Nadja Slaughter's 18-year-old son has been unusually quiet in the days since he went dashing up the canyon to help volunteer crews dig their neighbors out of the mud slides on Love Creek Road.
"It pretty well blew him away. He just keeps saying, 'You wouldn't believe it. You wouldn't believe it,' " she said.
A teacher's aide, she and her husband, an electrician, live with their three teen-aged sons in the last house before the police barricades block the way to the wreckage farther up this curving mountain road.
Six bodies have been recovered from the Love Creek area, and five are believed buried beneath tons of mud and debris. All the Slaughters lost was power and water for a week.
At Slaughter's school, two brothers, a kindergartener and a second grader, remain unaccounted for. "They just found the bodies of their mom and dad," she said.
Two weeks after torrential rainstorms rearranged land and lives up and down the northern California coast, killing at least 31 people and leaving thousands homeless, many residents still express shock and disorientation as they point out the mud-filled houses, rutted mud slopes and ragged car-strewn creekbeds where an occasional house sits at an odd angle, like a beast with broken front legs. But they also talk about a new-found community spirit, and they have no intention of moving out.
Not many, of course, have seen what the Slaughter boy saw, up the road from his house, where perhaps the worst destruction occurred. As the field investigators, in a dry preliminary report, described that night of terror, "A 30-foot-thick slab of weather bed, weakened and saturated rock debris . . . broke loose at an elevation of about 1,240 feet near the ridge crest . . . and moved rapidly downslope . . . . About 125 acres and 2 million cubic yards of material involved . . . destroyed seven or eight dwellings."
This terrain two weeks later resembles land cleared of trees, not yet graded, up a mud path, where you still sink knee-deep at some places. It is silent except for birds.
But there is a cascade of unburied evidence on one steep lumpy slope: a mattress with bloody sheets where flies buzz, a hair dryer, a dead cat wrapped in a towel, the twisted headlights and license plate of a submerged automobile, a sprawl of bright-colored clothing, a stove, a copy of a 1721 ceremonial Stradivarius violin shattered in its case, a white plastic body bag left by rescuers.
In a perverse kind of one-upmanship, the people who live around this shudder at the icy sufferings of the rest of the country this winter and speak affectionately of their own year-round mild climate, their relaxed way of life and the aged, eucalyptus-scented beauty of the landscape where nature rarely turns malignant.
The devastation has created an unaccustomed closeness among the very dissimilar inhabitants who share this turf. Members of the "establishment," centered in Santa Cruz, consisting mostly of middle-class working people, artisans and retirees, find themselves working hand-in-glove with "those hippy types," the vagabond flower children who began to flock here in the '60s to live independent lives off the land, particularly back in remote areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Bob Ebert, 37, a long-haired, red-bearded woodcutter who lost everything in the mud slide, said he normally avoids official organizations of any type. But this season he has nothing but praise for one.
"The Red Cross is number one," he said. "They've helped me out heavily." He showed off the boots, socks, shirt and bandana the agency had supplied him.
Ebert was hard at work with other volunteers chopping wood and delivering it and disinfectant and other supplies to victims in the area.
Like several of his friends, he said, he is prepared to deal with the elements here rather than move out.
"Oh, it's gonna happen again." He said he didn't care. "Too many good vibrations here. I'm really in tune here."
Logger and painter Lee Menzel, another long-haired volunteer, said, "This is a very polarized area, you know, rich and poor. A lot of these guys are not used to dealing with government, or red tape. They didn't have what you'd call community spirit until now."
"The people left in the mountains are the ones who belong here," said Karen Connell of nearby Lampico, who was at the Red Cross shelter here searching for donated clothing to fit her daughter, Meagan, 2. "The people who can't handle this are grabbing their TV sets and leaving, and we all say 'yeah.' "
"I've talked to neighbors I haven't talked to in years," said Nadja Slaughter. "Everybody's just given and given. All the little barriers have come down."
There is warm praise here for the volunteer firefighters, Salvation Army, Red Cross and other volunteer networks, official and impromptu, although coordinators say they are short of hands and money.
Many of the houses destroyed in Love Creek and in other areas such as Aptos, Pacifica and Marin County, north of the Golden Gate, were expensive homes, built to code.
Officials say they are reexamining those codes. There is new interest in something called professional paper 944, put out by the U.S. Geological Survey, with multicolor foldout maps for homeowners indicating slide dangers in the Bay area.
Field investigators say that more rain could trigger more slides.
Still, perched on most of the available peaks and bluffs in this roller-coaster, earthquake-prone landscape are the spectacular redwood homes, cantilevered, stilted and defiant, at neck-craning angles. But they are part of the reason people come here.
In one bizarre twist of fate, the family of a woman who died in the storm in the beach community of Aptos had just moved out of a house up on Love Creek, one of those that survived intact. Many of the residents here seem fatalistic about this rolling of the dice with nature.
"Well, it toughens you," said Jane Winegar, a feisty retired educator who lives on the beachfront at Aptos, where a cascading bluff missed her home but crumpled a neighbor's and destroyed it.
"Nobody's taking my property . . . . You know what they say: lightning only strikes once."