It is hard to remain a stranger in Trinity County.
In the county seat of Weaverville -- population 3,700 -- everyone seems to know each other, and locals spot newcomers pretty much instantly.
The nearest commercial hub lies an hour to the east -- down a steep, winding mountain pass, a two-lane stretch of California 299 that provides primary access to this close-knit community. There is not a single traffic light in the county. In Weaverville, all roads lead to Main Street.
“People get irritated if they have to stop for a few seconds to look right and left at an intersection,” said Patricia Zugg, director of the Weaverville Chamber of Commerce.
But the treasured seclusion of Trinity County, about 265 miles north of San Francisco, also is a burden. The natural beauty -- 2 million acres of snowcapped peaks and thick forests -- attracts hikers, campers and kayakers, but not enough tourists to provide an abundant income.
The demise of a once-thriving timber industry has eroded the workforce, and the region’s isolation has kept other potential industries at bay. Few opportunities exist for young people entering the job market. Because more than 75% of the county is woodland and owned by the federal government, the tax base is limited.
And now the county could be facing bankruptcy.
“Trinity is one of those counties that is off the beaten track,” said Dan Ripke, director of the Center for Economic Development at Cal State Chico. “The other counties up there are located at the big [highway] corridors and tend to get more of the traffic that benefits their communities.”
Adding to Trinity’s troubles is a hospital that, though valued by many, has been draining the county’s reserves. By mid-October, just $300,000 was available for general services out of the county’s annual budget of $52 million, officials said.
“The strain is you have a hospital that has been losing money consistently,” said Brian Muir, Trinity’s auditor-controller, adding that “if the hospital were not there, the county would still be a poor county, but the budget would be balanced.”
But the dwindling coffers have not weakened residents’ resolve. The reason is simple: There is no place they would rather live.
“I don’t think you can beat this area for beauty,” said Zugg, who moved here from San Bernardino 27 years ago. “The natural wildlife is right in your yard. You can walk out at night. And people are willing to help you.”
Much will depend on the county’s ability to cure the problems of Trinity Hospital in Weaverville.
The once-bustling halls of the 50-year-old facility are quieter these days. Depending on whom you ask, the hospital has been hemorrhaging anywhere from $500,000 to more than $1 million a year.
Years of public debate over whether to close the facility that serves about 8,000 county residents has prompted county supervisors to enter into a joint powers agreement with the Trinity Public Utilities District, with the possibility of making the hospital a district operation.
That would relieve the county of the responsibility for shortfalls in cash needed to run the hospital, said Larry McDonough, the facility’s administrator since 1979. For various management reasons, the district can spend less on such costs as workers’ compensation, retirement benefits and hiring, McDonough said.
District ratepayers will vote next year on whether to pay more taxes that would generate extra funds for the hospital.
Though detractors view the facility as a leech, supporters say having accessible healthcare is crucial. The closest other medical facilities are in Redding, about 48 miles away. Snow and ice blanket the mountains in winter, making emergency travel difficult. Hospital supporters also argue that it gives the county a certain cachet.
“You go into a rural community that loses its hospital and it’s like part of their heart is gone.... When you lose your hospital, you are basically saying that you cannot compete. You cannot muster up,” McDonough said.
Thirty-one county employees have been laid off in the last six months -- including six probation officers and a sheriff’s deputy -- leaving about 400 county personnel for various duties and 75 more at the hospital.
McDonough, who also owns a bakery in town, recently ended a five-month stint of working for half pay.
“Quite a few county employees are concerned about security for the future,” said Linda Wright, the county’s health and human services director. “They are delaying major purchases of things like cars and homes. They’re even making careful choices in terms of groceries.”
With the average monthly starting salary for county employees hovering around $2,500, Wright said at least 5% of her staff would be eligible for government assistance.
Twice a week, deputy probation officer and father of three Lance Floerke puts on black slacks and a white button-down shirt -- his “fancy boy outfit” as his wife calls it -- and heads to Weaverville’s ritzy La Grange Cafe, named for a tycoon who used to run a gold mine in town.
