jockey, Lafitt Pincay, Jr., who once won seven stakes races in a single day at Santa Anita, had the mount. "Getaway Prince won by a sixteenth of a mile, maybe more," Bill recalls today. When asked if he had given Pincay any special instructions, Nolan replied, "I sure did. I said 'Just hold on.'"
Bill Nolan's not the only resident with good advice. When asked if he had any advice for tourists, a Willits man, who chooses to remain anonymous, replied, "Yeah, tell 'em not to whiz on a' lectric fence."
Further contributing to Willits' lore is its proximity to Ridgewood Ranch, home of the legendary thoroughbred, Seabiscuit. Fortunately for the many fans of Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," the Ranch's current owner, Church of the Golden Rule, generously permits hundreds of enthusiasts tourists, led by volunteer docents, to stroll through selected areas of the Ranch, including Seabiscuit's actual stall, and his weighing shed.
The Cowboy Code is in full evidence at Ridgewood. Just ask those taciturn ranch hands if they'll tell you under which lone tree the great Seabiscuit's remains lie. You've got as much chance of getting an answer as you would get a laugh from one of those fuzzy-helmeted Buckingham Palace guards. They have kept this location a well-guarded secret since Charles Howard buried his horse in 1947. I doubt if any tabloid's tempting offer could have penetrated their steely resolve of silence. It's not about money, and it's not about notoriety. It is a matter of honor.
There are also honorary Willits residents, like John Pollard, nephew of Seabiscuit's jockey, John "Red" Pollard, who plans to one day retire in Willits. "I like the people," he said, "They're strong and they're honest, like people are supposed to be." And he's not the only one who calls them as he sees them. So does the Chamber of Commerce's Lynn Kennelly.
As Kennelly waited to introduce local luminaries such as Mayor Oslund at the Seabiscuit movie preview in July, and invited comments from the audience, someone yelled out, "Tell us a joke," to which she shot back, "The State budget!" I doubt if even Jerry Seinfeld could have come up with an answer that fast. No wonder the Willits Environmental Center flies a banner proclaiming, "Seabiscuit For Governor," no disrespect to The Governator.
Even when it's not hosting its annual "Frontier Days," Willits is cutting edge. Leaves of Grass Books, which has sold over 250 copies of the Hillenbrand masterpiece, and a respectable 40+ copies of Jani Buron's "Ridgewood Ranch," also has on order copies of Norah Pollard's book, "Leaning In," with several pieces about or Dedicated to her father, "Red" Pollard. In 1939, her father and mother, Agnes Conlon Pollard, were married in Willits, at St. Louis. Anthony's, attended by Charles and Marcella Howard. The Howards and the Babcocks were good friends of Red and Agnes', but friendship is not always outstanding in Willits.
It's possible a lost visitor might be stopped and questioned by a grizzled stranger, as I was last month. "What's yer bidness here? You is not supposed to be here." "Well, we got a little lost looking for a street called Barbara Lane." "Want to know how to get unlost?" "Yes, please." "Go back out the way you come in. And do not look back." Under his breath, he hissed, "(exhaustive) strangers!"
Speaking of strangers, one might also find oneself in the woods off Highway 20, interrupting someone skinning a deer. At first, Laura McBride, McBride's Kennels, feared the stranger might've been a poacher, but it turned out to be "bow season." This does not mean Willits men must wear bow ties; It means bows and arrows are legal for hunting, though some say not everything in Willits is legal.
The New York Times wrote about the alleged growing of a certain illegal plant in Willits. Even though the newspaper has bragged for over a century about publishing "All the news that's fit to print," they'd be better advised to practice the Cowboy Code themselves.
Back when Willits was still part of the American Frontier, there was not much beyond big mountains, tall trees and a saloon or two. It still has those things. No modern freeway or depleted gold mine or tree-hugging liberal can change Willits. Not when it practices the Cowboy Code.
Works for me.
Reprinted by permission of The Willits News, September 2003