The improbable and irresistible saga of Cachagua’s living legend, Grant Risdon.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
He peered through the sliding-glass door and saw a blur of flesh in his girlfriend’s bed. Another man. In a heartsick rage, Grant Risdon charged through the glass.
The naked man ran into the living room, grabbed a freshly sharpened fire ax and slashed Risdon on the arm. Risdon wrested it from him and waited until his rival was a short distance away – then gave the ax a practiced toss. It revolved through the air and came down on the man’s buttocks, slicing the mound off one cheek.
It was March 1981 in Cachagua, and Risdon was 38. When his half-assed victim told the cops, he hid in a cave in Los Padres National Forest. There he pulled a tooth with a pair of horse snippers, found God in the New Testament, and eluded sheriff’s deputies for the next three years – until April 1984, when he marched into the courthouse and offered up his horse’s shoes as proof he was done running.
At least, that’s his version. Some say the girl was already an ex by the time Risdon burst in on her. Others says he never lived in the cave at all, but crept from house to house as a couch-surfing fugitive. One account has him negotiating surrender in exchange for dental work – then drunkenly threatening a black deputy with a Bowie knife, growling, “I’ll make a wetsuit outta you,” until a pistol-whip to the head mellowed him out.
This much is on the record: Risdon told the judge, Hon. Richard Silver, that he’d been kidnapped and held captive in the cave as a sex slave to an enamored female yeti.
He credits the judge’s laughter for his lenient two-month sentence.
• • •
Twenty-nine years later, Risdon tells the yeti story for what must be the thousandth time.
“She was a darling,” he says, rolling a cigarette behind the Cachagua General Store. “Aw, she loved me. She had long eyelashes and she held me in her arms to keep me warm in the winter in the cave. I’d run to get away, and she’d capture me again. I taught the yeti how to cook spaghetti! Finally I ran to the open arms of the law. They put me in a jail inside of a jail so the yeti couldn’t climb the walls and kidnap me again.”
Conall Jones, the 27-year-old son of General Store chef Mike Jones, listens with a lopsided grin. The New York filmmaker is wrapping up a 45-minute documentary of Risdon’s fugitive years, complete with the yeti abduction scene.
It’s easy to look at Risdon and see a lecherous old drunk, a lazy deadbeat with a touchy temper. It’s just as easy to be charmed by his caballero chivalry and theatrical storytelling. But Jones sees something more: a character worth chronicling, a battered and destitute cowboy philosopher who seems straight out of a Steinbeck novel.
Risdon's uniform is an ironed button-up shirt tucked into belted trousers and black leather cowboy boots. His thinning granite hair is slicked neatly back, his mustache neatly trimmed. Lines run through his face like back-country creeks, pooling around spry blue eyes. His chapped lips peel readily back to reveal an oversized smile. Those who've been to the General Store's famous Monday night dinners may know him as the cheerful wino who creeps in on the house zydeco band, The Cachagua Playboys, with his off-rhythm castanets.
Old-time Cachaguans say he was quite handsome in his younger days, when he was best known as a crass and rowdy thorn in the sheriff’s side. But he was also a sensitive soul who loved horses, painted Western-style art and pursued history and culture with almost as much passion as he did pretty women.
Other than a slur that makes him sound perpetually soused, Risdon tells stories with the expressionism of a Broadway actor, arms sweeping, eyes squinting or popping wide, mouth exaggerating the shape of words. Most tales include a burst of song, which he performs with eyes closed, transported.
“Grant is a poetic and artistic and lyric genius,” Mike Jones writes on his blog. “Well, he does have some drug and alcohol problems… but having Grant around is like having Jesse James, or Ike Clanton, or Brendan Behan’s f****d-up Dad out back. The man is living history.”
Not everyone is as reverent. Dave Fox, a white-bearded fixture on the store’s front bench, scowls at the mention of him. “He’s just an a**hole – annoying,” says Fox, a semi-transient who goes back with Risdon for 24 years. “He always wants to have things his way.”
