Where I Stand: Finding my way back

By Tamara White

 

 The Dixie Fire began on July 13, 2021, near the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. While not yet confirmed, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) claims that the fire may have been started by its equipment, sparking the fire near the same network of PG&E power lines that caused the town of Paradise, California, to burn down.

Before reaching Chester, the place where I was born and raised, the insatiable, flaming beast consumed the nearby town of Greenville. A place where I remember playing volleyball or watching our football team, the Volcanoes, play against the Indians, named after the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians of California. I can remember generations of Native American families living in this town since consumed by a fire that has burned over 959,000 acres as of this writing.

Watching nightly updates from afar has created a resurgence of nostalgia for me. I have found myself feeling protective not only for my family but also for my summer cabin. I feel a ping of guilt as I think back to how badly I wanted to leave this place that is now darkened with ash.

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 Watching the fire has been like watching a bully pick on an underdog as families who live on meager wages from summer tourism were forced to evacuate. Retirees who relocated after losing everything in the Paradise Camp Fire in 2018 lived that fearful nightmare again. My family, who had to choose between loading up their dogs or grabbing an extra box of family mementos when evacuating, have thankfully returned to their homes. Yet, many have not been so lucky. For many, everything is gone. Named after the street where it originated, the monster named Dixie has shown little care for the backstory or history of those in its path.

A small logging town that eventually included correctional officers from the expanding prison near Susanville was founded by two settlers- one from Chester, Vermont. The other was from Chester, Missouri. I only know it as a place that held both sets of my grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles, and teachers that stayed at the high school long enough to teach both my parents and me. It has taken years for me to fully appreciate the beauty of this tight-knit mountain town that resides south of Lassen National Park. Within a month of its commencement, the Dixie Fire would challenge this scrappy, little town that sits quietly on the shores of Lake Almanor and miraculously defeated the odds. A forested treasure that now looks vastly different.

The manmade lake, which sits on the outskirts of Chester, is a large reservoir created in 1914 by the Great Western Power company by damming the north fork of the nearby Feather River. The reservoir, Lake Almanor, was named after the Great Western Power’s vice president’s daughters: Alice, Martha, and Eleanor. Today, million-dollar homes circle the lake in secluded enclaves with streets named after plants and foliage. A security gate on the peninsula separates “the country club” residents from visitors who must be on a guest list to enter. The town of Chester holds more modest structures that belong primarily to the hardworking, year-round residents.

The lake’s southern shore is located within the Mt. Lassen region, a national park that contains over a hundred acres. Many of those now blackened and burned. Still considered an active volcano, Mt. Lassen and Lake Almanor’s fishing and water sports attract thousands of tourists annually. The area swells in size from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend. Bringing revenue and frustration over long lines at the Holiday Market and chaotic traffic patterns unseen during the winter months. How the Dixie Fire will impact this yearly economic upswing is yet to be determined. One can hope that the summer residents who return year after year will again choose to support this town that dodged a flaming bullet.

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When I was seven years old, my mother and I drove to a friend’s home in Hollywood. Never having traveled farther than Chico, I found the sparkle of Los Angeles at night to be magical. Our friend took us to dinner at a Chinese restaurant – perhaps a first for my limited culinary palette. I remember the space being dark, with low-hanging pagoda lanterns and red velvet wallpaper. I’m sure I was speechless, taking in the exotic surroundings, as the adults drank wine and caught up in conversation. This adventure informed my imaginative mind, allowing me to consider life outside of the small mountain town where I was born.

I imagined life in the city or residing in a beach house far from the mountains. I would declare while watching the Academy Awards and admiring costume-like gowns designed by the flamboyant and very gay Bob Mackie, “I’m going to marry him one day!” My mother just smirked and replied, “good luck with that.” The sequins and glitter of his designs were an opposing afront to the ubiquitous denim and flannel of local fashion norms.

Chester felt confining, and I never appreciated the splendor that brings visitors and part-time residents to the area year after year. I was so focused on getting out that I never considered the surrounding beauty and what the town had to offer. I dreamed of Pepperdine, European vacations, and life as a glamorous graphic designer. Yet years later, while married to a fly fisherman who sought out local hikes, I began to appreciate what I couldn’t see as a teenager. The trees, terrain, and mountain ranges with year-round patches of snow.

Several generations of my relatives have lived in the area for decades. Collins Pine, the local lumber mill, has employed three generations of those within my family tree.  My aunt, Janice White, is now one of the few female managers in the company. The mill is located on the outskirts of town. It is a mainstay of the community, with most locals connected somehow. This circumstance has created a working-class demographic where most residents know each other by name. While there are few cultural activities nearby, there is friendliness among people within the community. Exhibited by helping each other where they are able-  babysitting, plowing snow, or providing meals when a family is going through a hardship.