Unable to make ends meet on his county salary, Floerke, 39, moonlights as a waiter.
“There wasn’t enough left to pay the bills, and not for things like gymnastics for the girls, Girl Scout fees and soccer -- those extras,” said Floerke, a burly man with a quick wit and a penchant for humor who hails from San Juan Capistrano but has lived here 12 years. His wife, Shelly, is a county native.
In Trinity, a probation officer’s annual salary tops out at about $39,600. Floerke, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education, is at the higher end of the scale.
Still, his paycheck doesn’t stretch far. On Nov. 2, he lamented that his checkbook balance was $2.13, and he had $12 in his wallet.
“As a public servant you don’t ever expect to be rich,” said Floerke, who bought the family’s 1,100-square-foot, pink, bungalow-style house for $100,000 three years ago. “But I would like to be able to pay the bills and be comfortable.”
Married for eight years, the Floerkes are raising three girls: Samantha, 7; Natasha, 3; and Alana, 18 months. They have considered leaving the county, but the urge never lasts long.
“I feel safe here,” Shelly Floerke said. “I feel OK dropping my daughter off at the same school I went to. It’s familiar and comfortable.”
The hypnotic power of Trinity County’s towering peaks, lush flora and diverse wildlife coax many to stay. Deer often wander Main Street and fawns nibble at garden lawns. Bears and mountain lions inhabit the nearby hills and woods.
Weaverville is also steeped in history. The town has some of California’s oldest buildings, including a courthouse built around 1856 that is the second oldest in the state, a Taoist temple from 1873 that is a testament to Chinese miners who settled in the region, and the Weaverville Drug Store, the oldest pharmacy in California. It has been filling prescriptions since 1852.
Muir, the auditor, also owns the Weaverville Hotel and Emporium, a seven-bedroom, Victorian-style establishment that he and his wife recently restored to its 1861 grandeur. But business has been slow since the hotel’s doors opened last summer.
“It’s a small-town atmosphere and a beautiful place,” Muir said. “The problem is figuring out how to make a living once you get here.”
Keith Sprague, 29, found it necessary to switch careers.
A former correctional officer with the Sheriff’s Department, Sprague returned to college in Redding last year to get a teaching credential. Now he juggles studying with an unpaid position as a student teacher at Weaverville’s elementary school.
With his wife, Jennifer, teaching English at her high school alma mater and some savings in the bank, the couple manages to rent a cozy duplex. They have a big-screen TV, a high-tech stereo and drive 2003-model cars.
But their plans hinge on the county’s ability to pull out of the mire.
“The hospital and the county crisis affects the population and the school population,” Sprague said. “We really don’t want to buy a house until we know whether the county is stable, the hospital is stable, and whether I can get a job.”
Jennifer Sprague, 32, is reluctant to forsake the familiarity of her hometown, where her parents still live.
“There’s safety here,” she said, caressing her 1-year-old son, Tyler. “There are no gang problems.... Growing up here, we didn’t even lock our doors.”
Over at the Weaverville Drug Store, old age and poor health have forced Frank Hicks to put the business -- in his family for 50 years -- up for sale. There has also been a downturn in sales.
“The income is less, the traffic is less,” said the veteran pharmacist, 74, a soft-spoken man and Weaverville resident since 1941.
Still, Hicks and his wife, Patricia, plan to stick around. “We have friends everywhere,” she said.
Across Main Street at the J.J. (Jake) Jackson Memorial Museum, old mining tools, antique guns and worn photos of pioneer families speak to the longevity of this community.
Old-timer Hal Goodyear, 92, has seen it all: the boom and demise of the lumber industry, the birth and departure of many of the county’s sons, and now the prospect of bankruptcy.
“There’s always been a lot of ups and downs,” said the chatty local history buff, whose great-grandfather -- a mining magnate -- arrived from Denmark in 1855 and settled in Trinity. “But we have always managed to cope.”