When I finally persuaded my husband, Clifford, to fall in line with my way of thinking, and agree to buy a property in Lassen County, I had already spent twenty years making him a drudge of trout fishing and open skies.
He is an ocean man, whose ancestors lived by the clear tropical blue of the South China Sea. The crashing surf rings in his ears like a divine voice. As a child, he and his family would drive out to the Pacific coast, and gather sea urchin, while his mother fished the surf line, and his father snorkeled for abalone. Mealtime often consisted of fresh seafood that would be deemed gourmet on the menu of any upscale restaurant.
I eventually had my way in getting him to accept being landlocked. It sort of paralleled Clifford’s reasoning that pushed us toward a motorcycle philosophy. His line was, “It’s an activity you do with family, and it never gets old.” I started on a Honda 70 dirt bike, perched on it like a circus bear, and ended up on a Kawasaki 1500 street-bike. The thrill of motorcycles made it easy to agree with my husband. Riding motorcycles on the street, despite the hazards, is sexy and powerful. In the mountains, a tank like a Honda XR150 lets you go 60 miles on one tank of gas, and leap up a steep ridge like a deer.
It wasn’t until 1986 when Clifford commenced his Lassen County experience with me. My malleable time began when I was only two.
We were summer people, which is a category related to virga—you see it coming, a deceptive cloudburst that never quite reaches the ground, and so you forget you ever noticed it at all.
My father was a high-school counselor in the Bay Area, and had a co-worker who leased from the U.S. Forest Service at Eagle Lake, and built what qualified as a “cabin” on his lake-facing lot. It never amounted to much more than two stories of wood framing, decorated with open-stud walls and tarpaper backing. Open-stud walls serve as cheap built-in shelves for saving the crap people like to pick up while on hikes, like sugar-pine cones, and sun-bleached snail shells. Being without any kind of insulation, there was no such thing as weatherproof, or environmental control.
When I was a child, suburban comfort wasn’t in the forefront, though I did crave the sun. Raised in the fog belt just south of San Francisco, the brittle summer heat of Lassen County was paradise. The water was always perfect, the sunrises and sunsets surreal, and thunderstorms a part of my physical being. Those trout we caught trolling from a red canoe with lake flashers, seemed like monster fish.
If I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have walked the backcountry with only the company of the fifty-pound family dog that would have been more of a meal from the viewpoint of a mountain lion, instead of an effective bodyguard.
On foot, the hills surrounding Eagle Lake are endless, and largely untrammeled. You can find aspens on Gallatin Peak that are etched with the initials of Basque sheepherders from the 1930s. It’s amazing when you realize that an entire grove of aspens growing on a half acre might constitute a single tree expanding over many decades from its root tips.
For many years as a couple, Clifford and I stayed in a tent at the Eagle Lake campgrounds. When we started our family, the experience continued in a borrowed cabin at Eagle’s Nest. We formed a weird caravan, loading our dirt bikes and children into a faded Dodge van, and trailering a 14-foot aluminum boat. The fishing hole, right off Eagle’s Nest, produced limits of trout every year. We were lazy with the heat, and drunken from the placid waters. Our feverish need to explore the backcountry diminished its former vastness, without destroying its remote nature. Even on noisy motorcycles, we would spot wildlife, from coyote and deer, to golden eagle, white-faced ibis and sandhill crane.
Ultimately there comes a time when you want a piece of the illusion. You need more than hot sand and calm water and easy-pickin’ trout. You desire a challenge. So, in 2005, we searched for our Lassen County property.
Initially, we were interested in a house up in the Willow Creek Valley. Very quickly we became acquainted with the disparities between the Bay Area and Lassen County, in the methodology of the real estate market. My husband, formerly a CEO for a Silicon Valley startup, and accustomed to finagling deals with corporate suppliers, made an offer to the sellers that might be construed as borderline offensive. It was a brief point of contention on a property we never owned (which our hindsight now defines as fate).
And then, I spotted the Money house on the listings.
Whoever Mr. Money was, he lived in an enormous house built for endurance. Standing on Pine Street, it stares down the length of Nevada Street, past the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and across the Honey Lake Valley. At its rear, the slope of the hill rises steeply toward the sky in a rugged backdrop of car-sized boulders and tangled vegetation. Not the ostentatious perch enjoyed by the Elk’s Lodge, which so often epitomizes Susanville, the Money house beckoned with the tall casements of its second-floor windows.
