After yesterday’s long haul through Oregon, I crossed the California border at about 5pm and pulled into Alturas, the largest, maybe even the only city in Modoc County. Modoc County, in the extreme Northeast corner of the state, has the distinction of being simultaneously the most Republican County in California and the county where residents, per capita, rely most heavily on Welfare and other government programs. They are also so determined to slash taxes to the bone that their largest hospital — which is critical for County residents and also, ironically, one of the County’s largest employers — is on the verge of closing. And by the way, irony upon irony, the main employment up here is from the Gub’mint — local government, state government, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. Yup, this place is so conservative that practically the minute I crossed over the Oregon border the NPR station I’d been listening to cut out. Scanning through, there were no local alternatives. Just Country, Christian stations and Conservative talk radio. I put on a Willie Nelson CD.
Still, I wasn’t there to talk politics. I’d come to visit a little-known, seldom visited area of California, home to lava beds, caves and eery post-volcanic scenery. The scenery didn’t disappoint. The town did. There is little beauty in Alturas, but worse than that, it’s kind of scary. Streets, or rather the one main street, was pretty deserted and the stores there looked on the verge of bankruptcy. What few people I saw were kind of sketchy characters who gave me hard-eyed suspicious stares. Lucy and I barricaded ourselves in the Trailside Inn Best Western determined not to budge until we could hit the road early in the morning. But I hadn’t eaten all day and hunger drove me out to the night clerk’s recommendation of an Italian restaurant.
The Victorian Hotel Niles is so much more than a place to stay — and I wish we’d known about it to stay there, except that I don’t think it’s pet friendly. The hotel, which covers a full block has a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bar, a venue for local musicians and cowboy poets — and is where that vote on the hospital is scheduled. In other words, it’s a one stop city center, the real beating heart of Alturas, run by a local couple who seem to be single-handedly keeping Alturas interesting. Did I mention that I had an excellent meal in the restaurant of local beef and bruschetta with local tomatoes? I went back in the morning for my coffee. In fact, I’d come back to Modoc County just to patronize this place — and see the caves and lava tubes in Lava Beds National Monument that don’t allow dogs, leashed or otherwise.
So I contented myself with driving through and admiring the scenery and the geology. There was much to admire. I can see why the local tribes fought so fiercely to keep it during the Modoc Wars. Just an aside here, the U.S. policy toward Native American tribes in California was quite different than in the rest of the country. There were few attempts at treaties, negotiations or reservations. Often, the policy was extermination. Part of that was because California tribes were not fierce and skilled mounted warrior tribes like the Sioux or the Comanche. They were hunter gatherers who had already been decimated by disease, had their culture disrupted and been virtually enslaved by the Spanish by the time U.S. gold prospectors flooded in wanting to sweep away any impediment to getting rich quick. But the Modocs, with their relatives and allies, the Pit River Indians and the Paiutes, were the exception. Modoc leader Kintupash, known as Captain Jack, with just 52 warriors held off the U.S. Cavalry for months by waging guerrilla warfare from the great defensive position of the lava tubes in the north of county. Only after a large number of reinforcements and artillery were brought in, was Captain Jack finally captured and hanged and the Modocs were shipped off to a reservation. In the early days of statehood, there was strong support for naming the county in honor of General Canby, who had been killed in the war. But somehow it was named, in the final irony, Modoc County. A small posthumous victory for Captain Jack.
Our next stop was Reno! I know this seems out of character on this trip which has studiously avoided main tourist spots and sought out lesser known roads. But Reno is kind of the poor step brother to Las Vegas. And I’ve always wanted to do a Casino with a terrier.
Sadly, the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino does not allow dogs at the gaming tables. But Lucy was more than happy with the room. I got myself to the National Automobile Museum. It showcases Bill Harrah’s (of casino fame) personal collection of mostly pre-World War II cars. But also vintage automobile signage, gas pumps, vintage clothing and a special exhibit of vintage kiddie pedal cars.
The timing for my visit was perfect. The museum had just opened after clean up from an arson fire. Seems some asshat threw a brick and then a Molotov cocktail through the front window. He later bragged to his buddies. They were obviously classic car fantatics because they promptly turned him in.
As an interesting last note on the day, I ran down to one of the lounges in the hotel for a quick dinner and drink at the bar. I mentioned to the bartender that I was a winemaker in Sonoma. Next thing you know, he’s sending dozens of tattooed and leathered motorcycle guys and gals over to me for recommendations. (There was a huge motorcycle convention at the hotel.) Motorcycle people are more interested in artisanal practices than you might think.
That’s the last full day of travel on The Lost Coast Then Just Lost Tour. The last day would take us over the Carson Pass through the Sierras and back to San Jose.
Today’s photos here.
Oh boy. I look forward to the tour of Lava Beds National Monument in a future post.
Traveling with a terrier, many of my roadtrips become reconnaissance missions for later trips. I’m definitely going to talk Andy into going back here. Between the Lava Beds National Monument and the stunning volcanic sights in Lassen County, that would be a great trip.
Alturas looks and feels like the town described in the Milk Carton Kids’ evocative song “Ash and Clay” although the Niles Hotel is hopeful. More people voting against their own self-interest; what a shame. Our last focused road trip in that neck o’ the woods was to pick up our beloved Django in Carson City. In spite of Alturas, there is much natural beauty close by.