Golis: Small towns left isolated by change

  • The Surprise Valley in the northeast corner of California. The white area at right is an alkaline lake. (PETE GOLIS)

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.

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