Modoc County, California, USA

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Modoc County is not quite in Oregon, not quite in Nevada, and denies being any part of California. In 1992, a referendum to split the state of California was taken because the people of Lassen County, (Modoc's neighbour to the south), were fed up with how the state bankrupted rural counties by repeatedly mandating programs to the counties without supplying funds for the programs. At 85% in favour, Modoc was the only county that voted higher approval for the idea than Lassen.

Since California never split, one may conclude either that the referendum was defeated by the relatively huge Constituencies of the urban counties, or that the referendum was not binding upon the state. In either case, one would be correct. It was only an opportunity for the rural counties to rant about their grievances.

The People...

Modoc County is named for a tribe of Native Americans that once resided in and near the far northwest corner of the county. There are rancherias, or small reservations near most other communities in the county, and most residents call the people living on these rancherias, Modoc Indians, hopefully because they live in Modoc County, but most likely because they don't know any better.

The people on the rancherias are actually part of the Achumawe Tribe, (aka Pit River Indians). The Paiute who reside on a reservation in the far northeast corner of the county are likewise frequently miscalled.

Officially, the remnants of the Modoc tribe reside on a reservation in Oklahoma. Since most of the white people call all the native people here Modoc any way, it's hardly surprising that some of them get away with actually being Modoc. Members of all three tribes are mutually insulted by all the confusion.

The Other People

The vast bulk of the population is descended from white settlers who arrived during the late 19th Century. Anyone else is considered to be, 'new around here'. Many still live in houses built by their ancestors who first settled here. Most ancestral homes have been retrofitted with plumbing and wiring, but not all. Even residents of Jess Valley, near the southeast corner of the county are upgrading from crank-style telephones to touch-tone telephones and fiber-optic connections, leapfrogging over rotary telephone technology in the process.

The county seat is currently Alturas, although the ghost towns of Lake City and Centerville also served that function in the past. With a population under three thousand and dwindling, Alturas appears to be striving to emulate the tradition established by its predecessors.

Most residents of Alturas will proudly tell you that the original name of the community was Dorris Bridge before it was renamed Alturas. The residents of the rancherias around Alturas may tell you that the original name of the community was Kosealekte before all those 'new around here' people showed up and started calling it Dorris Bridge in the 19th Century.

The Places...

The vast bulk of land in Modoc County is owned by the United States government and is administered by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Private land is mostly used for ranching, except the area where the Modoc Tribe once resided, which is used for farming.

If you wonder what the difference is between ranching and farming, you have more company than you might think. Actually, due to the number of mistaken notions about farming and ranching, you have more company than your company thinks you have. You are simply more aware of your lack of information than some are.

Aside from extremely old jokes about 'farmers' who plant their livestock upside-down, the matter is really quite simple. Ranchers raise livestock, while farmers grow crops. That isn't to say that this is exclusively so. For example, livestock may need pasturage, which is a crop, and crops can be tended using draft animals, which are livestock. It's the ultimate goal that makes the difference.

The farming area was largely a number of large, shallow lakes surrounded by marshes until the United States Bureau of Reclamation drained most of it in the name of 'reclamation' shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Reclamation is meant to be the process of reclaiming something that was lost. In reality, all that has been lost there were lakes and marshland that were once the headwater of the now-controversial Klamath River that has inspired such quarrelsome attitudes between native tribes, environmentalists, agribusiness, tourism, commercial fishing, and government agencies as it meanders across the California and Oregon border toward the Pacific Ocean.

The Decline...

The Bureau of Reclamation inexplicably shows no interest in reclaiming the lost lakes and marshes, so it is uncertain who might undertake such a venture; certainly not the salmon that already died for want of a headwater for their river, nor the Yurok and Hoopa Indians downstream who have had their hands full just getting telephone service available for the first time to their school and hospital, leapfrogging over crank and dial telephone technology in the process, while wondering what they will eat for want of the salmon that died, nor the farmers who watch their crops wither for want of all the water that their farms replaced.

Modoc County once had a thriving tourist economy, particularly surrounding and plying the waters of Goose Lake, near the northeast corner of the county and straddling the Oregon border. However, since a number of lakes and marshes upwind, that is to the west of Goose Lake, suddenly disappeared during reclamation and no longer moisten the prevailing winds that flow past them, the climate around Goose Lake has dried to the point where anyone wishing to visit the shore of the lake is forced to hike across extensive, ugly, smelly, undrivable mud flats.

Modoc County also once had a thriving logging industry. In fact this author recalls a time in his childhood when most any school child in the United States received at the beginning of the school year, a shiny new yellow pencil with the word 'Alturas' stamped into the side of it.

However, the forests downwind, that is south and east, of the unreclaimed lakes and marshes in the far northwest corner of the county suffer a climate that is so much drier than when they first grew, that it is most fortunate that this has not occurred in any other forests of the county. Since the late 1960s, the forest has been unable to grow back once cut down for lack of moisture, no matter how many times new trees are planted. Those areas where the trees have not been cut have become a desert which happens to have trees sticking up out of it.

The Other Decline

As late as 1978, this author found a grove of old-growth junipers north of Alturas that were of such proportions that one would have sworn they were redwoods. The way junipers propagate is by seed that proverbially doesn't fall very far from the tree. Thus, younger trees grow up in the shade of the older trees, causing them to grow tall and straight in order to find sunlight. Junipers that sprout away from other trees twist and gnarl themselves and sprout so many limbs that one has trouble deciding which limb is the trunk of the tree.

Even the largest of the trees in this grove, four to eight feet across at the base, were straight and tall, indicating that there had been other trees shading them when they were young. In turn, they shaded younger trees, which shaded yet younger trees, which shaded even younger trees. Four generations of the tallest, straightest juniper trees could be easily identified.