But Cachagua John, a trailer park local who’s known him just as long, sees him in a kinder light. “He’s got a few friends and a few enemies, and he loves ’em all,” he says. “If you’re sad, he always gets a good laugh out of you. He’s such a colorful person that people who’d drive through on a scenic tour would come back and say, ‘I remember Grant’ – just because he’d made ‘em laugh.”
• • •
Grant Risdon was born in Monterey to an abusive dad and a junkie mom at the beginning of World War II.
He blames his father’s violence, which took most of the hearing from his left ear, on war trauma: “He saw horrors he was not prepared to look at, and he developed immense anger. He killed many, many German soldiers. He came home twisted.”
His auburn-haired mother died of a heroin overdose when he was 9. He still remembers walking in on her while she was fixing. “She was tied up with blood coming down her arm, and she was already loaded,” he says. “She told me, ‘It’s alright, dear, I’m taking my medication.’ Then my sister pulled me out of the room and said, ‘You don’t remember anything. Erase it.’”
Risdon went to live with his grandfather in Jamesburg, Cachagua's neighbor in the boondocks, where Tassajara Road meets Los Padres National Forest. He remembers his grandpa as a kind man who taught him how to comb his hair, shoot a gun and drop a lasso.
But the lessons in good behavior came a bit too late. Young Grant was kicked out of a Carmel Catholic school for looking up the dress of a Virgin Mary statue – “She had bloomers on” – and had to start riding his horse to Tularcitos Elementary. Later he attended Monterey High, then transferred to Carmel High.
He made it through the Marines without combat between Korea and Vietnam, then moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where he spent his mid-20s going to school and working on a dairy farm on Lake Chapala.
Reliving those memories behind the General Store, Risdon clacks his castanets and sings “El Lechero,” a Mexican folk song about a handsome milkman. The nostalgia begins to flow like tequila: how he tangoed with beautiful women in the Guadalajara dance halls, received a presidential smile during Jonn F. Kennedy's visit to Mexico, and learned spirituality from the Huichol Indians of Jalisco.
“Honey, that place – ” he says with a dreamy smile, “that is the most beautiful time in my life.”
He still feels a fraternity with Mexicans. In Jensen Camp, the mobile home park behind the General Store, he rents trailer space from a Spanish-speaking family of six, and is the only gabacho in a big ranchera band. When they play gigs, he says, the guitar player’s wife – a beautician named Esperanza – powders his face brown, puts sunglasses over his blue eyes and hangs a gold cross around his neck.
Risdon relishes cultural history almost as much as he does booze. He takes sides in historical battles: Native Americans in the colonial wars, Yankees in the Civil War, Mexico in the Battle of the Alamo. He brags about having Sicilian and Arab friends, too; to prove it, he offers a warbling interpretation of the Muslim call to prayer. And he’s intensely proud of his own Irish heritage. Any mention of it provokes a recital of his relatives’ names, like Shannon O’Hannon, who married Francis O'Bannon.
But those aren’t the most popular stories with Risdon’s audiences. Most would rather hear about the time he lassoed a deputy.
• • •
It was winter in Carmel Valley, and 21-year-old Risdon was tooling around with other whiskey-drunk hillbillies on a Carmel River sandbar. They were jumping horses over a roaring bonfire, shooting their revolvers in mid-air.
Inevitably, the cops were called.
One of the guys got off his horse and gave the deputy some lip, to violent effect. Risdon decided to rope the cop that was beating on his friend.
“I just dropped the lasso over him, dallied up on the western saddle horn and put it in fast-forward,” he says. “I drug him probably 180 feet. He was going for his revolver, so I gave him a detour through the brush. And then I did a very dumb thing. I got off the horse and I started to urinate on him. I had my penis in one hand and the reins of the horse in the other hand, and that’s when they caught up with me. All I heard was, ‘Grant, look out!’ and I turned around and they had clubbed me into an unconscious state.”
He woke from a coma a week later with a Catholic nun and priest praying over him. He surprised doctors by walking again, but suffered impaired vision and slurred speech. The charges against him were dropped, and he began to collect disability checks.
It wasn't his first brush with death. He says he almost drowned while learning to scuba dive at Point Lobos, survived a house fire in which two friends perished, and was the only survivor of a car wreck that killed three friends.
