I was 3,000 feet above the khaki-colored foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains. To the west, I could see the bright line of the Pacific Ocean; to the east, the edge of the Central Valley. And straight overhead, an eagle carved the sky, a small shape swooping around the sun.
"What's he doing up this high?" I asked Chris O'Neil, the pilot of my two-person glider. "Having fun," O'Neil said, "just like us."
The glider ride was the high point of a recent trip to Lake County. For 45 minutes, I thrilled to 90-mile views while O'Neil, a pilot for Crazy Creek Gliders in Middletown, rode the thermals and surfed the air.
Air, in fact, is what drew my wife, Jody Jaffe, and me to this rural county 110 miles north of San Francisco. People around here like to brag about their air. "The cleanest in California" is practically the first thing out of any Lake County dweller's mouth. "Smog?" they say. "What's that?"
Curious about just how clear and clean it was, we flew to Sacramento, drove to the coastal range, took a deep breath and plunged in.
From glider perspective, the locals have a point. When we let loose of the tow plane and started to soar, we were 4,900 feet above sea level, outside the village of Middletown and just a few miles north of the Napa County line. There was no band of dirty air on any horizon.
I went up alone. Jody, a fearful flier, said she'd rather have a "recreational root canal" than go gliding.
As we circled around, O'Neil, 27, pointed out local landmarks and talked about his love of flying — instilled at age 11 when a family friend took him soaring. He got his pilot's license before his driver's license and five years ago learned to soar. It's now his primary passion. "I like the mental challenge of harnessing the Earth's natural energy to fly — just like the eagles do," he said.
The warm air currents rising from the hillsides could have kept us aloft all day, but cost and waiting customers brought us to earth; soon, Jody and I were back exploring the countryside at ground level.
One reason Lake County is so breathable is that only about 60,000 people inhabit its 1,261 square miles. Vineyards, walnut groves and pear orchards checkerboard the rolling hills and flat lands that surround Clear Lake, the county's centerpiece.
Clear Lake is California's largest all-natural (no dams) freshwater lake. (Lake Tahoe is shared with Nevada, Goose Lake with Oregon.) It's 19 miles long and 8 miles at its widest point. Boaters and bass fisherman know it well. The county is neither wealthy nor ritzy, but Clear Lake has attracted vacationers for more than a century, and it's ringed by innumerable docks, boat launches, modest resorts and trailer parks.
Beginning in the 1870s, the county was a destination for San Franciscans who came to visit the area's mineral spring spas. But the spa business died as tourists became enticed by more accessible pleasures, such as skiing at Tahoe.
Aside from lake activity, the county has slumbered along for years, its mountains and rural beauty often overlooked. But change is coming. More than 12 million people live within a two-hour drive. There are Indian casinos here and a growing spillover from neighboring Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. Lake County is beautiful, warm and relatively affordable.
"Real estate is jumping," said Ben Chwastyke, a contractor who specializes in log homes. Ben and his daughter Carin were sitting at the table next to us at a restaurant in Kelseyville one night. After a real estate lesson, they filled us in on other local facts, figures and gossip.
Lake County is like that: small-town friendly. It's "the kind of place where, if someone asks how you are, they stop to listen," said Nancy Yost, owner of Studebakers, an upscale coffee shop in Kelseyville.
The biggest town, the city of Clearlake (population 13,800), seems to have more than its share of boarded-up buildings, but much of the county is charming. During our explorations, we drove the 68-mile lake loop and wandered elsewhere in the county. We particularly liked the tidy 19th century towns of Lakeport (the county seat), Kelseyville, Lower Lake and Middletown and the vineyard-covered hills that surround them. The county boasts 11 wineries, including Guenoc, which was begun in 1888 by famous Victorian beauty and actress Lillie Langtry.
We spent one night at the comfy little Kelseyville Motel and another at the comfy big Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa. The 120-acre Konocti is the area's largest hotel-resort facility. The complex overlooks the lake, and views from many of the hotel rooms are sweeping.
Konocti is known for its 5,000-seat outdoor concert amphitheater, where performers play against a spectacular backdrop of Clear Lake and the north shore mountains beyond. This summer's lineup includes such acts as Jackson Browne, Reba McEntire, Counting Crows, Linda Ronstadt and ZZ Top.
If we'd thought to bring camping gear, we'd have stayed at Clear Lake State Park. The park, about three miles from Kelseyville, hugs the lakeshore and features nature trails, overlooks and camp sites so close to the water that campers can come in by boat.
With all the camping, boating, biking, hunting and fishing the county offers, we figured we had to do something outdoorsy, so Saturday morning we went hiking in Boggs Mountain State Forest near Middletown.
The forest is crisscrossed by more than a dozen marked hiking trails. We walked the enchanting Houghton Creek trail for an hour or so, enjoying the wild iris, blossoming dogwoods, dew-covered ferns and clear mountain air.
Which brings us back to breathability.
Aside from its country charms, Lake County is also the site of one of the world's largest geothermal energy complexes. Called the Geysers, the complex generates 850 megawatts of electricity (enough to run 850,000 homes) by tapping into the naturally occurring steam vents in this geologically active area. No fossil fuels are burned.
Clean air is a matter of gospel here. One night at dinner we were chatting with Marie Steele, the owner of the Saw Shop Gallery Bistro, one of the county's toniest restaurants. The subject of air quality came up and before Steele could finish bragging, Pam and Gary Maes, who were sitting at the next table, chimed in unsolicited. "Best air quality in the state," they said.
Still, just to make sure, I called the Lake County Air Quality Management District, which monitors the air around here. And Ross Kauper, deputy air pollution control officer, set me straight.
"It is the best air in the state," he said. Of California's numerous air basins, he explained, Lake County's is the only one to have met federal and state air quality standards for 13 consecutive years.
Kauper moved to the county 21 years ago from the San Gabriel Valley area "for the cheap land and the visibility," he said. "It really makes a difference when you can see the stars at night."
Two decades later, Lake County's land prices — like other land prices in the state — are skyrocketing, but the air's still clean and the stars at night are magnificent.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times