The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

Banner Photo: Dorris, California

The eighth in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.

Eugene Charles Valla spent four years of his young life hanging onto the edge of his boyhood dream. Valla was 21 years old in 1947, when he was signed to a minor league contract with the New York Yankees organization. His dad, also named Eugene, was a fleet footed outfielder who spent eight seasons in the minor leagues, most with the San Francisco Seals. Minor league balls was in the genes.

Gene (later known by his nickname, “Duke”) spent two seasons with the Ventura (California) Yankees, followed by a split season with the Kansas City Blues and the Newark Bears, before he was shipped back to Kansas City. Valla learned the grind of minor league ball. He played for love and a pittance. He rode buses to play against teams with odd sounding names in cities that longed for the majors, just as their players did; the Toledo Mud Hens, Indianapolis Indians, St. Paul Saints, and Louisville Colonels.

“Duke” never wowed the Yankees enough to get a taste of the big club. He was 25 years old when he appeared in only 20 games for his hometown team, the San Francisco Seals, and then found himself out of baseball for good.

Gene Valla would later assume ownership of his father’s business, The Blue Gum Restaurant and Lodge, just south of Artois, California. Valla died in 2009.


I’m stopped outside of The Blue Gum Restaurant. By accounts it was a popular place in its day. Now it has the sad look of a place that will never see another paying customer, and will continue to deteriorate until a “mysteriously set” fire puts it out of its misery.  A passerby called the new owners, or maybe they’re just squatters, “a bunch of Jesus freaks.” I stopped to wander around out of morbid curiosity, drawn less by the building and more by the “Jesus freaks” signs. One of the signs announcing that Jesus is Coming Soon is placed next to a No Trespassing sign. I can’t help but wonder if no trespassing applies to Jesus as well as the rest of us. In any case, I did note the irony. I mean, isn’t Christianity supposed to be a welcoming thing?

After wandering around I head back to the car. I’m not about getting into it with some pissy, and possibly armed, “Jesus freaks”.




Interstate Highway 5 and northbound.

A succession of small towns with small town sounding names, Greenwood, Orland, and Wyo, all separated by miles of farms, orchards and ranches. Look, but don’t blink, there’s Corning, which was not named after the cookware, but like many small towns, took its name from a railroad official.


Tehama County. This is rural Northern California.

This is a different California. It’s not the California presented in the movies and travel brochures. No pretzel twisted interchanges here. No high rise buildings, and no blondes riding waves at a sun drenched beach.

It’s flat, tedious ag country out here; nuts, beans, hops, hay and olive country. Have some strong ass coffee in the cup holder to keep Morpheus at bay.

Yes, it’s a different California than the one that Fox News and the American right paint as ‘woke’, Socialist or just plain nuttier than the acres of almond trees I’m passing. Out here, it’s God, guts, guns and, ‘I don’t want my kids learning no CRT,’ country. Hell, this could be another state all its own and I think most Californians, on both sides of politics, would see it as an amicable divorce.

Out here it’s as MAGA as it can get. Donald Trump scored big here in 2020 and the signs and flags are still out here to prove it; Trump 2024, and Go Brandon. Jesus, the right wing version, is out here too and for some it might be a tossup as to who’s higher on the pecking order, Trump or the Savior. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s the former. Out here Trump is the Savior, the only one who can fix it. He’s even taken on a ridiculous “I’m be persecuted for you” persona. Just like Jesus, dying for our sins.

I’m prepared for the notion that most, if not all, of this trip is going to be through MAGA-land. That’s okay. I left my Biden/Harris, and my BLM t-shirts at home. Sometimes I’ll engage in some friendly political discussion with the locals but I try to read the room first. I enjoy political repartee but I’m not going to irritate the natives.


I’ve hit Red Bluff.

My lasting memory of Red Bluff is of a family summer vacation drive on the way to Lassen National Park. on a searing 105 degree afternoon.

It was 1980-something, the kids were still young and Cora wasn’t thrilled because we were going to be camping. She’s never been elated over curling up in a bag, inside a tent, cooking in a kitchen that consists of a rusted out barbecue and a fire ring, visiting a pit toilet in the wee hours, and hanging out in a living space that’s subject to visits by mosquitos, snakes and other critters. She was a good sport about it back when the kids were little, but now that they’re grown and gone, if I even hint at camping she’ll tell me to go fuck myself.


I’ve driven 5 past Red Bluff a number of times since that one trip, but that one miserable drive is baked (pun intended) into my memory. This time though it’s early October and the weather is pleasant. I’m on the second part of my exploration of Highway 395.

Stretches of Highway 395 have been described as the loneliest in America. In places it’s two lanes and in others, four. Starting at Washington State’s border with Canada, it passes mountain ranges, cuts through golden seas of cheatgrass, overlooks dead alkali lakes and pays a short visit to Reno, Nevada, the self proclaimed, “Biggest Little City in the World,” on its way to the southern terminus in the searing heat of the Mojave Desert at Hesperia, California.

