Fall descends on California’s High Desert now, with telltales natural and man-made settling over the sagebrush. Though the equinox is a few weeks away, already the atmosphere has chilled and a watch needs keeping on the forecast for frost—the first came the morning of Labor Day.
In the lower elevations, the landscape is highlighted red, yellow and green: Red from weeds that sprouted little white flowers and then gone russet; yellow from Rabbit Brush blooming in bright heaps among the sage and green from just mown alfalfa fields, looking as well manicured as a suburban golf course. Ranchers are choosing either to keep their wheel lines and pivots running for a third cut or turning off the tap and letting the alfalfa lie over for the winter. The hay is baled and stacked now and cattle are grazing off the dry farmed fields.
A bumper crop of dwarf sunflowers merrily line the roads still—with the flowers turning up their happy faces to greet passersby—others, having gone to sleep, are bowed and shedding their seeds for next year. Out in folks’ gardens, the crop of cold-weather greens are sprouting and offering an early harvest; and optimistic gardeners are sowing final seeds for the winter: Swiss Chard, mustard, turnips—hardy ingredients for soup stock to last through the winter.
On Labor Day weekend and for a few days beyond, the Outback byways see a passing parade of ghostly-colored cars, returning white after their week-long dust-up in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert at the Burning Man Festival. Modoc County crossroads slow the traffic enough, so community groups can earn a few dollars off the vacating playa pilgrims. Handmade signs dot the road in front of various businesses: Burners Welcome!
At Highways 299 and 395 Labor Day morning, the Warner Mountain Dance Co., sold baked goods and car washes. Chad Walter and Nicole Bettinger, software developers from Bellingham, Wash., were munching on muffins and having their Audi SUV spiffed up by the girls of the dancing company. The Burners had overnighted in Alturas and were on their way north—leaving his 10th festival and her first behind, along with the alkali dust. Over in Cedarville, the corner grocery had barbecue going for the travelers, and the town’s cafes did heyday business. An employee from oil jobber Ed Staub stopped by with another thousand gallons of fuel for the gas station, and the Rabbit Traxx Truck Stop Mini-mart up the road had lines of vehicles waiting at the pumps. Outback businesses don’t take a vacation on Labor Day weekend—they are open and humming.
Summer is a high season for happenings here, culminating in Cedarville-centered county fair, but autumn brings a new crop of gatherings. It can only be ironic that inside of the word football is the season it’s played, and with school in session again, in Alturas, the electric reader board in front of Modoc High School anticipates the next Braves Football Game (here versus Trinity this week). Football is the city’s entertainment-of-record and draws the crowds—moms and dads, town folks bundled in stocking caps and scarves. They brave cold Friday night lights to cheer for the Purple and White and remember a simpler era when they wore the uniforms instead. They proudly stand for the Star Spangled Banner and sing along, too.
This Saturday (Sept. 10), there’s the much anticipated, annual meeting at the fairgrounds of the Surprise Valley Electrification Corp.—the user-owned power company that brought rural electricity to Modoc County 75 years ago. It’s more of a countywide reunion than business meeting, complete barbecue, DJ music and prize raffles. And for a few weeks more, you can still find the Surprise Valley farmers market popped up every other Saturday morning in Cedarville’s town park.
On the horizon waits the annual Alturas Balloon Fest, Sept. 16-17, produced by the Alturas Chamber of Commerce. After a too-al-fresca pancake breakfast at Sharp Field, you can watch the balloons lift off on Saturday morning, and then have fun driving along to follow them, as the pop up and down over the golden and green landscape to find an obliging landing field.
It won’t be until October that the aspens on Cedarville Pass begin turning bright yellow, and for weeks, the drive eastward on Highway 299 from Redding, winding up through the little settlements will offer each day a more stunning sight as the oaks, aspens, maples and foliage dotted among the conifers change to their autumn dress—brighter, brighter, brighter, as if one had turned up the volume on color. If you squint just right, you might think you are in some Vermont valley in New England—the late painter Bob Ross has dropped by and said, “Now here lives some little hills and a bunch of pretty trees.”
Photos by H.A. Silliman.
© 2016 H.A. SILLIMAN ALL RIGHTS RESERVED