Tuesday, October 16, 2012
The Town That Time Forgot
My son, Nick, and I are back from three delightful days of fly-fishing in Northern California. We stayed at a ranch about 13 miles from the town of Burney, which itself is about 55 miles east of Redding. There’s a lot of lonesome between the two towns.
As predicted in the last post, we saw quite a few political signs on the way up, all of them Republican or Republican-leaning in nature. The big difference was that four years ago, there were a lot of McCain/Palin signs in that rural part of the state, while this year there were relatively few Romney/Ryan signs and a lot of signs with the general message that it’s time to get rid of Obama. To my keen political mind, that suggests that the prevailing sentiment is less pro-Romney than it is anti-Obama, but the vote should come out the same in any event.
Coming Back to the Same Place
But enough about politics; let’s talk about the all-too-brief vacation. Short version: We had a great time. The fishing wasn’t red-hot, but it usually isn’t. The trout showed enough interest in our offerings to keep things interesting, and we caught and released a number of nice fish.
Like the protagonist in my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, we stayed on a ranch (alfalfa, not cattle). The ranch owners were gracious hosts and let Nick drive their John Deere Gator, which they leave parked near the house with the keys in the ignition. The first two days were clear, sunny, and downright hot in the afternoon; the last day was overcast with a chill wind, a harbinger of the winter that will soon be upon the mountains.
During the course of our all-too-short stay there, I got to thinking about the fact that this marked the 28th straight year I’ve been fishing in the Burney area. (No, it’s not the setting for my book, but it might make a future one.) And that got me to thinking about what’s changed since I first visited the area in 1984, six years before Nick was born.
It’s not the population or the traffic. The town still has about three thousand people, and the traffic is so light that Mister Magoo could drive there without fear, though come to think of it, he did that just about anywhere. What I really notice now is the sense of economic constriction.
A Tough Place to Make a Living
As in most of California, the lumber industry has been scaled back, which pretty much leaves agriculture and tourism as the local industries of note. Considering that there’s not much of the latter from November to April, the margin for every small business in town (and except for Safeway, Rite Aid, and a couple of banks, that would be all of them) is exceedingly tight.
In 1984 the town boasted a Holiday Grocery (part of a small regional chain), a Chevron station, a specialty fly-fishing store, a general sporting-goods store, two first-class steakhouses, and one of the best breakfast joints ever, BJ’s Coffee Hut, where the waitresses never let a coffee cup get empty. Only one of the steak houses, The Outpost, remains.
I got into a conversation with a few locals Wednesday evening, and they told me that the owner of Vaughn’s Sporting Goods had wanted to retire and tried for a couple of years to sell the place. No one would buy, so he finally just quit, leaving another empty storefront on the main drag. In a market that small, one bad year can finish off any merchant, and I guess nobody wanted to take the chance.