Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part IV): Klamath, California

Klamath, California was our destination on the day we drove from southern Oregon into northern California. We had picked Klamath because of its prime location for seeing the state and national redwood parks. They were magnificent, and I was pleased to see the boost they bring the local economy. Indeed, a number of the tourists we met were from Europe. Of course, travel to the States is so inexpensive for them now, and they are drawn to this well-known if out-of-the-way corner of California.

After the clean air and other delights of the Oregon coast, our initial re-entry to California wasn't so pleasant. First, there was road work just over the state line, then the signs for Pelican Bay State Prison (a reminder of how California’s prison industrial complex has colonized several rural communities), and finally an enormous mushroom of smoke visible over the mountain just south of Crescent City. It was from the California fires then raging inland, and by the time we got to Klamath, the air was noxious, dark, and heavy with particulate matter. Nevertheless, we endured the dreadful air for a short time to enjoy some young whales frolicking and feeding just where the Klamath River flows into the Pacific (photo top; note the ominous skies at 4pm).

The town of Klamath was a sobering experience in ways unrelated to the fires. Our first attempt to find our motel led us into the town’s only residential neighborhood, with several dozen inexpensive homes, probably built in the ‘80s or so, but in terrible disrepair, cars and clutter strewn across yards. Incongruously interspersed among these were a few houses that, while structurally similar, were neat as the proverbial pen with rock-work trim and colorful flower gardens. I wondered who lived in the latter, being so houseproud in a place where there's plenty to discourage it.

Prominent in tiny Klamath, population 651, are the place’s associations with the Yurok tribe, the largest in California. They occupy land on either side of the Klamath River for about 40 miles. Wikipedia says that 80% of Yurok live in poverty and that 70% are without electricity or telephone service, but the most imposing building in Klamath is the tribal headquarters (photo above right). The tribal police have a separate facility, up by the residential area. The primary business in town is a large convenience store and gas station that is apparently owned by the tribe, the Yurok Travel Center.

We stayed in a delightful, impeccably-run motel called Ravenwood. The owners have done a terrific job of renovating and beautifying an old motor lodge. Blooming plants are everywhere, along with a charming gazebo and swings. One reward for their efforts has been great reviews on TripAdvisor, which is how we selected them. We enjoyed one of their great little vacation rental apartments with a full kitchen and a separate sitting area.

While Klamath had this great place to stay, the dining options were not so salubrious. We didn’t wander up to the Yurok Travel Center, though a sign there indicated that it housed a Subway franchise. Across from Ravenwood was an establishment I would call a “pool hall.” A prominently posted sign announced that no one under the age of 21 could enter, although a variety of fried foods were available for purchase at its take-away window. Next to it was the Klamath River café, which had a good range of sandwich and burger fare, along with pie and ice cream. The market next door was closed; indeed, the café was the only functioning business in the little “shopping center” there.

One of the first things I had noticed as we entered town was a small sign at the main junction that said “Tent Revival.” Klamath being so small, the tent wasn’t hard to find, and next to it the old school bus that probably carries the evangelist from town to town (photo above left). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tent revival outside the South, and I wondered how many folks they were attracting each evening, and what had led the evangelist to this town in particular.

In short Klamath presented one of the most apparent displays of California poverty that I have seen, although we saw others as we traveled south through Del Norte (population 27,000), Humboldt (pop. 126,000), and Mendocino (pop. 86,000) counties. Except for the tourist spots, these places represent forgotten California, albeit that which is geographically the true "northern California." No, the state doesn’t stop at the Bay Area, which is often referred to as northern California. There’s a whole ‘nother third in land area, though it surely represents less than a twentieth in population. Except the gentrified resort parts, mostly on the coast and mostly in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, the region remains largely ignored, largely rural, and largely economically depressed.

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