Monday, November 30, 2015
THE LIFE CYCLE OF A PLACE NAME
Dusk may be the time
when history speaks
in greatest clarity
I drove through Artois, California the other day. I recall stopping there about five decades back, my parents looking to buy me a Nehi Orange at the local market.
Long ago, the old store was boarded up. The main highway through town, upon which this day I was the only traveler, used to accommodate all the major north south traffic on the west side of the valley. I turned down a back street and explored its crumbling pavement. A couple of dozen homes, many dilapidated, stand among vacant weedy lots.
Artois, once a shipment point for wheat, later rice, on the old SP line; once a pit stop for travelers on the old 99W; once a minor crossroad for those heading to the Sacramento River; Artois, now houses the production facilities for California Olive Ranch Oils and the occasional well-preserved Victorian, but little else.
Fort Bidwell is located at the north end of the Surprise Valley. With a good tail wind, you could spit and hit Oregon. Driving up that way is a lot like travelling back through time. Peter Lassen led immigrants through this country in the 1848. Modoc leader Kintpuash (Captain Jack) was hung here in 1873 having killed US General Canby in the Modoc War.
The vast expanse of the valley floor now supports cattle operations and small time hay farms each whose ownership goes back generations. The main street through Fort Bidwell is utilized by equal parts pickup trucks, horses and those little four-wheelers made by Honda or John Deere or Kubota.
It is easy to imagine when there might only have been horses. Now, however, the school is closed, the general mercantile is closed and the Chevron closed about two years back, or so I’m told. If a dime were burning a hole in your pocket up this way, well, you’d just have to let it burn.
Sites, California is nine miles west of Interstate 5. It is just past the easternmost ridge of the Coast Range. The road is rifle shot straight from Maxwell to a spot called Mills Orchard, where it twists and turns to follow the course of a seasonal creek up into the hills. There was a town here, once. We know, because there’s a sign that says we’re looking at the town square (circa 1887). Sites, the town site, is at a crossroad. West, one would travel to Lodoga; south, one would find the remnants of Leesville; east, one retraces the route down to Maxwell and a rail connection north and south.
Whatever they once did at Sites – range cattle? – they’re not doing much of it anymore. Recent talk has centered on damming that seasonal creek and using the resultant basin as surface storage for pumped in Sacramento River water in case the state should ever find itself in daunting drought conditions.
There is mystery in old places that are on their way to no longer existing: mysteries involving their birth, their heyday and what brought about their demise.
My mind often wanders to the hearty families that busted ground and settled the area.
I’m curious as to whether the old time residents thought it as beautiful or as romantic as I do from the seat of my motorcycle, or if it was just a place that, like a tool, they used until they found no value in any longer and moved on. Then I wonder if any descendents ever come back to check on things.
Generally, the road to a near-forgotten place name is an interesting one.
It may or may not be paved. It likely never was engineered.
It probably goes over and around the streams, scenery and hillsides rather than through.
On the off chance you encounter someone coming from the opposite direction, two things are practically assured: somebody’s going to pull over and both you and s/he will offer a neighborly wave. I wonder about those who walked the road to market or to school or to the rail line and what they may have thought about those who later drove it with our smoke-belching mechanicals. It’s easy to get lost in that or some similar reverie.
Place names are born because something was about to happen here. They die because that something quit happening. The whys are innumerable: the gold played out, the wind blew the topsoil away, there was a flood, there was a drought, someone built a dam, someone built a freeway, someone built a Wal-Mart in the next town over. Or, the off-spring saw that proverbial “Par-ee” and decided not to return “down on the farm.”
I enjoy a little first-hand visit with history perhaps staying to watch the sun dip behind a hill and darkness creep across the landscape.
Dusk, I’ve found, may be the time when history speaks with the greatest clarity. At these times I counsel myself: It is wise to have this little visit before all the history is erased by the winds of time and our relentless march toward efficiency.
It is good, I conclude, that there are so very many little roads: each going somewhere. Each going to a place name.
© 2015Church of the Open Road Pres