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In the 1990s, California’s Three Strikes law would change the make-up of the town by employing many locals who had previously worked for the Collins company. The “Three Strikes and You’re Out!” law imposed a life sentence for individuals, regardless of the crime, if the individual had two prior convictions. Statistics have shown that the law disproportionately discriminates against communities of color and those struggling with physical and mental illnesses. These statistics are in stark contrast to the lack of diversity that exists in Chester and nearby towns. The law was eventually amended in 2012 when voters supported Proposition 36, which presented provisional changes to the law. The first being that to qualify for a 25-to-life sentence, the new felony must be a serious or violent crime. The second change made by the passing of Prop. 36 is allowing individuals currently serving a third strike sentence to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

However, in 1995 when many Chester locals were gaining employment at CCC and High Desert, as the Susanville prisons are named, the sentence reduction was years away. California prisons were filled to the gates with three-strikers. Suddenly former high school classmates were walking through town in khaki green uniforms. My mother, a woman who matched her earrings to outfits, swapped out her coordinated attire for cargo pants and a hip belt laden with gun and pepper spray. Standing at 5’2, she was the bookkeeper for a local propane company before making this career change herself.

This wardrobe change went into effect for many residents seeking a state job with benefits and a decent retirement incentive. Unfortunately, that opportunity is ending. The prison, which houses more than 2,300 inmates and employees close to 1,100 individuals, is scheduled to close by June 2022. This will have a financial impact on Chester and nearby towns where prisons employees commute yearly, enduring snowstorms over steep mountain grades in the winter months. The prison’s closure is likely to feel like a one-two punch after the devastation from the Dixie fire. Several families that rely on the prison as a source of income are also impacted by the still-raging fire. The duality of this tragedy may have contributed to 70% of Lassen County residents, where the prison is located, supporting the recently foiled recall of Governor Gavin Newsom.

It has been a curious journey through memories and nostalgia these past few months. I recently visited the area for the first time in years to celebrate my brother’s birthday and attend the local 4th of July celebrations. Days before the Dixie Fire began. The festivities included a parade that looked like a mirrored replica of the parades I remember as a child. Folding chairs were placed up and down Main Street the night before. Filled with a patriotic clad audience early the following morning. Many of those attendees are flatlanders, the derogative term by locals, for tourists who seep into the town during the summer months. The annual cavalcade begins with the Parade Marshall. This is typically an octogenarian who has contributed to the town – retired teachers, longtime business owners, or well-respected residents that keep the area friendly and functioning. Next up are the fire trucks bellowing their loud sirens as firemen toss candy to eager kids dancing to the frenzy.

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There are no stringent rules on who can participate in the annual parade, evidenced by a bevy of cars wrapped in paper crepe streamers and red, white, and blue balloons. Proud Jeep owners and hot rod drivers cruise down Main Street with passengers in bikinis waving proudly like county fair queens. The lack of polish and elaborate floats adds to the charm that is to be expected from a small-town parade. Once the last baton twirler has made it to the end of the route, the crowd slowly meanders to the arts and crafts fair in the Chester Park.  Parade-goers make their way past the Timber House, a restaurant made entirely from tree trunks. Past the Pine Shack Frosty that advertises “Free milkshake if Mt. Lassen erupts while ordering.” And, just beyond the Kopper Kettle, a mainstay restaurant for the past fifty years that makes pancakes the size of your head.

The route takes on a different meaning for me as memories previously pushed below the surface gradually emerge.  I remember the houses where I dropped off The Sacramento Bee, as the only paper girl in town, early in the morning. Dishwashing shifts at Bird’s Café in Old Town, where I came to understand the hard work that took place behind the swinging doors. The Kopper Kettle reminds me of working in the kitchen doing prep work – when I purchased a cheap gadget at the county fair to assist me in slicing onions and tomatoes. Strolling past 321 Main Street elicits recollections of mixing fifty flavors of shakes at “The Frosty,” Mt. Lassen be damned. I remember the houses where I trimmed and mowed yards under the hot summer sun. All of these places survived the threat of being erased by both my memory and unwelcomed flames.

