If the title of this post strikes you as strange – or even creepy – I apologize. You see, I’ve just spent 24 hours in a place that brought to mind being stuck in a David Lynch movie. I’m talking about a little lumber town called Weed, California.
One of the most maddening aspects of planning a bus trip is negotiating the improbably long and meandering routes. For instance, you’d think there would be an express bus that could take you from Portland, Oregon to the San Francisco Bay Area. I thought this. But upon sitting down to buy my tickets, I realized that completing that very journey in one straight shot would take upwards of 20 hours. This was largely due to the number of small towns that the bus would stop by; forgotten hamlets with mysterious names like Yuba City, Marysville, or Grants Pass.
I decided to cut the trip in two and spend the night in one of these towns. Figuring that the wilderness near the Oregon-California border would be the closest thing to a halfway point, my finger fell upon Weed. I’d be lying if I said the name alone didn’t tempt me. But what really sealed the deal was Weed’s location; right in the middle of the Siskiyou Mountains, a squirrel’s fart away from Mount Shasta. The scenery would be beautiful, and I liked the idea of being in such a remote, untamed place after two stops in major cities.
Having slept for less than five hours my last night in Portland, I shamelessly slumbered for a good portion of the seven hour bus ride to Weed. Upon arrival, I was surprised by how arid the land was. We were surrounded by glaciers, but the outside temperature was easily upwards of 90 degrees. I took a broiling walk down the highway to Weed’s business district, eager to find out what sights awaited. The answer was very little.
Downtown Weed consisted of two gas stations, a Burger King, and several souvenir shops, most of which were selling 7 foot-tall Sasquatch statues carved from wood. (I made a mental note to bring a pickup truck and $200 cash next time I was in town.) For lodging, I rented a tiny room at the Hi-Lo Motel. It was nothing you’d find written up in a Fodors manual, but at $52 for a firm mattress, cable TV, and a toilet seat complete with one of those “Sanitized for Your Protection” bands, who’s bitching?
The woman at the hotel counter was young – probably 23 – and I assumed she had grown up in the area. It was difficult to imagine moving to Weed for much of anything except lumberjacking. But after looking at a map, I noticed that just up the road from the Hi-Lo was an active community college with just over 2,400 students called College of the Siskiyous. To this day, the college holds the distinction of providing on-campus dorms for its students, and with about 249 faculty members, it’s also the largest employer in Weed. Given the nature of this entire trip, I knew I had to pay the campus a visit.
So I ambled up College Avenue and arrived on a lush, sherwood green campus of tall pines and rust colored buildings. It was late in the afternoon (it was also summer) and I only saw about three students milling about, most of them resting in the grass with a textbook propped up. On a bulletin board, I noticed a blue flyer for an upcoming Taiko concert at the campus theater. There was something wonderful about the idea of witnessing Japanese drumming in a place that was so overwhelmingly, old-fashioned American. Globalization had worked its way deeper than I had realized.
At least, this was I thought until returning back to Weed for dinner. I was in a jovial mood walking into the Hi-Lo Cafe. It was a classic diner with paintings of woodpeckers and frogs on the place mats, and waitresses with white aprons. I commandeered an empty booth, ready to eat something made from a cow. But there was no menu on the table. I tried to make eye contact with the passing waitresses, with no luck. Even speaking up didn’t seem to draw much attention. And yet, I began to notice that the other diners – including a family with two squabbling kids who had come in some time after me – were being serviced efficiently.
Now, lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not the sort who vindictively takes to Yelp if my glass of water has a fly in it. In fact, I’ve served diners professionally (what writer hasn’t?) and I still remember what a frustrating job it can be. The only time I’ve made anything resembling a scene was in the Czech Republic when I was charged $45 for a plate of “hairy dumplings” marked at $5. And even then, I believe my exact words were, “Um…well, excuse me. I think there’s…a mistake…here. Umm.” So you can believe me when I say it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. And after about thirty minutes of waiting to be helped (I eventually pilfered a menu from the foyer), I was beginning to get quite cross.
But there was something that kept me from aggressively taking charge of the situation. It was the unnerving sensation of being monitored by a lot of people. Not gawked at, but silently acknowledged. I got the sense that everyone in the place knew that I was an outside element. My hair was relatively tame and my outfit – a western shirt, shorts, and running shoes – seemed inoffensive enough to avoid prolonged stares. But when you live someplace with less than 3,000 people, it becomes easier to pick out strangers. Weed was one of those places, and while the vibes I was receiving from the mostly older diner clientele couldn’t be called hostile, I wanted to eat up and get the hell out of there.
I shoveled down dinner like coals into a furnace, paid up, and took a walk around town to unwind. Everywhere I went, I saw ruins of glory years long since gone. Some of the buildings featured old murals depicting everything from timber harvests to America’s first trans-continental railroad reaching the west coast. Others had large windows covered with real estate developer signs, but evidence of yesteryears still hung above the entrances: a bare saloon sign, or a movie theater marquee. It was exquisitely sad and scary to behold. Clearly, the town of Weed had moved on decades ago, but its elder citizens were still here.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even after I returned to the motel, double-locked my door, and collapsed onto the bed. Mostly, I wondered what would become of those students I saw at College of Siskiyous, or the girl at the checkout counter. Would they still be in Weed thirty years from the date? It’s an alarming question because there are thousands of Weeds across the expanse of America: tight-knit communities being torn apart by the growth of corporatism, consumer technology, and the global job market. Not all of these trends are bad, per se, but they are not without victims.
Seeking out the people and places that most of us choose to obscure from our everyday view is something I’ve spent most of my life doing. And quite often, it’s a fascinating pursuit. But sometimes, it can leave you in a lonely place.