A few weeks ago I pulled up to the Niles Hotel — a landmark in the heart of Modoc County for more than a century — to complete something rarely accomplished by Californians: Visiting all 58 counties.
Modoc sits in the northeast corner of the state. It’s not really on the way to anything. It has some national forests and natural attractions, and it is beautiful.
But that is apparently not enough to draw many visitors.
Few friends I mentioned the trip to had ever heard of Modoc. And if my friends were surprised I was there, the reactions in Modoc were just the same. People just don’t go there.
I found it charming, but I admit there was nothing there I couldn’t find in neighboring counties — nothing except the Niles.
Allegedly, the ghost of a murdered prostitute haunts the Niles. I learned this only after I’d booked a room , but had I not learned of the ghost I would have still figured the place haunted once I arrived.
I’ll get to that in a second.
I went to all 58 counties because I love California. I want to know everything about it. But it’s hard to describe what I love about it so much, even after living here nine years and after enjoying the many works of art dedicated to the topic.
California is a feeling
My friends and family back East can’t understand it. They think of California as a place with wildfires, power outages, earthquakes, high taxes, traffic and homeless people pooping everywhere. I try to explain that the D.C. area has all of those things if you just replace earthquakes and wildfires with snowstorms and freezing rain, but they still don’t get it.
I tried to explain it to a creative writing class at UCLA and they didn’t get it either, not because they didn’t like the Golden State, but because they aren’t from Virginia and can’t appreciate the contrast.
California is a feeling. It’s inspiring. I never felt motivated to go to the different counties in Virginia. I actually have no idea how many there are and I really don’t care to know and if there is a difference between counties like Southampton and Bath, I will never find out.
The Old Dominion, as it’s called, is oppressively humid, unbearably hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, is one shade of green half the year and then grey the other half. For a month there’s colorful leaves, but then they fall and you waste weekend afternoons raking them.
It is one of many interchangeable states up and down I-95. New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the rest are all basically the same outside the cities.
Manhattan is about 4.5 hours from D.C. — in between the two are Philly, Baltimore and not much else. However, within 4.5 hours of Los Angeles are Santa Barbara, San Diego, Orange County, Disneyland, Big Sur, six national parks, the largest tree on Earth, Palm Springs and Hearst Castle, just to name a few things.
Beneath these attractions though is a sense of endless possibilities. In Virginia I felt restrained, which I didn’t fully realize until I came to California. Here, people are living their dreams, and while not everyone accomplishes their dream, the risk is what makes it exciting. From gold miners to app developers to baristas hitting auditions in between shifts to first generation Americans trying to build a life, people are going for it.
I hear all the time complaining that the California Dream is dead, but that’s just not true.
The great diversity of California
I didn’t set out to visit all the counties, it just worked out that way through attempts to enjoy this wonderful place.
Admittedly, some counties I just drove through. But in California, the drive is often the destination. I don’t believe I got out of the car in Big Sur, and yet that’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I did get out of the car in Morro Bay though (that’s one big rock!), as well as along the Northern Coast.
And I can say with absolute certainty one thing about San Benito, Kings, Trinity, Siskiyou, San Joaquin: They exist.
I will always relate to California first through Orange County, because I came to the state as a Register reporter. My first big memory of Orange County was the Pageant of the Masters, something I thought was only a joke in “Arrested Development.”
I could write an entire essay about Los Angeles. It’s basically the California the rest of the country knows, at least as told by popular culture. I could have been satisfied just with the radio station KDAY, which, like my Walkman as a teenager, plays DJ Quik every third song. But there was so much to L.A. that I didn’t see in movies and rap videos. For the sake of time, the culture beyond the movie scenes is what really made me fall in love.
When I’ve had visitors, my favorite thing is to be a tour guide. I loved taking my parents on a tour of the Christmas lights in East Sacramento. Or going to Yosemite. Or going to hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the Bay Area.
I’ve seen much of this state while hiking: the Lost Coast in Mendocino, Roundtop in Alpine, Mt. Tallac in El Dorado, White Mountain Peak in Mono, Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa, Lassen Peak in Lassen and Telescope Peak in Inyo.
Yet while I shared most of these experiences with others, I braved Modoc alone.
The California experience
My imagination might be too active for me to be the kind of person to enjoy staying in an allegedly haunted hotel. And I’ve watched too much “American Horror Story” to quiet down my brain. Leading up to the trip I became obsessed, reading blogs and hotel reviews. I asked everyone in Alturas with whom I came in contact about the ghost.
The man who checked me in told me he had heard the rumors but that he’d never personally seen the ghost, but I asked for the least haunted room, regardless.
I had read that the ghost would hop on the bed of single male travellers. One review reported a man running from his room in the middle of the night after feeling something jump on his bed, only to look back up at the room’s window from the parking lot to see the silhouette of a woman. And another said he was given a tour of the third floor that featured a room filled with dolls and then another room he was banned from entering because “no one goes in there.”
To get to my room on the second floor I had to walk through a dark and empty ballroom to a large stairwell. The landing on the second floor was old timey and seemed eerily unused.
The hallway to my room was lined with sepia-tint portraits of babies and adults. My room, themed “Hobo Junction,” was at the far end.
I checked the closet once, went to dinner in the hotel (which was quite nice) and then went to the drug store where the woman working there told me the Niles was “definitely haunted” but that the ghost was a “nice” ghost (a distinction that mattered very little to me). I checked the closet again upon my return.
I laid awake all night, terrified to fall asleep. There were no noises and no ghosts. But I was sure if I fell asleep all that would change.
In the morning I was still so freaked out that I couldn’t look in the mirror and I couldn’t go in the shower, because mirrors and showers are always where the horror happens. On the way out, I wanted to take a picture of the pictures on the wall, but I was scared I’d trap souls or spirits in my phone.
Honestly, the Niles was quirky, but nothing bad happened to me except being alone with my thoughts. It was a long evening.
But that’s the thing about California: it is an experience. And like all experiences, it’s thrilling to try something new, even if occasionally it’s not fun. And we need those experiences because without them we could never fully appreciate the good times.
There are many places left for me to explore, as I’m sure there are for everyone else. If California has lost its magic, try something new. You might be surprised with the results.
And if that doesn’t work, you can always go throw rocks at pine trees in Virginia.