The Arts and Crafts Show that surfaces twice a year is similar to the parade in that repetitive pattern of annual events. Booths filled with canned jams tied up with gingham ribbons, a variety of homemade jewelry and hand-sewn purses by local crafters, and artwork highlighting Lake Almanor and native pine trees. For many years the high school art teacher, Mr. Shellnut, would be the main artistic attraction. His paintings of the lake and mountains would draw in tourists looking to buy, while his crafts booth served as a meeting spot for CHS graduates to meet up and reminisce. This is the same teacher who would critique and compare my artwork with my mother’s. Mr. Shellnut was known for ripping an oversized phone book in half at the beginning of the school year to frighten and keep his students in line. Rather than producing fear and intimidation, the stunt elicited laughter. It became a legend passed on from one student body to the next.

Until recently, the town felt frozen in time. It has slightly changed through a rotation of businesses but is essentially the same that I remember growing up. Bars and churches remain scattered throughout the town in equal proportions, providing a glint of inspiration and entertainment. As a child, I would sit beside my dad on a barstool that equaled my height. I would sip Shirley Temple’s as my dad enjoyed his usual Olympia beer – it’s the water – while ruminating on a day of logging trees. Most memories of my father have him dressed in his well-worn Levi’s and chambray shirts with a pack of Marlboro Reds in the pocket. Chain saw oil under his nails would later be cleaned with his pocketknife as he watched tv, ashtray, and Oly within arm’s reach.

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There once was a bowling alley that is now a General Dollar. The former business kept local teens engaged while preventing them from following the tradition of previous generations. These rituals included driving into the woods and making a campfire out of discarded car tires as under-aged kids tried to solve the riddles from Lucky Lager beer caps. It’s a wonder that we didn’t all drop dead prematurely from the tar-filled fumes. Long ago, there was a movie theater that served as the only entertainment in town. At the top of the stairs, behind the limited seating, was a crying room where parents could take their fussy infants while attempting to have a date night. Depending on the movie, it was more commonly used for teenage make-out sessions between newly matched classmates. The sign on the front now reads Mt. Lassen Community Church. Movies were replaced by sermons, making it feel like an extension of the film Footloose.

The nearest cities to Chester and Lake Almanor include Chico to the south and Reno to the north, hours away. These cities are the focused destinations for school clothes, prom dresses, and orthodontist appointments. And of late, evacuation zones. When blazing fires are not encroaching on the nearby highways, locals head north and south with shopping lists and empty ice chests, searching for more options and better deals. With only one grocery store and no shops for clothing, traveling outside of town becomes a regular activity.

I moved away just days after turning eighteen. Lost yet hopeful, with little direction other than leaving. I moved to Chico, which at the time felt like a big city. Throughout the years, I have referred to Chester as “a nice place to visit.” Inferring that one would not want to live there. I eventually learned to appreciate the small-town charm. It took leaving for me to return and understand the stillness, the comradery, and ease that exists under the mountain stars that seem too big for the sky. To grasp the awe of fireworks over Lake Almanor and comprehend the nostalgic allure of hot fudge sundaes at the Lassen Drug soda fountain. The threat that these moments, stirred up with reminiscence, could disappear only heightened my sense of wistfulness that had been dormant for years.

Many former classmates and neighbors could see what I ignored. Most have found a sustainable life while working locally. Building a life. Building a family. I have been fortunate to own a vacation home nestled along the Feather River. While the town has not been a place I’ve called home for thirty-five years, the heat of the raging Dixie Fire changed my perspective. It’s not home, but there is a part of me in that town. There are bits of me in the memories of rafting on inner tubes down the bitter cold river, only to hike back up Feather River Drive and do it again. Memories of walking up and down Main Street on warm summer nights, hoping to connect with cute out-of-towners. Or bus trips for school sports to Greenville, a town that has virtually burned to the ground. Nearly all of my family remains in the area. With that comes an added layer of protectiveness I feel for this region.

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While the town has been spared, remnants of the Dixie Fire remain. The Cedar Chalet Bakery that sat outside of town, where I worked as a teenager, is gone. The cemetery’s lawn is green, but the office that housed plot records and family information became a gravesite of its own. The telltale sign of blackened ground lies like a scorched blanket throughout the surrounding acreage. An ominous reminder of what could have been. Just as the ash-covered foliage will regenerate, so will this town that has seen iterations of itself over the years.

New memories will be made, and this community, bound by tragedy, will become different from what I remember. The tradition of helping others will continue, already evident by the GoFundMe’s and supply donations getting circulated to those in need. Little by little, as the containment of the fire increases and the flame retardant washes away, the town will become itself again. The character and charm of Chester will return, just like my forgotten appreciation of this place I once called home.

 

Tamara White holds a Ph.D. in Humanities with a concentration in Museum Studies and Design Thinking. She now resides between Berkeley, California and New York City. Finding her way back to the mountains as time permits.