To this author's shame, he made the mistake of telling the District Ranger about this grove, suggesting it would be a great place for a picnic ground.

This author did not learn until later that it was Modoc National Forest's stance that the area north of Alturas was not originally a forest and that juniper trees are an invasive weed. The Devil's Garden Forest District makes every effort possible to eradicate them so that ranchers can graze their cattle there. Knowledge of a grove of old-growth trees of such proportions must have been rather inconvenient in the face of that policy because the next time this author visited the grove, every tree in it more than a few inches thick had been cut down and hauled away as firewood.

The Other Places

Modoc County still has a lot to offer to a tourist who is bored from touring areas that have already been invaded by people from large cities who are so in love with wildernesses that they are compelled to recreate the wilderness in the image of their own cities.

Attempts at camping, hunting, and fishing are all still permitted on most of the publicly owned lands. Some times the attempts are even successful if one has prepared carefully and abides by applicable regulations and common sense.

The eastern half of Modoc County is divided from north to south by the rugged Warner Mountain range, where some of the higher peaks approach 3,000 meters in elevation. There are numerous trout streams and lakes among these mountains, ideal for the fishing enthusiast.

In the south end of this range of mountains, between the towns of Likely and Eagleville, is the South Warner Wilderness, where motors of any kind are prohibited. It's a paradise for campers who like to hike in to a campsite.

Located at the crossroads of Federal Highway 395 and State Highway 299, Alturas is a natural place to go through on one's way to some place else. Alturas is so far from anywhere else that by the time one arrives there, one desperately needs certain services. Such services are generally reserved for paying customers of businesses providing other services one may need. These may all be found along Main Street, (Highway 395), and 12th Street, (Highway 299).

Supplies may be found near the west end of 12th Street at Holiday Market, near the south end of Main Street at Walt's Market and Four Corners Market at the intersection of 12th and Main Streets. Most smaller towns also have a small general store or convenience store, which may or may not provide services for which a traveler may be desperate.

About a dozen restaurants in Alturas offer decent meals from breakfast to supper time. Of that number, the only thing you can count on is that it will change as various restaurants start up and fail. The best were Pizza & Pasta Place on South Main Street, Nipa's Thai & California Cuisine on North Main Street, and Auction Yard Café about a mile west of Alturas on Highway 299.

Pizza & Pasta Place was the kind of place where if you show up at the right time, you might see Chip tossing the dough by hand. We're talking real pizza here! Believe it or not, the salad is even better than the pizza. Everything but the kitchen sink goes in it, although if you like pepperoncini, remember to ask for it because they only do it on request after too many people left them on the plate, uneaten. But what really makes this salad is the house dressing. Don't even ask what other dressings they have unless you want every last man, woman, and child in the place laughing their heads off at you. These people aren't satisfied to have that dressing on their salad at the restaurant; they buy bottles of the stuff to take home with them. Alas, Chip sold out, and the current owners simply aren't, well they simply aren't Chip.

Nipa's is a true Thai restaurant. Nipa's only condescension to the stereotype that the locals put on oriental cuisine is that she will provide chop sticks if you ask for them - and while doing so, she will tell you that the Thai don't use chop sticks.

Why Nipa decided to settle in the Alturas area, I'll never understand. She could have set up a restaurant in any location of her choice and, well, I guess she did. If anyone else had introduced Modoc County to Thai cuisine, they would have folded within a year or two just like any other new restaurant in Alturas does. Suffice it to say that Nipa set up her restaurant in Alturas because she could set it up where ever she chose, even if no one else could. She's been expanding her business too, buying the motel next door and setting up a second restaurant in Redding, 150 miles west.

Auction Yard Café really is at the Auction Yard. This is the restaurant where the local cattlemen and cattlewomen go to eat right after buying or selling their cattle. These are people who know what beef is and exactly how big it is. They aren't going to settle for that tiny fillet that any other restaurant would use more to decorate a plate than to feed a person. They aren't even going to settle for that silly 'dinner steak' your butcher sells you. They know what they want, and Auction Yard Café knows what they want, and what they want is a side of beef! Well, the café couldn't find platters that big, so they only serve one 20 ounce slab per plate.

A few of the small towns also have small cafés, which usually provide services for which a traveler may be desperate. Saloons are more plentiful, and usually have desperately needed services, but they exclude patrons under the age of 21 by law.

There are generally about ten motels in Alturas, with numerous Bed & Breakfast places scattered among the smaller towns. The number of motels is just as volatile as the number of restaurants.

Modoc County is not the place to get a vehicle repaired. All the honest mechanics more or less work out of their homes and can't afford the computerized equipment that's necessary to troubleshoot modern vehicles. It's not the place to buy or lease a vehicle either. Now that K.C. has passed away, there isn't even a token competition for the monopoly of the last remaining car dealer and garage in Alturas, and the monopoly knows it. If you must break down in Modoc County either find a mechanic who works out of his home, or try to limp into another county. The last truly good mechanic in Modoc County was John at the Likely Garage, 20 miles south of Alturas on Highway 395. Sadly, declining health forced him to retire.

Most of Alturas and all of the smaller towns go to sleep at night, so services of any kind become scarce. Aside from motels, all one may find open are one restaurant and one gas station with a convenience store in Alturas, and only saloons elsewhere.

However, fueling your vehicle is done best elsewhere. Whether one goes north, south, or west, one will eventually find better prices, but plan on driving 50 to 80 miles to find them. If one is so adventuresome that one goes east from Alturas beyond the Warner Mountains and into Nevada, may the deity of your choice be with you.

No? Well, choose one fast! However, fuel up before you go, and keep a journal of your misadventures just in case they become so traumatic that Hollywood is inspired to film another movie on the subject.

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