The abandon that almost killed him was also fertile: Risdon fathered three children by three women in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The first, a boy, is the product of “a deep and meaningful one-night stand” with a native woman in southern Alaska, where he fished and logged for seven summers. The second, a girl, was born to an Irish-American film editor who drove a shiny car and scatted to Mozart. (In her honor, Risdon doo-wops to the tune of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”) The third was with “an average white girl from Carmel Valley – a good soul. Kind of mundane. Very bourgeois.” He’s never met his son but says he’s in occasional contact with his daughters. He regrets that things didn’t work out with their mothers – but he still lights a candle for love.
• • •
Grandma DeeDee, in her mid-80s, has known Grant since her father built Cachagua's only store. Aside from some odd jobs and crafts – she remembers him making chimes and picture frames out of beer cans – she can’t remember him ever working. “He couldn’t,” she says. “He wasn’t really capable of holding down jobs. The Army had a word for it, something mental. That’s why he gets disability.”
Cachagua John remembers Grant’s middle-aged days as a bar brawler, when he'd run around in a rat pack with four or five other guys. “He’s been thrown out a few times for feelin’ ornery,” John says. “Always fightin’ over women. If he’d had a few beers he was obnoxious.”
Most of these stories involve a big blue roan named Cachagua that was Risdon's best friend for 30 years. He would ride that horse forwards, backwards, bareback and standing in the saddle. He swears they had a psychic connection. When Risdon was too wasted to navigate home, Cachagua knew the way.
John remembers when the local boys would have Harley burnout contests in the dining room of what is now the General Store. Risdon would trot his horse right up to the bar. “That was when the cops were afraid to come out here, because their radios didn’t work on this side of the mountain,” he says. “It was the last stand for the outlaws.”
But Risdon was developing a reputation for his refined side, too. When he was only 19, he knocked on the door of Monterey painter Buck Warshawsky, who took him in for more than a year and taught him how to paint with oils.
His other artistic hero is Jack Swanson, the renowned cowboy painter of Carmel Valley. The two met in the 1960s, when Swanson noticed a painted three-panel door Risdon entered in an art contest at the Trail & Saddle Club.
“I thought it was so clever and original that I gave him the first prize, which almost made him go crazy,” says Swanson, now in his eighties and working on an illustrated autobiography. “Grant’s work is original. It’s labored, but you won’t see anything else like it. He’s quite an intelligent fellow – he’s spent a lot of time philosophizing.”
Pat Clark, a Jerry-Garcia-looking, fiddle-playing old-time Cachaguan, remembers discovering Risdon’s art while he was an outlaw in the Los Padres cave.
“The first thing he’d run out of would be tobacco. So he'd ride out on his horse and bum cigarettes,” Clark says. “Grant came into Jamesburg, a renegade, and he unrolled this big piece of butcher paper, and on it was all the horses and all the people of this great moment the cavalry came up into the Jamesburg area in the late 1800s. The faces were fairly small, ’cause this was just pencil, but you could see all the neighbors who lived up in the hills. It was way cool.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, Risdon began selling his pastel drawings of ships at local galleries. “I couldn’t make enough of them – they sold,” he says. “But I stopped doing it ‘cause I felt like a whore. I paint and draw whatever comes to mind now.”
His favorite subjects are the Civil War, the Old West and Native Americans. One of his pieces hangs in the Cachagua Store: a canoe under a full moon, with its Native American rower only visible as a reflection in the water. “That is Indian surrealism,” he says. “It’s out of a dream.”
Rumor has it Risdon’s works still hang in the homes of some of Monterey County’s most opulent estates – where, if he were to come knocking, security would probably throw him out.
• • •
Risdon has spent much of his life as a transient. He’s stayed in Carmel Valley sheds and trailers, in several soggy Monterey apartments and, during sober stints, in charitable missions in Salinas. For a while he slept on the General Store bocce court when Cachagua Creek was high, on the sandbar when it was dry.
“He’s lived all over the place,” Fox says. “Everywhere until he wears out his welcome, which is pretty quick.”
