McCloud, California: A Tiny Town on the Cusp

First published in the Jefferson Monthly
By Jennifer Margulis

One cloudless night three years ago 49-year-old Rhonda Hiebert and her sister said goodbye to some friends at the American Legion and were walking down Main Street in McCloud, heading back to their house. They walked on for a few minutes in silence when suddenly Hiebert had an eerie feeling that someone was following them. She and her sister turned around and saw a big black bear walking down the middle of the street. “He wasn’t hungry,” Hiebert laughs as she sits outside the McCloud Mercantile taking a break from her job as a clerk in The Sugar Pine Candy Shoppe to enjoy the unseasonably warm fall weather. “He wasn’t interested in eating us.” She and her sister raised their arms above their heads to make themselves look as big as possible, and the black bear lumbered amiably by.

Rhonda Hiebert had just moved to McCloud from Fresno, California and she counts the black bear among those who welcomed her to this unique northern California town. Just a ten-minute drive east of Mt. Shasta and only 85 miles from southern Oregon, McCloud is a tiny town in the middle of a vast forest of white fir, red fir, sugar pine, Douglas fir, incense cedar, lodgepole pine, and other towering trees. It is reported to have a population of 1,343 year-round residents (according to the 2000 U.S. Census), though some locals think that’s an exaggeration.

My 7-year-old daughter and I have come to spend the weekend here in McCloud, to discover the town and learn about its history, and to finally ride the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train after years of seeing the larger-than-life billboard advertisements while driving down I-5. We start late from Ashland, drive down the winding highway through huge elevation changes, past golden yellow shrub grass and hills as big as mountains.

We pull into town after dusk on a Friday night in early fall and head for one of the only open restaurants, the River Grill and Bar. The quick clonck of pool balls hitting each other and the boisterous sound of people drinking at the bar greet us as we walk into this dimly lit, rustic place. It’s hot inside and most of the people at the bar are in their shirtsleeves. A couple in their 60s from the Netherlands having dinner at the next table tell us they’ve stopped in McCloud on a tour of northern California because they read in their Dutch guidebook that it’s a special place. My chicken salad is served on a bed of perky iceberg lettuce with pepperoncini, onions, and a few tired tomatoes. My daughter Athena gobbles down her chicken nuggets and minestrone soup and writes in her journal (she’s taking notes too) that the restaurant is “verry verry fancy.” We stay past bedtime so she can sketch the fascinatingly tacky lamp on our table, which has a plastic log house for a base, complete with a model-railroad evergreen tree out front.

It’s so overheated in the restaurant that while Athena is drawing I pull off my sweater, only to realize I’m only wearing a tank top. “No worries, hun,” the waitress who wears her hair in a long blonde ponytail, says. “You’re in McCloud now! Anything goes here.”

It’s true. You might find anything in this tiny town, which strikes me as a place full of contrasts and contradictions seeking an identity. Quaint art galleries coexist alongside teenagers gunning their dragsters down the town’s unusually wide streets, built to accommodate the lumber trucks that drove right through town to and from the mill.

McCloud is a work in progress; a quiet town that has seen some fat times and some lean times and that may be on the cusp of a renaissance, but then again, may not.

“It’s a cross between Norman Rockwell and Northern Exposure,” laughs Darlene Mathis. As three Asian tourists come into the restaurant she co-owns with her husband, The White Mountain Fountain, their cameras bumping against their winter coats. “Relationships here are exaggerated. You know everyone deep … you know their quirks and personalities.” McCloud is a mountain community, Mathis continues, “You’re almost in survival mode here.”

A diminutive woman wearing tight jeans and high heels, with long brown hair and stylish glasses, 47-year-old Mathis is one of the people on a mission to renovate McCloud, which was a company-owned town operated by the McCloud River Lumber Company until 1963. She and her husband Kevin, along with their son Tanner and their dog Whisper, moved to McCloud eight years ago after buying the McCloud Mercantile Building, which used to be the company’s in-town headquarters. The Mercantile is a sprawling historic place that has almost 60,000 square feet on the inside and houses the newly renovated McCloud River Mercantile Hotel where my daughter and I are staying, as well as The White Mountain Fountain, a jewelry store called Shasta Reflections, the Sugar Pine Candy Shoppe, a bookstore called The McCloud Book Gallery, Mountain Homes Reality, and several other businesses.

Signs of new construction and renovation are everywhere. Mathis, who was an assistant architect in Sacramento and has worked for over twenty years on restoration and capital improvement projects, shows my daughter and me around the sprawling Mercantile building. She tells us it was originally built in 1899 but the lumber company kept adding to the building as they added logging camps in McCloud. Once the center of commercial life for the town, loggers and their families would come here to buy everything from groceries to shoes.

