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The Shifting Frontier : Change Is in the Air. Nobody Wants Springville to Go the Way of Milo

December 22, 1985|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Michelle Huneven is a winner of the GE Younger Writers Award in Fiction

Two years ago, I saw a house I wanted to rent. It was just a small stucco cube, but it sat in a sunny pasture of weeds and live oaks. The North Fork of the Tule River ran a hundred yards from the front porch. A Sierran panorama filled the kitchen window. Climbing roses bloomed on the white slat fence.

The man who showed me the house was a corpulent fellow in his mid-60s who had a faint air of dereliction about him. We walked out into the overgrown yard. He stopped and nodded at the lush foxtails. "I hope you're not afraid of snakes," he said. I froze. He described snakes coiled in high grass, slumbering in woodpiles, lurking among rocks, slithering into houses via drains and spigots. Snakes swimming, snakes crawling inside car engines, snakes hanging from eaves. By snakes, he meant rattlesnakes. Western diamondbacks. Crotalus atrox . I was welcome to be his neighbor, it seemed, if I could take the snakes.

Even as my blood ran backward, I detected a familiar ring to the old coot's words. I had been living in the southern Sierra Nevada for two years. I'd lived up at 7,000 feet, where people said, "You'll love it if you can make it through the winter." I made it through the winter but moved down to the foothills to be closer to work. There, neighbors said, "Oh, it's beautiful here, but there's a prison camp up the road and the convicts do escape." Winter. Convicts. Snakes. They were all different idioms for the standard, backwoods greeting: a classic and peculiarly Western double message of welcome and hostility. A warning. A deterrent. But mostly, a challenge.

I rented the house and live there yet.

I left my home in Pasadena in the summer of 1981 and moved to the family cabin up on Slate Mountain in the small community of The Ponderosa. I planned to stay three or four months and get some writing done. Four years later, I'm still hugging the Sierra. The only explanation I can give is that once I adjusted to the alpine silence and the lack of Burrito Kings, Trader Joes and Nino Manfredi movies, a sense of geographical correctness set in. I want this land not to own but to dwell upon. Moses Mountain, 9,500 feet of granite ballast, exerts a kind of primordial power. The Tule River threads a warp of calm through my thought. Within short walks, I find mortar holes in river boulders where the Yokut Indians ground their acorns; I find lumber with old, square nails washed up as driftwood at the swimming hole; I find old foundations and stone chimneys of former dwellings.

The area's history is one of invasions and retreats, booms and declines: Indians, Spaniards, settlers, logging, sheep ranching and cattle ranching. The shotgun ethic is still in effect. When my dog got frisky with a neighbor's cattle, the neighbor called and threatened to shoot her. When my landlady's two horses escaped, another neighbor threatened to shoot them. A very good friend of mine said that if he ever caught me bait fishing in a fly-fishing stretch of the river, he'd shoot me . Nobody talked that way in Pasadena.

On a map of California, south and east of Visalia, north and east of Porterville, in the tiniest of letters, there is the word Milo . I live just to the right of the o .

Until 150 years ago, the Milo junction was the site of a large Yaudanchi Indian encampment. In the mid-1800s, settlers moved in. Milo was named by children for a beloved family dog. But Milo the town, like Milo the dog, no longer exists. Today, Milo is a sign. Literally. Sitting in the weeds is a big wooden slab that says THIS IS MILO, then suggests four other places with confusing arrows. Clearly, if you come to Milo looking for something, you have to go elsewhere.

For coffee and doughnuts in the morning, for mail, for sundries, for hardware and human society, I go to Springville, seven miles away. For serious stocking up, a library and an occasional movie, I go to Porterville, 18 miles beyond Springville. For a decent bookstore, ethnic food and most things cultural, it's Los Angeles, three hours by car.

Since it makes no sense to say I live in Milo, a place that doesn't exist, and since my address and telephone number are listed as Springville, I generally say--and think-- I live in Springville.

\f7 Springville itself is a small, unincorporated river town that has flourished in the past but hangs on for survival now. Although it has some historic old buildings, Springville, simply, is not very quaint, and has never been groomed for tourism. The closest things to cute little shops are the gift sections of the hardware store and pharmacy and the Patton House, which is half thrift store and half crafts center.

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