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781 citizens and a magazine can’t be wrong

Al's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com

This is the kind of perfect little town that Stephen King creates when he wants to establish the ordinary in order to intensify the horror that follows.

Everything about it is, well, typical: the school, the ice cream parlor, the red brick church, the homemade peach pie and the concert in the park.

Hard by the Salmon River and tucked into a corner of Siskiyou County, Etna is a town completely at ease with itself, which is strangely disconcerting to one who comes from a place where few are happy and almost no one content.

It is described by a lot of its 781 inhabitants in glowing superlatives, shaping it into an almost mythical province. In some ways it’s more like Mayberry than Brigadoon, but that’s what the people like about it. You expect to see Opie riding his bike past Nona’s Nook, on his way to cookies and milk with Aunt Bea.

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Outside magazine includes Etna as one of America’s 20 “dream towns,” which is why we decided to take a look at this wonder village, this “last best place” in California, as the magazine calls it. I’d never been in a dream town before but, as it turns out, it’s just a happy little village that strives to be nothing more than what it is.

Being a journal that celebrates hiking, kayaking, rock climbing and other sweat-based activities, Outside naturally stresses the enticements of a community smack in the middle of the All Out-of-doors. One can understand, talking to its residents, that the evaluation of Etna as a recreational heaven is accurate.

Also true is the frustration some of the townspeople feel toward those who are attempting to alter nature into a different form. It’s why earlier residents took a chunk of Northern California and southern Oregon and created the state of Jefferson back in the 1940s. They didn’t like the way Sacramento and Oregon’s capital, Salem, were treating them. But World War II came along and the effort faded away.

It is still talked about in places like Etna, where its newspaper, the Pioneer Press, bills itself as “the state of Jefferson’s official newspaper.” A local grandma who truly fits the image, not the kind of navel-baring, breast-enhanced, age-denying creations we have in L.A., says the damnedenvironmentalists (one word) have made it so they can’t even shoot mountain lions that threaten their grandchildren.

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If she had her way, there’d be dead cougars on the hillsides leading out of the woods. I’m not sure what other complaints she has against the damnedenvironmentalists, but she doesn’t cotton to them, that’s for sure. They could be King’s drooling bloodsuckers who prowl the night to see what havoc they can create.

As we roll into town, a band is playing country-western music in a park by the road. The only motel, situated just across the way, is a 12-unit building with one remaining room, which we take. When I ask the owner, Bart Jenkins, how come the place is full, he shrugs and says, “Dunno.” When I ask what he thinks about the piece in Outside magazine that celebrates Etna as a special place, he ponders for a moment and says, “It’s a nice little town, I guess.” Then he reluctantly mentions that there was one homicide last year and adds solemnly, “First one in a long time.”

Among other occupants of the motel this day are cowboys, outdoorsmen, farm hands and people passing through on their way to livelier climes. Two good old boys in the next unit sit on folding chairs on the common porch, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Barkley loves them. They love Barkley and the country-western music that twangs to us from across the road but spit in disgust when it turns to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s not a figure of speech. They really spit. Every time they do the dog jumps and barks in pleasure. They think his antics are hilarious.

Cinelli feels that it’s all pretty disgusting, but you seek what amusements you can in a small town.

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Etna isn’t all spit and beer. There’s the home cooking at the Ranch House, a restaurant whose decor consists mostly of a wall adorned with fishing poles. It’s where local farmers and a lot of outdoor people gather to pig out on beefsteak stuffed with chili and cheese, followed by Ma’s homemade peach pie. No alcohol is served at the Ranch House, not even the blush wine of Greenville.

The waitress doesn’t bother to offer a menu to a table of farmers or ask what they want. She already knows, because I guess they eat the same thing every time they come here. At another table, two men argue over the talents of various hunting dogs, but it’s the guy sitting alone reading a newspaper who attracts my attention.

He puts the paper down as the waitress, a dour, middle-age woman, refills his coffee cup. Then he says, referring to a story he’s just read, “Lots of problems in L.A.”

Without missing a beat, the waitress replies, “Never been there, never wanna go.”

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And that’s that for that.

(To be continued.)


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