For just over a year he’s been in one of his best homes yet: the Mexican family's trailer unit in Jensen Camp. He gets rent, clean sheets and home-cooked meals for $525 per month, less than half his $1,200 Social Security check.
“They send me perfectly good drug and alcohol money, and they want me to squander it on rent and food!” he jokes.
After 10 years of sobriety, Risdon fell off the wagon in 1994 when a house fire killed his friends. Now, he says, he tries to stick to red wine – though probably only because he can’t afford liquor.
Conall Jones still regrets bringing him a bottle of Hennessey for his 67th birthday: “He drank the whole thing in two hours. He was singing about the Mexican revolution. You couldn’t even talk to him; he was gone.”
“I’m functional up to a point,” Risdon admits. “Then I get dysfunctional, because I start having a good time.”
• • •
Sitting on a bench in the Portola Plaza bocce ball court, looking as placid and well-groomed as a child in church, Risdon reflects on his storied life. He’s mellower now, he says – no more bar brawls or lassoing cops.
His rocks, he says, are prayer, humor and a mantra: “Every day and in every way, I am feeling better” – he leans in – “and better” – growling now, with a cartoon grin – “and BETTER!”
He’s been coming to this bocce court for 15 years, he says, ever since a Sicilian elder named Vincenzo Giammanco taught him how to play. Giammanco died years ago, but Risdon remembers him in the present.
“He comes on the court like a Mafia Don. You can hear the tune of The Godfather playing in the background,” he says. “He has a Panama hat tilted to one side, reflector sunglasses, and spats. He’s elegantly dressed with his coat draped on his shoulders, and he’s always got the cigar. And he greets me, he goes, ‘Hey, Grrrrrant. Did you bring-a your can of whip-wop?’
“I go, ‘Yes I did, Vincenzo.’
“He goes, ‘That’s good, ‘cause I brought some mick-whip just for you.’”
Friends mean everything to Risdon, who has no family left. His three brothers were lost to suicide, overdose and a car wreck; his sister was recently taken by cancer. He claims to be in good physical shape, though “sometimes my mental health is affected by my heart.”
He also seems bothered by his larger-than-life reputation. “People have made up stories about me. Exaggerations,” he says. “If it wasn’t for me, I think some people would drop dead of boredom.”
A little later, he folds his hands and says he wants to come clean about something. “Everything I’ve told you is the truth,” he says, “but it’s calculated for effect. Instead of telling you the raw naked truth, I dress it up a little.”
• • •
That’s no surprise to Conall Jones, whose fact-checking led him to archived court records, 30-year-old microfiche reels and the living libraries of Cachagua old-timers. Not everything matched up with Risdon’s accounts.
“There are some fibs and lies going on with his stories. It got a little rough because I discovered the truth about some things, and it pissed him off,” Jones says. “He cuts it off when it gets too close. He’ll even make fun of himself, but I think he’s trying to protect his dignity.”
Other times, Risdon just wasn’t in the mood to shoot: “He’s funny, he’s sad, he’s on drugs – it’s really hard to tell,” Jones says. “He slows ya down.”
Risdon got fed up with Jones at times, too. “He’s a perfectionist, a top-of-the-line movie maker, and he’s a bitch to work with,” he says. “We got along; it’s just he’s so insistent: ‘Do it over.’”
Jones crosses his arms and laughs, and Risdon laughs too. Soon the old man is hamming up his version of an old classic: “Conall’s gonna put me in the movies. Conall’s gonna make a big star outta me. Conall’s gonna put me in the movies, and all I gotta do is act naturally.”
Then Risdon starts mulling over the documentary, and gets pensive again.
Though his outlaw years have become one of Cachagua’s best folk tales, he says, they were desperate times. “I went hungry and cold and lonely. A lot of people looked at it as a glorified movie, but it wasn’t romantic at all. The judge told me, ‘All over a girlfriend, and then you ran for three years? That's the material for books and movies and love songs.’ In my heart I disagreed. The sad truth is, it was very terrible. It was hardship.”
And one more thing, just to be clear –
The yeti, he says, was made up.