The Undiscovered County

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I looked over at Sam Ettinger. “You’re a smooth smoothie, you know?”

Sam was shocked. “You think we’re doing Fargo? I thought we were doing Sideways!

It was no matter. We’d been planning this trip for months; I’d finally gotten my driver’s license, at the age of 24, just to do this trip. We were going to Lake County.

We wanted to go to Lake County because we knew nothing about it. As far as could be told, nothing historical had ever happened there; no one of note had ever come from there or even lived there. On a map you can see it tucked into the mountains north of San Francisco Bay; coastal, yet landlocked. No railways run through it, no real highways, no rivers. The one thing you can see on the map is a lake, and a rather big one. It’s rare that a body of water that large goes unnoticed by the media or the traveling public.

Neither of us had ever seen so much as a news story about Lake County, and we decided to keep it that way: we wanted to preserve the mystery. Once while listening to This American Life, Ira Glass was doing a story on marijuana management in Mendocino County. Early in the story, he said, “While in neighbouring Lake County–” causing me to immediately shut off the radio.

If there was any time to do this trip, it was this February. In Southern California, the cold, wet winter had forsaken us, causing catastrophic drought and a general lack of merriment. I was in class 40 hours a week, and had just been turned down for a second date with a woman I seriously disliked, which was a relief but still discouraging, while Sam had just finished his master’s degree back east, and planned to visit Europe soon after. I wasn’t sure we’d find anything in Lake County, but at the very least it’d take our minds off everything else.

It happened to rain the night before we left, but it stopped around the time I got to Sam’s house. It was 6:00 AM, and under the cover of darkness, we made our way out of Pasadena. After a regrettable but much-needed breakfast in Valencia, we sped up the Golden State Freeway. I’d made a playlist specially to complement the landscape, but it was so dreary that the effect was altered. “I Can See for Miles” would have been perfect for when we emerged out of the Grapevine had the resulting view of the Central Valley not been obscured by fog.

A pit stop at Kettleman City, lunch at the In-N-Out Burger in Santa Nella. The fog turned into rain. Hard, unrelenting, glorious rain that would stay with us throughout the weekend, and pour over Northern California for days more. This was what winter was supposed to be like. We tore through the hills of the East Bay, then Vallejo, then Napa. The road got thinner and thinner, until it was, essentially, a lane-and-a-half, over a heavily forested, slightly snowy ridge, and into Lake County.

The first word that came to mind was “peaceful.” For miles and miles we saw nothing but old barns, fallow vineyards, and mighty encinos stretching over the slickened road. Soon after, we arrived in Lakeport, the county seat, with a nice selection of independent shops below an old courthouse square. Bill Bryson would be thrilled. I pulled up to the courthouse at 4:30, and as it was a Friday, we had less than an hour if we wanted to know anything about the place. To that end, we walked right into the County Administrator’s office and asked: “Who’s the most interesting person in Lake County?”

The receptionist looked at us for a moment before speaking to her boss, Jill Ruzicka, who proceeded to tell us everything.

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Lake County is a basin, surrounded by mountains on all sides, which is why it’s so isolated. It was settled by Europeans when California was still part of Mexico; consequently some families have been living there for six generations. The lake itself is the oldest in North America, having evaded the catastrophic shifts of multiple ice ages. The valley itself is volcanic; all of their electricity is produced by geothermal energy, which is also how their sewage is treated. As of 2014, it’s the greenest county in America.

“And of course,” said Ruzicka, “we’re finally developing a wine industry. The first time wine was developed in the county, Prohibition ended it all. We’re still recovering.”

I couldn’t help but seize on that opening. “Of course,” I said, “the main crop here is…”

She nodded knowingly. “Say it.”

“Marijuana.”

“It’s true.” She went on to say that marijuana is actually a severe pest in the county.

Ruzicka sent us off with a dinner recommendation when Sam discovered that he’d been accepted to get his Ph.D. at Cornell. To that end, we celebrated in style at Park Place, a popular little eatery overlooking the park on the lake. If I’d taken the time to write this in February, I might have been able to say what we ate. Oh, well. Sam claims to have had a pork chop with a red wine reduction and mashed potatoes.

“Lake County is amazing,” I said to Sam. “And nobody knows about it. I wonder whether we should tell anyone.”

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