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A Brisk Breeze Blows Home : Why Roberta Piazza Came Back to Kernville

February 23, 1986|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles writer.

When Roberta Piazza was a young girl hiking in the wilderness with her mother, she was often alarmed that Mother would walk right by a no-trespassing sign without a second thought. She'd ask about it, and her mom would say, "Darling, that's for other people."

It was a logic that took root in the child's mind. The guiding principle of her life came to be: Inhibitions are for other people.

Her personality was always a bit large for Kernville. The little hamlet, famous only among fishermen, snoozes in the foothills of the High Sierra. Her parents had settled there in the early '50s and opened a motel and restaurant. But the area, scenic as it is, was not enough for such a human cyclone, and shortly after she graduated from high school at 16, she was gone. She went down the hill to Bakersfield. Within a year she was the weather girl on a local TV station. In just a few years more she was a news anchor. By the time she turned 30 she was situated in Fresno as a news anchor, producer and host of the weekend magazine show.

She also had a good set of ulcers. The expected gang of career anxieties were upon her, so she asked her boss for a month's vacation so she could return to Kernville to think. That was a year ago.

I met her one crisp morning as I was checking out of the Pine Cone Inn. Owner Al Piazza was sitting in his empty cafe watching a football game on TV. He's an easygoing guy, good company in the bar at night.

"Well," he said, "if you want to know about this place then you ought to meet my daughter." He buzzed her on the phone, and in a minute she was breezing through. Like the early winter winds that whipped through the pines outside, it was a brisk breeze.

After all these years of watching bright, vivacious women on the TV news, I must admit that I'd never before met one. She had a sharply sculptured face and high, full cheeks. Black hair fell in a shag over her shoulders, and her eyes were grayish blue, happy and huge.

We had barely eased into our seats before she was lit up with ideas. "Let's go for a Cook's tour," she suggested, and a moment later we were bouncing down the road in the family truck. "I traveled the world," Roberta said, "but I always kept coming back to Kernville. There's just some kind of healing energy here. When I returned, I did nothing but walk up in these mountains for a month. Then I realized I could never leave."

One hundred and forty miles north of Los Angeles, across the Mojave Desert and up into Walker Pass, are the southernmost foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The mountain range continues north for 360 miles before tailing off past Mt. Lassen. At the southern end of the Sierra is the green blanket of Sequoia National Forest, where the big trees are king and the Kern River is queen.

The Kern begins in underground streams and melting snows and wends through steep granite gorges and valleys until it comes to Isabella Lake. Before 1948, there was no lake, only high-country meadows surrounded by mountains. Then the flood-control dam went up, and the L-shaped lake appeared and covered the towns that are now referred to as Old Kernville and Old Isabella. In early winter, before the snows, when water is at its lowest, the skeletal foundations of old buildings can be seen along the long, flat shoreline. The Kern runs out the western edge of the lake and tumbles 50 miles down to the San Joaquin Valley.

In Gold Rush days, the hard settlements in the hills had such names as Whiskey Flat and Black Gulch. But the town of Lake Isabella was named after the Queen of Spain, who, the town fathers felt, was never fully appreciated for selling off her jewels to fund the explorations of Columbus.

Kernville, at the mouth of Isabella Lake, has been in existence only since 1950. It somehow feels much older, though, as if the little crossroads town is struggling to wake up from a hundred years' sleep. Fishermen stand on the banks of the Kern by morning, and in the bait-and-tackle shops they can be heard exchanging the endless theory and divinations of their art. There has been an invasion of another kind of sportsman--the down-vest boys, the wind-surfers and the river-rafters--and certain resentments have arisen. But it's not what you would call a range war. I don't think it would be possible to build up a real good anger in Kernville, for any reason.

While the valley may be wrapped in a gentle, retiring air, Roberta was anything but retiring. Dozens of comic voices flew from her as she explained the delights of her stomping grounds. I was expecting perhaps a nine-minute excursion to the big trees and back, but after driving up the river and pointing out Salmon Creek Falls, she was motoring south again around the lake, pointing out finches and red-tailed hawks.

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