In the winter of 2005, the Money house was quaintly laced in snow in the photo on the real estate listing. I admit to wanting the house badly, even after the property inspector we hired rooted out its flaws, and summed up the grand total of $150k to repair or update its peculiarities. Aside from the asbestos ceiling panels, the heating-oil tank standing on its rotting wooden front porch, the deteriorating tiled bath-enclosure, or the fact that the foundation basically sits on the dirt, rather than on concrete, it’s a house of character.
I found an old photograph of the Money house in Jervie Eastman’s collection archived at U.C. Davis. Eastman’s genius to record the glacial-speed of change in Susanville proves the man as visionary. These photos indicate how slowly Susanville has evolved over the decades, in spite of the hotfooting flow of the mainstream. The black and white photo of the L-shaped house on Pine Street reveals strength in the internal structure of the building, whose timbers were probably just as sound in that undated photograph as they are to this day, even though much of the substructure touches the Lassen County earth.
But $150k? Are you freaking crazy? It simply wasn’t meant to be.
To assuage our disappointment, the property inspector made an honest-man’s deal to sell us, at the close of that year, a house he owns in Lake Forest Estates, a small housing development six miles outside of Susanville. Making the drive up A-1, we’d take a breather, and get a look at the house. Along the way to the inspector’s property, and as we threaded the plowed road, we saw a different property for sale along the street, which contained a mobile home.
“That’s it!” my husband claimed, pointing at the pale green mobile home. Two blocks from the dirt roads of Roop Mountain, less than 20 minutes from fishing over the hill at Eagle Lake, and ten minutes from town—what more could you ask for?
“Besides,” he reasoned with me, “we’re handy, but we’re not that committed to home repair. We want a place to spend vacation, not a vacation to spend working.”
The Money house would be, he estimated, just like the premise of B-O-A-T—Bring On Another Thousand—with an endless array of fixable items on a list that would extend into the voracious maw of the next thirty years, never enjoying resolution.
We bought the half-acre with its mobile home, and yes, my husband was right, as he often is. Clifford is pragmatic, while I find a reason to dream. My dreams become stories, fodder for writing, rather than fading away, or making me ache with what might have been. I’m perfectly happy in the mobile, because I am, as one of siblings claimed of our familial roots, descended from trailer trash.
Lassen County proved to be a red-state within a blue-state, a bastion of conservatism, where enough of our edges fit into the archaic puzzle of its culture. In our Bay Area backyard, my husband and I stage firewood, which he has split manually with an eight-pound maul and several wedges. We cart it up to Susanville in a one-ton Chevy truck, a cord at a time, to burn in our wood stove during the winter, because every Green neighbor in the South Bay would rat us out if we dared to burn wood. Our gas-guzzling vehicles are registered in Lassen County, due to the proclivity of the state to demand routine smog checks in delicate Santa Clara County, with its Air Pollution Control District, and Spare The Air days. There are more citizens in the city of Campbell, than in the entirety of Lassen County, blown by a different wind, governed by a separate paradigm of thought and action.
Occasionally, we’d drive past the Money house, just as we drive past the Sacred Heart Church (because, as I reason to Clifford, that by virtue of him being a church choir director for a living means we don’t go to church while on vacation; and that is why God invented fishing), and our children shudder at what might have been.
“There’s that house Mom almost bought,” Clifford would remind the kids, in a tone as though prompting a dreadful prophecy.
“It looks like it’s haunted!” they’d invariably reply, about Mr. Money’s former abode. It’s a crock, because our Bay Area home seems to be Grand Central Station for ghosts, an endless causeway of spirits from the old Agnews State Hospital cemetery, where victims from the Great 1906 Earthquake are interred; or the Ohlone Indian burial ground a half-mile east; and every forgotten farm and ranch in the heyday of the Valley of Heart’s Delight, before it met Hewlett and Packard, and metamorphosed into slick and racy Silicon Valley.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t buy it,” Clifford contends, “or else everyone would be too afraid to go to the bathroom alone.”
But you see, the truth, in the windows overlooking the Honey Lake Valley, is that this thing I have for the Money house is the exact sentiment I own for Lassen County, a sense of timelessness, and home, and plodding resistance to change.
Footnote: Zellamae Miles, a descendant of Honey Lake Valley settler, Isaac Roop, revealed to me that the Money house had actually been built by the parents of Frank Cady, the actor who played storekeeper Sam Drucker in “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Many decades later, Frank Cady’s nephew, Frank Pardee Cady, gained his own type of notoriety through certain financial shenanigans perpetrated upon the publicutility, LMUD, and by “managing” the Susanville City golf course.
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