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FORT BIDWELL — We’ve arrived at the end of the (paved) road, not far from where the boundaries of California, Nevada and Oregon intersect. We came to see parts of California most people never see, and Fort Bidwell surely qualifies. Fewer than 200 people live in this isolated hamlet named for a 19th century army outpost.

The far northeast corner of California won’t become a tourist mecca anytime soon. To the north and east — a scruffy desert landscape. To the west — Fandango Pass, an opening in the Warner Mountains that carried immigrants on the Applegate and Lassen trails. To the south — the ranch land of the Surprise Valley and the first of three alkaline lakes that are its most prominent features.

Only 9,000 people live in all of Modoc County, spread over an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Make one lap of California — as we did — and you will discover that the nation’s most populous state is sparsely populated in many places. It’s also vast. In pursuit of roads less traveled, we drove more than 2,800 miles.

Make this journey, and you will be reminded, too, of the diversity of places and people. Along the way, you will see deserts and mountains, rushing rivers and lunar lakes, farmlands and rugged shorelines. You also will meet refugees from some other life. These remote places seem to have a special attraction for people who want to be left alone.

This is California, too, even if these areas lack the glamour and pretension of the big cities and fancy suburbs. (If you come here looking for arugula and shaved truffles, you have come to the wrong place.)

Visitors hear the same story in many of these small towns. The population is aging, and the birth rate is declining. Young people go off to college, never to return. There used to be a car dealer, a hardware store, a movie theater. Downtowns now feature empty store fronts because most of the retail business moved to the strip malls along the highway.

There is a sense of isolation in these towns, not just physical isolation, but economic and political isolation as well. Some choose to live here to escape the hustle, hype and conformity of urban areas.

But there’s also a belief that their values aren’t shared by other Californians — a belief that government is denying to them the right to live as they choose.

If you think Republicans come only from country clubs and wealthy suburbs, you haven’t visited rural California. Modoc and neighboring Lassen County are the only two counties in the state where Republican registration increased in the past decade.

Modoc and neighboring Siskiyou County are among the leaders in the campaign to split off from California and create the 51st state, the state of Jefferson.

Whether it makes sense to create a separate state from a collection of low-wealth counties, many people in these rural areas are persuaded that what stands between them and prosperity is state government’s determination to impose limits on logging, mining and water rights.

If they know that statehood wouldn’t spare them from the federal Endangered Species Act or the federal Clean Water Act, they’re not letting on. If they remember that timber and mining jobs were tough, dangerous and seasonal, they’re also not letting on.

Still, it’s easy to understand their frustration with an outside world that is changing at a breathless pace.

A recent Washington Post story testified to how technology and globalization contribute to the isolation of rural communities. In 1980, the average income of the college graduate was 38 percent higher than the average income of a person with only a high school diploma. Today, the income of a college graduate is 73 percent higher.

Most college-educated people, a Stanford economist told the Post, are now drawn to the jobs and the amenities available in big cities. The number of college-educated residents in rural California is declining because there just aren’t jobs for them there.

If you’re searching for irony, note that some of these small towns survive on money generated by marijuana cultivation, and others — Calipatria, Susanville, Crescent City — on the payrolls of state prisons that house convicted drug dealers.

In our travels, back roads (and back highways) introduced us to new places. Have you been to Fernbridge, Vinton, Capetown or Likely? Dobbins, Janestown or Madeline?

Days on the road also lead to serendipities — the picturesque old courthouse in Alturas, zebras sharing a pasture with horses near the Lost Coast, blackberries for the picking along a road outside Petrolia.

Roll down the windows and smell the landscape changing — the aroma of moist alfalfa on a summer morning, the sweet smell of pine and dry grass in the Sierra, a field of mint planted near Tulelake.

Or, to appreciate how beautiful California can be, drive Highway 49 over Yuba Pass into the Sierra Valley. Check out the sunset beyond Big Lagoon in Humboldt County. Drive the Mattole Road over Bear Ridge to Cape Mendocino, the Lost Coast and Honeydew.

All these remote places have their own histories. Outside the courthouse in Downieville, there stands a gallows, a commemoration of the last hanging (which occurred in 1885).

Susanville was founded by immigrants searching for an easy way to get through the Sierra. (“Susan” was the daughter of an early settler, Isaac Roop.)

Petrolia in Humboldt County is said to be the site of California’s first oil well.

Modoc County was the scene of Indian wars. Thus, Fort Bidwell. The name of the most celebrated of the Indian leaders, Captain Jack, was later borrowed by a local eatery.

The back roads don’t always lead to the finest restaurants. You learn that hamburgers are always a safe choice.

But there are meals to remember for the right reasons. If you get the chance, try breakfast at Junior’s in El Centro, the Auction Yard Cafe in Alturas or Cafe Brio in Arcata. Or enjoy dinner at the Back Alley — yes, the bowling alley — in Bishop, or Captain Jack’s Stronghold Restaurant in Tulelake.

Good food or not so good, the chatter of a local restaurant serves up a glimpse into the life of the people who live in that town.

In the rush of our lives, we forget that California is about more than surfers and movie stars, tech millionaires and vintage wines.

California is about agriculture, big and small, It’s about the son of immigrants who became a Harvard-educated member of Congress. It’s about the optimism of a motel owner trying to rekindle the spirit of the Mother Road, Route 66. It’s about a waiter who didn’t charge for the soft drinks because he thinks they’re over-priced. It’s about the kindness of a waitress, who, unprompted, tracked down a local phone number for us.

These places survive in a country that waxes nostalgic about small-town America, while ignoring the people who actually live in small towns. We were grateful for the opportunity to visit with them.

Note to readers: Thanks for all your travel suggestions. From you, we learned that California is full of interesting places that don’t appear on tourists’ maps.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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