I've been debating whether or not I should keep this introduction in my book or delete it completely. I like it because I believe it sets the scene for the stories to come and I've edited it down quite a bit... but I'm not sure if it will interest readers. Please give it a read and leave comments. I want to know what you think. Also, if any of my historical info is wrong, please tell me. Thanks!
I became a journalist for the same reason everyone becomes a journalist: to save the world.
We get this notion when we’re adolescents that we can make a difference in the grand scheme of things. Like other dreamers before me, and those now balancing on the crest of the unknown after me, I had this burning desire to “make my mark.” Something future generations could look back on and say, “wow, if it hadn’t been for....”
This was important to me when I was young.
Firmly brainwashed from my years in public schools, I imagined myself playing an essential role in the all important quest to save the planet. My pen and I were going to take the world by storm.
That was my plan in high school, anyway.
But years later, after landing my first newspaper job in a small, rural, Northern California town, these altruistic aspirations seemed very far away. Sometime during my five years of college I grew up and my lofty dreams were exchanged for more personal, tangible things, like earning a living and being a decent human being.
You can’t be too picky when choosing your first job out of college, and the small newspaper in Yreka seemed reasonable enough--especially since it was the only offer I had. Although considered a mountain community, Yreka is really a community surrounded by mountains. A few of these mountains have pine trees, but most are covered with gray scrub brush that never seems to get green, not even in the wettest of springs. According to old timers, the hills used to be covered with pine trees, but a big fire burned them up in the 1950s. The mountains were never replanted.
But Yreka is close to nature. The forests are just out of sight over the other side of each mountain that surrounds the little town. I know this because I took a dirt bike to the top one day and couldn’t believe my eyes.
The name Yreka comes from the Native Americans who lived in the region hundreds of years ago. It’s pronounced “Why-reeka” and somewhere along the line it was also spelled that way. However, it lost its “W” and “H” before the town was really a town. Some folks say the letters disappeared due to a mistake in the original surveyor’s notes of the region. Others claim the missing letters were not a clerical error, but were purposefully dropped because they were not necessary.
Historians claim Yreka translates as “white mountain” in some lost Native American dialect. Its namesake, Mount Shasta, rises into the air for 12,000 feet some forty-five miles south of Yreka and attracts everything from elliptical clouds to aliens, crystal crunchers, and tall, mythical beings called Lemurians. The town of Mount Shasta sits just below the mountain and resembles a quaint ski village in the Swiss Alps. It boasts 4,000 people and 400 different cults—a per capita world record.
Yreka is not this exciting. The Lemurians rarely visit, preferring to stay in the picturesque village to the south. Instead, Yreka is an old mining town, born on the tide of gold fever. Its first unofficial name was Thompson’s Dry Diggings. According to historical accounts, gold was discovered in Yreka by a horse. The horse belonged to a man named Thompson who was heading to the gold fields in Scott Valley. Thompson’s horse was taking a break (it had been a long, hot day), munching on some grass in a shady spot under some ponderosa pines. The horse didn’t know it but it had pulled up some clumps of grass with little gold nuggets clinging to the roots. Thompson and his mining buddies were astounded. They dropped their plans for Scott Valley and set up camp right there instead.
Mine trenches and tunnels soon filled the area now known as Yreka. And the tunnels are still there today, covered by modern streets and buildings. Every now and then--when it rains exceptionally hard--a street caves into one of these trenches.
Legend has it that there was so much gold in Yreka the chickens who rooted around in the soil had gold in their gizzards. I’m not sure if this is true, but it makes a good story. There are lots of good stories like this about Yreka and the surrounding areas.
But there is no gold left. The last remnants are encased under glass at the county courthouse.
Even Mark Twain knew about Yreka. He claimed in his autobiography that the town had no name until a stranger read a canvas bakery sign from the wrong side. Apparently the “B” was not showing, and all the traveler could make out was A-K-E-R-Y… only he saw the letters shining through from the other side as Y-R-E-K-A. Thinking this was a town sign and therefore the name of the town, he began referring to the town by that name. He must have been a popular newcomer because the town folk heard about it and decided to keep it as the town’s name.
Mark Twain was always good at stretching the truth… which is probably why he was a newspaper man.
My favorite explanation of the meaning behind the town’s name comes from the Yrekans themselves. When visitors get the name confused with the coastal Northern California town of Eureka, Yrekans have a standard comeback: “Eureka means ‘I found it!’” they explain. “Yreka means, ‘we can order it.’”
I chose to begin my newspaper career in this little town of 7,000 people because they offered me a job. Its location—nestled within the mountains of Siskiyou County—was also appealing. Siskiyou County borders Oregon and is the fifth largest county in the state. With only 40,000 people, it is also one of the smallest per capita and one of the poorest. My new home was eleven hours by car from the Southern California suburb where I was raised.
Minor Street in Yreka is charming, many of the buildings being over one hundred years old. But like most new comers, I didn’t realize that three or four of the businesses on this sreet were second-hand stores. There is also a hardware store that sells everything from tools to fine china, and a clothing store that features a horse on its roof and every variety of western wear known to man. Yreka has almost everything to cater to an agrarian community, including a saw shop and a local grocer that doubles as a feed store.
Although charming, my father had this revelation during one of his many visits.
“You just get the impression that everyone is barely hanging on by their fingernails.”
I have to agree. Life isn’t easy in Yreka, and those who are determined to live there tenaciously cling to their existence and their way of life with spunk, dedication, and loyalty rarely seen in larger cities.
The newspaper where I began my career is lodged inside a former grocery building on Broadway. This is one of the newer sections of downtown Yreka, with most of the buildings probably built in the 1940s and ‘50s. With scuffed and cracked linoleum floors, dingy walls, and tiles missing from the ceiling, the building is nothing to brag about. The inside is completely open with no walls separating the different operations—except for the printing press, which whirs and spins nearly all day long in the back room. It’s a wonder any of us could get any work done.
I’m not exactly sure why I’ve chosen to write about my experiences in Yreka, except that I have all these memories--some happy, some sad, most of them peculiar. And I’m afraid of losing them. These stories are in no particular order. To try and remember what happened when would take far too much work, and I’m sure ruin the point. I’ve also made up most of the names and some of the minor details… again not because I’m trying to protect myself, but because I simply don’t remember.
Sometimes a loss of memory can come in handy anyway…especially when you need to make a story more interesting by embellishing on the truth.
So here it is: my flimsy attempt to “make my mark.” But don't worry. I'm no longer trying to save the world.