My October mission is to drive most of the length of Highway 395. Just days before I started out on this road trip, Cora and I had completed a trip on Highway 395 from Bridgeport California to Lone Pine, California (Documented in The #US 395 Chronicles on this site). In 2021, Cora and I traveled the section of 395 from Spokane, Washington to Umatilla, Oregon. This trip will add more pieces, and nearly complete the puzzle. The fact that the stretches I’ll be covering on this drive will be some of the more desolate, adds to the allure.


I left home at straight up eight in the morning. Cora gave me the usual worried look and I imagine that for the next two weeks she’ll be wearing out her rosary beads in the hope that divine intervention will keep me from getting waylaid by a psychopath on a dusty, lonely side road.

The drive started on Highway 80, eastbound through Vallejo, Fairfield, and Vacaville. It’s a stretch of ugly unabated commercialism. Cheesy capitalism run amok. Once you hit Vacaville you don’t know where one town ends and the next begins. It’s an unbroken stretch of tawdry crap, as unsightly as beer cans and plastic wrappers and old couches left by the roadside. One long, unbroken strip of motels, auto malls, outlet malls and fast food joints. As proof of the mediocrity out here one only needs to realize that the best food you’ll find on this stretch of 80 is at Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse.


I left Highway 80 and merged onto 505. Past Hartley, and Allendale, which has its claim to fame as being the town that gets incinerated in a nuclear war in Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” I was still in Solano County which is technically part of the Bay Area but more resembles the next county up, Yolo.

Just north of Dunnigan, I transitioned onto Interstate 5, a 1381 mile long ribbon that stretches from the Mexican border at San Ysidro, California, to Blaine, Washington, near the Canadian border. Most of Interstate 5 in California slices through farmland, but unlike the farmland that I drove through in the Midwest which is graced with Americana charm, Interstate 5 is mind numbing. Interstate 5 is not shy about screaming, “big, corporate agriculture.” It’s a  succession of farm dependent small towns; Dunnigan, Hershey, Harrington, College City and Arbuckle. No, Arbuckle was not named after silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, but after rancher Tacitus R. Arbuckle.

In the town of Williams, I stopped at Granzella’s, one of those roadside rests where you can step out of the heat and into an air conditioned building for a fair diner meal. Maybe stop at the ice cream counter or get candy for the kids, or if you’re like me, candy for yourself. There’s a gift shop that has a selection of gourmet foods, and what I like to call the ‘grandma section’ with all the homey, Norman Rockwell-ish, kitschy stuff like wooden, and embroidered signs that celebrate whatever virtue you’re partial to: God, family, patriotism, friends, dogs or cats – take your choice.

In the end I bought some jars of stuffed olives for the family. Damn, I can sure be creative.


At Red Bluff,  heading towards the majestic volcanic cone of Mount Shasta, Interstate 5 begins to noticeably gain altitude and the landscape is changing. Ag land is giving way to rolling hills, colored a parched brown and dotted with stands of oak trees.

Past Red Bluff I’m entering Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

This is wildfire land. Look in either direction and you see acres of blackened toothpicks that were once proud evergreens.

The fires were due in large part to the negligence and greed of PG&E, the power company that made the corporate decision to pay out shareholder dividends instead of trimming trees around power lines. Despite nutjob Marjorie Taylor Greene’s assertion that “Jewish space lasers” lit up California, it was corporate malfeasance that incinerated whole towns, ruined lives and took others.

Cora and I, and other homeowners are paying PG&E’s freight in higher energy costs to pay off lawsuits and penalties, while getting a double whammy in higher insurance premiums.


At Lake Shasta I stop at a scenic overlook for lunch. The parking lot is nearly full, mostly retirees and big rig truckers.

There’s a mixed race couple holding hands as they walk around the perimeter of the overlook, a pair of mixed breed dogs in tow. Turns out they’re a long haul trucking team. It’s a sweet looking rig that the gang clambers into. The woman fires up the engine and they’re on their way to … who knows.

I’ve heard of spouses sharing a workplace, but being in the cockpit of a big rig together for what is essentially 24 hours and countless days and miles? Damn, that’s some dedication and more power to them. I wonder how this couple fare when they’re long hauling through states that are less than tolerant.

Done with lunch and fresh air, it’s back on the road. I’m passing Lake Shasta, which is just a trace of what it was years and years ago when Cora and I contemplated renting a houseboat on the lake. Drought and climate change. Will this lake even float a houseboat?

As I drive over a bridge, I look down and see karma, right there in plain sight. What was once a thriving lake is now an emaciated stream. The dearth of rain and snowmelt has exposed islands that shouldn’t exist. It’s an open and shut case for changing our ways before we’re all fucked, with little to no chance for redemption.


Just north of Shasta I get off the highway and pass through Weed. Thirteen months ago the Mill Fire ripped through town. I drive past the devastated neighborhoods. I’m tempted to stop and take photos but no, that idea is just too ghoulish. The Mill Fire took two lives. This is hallowed ground.


North of Weed, I veer off Interstate 5 to U.S. Highway 97, where I’m passing through the Butte Valley National Grassland. The forests and farms are far behind and the landscape is becoming more stark.

