Ride with Me: Exploring California’s Rustic, Woodsy Towns

Ride along this week as we step foot into the snow globe town of Shasta City. Later we’ll let notes from a gently strummed harp seep into our souls as we stare out at a view of the state’s largest lake (in California’s Lake County).

We’ll soak in the bucolic, woodsy calm of a town that houses the state’s two largest prisons (Susanville). Finally we’ll slurp up scrappy, improvisational Ramen in a community where weed perfumes the air and the houses feel more like afterthoughts to the majestic redwoods (Willits).

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Shasta City, CA

Driving into Shasta City (population 3000) feels like puncturing the thin walls of–and then entering into–a snow globe. A subtle fog partially shrouds Mt. Shasta, though it’s not thick enough to block out the view of trees and greenery poking up from the surrounding hills and mountains. 

I find myself wondering what it would be like to live here–surrounded by natural beauty and clean air, yet cut off from the rest of civilization. Maybe once your FOMO has quieted down significantly, 26-year-old me tells herself.  For now, just enjoy it in passing.

And I do. Once inside the snow globe I park and exit my car, guiding air into my lungs that is crisp and chilled-fresh and and just so breathable as I walk towards the lone cafe that Yelp reviewers have rated highly. 

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“What a delightful gem,” one wrote. “I was simultaneously transported to 1950, 1970 and 2050 with retro tables and chairs, bold graphics and Shasta location, sweet neighborhood charm with a younger clientele and staff and crazy wonderful music,” wrote another.

Next to the window I sip a smoothie called the Green Thang. People enter, people leave. Half of them wear large, thick backpacks the size of a human child. The other half are greeted by their first name and order without looking at the menu.

Fellow Californianas: worth a stop if you’re ever road-tripping up to Oregon or Washington.

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Lake County, CA

Lake is the least traveled county in California, originally known for producing some of the world’s greatest wines (following European-Americans’ planting of vineyards there in the 1870s). Their wine production ended in 1920 though, when Prohibition was instated. Walnut and pear farms replaced the majority of the vineyards. 

The population of Clearlake is 15000. Surrounding towns Kelseyville and Lakeport are 3500 and 5000, respectively. Other Lake County towns include Upper Lake, Lower Lake, and Hidden Valley Lake.

My first stop is Middletown, located on the southbound end of Lake County with a population of 739. With signs like “Boar’s Breath–Restaurant and Oven Cocktails” hanging from storefronts, its main road feels straight out of a western movie.

Country music plays inside Mugshots Coffee (“I shoulda been a cowboy,” the guy croons) while three high school girls drink iced lattes at a booth, playing cards surrounded by bright orange walls. Were it not for their cell phones on the table I could easily believe I’m in the 1950s

Hills speckled with tiny houses begin to come into view as I exit Middletown. I drive past Trump signs– Lake County is only a two-hour drive from the Bay Area, but as comedian W. Kamau Bell has put it, “people don’t realize that without the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the state of California is Texas.” 

(Not everyone here is a Trump supporter though; later that day I will overhear a passenger asking her friend, “You got any eggs?” to which he will respond: “Why, you hungry?” to which she will respond: “No, I just saw a Trump sign.”)

Once in Clearlake I stop at a restaurant that promises “the Best (*also the only) Thai food in Lake County.” An older lady with long silver hair serenades guests with her soft, harp- accompanied melodies while the lake shimmers beneath the late afternoon sun through the expansive window to my left. 

The vast body of water, which according to placeandsee.com, the county takes its name from, gives off a calming vibe of spaciousness.

Also according to placeandsee.com: it is “the dominant geographic feature in the county and the largest natural lake wholly within California (Lake Tahoe is partially in Nevada; the Salton Sea was formed by flooding).”

In Lakeport, bars offer lakeside views. There’s a homey, residential feel bolstered by a predominance of locals. Its lack of tourism almost makes Clear Lake feel like a private lake.

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Susanville, CA

Bustling diners in random towns appeal to me. I enjoy witnessing the convergence of locals and tourists. I like how if you listen closely, in between the clanging of silverware, the waitress taking orders, and the drip drip of the coffee machine, you can overhear a dream or a plan for the day, falling next to biscuit crumbs from diners’ mouths onto the plate before them. Details not meant for public consumption, not produced even whatsoever with my ears in mind. There’s a certain thrill to being their unintended recipient.

 The diner in Susanville that day, filled with energized troves of people (more inside than I’d seen on my entire walk through town earlier on), stands in stark contrast to the lethargic emptiness that stagnates the air outside of it. 

 A town in Lassen County close to the Lassen National Forest, Susanville has a population of around 15000–half of whom are inmates at the town’s two infamous local prisons.

 One reviewer described it as a “small western town with more cattle than people, miles of hiking trails, mountains, and lakes.” Another wrote that it was “one of the last undiscovered areas of California. For the outdoor lover there is no better place to live.” 

“If you saw a picture of it, West Virginia would likely come to mind before California would,” writes Patrisse Cullors in her memoir When They Call You a Terrorist.