“If your house needed painting, the company would decide on the color,” Mathis explains. “They’d get the paint from the Mercantile; they made the keys to all the houses here too.” Mathis points out the massive renovations already done—transom windows and built-in booths unearthed from under layers of sheet rock, sunken ceilings restored to their original height, the original Douglas fir floors sanded and polished and shining with new lacquer—and she walks us through what used to be the company-owned meat market that is now under construction to be turned into a bar slated to open this spring, aptly titled with the same name.

After the Meat Market, we head over to the McCloud Historical Museum where 81-year-old Jimmy Bambino, who volunteers there, is enjoying the fall sunshine on a bench outside. Bambino tells me his parents were from Calabria, Italy and that his dad first came to America in 1914, moving from New York City to Weed to Black Butte, until finally settling down in McCloud. Born and raised in McCloud, Bambino was a freight agent at the Railroad Depot. The town was segregated when he was a kid: the Swedes and Norwegians, who usually held managerial positions at the mill, lived in one section; Italians like the Bambinos who were usually mill workers lived in what was called then “Tucci Camp”; Mexican workers lived in what was identified as “Tortilla Flats” on a company map, and the African-American mill workers lived in a separate camp.

Bambino’s been in McCloud through all of the town’s changes and still remembers when milk from the company-owned dairy was delivered to his family’s doorstep in glass bottles. In the wintertime when the weather was cold, he says, the milk would freeze and the cream on top would expand and pop the cap right off. He shows us some empty bottles in this museum, which is cluttered with donated artifacts. There are old-fashioned dolls, typewriters, handwritten letters, 19th century books and magazines, lumberjack equipment, black and white photographs, and more. Mathis shows us rather wistfully the enormous original register that was in the Mercantile when she and her husband bought the building but ended up at the museum before they took possession.

But tourists come to McCloud to enjoy the area’s natural beauty more than the town’s rich history. Just four miles east of the Mount Shasta Ski Park, McCloud sees a surge in tourism in the wintertime from people coming to ski. In the summer, nature lovers enjoy the Pacific Crest Trail and the dozens of hiking trails just outside McCloud, as well as swimming and boating. “The beautiful McCloud River is how I discovered the town,” says 42-year-old Brian Hilden, who lives in Medford, Oregon. “That’s the draw for me.”

Hilden likes the region so much that he has been coming here at least two or three times a year for the past twenty years. He is fascinated by the way the runoff from Mount Shasta gives birth to three rivers: the McCloud River, the Sacramento River, and the Pit River, and the way the mountain juts abruptly out of the flatlands, dominating the landscape for a hundred-mile circumference.

“It’s really the most majestic mountain I’ve known,” Hilden says. When he comes to the McCloud area to go fishing and hiking, he always stops at Mount Shasta City Park where you can drink the headwaters of the Sacramento River. “There’s a spot at that park where the river comes bursting forth from the hillside,” Hilden says. “It’s just the cleanest, coldest, most invigorating drinking water experience.”

On our second day in town, Athena and I head to the McCloud River. We park at the Lower Falls, which is less than eight miles from town, and follow a paved trail upstream. The trailhead starts at a staircase that leads down to the river and then past Fowler’s Campground. Even though it’s early, a man and two youngsters already have their fishing rods out. Water cascades over these lower falls, which, according to an interpretive placard, Native peoples used to call Nurunwitipom: “Falls Where the Salmon Turn Back.” We follow the trail past the fishermen, through Fowler’s Campground, and into the forest. A quiet settles on us there. Dappled sunlight coming in through the leaf canopy, we hike for twenty minutes in comfortable silence.

The trail comes out to the Middle Falls, where streaks of morning sunlight shimmer off the surface of the water. The air smells fresh and moist, redolent of trees and things growing out of the hard packed soil. There are rocks everywhere, from big boulders that my daughter scrambles up to small stones that we toss in the water. The water tumbles over the falls, churning and frothing and hurrying away, as if on an urgent mission downstream. “This is the best adventure of my life!” Athena cries as we start the short climb to the Upper Falls. Mount Shasta, solid and imposing and beautiful, surprises us every time we catch a glimpse of her between the trees.

“We call the mountain ‘girl,’” says 56-year-old Claudia Ellis who moved to McCloud five and a half years ago from Fort Bragg, California. “We say, ‘Oh, the girl’s calling to us,’ or ‘the girl’s acting up today.’ People gauge their moods by the mountain.” Athena and I have come back to town, had a light meal at The White Mountain Fountain which serves everything from burgers and fries to risotto with black currants and wild mushrooms, followed by enormous coffee milkshakes. Now we are squinting up at Claudia’s husband, Jim Ellis, who is high on the scaffolding hammering nails into the roof of the Brown Dog Gallery & Gifts. Here tourists can buy owner Claudia Ellis’s original acrylic paintings for anywhere from $800 to $4500 or a Christmas ornament made in China for two bucks. Beyond Jim Ellis we see Her Majesty. Is that smoke puffing from the top? Everyone in town likes to thrill Athena with the fact that Mount Shasta is an active volcano that erupts at least once every six hundred years.

