Two years ago, I saw a house I wanted to rent. It was just a small stucco cube, but it sat in a sunny pasture of weeds and live oaks. The North Fork of the Tule River ran a hundred yards from the front porch. A Sierran panorama filled the kitchen window. Climbing roses bloomed on the white slat fence.
The man who showed me the house was a corpulent fellow in his mid-60s who had a faint air of dereliction about him. We walked out into the overgrown yard. He stopped and nodded at the lush foxtails. "I hope you're not afraid of snakes," he said. I froze. He described snakes coiled in high grass, slumbering in woodpiles, lurking among rocks, slithering into houses via drains and spigots. Snakes swimming, snakes crawling inside car engines, snakes hanging from eaves. By snakes, he meant rattlesnakes. Western diamondbacks. Crotalus atrox . I was welcome to be his neighbor, it seemed, if I could take the snakes.
Even as my blood ran backward, I detected a familiar ring to the old coot's words. I had been living in the southern Sierra Nevada for two years. I'd lived up at 7,000 feet, where people said, "You'll love it if you can make it through the winter." I made it through the winter but moved down to the foothills to be closer to work. There, neighbors said, "Oh, it's beautiful here, but there's a prison camp up the road and the convicts do escape." Winter. Convicts. Snakes. They were all different idioms for the standard, backwoods greeting: a classic and peculiarly Western double message of welcome and hostility. A warning. A deterrent. But mostly, a challenge.
I rented the house and live there yet.
I left my home in Pasadena in the summer of 1981 and moved to the family cabin up on Slate Mountain in the small community of The Ponderosa. I planned to stay three or four months and get some writing done. Four years later, I'm still hugging the Sierra. The only explanation I can give is that once I adjusted to the alpine silence and the lack of Burrito Kings, Trader Joes and Nino Manfredi movies, a sense of geographical correctness set in. I want this land not to own but to dwell upon. Moses Mountain, 9,500 feet of granite ballast, exerts a kind of primordial power. The Tule River threads a warp of calm through my thought. Within short walks, I find mortar holes in river boulders where the Yokut Indians ground their acorns; I find lumber with old, square nails washed up as driftwood at the swimming hole; I find old foundations and stone chimneys of former dwellings.
The area's history is one of invasions and retreats, booms and declines: Indians, Spaniards, settlers, logging, sheep ranching and cattle ranching. The shotgun ethic is still in effect. When my dog got frisky with a neighbor's cattle, the neighbor called and threatened to shoot her. When my landlady's two horses escaped, another neighbor threatened to shoot them. A very good friend of mine said that if he ever caught me bait fishing in a fly-fishing stretch of the river, he'd shoot me . Nobody talked that way in Pasadena.
On a map of California, south and east of Visalia, north and east of Porterville, in the tiniest of letters, there is the word Milo . I live just to the right of the o .
Until 150 years ago, the Milo junction was the site of a large Yaudanchi Indian encampment. In the mid-1800s, settlers moved in. Milo was named by children for a beloved family dog. But Milo the town, like Milo the dog, no longer exists. Today, Milo is a sign. Literally. Sitting in the weeds is a big wooden slab that says THIS IS MILO, then suggests four other places with confusing arrows. Clearly, if you come to Milo looking for something, you have to go elsewhere.
For coffee and doughnuts in the morning, for mail, for sundries, for hardware and human society, I go to Springville, seven miles away. For serious stocking up, a library and an occasional movie, I go to Porterville, 18 miles beyond Springville. For a decent bookstore, ethnic food and most things cultural, it's Los Angeles, three hours by car.
Since it makes no sense to say I live in Milo, a place that doesn't exist, and since my address and telephone number are listed as Springville, I generally say--and think-- I live in Springville.
Springville itself is a small, unincorporated river town that has flourished in the past but hangs on for survival now. Although it has some historic old buildings, Springville, simply, is not very quaint, and has never been groomed for tourism. The closest things to cute little shops are the gift sections of the hardware store and pharmacy and the Patton House, which is half thrift store and half crafts center.
Springville, according to many residents, may be dying. I came back from a three-month trip and found that the bank, the video-rental place and the Chevron station had vanished. But the allure of the mountains and redwoods and snow and wide open spaces is too great to be ignored by the urban weary. Any number of developers have come up and dreamed of subdividing. A wealthy oilman from Bakersfield has put in a golf course and made a concerted effort to attract a well-heeled clientele. Most recently, the Forestry Service has been clearing the way for a ski resort 27 miles above Springville. If the proposed Peppermint Mountain Resort is approved and investors invest, it will accommodate up to 10,000 visitors a day in winter months and 3,500 in summer months. The fastest western approach to the resort will be California 190, right through the heart of Springville.
Change is in the air. Nobody wants Springville to go the way of Milo. Nobody wants Springville to be a sign.
But Springville is a low-growth community. One reason is water--it's scarce. Another factor is the County of Tulare, which devised the Foothill Plan to protect agriculture and to channel growth into designated corridors. Except in the growth corridors, land cannot be sold in parcels of less than 160 acres.
The hopes of the Springville merchants and would-be developers are focused on the Peppermint Mountain Resort's becoming a reality. Yet perhaps the largest contributor to low growth is the attitude of the local people. Some are openly hostile to growth; development to them means more traffic, pollution and a rise in property values that might force them or their children out of the territory. Others are only ambivalent: They love the mountains just as they are but have vague hopes that more traffic will bring more services--perhaps a hospital, or garbage collection, or a Mexican restaurant. Some families hope that there will be, with Peppermint, more job opportunities for their children. John Pallanes, the owner of the Springville Hardware store, who was raised in Springville and who yearns to keep his family here, says, "My heart's in one place; my pocketbook's in the other."
Back at my rented, weedy mini-ranch, I fight my own battles.
There are rattlesnakes. And there are ground squirrels. They live in a vast subterranean complex under my house. These rats-in-squirrel-clothing race along the porch railings and wooden fence and sit on my picnic table and watch me at my typewriter. As a gardener, I've come to hate them with homicidal vigor. My first year here, I planted jasmine on the porch supports, trumpet vines and ivy on the fence. In flower beds, I planted perennials--dahlias, mums, snapdragons, geraniums and various succulents. One gnawed-upon aloe plant survives from that year. Last year, I put in a large vegetable garden--enough, I thought, for all concerned. The squirrels weren't nearly so generous with me. They devoured lettuce as it sprouted, razed the carrots and beets and developed a taste for sweet basil and okra. I ended up with a fat, sleek, fearless breed of porch squirrel.
Rattlesnakes eat ground squirrels. For that reason, I like the snakes a bit more now. It would be nice if a king snake moved in. King snakes eat rattlesnakes. It would be bliss to live under the reign of the benign and magnificent king snake. But by definition, a functioning ecology is a system of checks and balances, not a tyranny of one species. The king snake, however perfect, needs to eat.