Running on Fumes
More than 100 miles north of Sacramento, the flat farmlands of California's Central Valley give way to the forested mountains and breathtaking grasslands surrounding the 14,000-foot Mount Shasta. It is a remote landscape--more akin to Wyoming's Big Sky Country than to the rest of California--dominated by the glacier-covered Shasta and the menacing clouds that frequently cluster around its peak; and, when the tourists and the second-homers from the Bay Area and elsewhere in the region are factored out, it is a poor landscape. It is also a place where distance is an irreducible fact of daily life. Because so many residents rely on cars to get between the far-flung towns, they are particularly vulnerable to oil price fluctuations, and many are at risk of economic catastrophe as gas prices at the pump soar.
The towns strung along Interstate 5 and at points east and west of the highway, hamlets like Dunsmuir, Weed, Fort Jones, Callahan and Yreka, ooze character. Yreka--one of the few towns in the region not to have witnessed a population decline since 1990--still calls itself "the Golden City," a throwback to its glory days in the mid-nineteenth century, and still boasts Wild West saloons and elegant Victorian edifices along its central drags, Main and Miner streets. Similarly, the little railway town of Dunsmuir continues to pride itself on its charming, somehow anachronistic, eccentricity--in the window of a downtown law office is a plaster-cast skeleton reclining in a dentist's chair, an aviator's leather cap and goggles adorning its skull.
But all the character in the world can't hide the fact that these are low-income communities--poor cousins to the tourist town of Mount Shasta itself, where "log cabins" sell for $1 million.
Close to 10 percent of Siskiyou County's workforce is unemployed. For those with jobs, money is tight: According to Bureau of Economic Analysis data, the county's per capita personal income is $23,807, only 76 percent of the national average, placing it forty-third of fifty-eight California counties. Leave out the government jobs in the county seat of Yreka, and the numbers are even worse: The unincorporated town of McCloud, for example, has a per capita income of slightly less than $16,000.
Following the implosion of much of the timber industry, job options aren't exactly legion here, and what employment there is is concentrated in a handful of towns: There's a Wal-Mart on the southern edge of town at Yreka; the county has three bottling plants that package glacial waters from Shasta; there are shopping malls in Redding, to the south; and there are the hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. "We don't have very much work in the community right now," says Mike Stacher, general manager of the McCloud Community Services District. "We have $8-an-hour jobs here, which is unlivable as far as I'm concerned." Not surprisingly, since 1990 a large percentage of Siskiyou County's working-age population has decamped to other locales.
While much ink has been spilled over the potential problems suburban and exurban commuters would face if the era of cheap oil really sputtered to a close, the most immediate victims are likely to be the long-distance commuters in places like Siskiyou County, too remote even to be considered exurbs. A perfect storm of economic changes could, quite simply, render towns like McCloud and Yreka unlivable for working-class residents, administering a coup de grâce to a region already bedeviled by blue-collar job loss. In the same way that the end of ready pickings from the gold fields created depopulated mining ghost towns throughout much of the West, so the series of oil price spikes may profoundly alter the Western landscape, as well as many other remote, car-dependent regions of the country.
With only a rudimentary public transport infrastructure, centered on a handful of rush-hour bus routes to and from Yreka, and with many workers now having to commute to far-off service-sector workplaces a long way from the nation's major oil-distribution networks, these towns are being hammered by some of the highest gas prices in the nation. When I drove up I-5 on September 12, before Hurricane Rita but two weeks after Katrina made an already bad gasoline price situation worse, the lowest price I found along this stretch of highway for a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.17, with another 20 cents added for the higher-octane stuff used by many bigger cars and SUVs. The highest, in Castle Crags, was a dizzying $3.44.
"I'm spending $40 to $50 a week on gas," says 41-year-old Rosie Kerr, a resident of Grenada who works as a secretary at the Northern California Indian Development Council on Yreka's Main Street and drives a 1992 blue Ford Explorer with 164,000 miles on it. Before taxes, Kerr, a mother of four whose husband is currently unemployed, earns about $21,000 a year. After taxes, she estimates, that works out to $1,200 per month. Tearfully, as she sits at her Formica desk, the shelves behind her filled with family photos alongside a large brown teddy bear, she explains that the higher gas prices have forced her to borrow from her mother just to be able to continue working. "My mother helps me. That's the only way I've been making it back and forth for the past few months. I owe my mom thousands of dollars for gas. It doesn't feel very good. It literally makes me feel like a heel. Because I can't pay her back. And she's been helping me with food too, because I don't have enough income for that either."