About a month ago, we loaded Joda into the car and drove south-southeast for a couple hours until we reached Cedarville, California. Tucked into a 45-mile north-south valley in the northeast corner of the state, we had first seen the town during an exploratory flight over the area in Bo’s airplane.
The northeast corner of California is a dry, dusty place with lots of mineral deposits, alkaline lakes, barren hills, and hot springs. Surprise Valley, although it has many of these features, did not feel as forbidding as did the area around Alturas, on the west side of the Warner Range, which separates the two. Surprise Valley looks like it would be a perfect spot to film a western movie. Think Pale Rider or Heaven’s Gate. The high, flat, narrow valley is lined on the east and west by mountain ranges covered with trees and snow that pinch together at the north and south ends. The valley floor is bisected vertically by alkaline lakes and dry lakebeds. Widespread geothermal activity makes for a lot of hot water. Aside from the developed hot springs that are only accessible by staying at the resort hotel, we found one spring big enough to sit in, right at the base of the highway embankment south of Cedarville. It is clearly the hot spring that local residents use, but is just a small unmarked shallow pool. We sat in it for about an hour at sunset while Joda sat by, bored but resigned, since we had tied her up to keep her from wandering too far.
Cedarville is a pretty town, with an old-fashioned main street, well-kept Victorian houses, and plenty of trees. It hosts a K-12 school, a clinic, several hotels and restaurants, and a remarkably well-stocked bookstore that sponsors a literary magazine and writing workshops. We marvelled at the architecture and condition of the buildings, given the town’s remoteness (only 180 miles from Reno!). Since it was Saturday night, the Country Hearth was serving its prime rib special, which Bo (and later, Joda) enjoyed immensely.
The next day we drove over to the east side of the northern alkali lake bed and explored for more hot water– which we found, but not in a form suitable for humans to soak in. Driving all the way to the northern end of the valley, we came to Fort Bidwell, which looked like a dried out, mostly boarded up version of Cedarville. Since it was a beautiful sunny day, we continued on over Fandango Pass (a little scary in the winter!) to highway 395. From there we continued north to Lakeview, Oregon, for lunch, heading home by way of highway 140, making a big circle out of our trip.
It was a good trip for a nice weekend– not far away at all, yet to a place that felt far removed from home. I can see why someone thought it should be named Surprise.