Fifty two miles from the Oregon border, I pass a Sinclair Oil billboard telling the motoring public that it’s 52 miles from cheap gas. I’ll drink to that. The car’s info center tells me I’ve got 80 miles left in the tank. That’s good enough for me.


Dorris, California is just a stone’s throw from the Oregon border – that is if you have a good arm.

Named for two stockmen, brothers Presley A. and Carlos J. Dorris, there’s nothing notable about the town except for having the tallest flagpole west of the Rockies. The 200 foot (61 m) mast flies an American flag that measures 30 feet (9.1 m) tall by 60 feet (18 m) wide. Given the politics up here, I don’t imagine that it flies a Pride flag in June.

I’ve been through Dorris a few times during my travels and for some reason that I can’t really pinpoint, the little town has tickled my imagination. Maybe it’s the lazy looking old boys sitting on porches, giving me the stank eye as I cruise slowly by. Maybe it’s the signs for El Ranchito, the Mexican food joint that I have a burning desire to try, but is closed every time I pass through. Maybe it’s the general sleepy, fuck the rest of the world, atmosphere of this little burg.

Dorris, California

El Ranchito, Dorris, California


Late afternoon, I arrive at the Super 8 Motel in Klamath Falls. It’s an early start tomorrow so I skip dinner, watch a little football on TV and go to bed. Tomorrow I’ll get reunited with Highway 395 at Pendleton, Oregon. I’m excited. This isn’t just going to be 395. I’ve baked in a few side roads with some serious desolation.

12 thoughts on “The Highway 395 Chronicles: Part Two. The Road to Klamath Falls

  1. Toonsarah says:

    I read this with one eye on Google maps as we’re in the early stages of planning a Northern California road trip for next year. You don’t really sell this area as strongly as you do some others so I wasn’t sorry to see that it doesn’t feature on my very rough draft of a possible route! Of course though, I’m looking forward as always to reading about this trip 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah, Between the Bay Area and the Shasta and Lassen areas, there isn’t much to recommend the area. It’s just a necessary section to cross through on the way to more interesting places. Even the Mojave Desert is more interesting and scenic. Your time would be better spent driving down 395 in the east or along the coast where you find charming coastal towns, rugged coastline and redwood forests.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      1. Toonsarah says:

        Yes the coast is definitely on the list, then cutting through via Sacramento to Lake Tahoe before heading south to see some places we missed on our previous Southern California trip, like Kings Canyon and Death Valley.

  2. Wonderful story Paul! Ocassional smiles kept creeping onto my face, but the underneath seriousness is also evident. I’m awaiting the next episode with joy.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Peter.

  3. Anne Sandler says:

    Thank you for the trip Paul. We’ve been to some of the places, but not others. Sorry, if you want a lonely road, try the Nevada Desert. I remember heading back to California, I can’t remember where from, towing our 5th wheel trailer. We were getting hungry but not a restaurant in sight. We had almost decided to pull off the long lonely road onto the desert ground when we saw a sign saying food ahead. It was a Mexican restaurant, and turned out to be great food. So you never know. They probably did a great business being the only game in town!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne,
      Apologies for the late response. I have tried the Nevada Desert many, many times. Family vacations to visit relatives in Salt Lake City back when Highway 80 was two lanes and cut through Reno underneath the Biggest Little City arch. We stopped in Winnemucca for the night and the next morning stopped for breakfast in Elko at the Commercial Hotel. I always had a stack of pancakes that were about the diameter of a manhole cover. We marveled at the polar bear in the lobby and then dad had some pulls on the slot machines and couple of Screwdrivers before we hit the road (they were different times). In 2015 Cora and I stopped in Elko on the way to Yellowstone. The bear was still there but I didn’t marvel so much as feel sorry for the poor beast. He deserved better.
      Thank you for reading and commenting

  4. David says:

    A very long read, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello David, Apologies for the late response. Thank you for the kind words.

  5. annieasksyou says:

    Paul, this is my first encounter with your 395 musings, and it strikes me as an exceptionally fine piece of gonzo journalism. It’s unlikely I’ll ever visit these stretches of America (I’m not even sure I want to), but I feel enriched by your artful descriptions.

    A side note about Norman Rockwell: he left Life Magazine because the editors refused to let him depict Black Americans in anything but a subservient manner. The Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts contains some powerful renderings of his empathetic—dare I say “woke”?—paintings.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Annie, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Hopefully you’ll wade further into my Highway 395 pool. I don’t blame you for not wanting to motor up the spine of California’s Central Valley. While it’s the fastest way between north and south it’s the least interesting.

      I believe it was the Saturday Evening Post that Rockwell abandoned (at least that’s where I recall seeing most of his renderings). I’ve seen some of the paintings that you mention in your comment. It’s a shame that he isn’t as well known for those depictions as he is for his paintings of an America that exists mostly in fantasy.

      Thank you for reading and commenting

      1. annieasksyou says:

        Of course it was the Saturday Evening Post. Thanks for correcting, Paul. I suspect Rockwell’s feelings about his paintings were similar to yours…and mine.

        I’ll be back asap for my next journey down Highway 395.

Would love to hear from you

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