California Outback Report: When Autumn Brushes the High Desert: Bundle Up and Cheer

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.

A bumper crop of sunflowers still line the California Outback roadways. Photos by H.A. Silliman.

A bumper crop of sunflowers still line the California Outback roadways.

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!

Cedarville hummed with visitors returning from the big week on the playa.

Cedarville hummed with visitors returning from the big week on the playa.

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.

Girls from the Warner Mountain Dance Co. washed Burning Man autos on Labor Day.

Girls from the Warner Mountain Dance Co. washed Burning Man autos on Labor Day.

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.

High Desert landscape is lightly tinted yellow, gold and green as summer moves to fall.

High Desert landscape is lightly tinted yellow, gold and green as summer moves to fall.

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.


H.A. Silliman
H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.
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18 Responses

  1. Don Demsher says:

    We lived in Modoc for ten plus years after retiring from the Shasta High School in Redding. I was the very part tine Supertendent at Surprise Valley for seven of those years as a result got to know many people in the valley. They are extraordinary in many ways  hard worker ranchers, some fine artists and musicians and a way of life that a lot of people dream of and seldom experience.

    The valley is seventy miles long encompassing about twelve hundred  people many of whom have roots going back to is ninteenth century. The community can gin up a pretty good conflict from time to time but at the end of the day they get back to making things pretty well.


    • Janeen Goebel says:

      I’ve dreamt and hope to experience starting in a few months. My bags are packed and I’m just waiting for escrow to close. I had a dream a few months ago where I threw my arms up and shouted, “I’m living in the American West. ”  You can’t get more “west” than Modoc County.

    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      In my view, coyotes are welcome. They hunt down the Belding Ground Squirrels that plague us.

  2. Russell K. Hunt says:

    Ya gotta visit Wendell on the east of Susanville. A railroad junction town lost in time.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    My parents used to own a ranch southeast of Alturas bordering the Modoc National Forest.  Parker Creek bisected the property were it spilled out of a canyon into a fairly broad alluvial plain.  The original two-story homestead house and barn were down below on that plain; the sprawling modern ranch house was up above on a bluff overlooking the canyon and valley below.   I spent a couple of summers restoring that reach of Parker Creek as a trout stream, with great success.  They sold the place years ago.  I miss that place.

  4. David M. Kerr says:

    Fall is time for coyote mothers to send their offspring out on their own.  They have been taught to kill, but have a lot to learn.  You are especially likely to see solitary young coyotes.  They make a racket at sundown and just before dawn, and one purpose is to claim their territories.

    Spring seems to be the hardest time for coyotes.  Mothers need milk for their pups.

  5. Pam Sanchez says:

    I am new to the readership of this delightful anewscafe and I am truly loving and appreciating the Talent who write and what you write about! Articles like this create a sense of well being in me about where I live and the people who live around me. I know such folks exist around the world…wouldn’t it be grand if the world could be served up more helpings of such journalism. The images here not only informative but pack a poetic punch so good for the the soul! Thanks for a well done article and pics!

    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Pam. Indeed, my intention is to focus on what’s good and more concisely, what’s special about the California Outback. The countryside and landscape can have a profound positive effect on folks.


    • Welcome to A News, Pam. We’re delighted that you’re enjoying Hal’s work, as well as the contributions of other talented writers and photographers.

  6. Michelle says:

    We have a small place in the Oregon Outback-Christmas Valley. We spend many weekends there in winter and we love it. My thought is the high desert is all about the sky. Winters can be cold but the views are majestic.

  7. name says:

    We camp and ride bikes/ATVs in the mountains north of the Black Rock playa.  I always enjoying coming back through Cedarville, Alturas, and that high country.  We usually stop at the local establishments.  Adin Supply is always a favorite.  Great country up there.  Relaxing, and a different (better) way of life.

  8. Marian Green says:

    Hi Hal. I just want to say thanks… I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Very well written my friend . Loved every word. Makes me proud to be a native Californian.

  9. A. Jacoby says:

    I grew up in the low desert (Coachella Valley before the Polo Grounds) and didn’t leave much there that I care to revisit, but from 1975 until 2002, I made the trip to Weiser, Idaho every June and totally fell in love with some parts of that trip. The Chandler Creek area, for instance.

    And about the coyotes, as a kid I always loved the sound of them “singing” out in the desert after I had gone to bed at night. I never learned there was ill-will toward the coyotes (except for the Wiley Roadrunner) until many years later. I still love the sound of their call.

    Thanks for the wonderful reminder of what awaits us in that part of California.

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