Up here in the dense forests of the Trinity Alps, the rest of California can seem like a foreign country, a thirsty, power-hungry neighbor that sucks away resources and delivers little in return.
With fewer than 14,000 residents, not a single incorporated town and a culture that mixes a pinch of 1960s hippie, a dash of 1860s rancher and a hefty serving of libertarianism, Trinity County has felt disenfranchised from state politics for a long, long time.
Periodically, the county has burst into the news with talk of seceding from the Golden State, only to slide back into quiet grumbling.
But this summer, folks here have found a new outlet for their disenchantment: recall fever.
Tiny Trinity County, nestled between Humboldt County to the west and Redding to the east, has jumped on the bandwagon in an outsize way, fielding two official gubernatorial candidates and a third who is waging a write-in campaign -- quite a feat given that only a handful of the 135 recall candidates hail from outside California’s urban centers.
One Trinity candidate, B E Smith, 56, is a medical marijuana advocate (and convicted grower) who carries copies of the California and U.S. constitutions wherever he goes. He lives in Denny, a town known for its history of gold mining and cannabis cultivation and so remote that residents must haul in fuel to generate their own electricity.
Another, Ed Kennedy, 49, is a refugee from Silicon Valley who moved to Weaverville a year ago “to heal” and believes that California should secede from the United States, although he said he won’t be pushing for that if elected governor.
And then there’s the write-in candidate, Bob Todd, 44, who moved with his wife and six of his nine children to a ramshackle cluster of blue cabins perched above California 299 that double as a bed and breakfast and agency for serving the homeless. Todd charges on his Web site that Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be copying his ideas.
“It’s getting us some exposure, and I guess that’s a good thing,” said Jeff Morris, a fifth-generation Trinity County resident who runs Mamma Llama, a coffee shop in Weaverville across the street from the oldest pharmacy in California and up the road from a temple built in the 19th century by Chinese gold miners.
“Maybe a few more tourists will come here” because of the attention, Morris said.
He has also noticed, he said, that the recall effort has prompted many of his neighbors to become more politically involved. But he doubts that the movement will bring any political power to the area. “We have no representation, and we have no voice,” he said.
Among the candidates, however, hope springs eternal.
Kennedy is still something of a mystery, even in this tight-knit community, in part because he said he won’t start campaigning until after Labor Day out of respect to members of labor unions and their families.
But once he hits the campaign trail, Kennedy said, he believes voters will see that he is the best candidate for the job, that his background in business gives him the know-how to solve the budget problem and that he can also help heal the divisions that have torn Sacramento in recent months.
The other two candidates have thrown themselves into the campaign -- as much as they can on limited budgets.
Smith, the medical marijuana advocate, is also constrained from campaigning because he can’t go south of Bakersfield or west to the coast without permission from his probation officer and 10 days’ advance warning.
But with smiling wives in the role usually played by paid press officers, Trinity’s candidates have welcomed television and newspaper reporters to their homes, nestled in trees beside fast-rushing rivers, and earnestly begun sentences with phrases like, “When I am governor ... “
Smith, a Vietnam veteran who served 24 months in federal prison for growing marijuana and who is well-known here for his friendship with actor Woody Harrelson and his unsuccessful run for sheriff, said he wants the votes of felons, pot smokers and the homeless. If he is elected, he will do away with “victimless crimes” and “surrender the war on drugs.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said, adding that he advocates a republican form of government that would give people more freedom than they now have. With that comes responsibility, he said. “You can’t live free and be stupid.”
Todd, who said he is more conservative than Schwarzenegger or state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) on most issues, is a veteran campaigner after three failed bids for Congress.
“My platform, basically, is to cut waste and improve efficiencies,” he said.
Whatever their differences, none of the candidates said he was surprised that so many residents of this hardy corner of California were running for governor.
“People are up here because they want to be freer. People come up here to get away from negativity,” Todd said. “This area attracts people who are interested in going in a different direction.”
Maybe that’s why so many of their neighbors are tacitly supportive of these idiosyncratic candidates, even as many confess they have no intention of actually voting for them.
“Politicians in California and the federal level need a shake-up,” said Dennis Zsigo, a strapping gold miner who said he had signed Smith’s petition to get on the recall ballot even though he disagreed with many of Smith’s ideas. “If I had $4,000, I’d run for governor,” Zsigo said.
Bustling around and greeting visitors to Weaverville’s Jake Jackson Museum and History Center, Bridget Carson, 46, said she opposed the recall effort but might not mind if Trinity County and other northern areas seceded from the rest of the state.
“We don’t get much of a say,” she said, adding that there is a historical sense among many of “being disempowered by the movers and shakers and the highfalutin Hollywood folks” like Schwarzenegger.
Down the street at the packed LaGrange Cafe, where it was happy hour, Bob Darrah, 62, urged his drinking buddies to vote for recalling the governor. But his grousing had more to do with regional rivalries than with Gov. Gray Davis.
“We have no voice,” he said. “What you have to realize is, we have all the timber, all the water and no say. Southern California is outvoting us and stealing all the water.”
Given the length of the ballot, some say, it may be a blessing that few in this impoverished area could spare the $3,500 filing fee to get on the ballot.
“Once people get started in politics here, they carry on with it, let it go far,” said Lincoln Kaye, author of a book on China and a former foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review who recently settled near Weaverville.
Folks in Trinity County seem particularly “prone to grand existential gestures,” Kaye said, such as choosing to live in a house miles from the nearest store or electricity hookup.
“Running for governor would be another grand existential gesture,” he said. “Since we’re unusually rich in existentials, therefore we are unusually rich in gubernatorial candidates.”