The shock didn’t hit me until about twenty minutes after Arlene, my boss, left me at the fire station. I had arrived in the small town of Alturas, California about an hour earlier and met her at the office for a brief tour of the facilities. From there we drove twenty miles back the way I had come, down a country road bordered by cow pastures and sage brush, hit a right onto an old dirt road and soon we reached the locked gates of West Valley Fire Station, my new home. She gave me the short version of what not to do; no booze, no overnight guests, and don’t break anything. Moments later there was a trail of dust leading back to the road and I was alone.
After picking out a room and dropping what few belonging I brought, I noticed the silence. It was quiet. Only the rumbling of the capricious refrigerator and the scrapping of a few birds outside the window echoed through the halls. This is when I began to think about my friends and family almost three thousand miles away. I had left them in pursuit of a long standing dream to live among the wild lands of the West. A sting of regret nearly brought tears to my eyes as I went over their faces in my mind and imagined what they might be doing with their evening. Would they be missing me? Would their happiness for my success be much greater than the sadness of knowing I would not be coming home any time soon?
Shifting my mind from that subject I thought of all the new things that were ahead of me. Everything in Modoc Country would be something I would have to learn. The customs of a small town are very important to know and understand unless you want to stick out like a sore thumb. By the end of my first day, most people in the office had approached me, saying “You’re from Ohio huh? I saw your license plates what do you think of Alturas?” or “You staying out at the firehouse, how do you like it out there?” My rule of thumb is always be pumped up. I tell everyone, “I love it! It’s been my dream to come out here and here I am!” The rest seems to take care of itself.
The more open you are, the quicker you pick up on the does and donts of a place. During my first day, I tried to small talk with everyone in the office I could. People love it when you ask about their town; they can talk and talk all about where to go and what to do. It seems twenty people are making me a list of places to visit and sights to see. I have also gotten many warnings about the dangers of exploring around the area. Weather here is as unpredictable as taming a buffalo; one could be driving on a nice sunny day, take two turns and find themselves in a snow storm. The local knowledge of that sort is invaluable if you want to have a good time.
Since the first week, I have begun changing the things I think are important to have with me. Back home, all you need is a credit card and a cell phone. Here, neither of those things will guarantee you anything outside of the two-block long town. Phone service is spotty at best. If you explore your way into a valley or a pass between some peaks, you could be SOL in an instant. Ice, snow, mud, falling rocks, these are very real dangers to the unprepared and have claimed the lives of capable people. After hearing a story of an ex-military guy and his family almost perishing trying to travel the back roads in winter, I remembered the TV movie that was made about the incident.
He was a young guy, probably in his thirties, and his wife and baby headed out toward Nevada in the middle of winter. Locals of the area had warned them repeatedly not to attempt such an adventure, especially in their little truck. A member of their family had become very ill and whether through stubbornness or desperation, the family had decided to journey onward. They followed County Road 8A east through Cedarville towards Nevada during a snowstorm. They became disoriented in the network of County roads, ranch roads, and two-tracks leading up into the mountains and survived for a week in a cave. The man eventually left his wife and baby and headed out on foot to seek rescue. This particular story had a happy ending as groups of locals and rangers were out looking for them and found the man practically at the last moment.
This story intrigues me still as only days ago my work took my miles out on 8A. Just past Cedarville, the pavement ends. You drive past the Alkali Lakes, which are muddy flats covered in Saltbrush on either side of the road. Ahead you can see the road gently climb towards the snowy peaks in the distance and disappear between them. As I rounded the bend, the dirt road became snow-covered and I lost reception on my 4G smartphone. My directions were to take 8A and look for 34. Once on 34, I was to look for a white sign and turn left, if I came to power lines crossing the road, then I had gone too far. I had a map of the area, a 4×4 truck with a radio, and my half eaten lunch with me.
I drove for about forty minutes before I nearly missed 34, another dirt road marked by a tiny bent sign. Traveling down 34, it was another thirty minutes before I saw the first sign of life since I had left the pavement. A small home surrounded by machinery and broken cars opposite a massive stack of hay bales. This was quickly out of sight as I continued on looking for my white sign. Many small two-tracks trailed off into the sage brush, disappearing into the foothills, the massive blue and white mountains looming in the distance. Finally, I reached the power lines. Scratching my head, I turned the truck around and drove slowly back wondering how I missed this sign.
I came to a small trail heading to the south when I noticed a post just off the road. On this post was stapled a piece of paper. This was my white sign. My directions from here were to follow the path down to a reservoir where I was to deliver my load of diesel fuel. The path was not on the map. Nor were the spidery off shoots that splintered left east and west as I went. On the way home, I marveled at how fast one could get into trouble out here. I had a powerful truck, meaty tires, a radio dialed into the office that knew I was out there, and a map of the area, and still I felt that in an instant I could have a situation on my hands.
As the sun came down that evening, the Warner Mountains outside my window turned pink and blue. The colors looked as if some divine artist had painted them as his final masterpiece. The silence of the station added a solemn reverence to my view and in that moment, I thought to myself, “This is what it is all about.” To some, the rugged environment, the unpredictable weather, the sheer isolation that one can feel driving these back roads, can be way too much. But for those that revel in the challenge of knowing where you are, of self-reliance, of being prepared as a part of daily life, it is a blast. Every day you wake up, you wonder what you will see and what will happen. How will this day play out? How can I best prepare for anything and everything with the few supplies and belongings that I have available?
When I was offered this job, I did just a little bit of research. I read that the town motto is “Where the West still lives.” This was all I needed to see. A search on GoogleMaps shows a tiny town surrounded by public lands, state forests and wildlife preserves, and mountains. If you do not enjoy the outdoors, you probably won’t like it here. But, for those of us looking for something you cannot find in the city, this place is rich with adventure and things to learn about being a human in the environment.