Rusty, the 10-year-old chocolate lab, after which the gallery is named, hobbles along the sidewalk and flops himself down in the shade of a pickup truck. Claudia tells us she has found the original windows from 1904 when the Brown Dog Gallery building—which once housed the post office downstairs and Dr. Bickell’s dentist office upstairs—was first erected. Reinstalling the original windows is part of the renovation plan. Her jeans are stiff with dried paint and she puts on a clean sweater before agreeing to be photographed.

Like Darlene Mathis, Claudia Ellis is one of the new movers and shakers in McCloud. Although her opinions are not always shared (she’s vociferously opposed to the controversial water bottling plant that Nestlé has been trying to open in McCloud, which some believe will jumpstart a puttering economy), she organized a recent community effort to save the falling down firehouse building, raised more than $9,000 and got residents out on the weekend to hand scrape and repaint the entire building. She’s also started the annual Dog and Pony Pet Parade where kids (and grownups) dress up their pets and march them down Main Street on Thanksgiving Weekend.

Athena and I continue our walk and find we can see Mount Shasta from every street. We also stumble upon the enormous wheel that once powered the steam engine at the mill. “In the old days the mill owned the entire town,” Ellis tells us. “They brought your wood, they even brought your Christmas tree…” Mathis later tells us that the mill, which supplied power to the town, shut off the electricity around eleven o’clock.  Several cookie cutter former mill family houses are for sale and we pass a tree heavy with unharvested apples. The ones that have fallen to the ground have been left there to rot in heaps.

One of the frustrations that newcomers voice about McCloud is the leftover mentality that someone else will take care of things. People expect everything to be done for them, one person tells me. We have to do it first so that people see it can be done before anyone steps in to try to do it themselves, says another.

We go back to the hotel to change and suddenly we’re in a rush. It’s time to get ready for the biggest outing of this trip. Athena hurriedly pulls a lavender dress with small red flowers over her head. We’re going for a ride on the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train, which leaves at 6:00 p.m. but boards at 5:30 p.m. “You excited?” a crew member asks as Athena wriggles and hops, barely able to wait her turn to board.

We are seated in an elegant wood-paneled dining car. The table is perfectly laid out, down to the rounded, scalloped butter served in a glass-topped dish. As the wheels churn on the tracks and the train groans forwards, I feel like we’re in a Victorian mystery novel. The three-hour excursion includes dinner, dancing, and a rather jarring inter-wagon walk to the souvenir shop at the back of the train. Many of the couples on board are celebrating anniversaries or birthdays. The mood is festive and lively as we pass through a forest of ponderosa pine, white fir, and incense cedar on the lighted track. When the conductor comes by to check our tickets, he gives Athena’s a dozen extra punches just for good measure. Then he throws his hat onto her head and suggests I take a picture. Over grilled prawns with red pepper coulis and fresh mozzarella bruschetta, passengers enjoy the enchantment of a ride back through time.

But Jeff Forbis, the 58-year-old owner of the dinner train, tells me the cost of snow removal is so exorbitant that, unlike in previous years, he’s planning to close for most the winter season. From talking to him I glean that business is not great and the future of the McCloud Railway Company uncertain. There’s been talk of opening a scenic train ride from McCloud all the way north to Ashland but Forbis isn’t sanguine about that idea. “It would be impossible,” he says in a voice that brooks no disagreement. The problem is ten miles of track owned by Union Pacific that the train would run over. According to Forbis, the big guns would never grant his little railway a right of access.

In the morning of our last day in McCloud people I don’t remember meeting ask Athena if she enjoyed the train ride. The town is so small that everyone knows everyone’s business, even ours. And Mathis tells me being friendly is an important part of the culture up here and that tourists sometimes put the locals off by not responding in kind. “People have to remember being a tourist that they have to wave and say hello,” she says. “If you don’t wave to people, they’re going to think you’re mad at them.”

I’m not exactly sure why but it’s something of a relief to drive back to Oregon. I’ve learned so much about McCloud in the short time we’ve spent there but I’m not sure I understand where the town is heading any better than before I visited. Still, something Claudia Ellis said stays with me. In the summertime after a day of renovating and selling art, she and her husband knock off early and head to the lake to swim. By dusk most of the tourists are gone and it is just the two of them watching the eagles soar and the osprey fight as they dive for fish. “We’re here in Heaven, and we have it all to ourselves,” Claudia said. One day they spotted a black bear on the banks of the lake. “It’s like magic. We just float in the water.”

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