  Walking down residential streets, I glimpse wooden owls perched inside the windows of small homes. Shading these homes are humble trees. Yards with trampolines and porches with Trump signs are common sights. At the Safeway I stop into, almost everyone inside seems to know each other.

Out on the main road, I wonder if the Sears is closed because it’s a Sunday, or because I’m in Susanville. When I type “ethnic restaurants” into my phone, Pizza Factory and Lumberjacks pop up. A search of cafes yields sit-down diners— no independent coffeeshops, and not a single Starbucks (refreshing, admittedly–“One doesn’t come to Susanville to live an urbane lifestyle,” writes a reviewer on Yelp).

A surprising amount of the people I do cross paths with (in addition to passengers I drive), are either from the Bay Area or have ties to it– a San Francisco couple camping in Lassen; a man born in Hayward who now lives in the next town over. This is surprising because of how far away Susanville is from Bay (about six hours by car).

One local describes Susanville in the following way: “It’s not that there’s a prison in the town; it’s that the whole town is the prison.”

Another passenger, who carries fishing supplies and will spend the day at Lake Almanor, feels differently about it: “You have everything you could want here, especially if you’re an outdoor enthusiast. You’re minutes from volcanic reserves, lakes, the redwoods. You’re even close to Reno if you want the night life or more culture.”

A teenage passenger says one of his favorite activities to take part in as a kid was biking next to the railroad tracks; or if he was feeling ambitious, he would pedal on over to the next town by Lake Almanor.

 I appreciate the town for its air of calm. Quiet predominates in the brewery; it predominates on the main road; it predominates on the trails. The only place it doesn’t is inside the diner, and since this is a break in the overall pattern, I welcome it. 

Though the isolated location and conservative politics lead me to think Susanville may not be an ideal place to live for me personally, it was pleasant enough to visit.

*Editor’s note: Susanville’s prisons are set to close in June of 2022.

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Willits, CA

“Willits is the gateway to the redwoods. But, on its own, Willits offers visitors the warmth and charm of small town America while being the home of cutting edge progressive industries like solar energy,” writes the town’s wikipedia page.

Like Boulder Creek, Willits is one of those towns that feels intimately carved from the surrounding woods. Think 1950s meets foresty vibe. Trees loom above the modest homes. The main road conjures the feeling of Marty’s parents’ era in Back to the Future.  

As I walk down the residential roads I notice a patch of gravel standing in place of a front lawn. Above it lays an overturned skateboard, its spinning wheels pointing toward the sky. One wheel carries a blurry grasshopper, who’s either just along for the ride or is the force that’s causing it to spin (it’s unclear which).

A cat in hen pose perches atop a small hill of dirt rising up from inside an avocado-green wheelbarrow. At the entrance to the house behind her, a porch-swing with evergreen felt cushions rocks gently back and forth next to a drooping American flag— which, without a breeze to sway it on this scorching day, remains stagnant.

The Willits rendition of Ramen at a restaurant downtown tastes pretty much what one might imagine Ramen to taste like in a woodsy rustic town. That is, it’s scrappy and improvisational–not quite Ramen as we know it, but still tasty. Think Annie’s Mac compared to home-cooked. Or Trader Joe’s boxed tika masala to restaurant quality tika.

“Jimminy Christmas,” says one passenger, when he sees how crowded the Safeway parking lot is at 10 pm. Dressed in a white tank top and green flip-flops (a grey baseball cap on his head topping off the look), he’s sunburned while also very tan. Crimson-brown scruff also blankets his face. I ask myself if I smell weed or if I’m just smellucinating because Willits seems like the kind of town that would drip this pungent odor from its pores.

Overall Willits seems like a place where the trees reign supreme and the houses feel more like guests in, or add-ons to, the forest. In other words, a place of quiet majesty.

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Boulder Creek, CA

About thirty minutes southwest of Los Gatos and technically a part of Santa Cruz County, Boulder Creek is close to no major freeways or highways.  Looming redwood trees completely surround the winding, coiling road to get to this town of 5000, which was home to Jonathan Franzen.

The whole town feels like summer camp, or like a few streets have been carved out from a regional park–with no sidewalks on any (only black pavement). It’s as if speckles of houses were thrown down from the sky and landed in the woods. I walk past motorboats parked outside of homes; trampolines; treehouses in front yards. 

Stop at peaceful cafe–a treehousey lodge suspended above the creek. Cedar slats hold up the mostly-empty coffee-shop while the stream flows beneath it.  A swordfish hangs on the wooden walls above magenta couches.

Given how far it is from a city or freeway, I hear no traffic noise at all–only birds chirping, the occasional cawing of crows, gentle sounds of flowing creek. A true haven for people with noise sensitivities.

*Thanks for reading! Follow us on IG @lyft_tales

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Photo credits

Mt Shasta City—   https://snowbrains.com/shasta-first-trail-town-pacific-crest-trail/

Willits—   https://cityofwillits.org

Boulder Creek–https://calisphere.org/item/0e7b8ee4d699db17354790852dfabd66/

Susanville–https://www.alltrails.com/parks/us/california/susanville-ranch-park

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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