IRMULCO, Calif. — It is 11:08 a.m., and Hans Burkhardt is standing where he usually can be found at this time of day: Waiting for the morning Skunk.
Right on time, the cheerful yellow "Skunk Train," an aging, self-propelled passenger coach, lumbers out of the forest between the whistle-stop ghost towns of Irmulco and Shake City.
As the Skunk pulls up to the Burkhardt family stop, conductor Bob Reid leans out the vehicle's door, deftly snatches Burkhardt's canvas mailbag off a wooden post and just as smoothly deposits the family's incoming deliveries.
It is a graceful, nostalgic ballet that Burkhardt has watched for a decade--and one that Reid has performed for more than a quarter of a century. It is all part of life along the Skunk Line, a curious little anachronism deep in California's redwood forest.
The Skunk--so named by curmudgeonly steam-engine crews when the California Western Railroad, as the line is formally known, bought its first diesel-fired engine in 1925--links the towns of Fort Bragg and Willits, as it has since the line was completed in 1911.
More important, the scenic railroad links the 48 or so people who live along the line with the rest of Mendocino County.
For some, it is their only connection to the outside world.
Now that connection--and its history and tradition--is threatened.
Financial problems have forced the Skunk Line's current operator, Mendocino Coast Railway, to seek government approval to reduce operations during the winter, when the number of tourists is down and local ridership is too low to cover expenses.
The proposal has raised a considerable stink among Skunk Train aficionados, particularly those who rely on it for mail service, grocery and hardware deliveries--and as a way out when flood or fire cuts off the few rutted, rocky dirt roads in the area.
Indeed, many folks in the area consider the Skunk a trusted old friend, one that has safely delivered their ailing parents to the hospital and their young children to school. It is common for people living along the line to stop what they are doing and smile and wave as the Skunk chugs by.
"When you buy property and make your life here, you depend on that train," said Gary Ballard of Northspur, who owns and operates a small sawmill for his fellow backwoods homesteaders. "It brings our mail, and it keeps us in touch with the outside world."
It also keeps rural folks in touch with each other. Over the years, Ballard and Burkhardt said, the train has helped people along the line share and barter everything from milk to plastic pipe.
"The real value of the train to us doesn't show up in black and white on a corporate balance sheet," said Vanna Rae Bello, who operates a Christmas tree farm with her family on land they have owned for 19 years. "This (train) was here when we bought the property. It's part of why we live here; it's part of the romance of being here."
Such intangibles cannot be expected to come at the expense of the railroad, she conceded. But she concurred with others that there should be a compromise short of a complete abandonment of weekday service in the winter. Perhaps two- or three-day-a-week service could be tried, she suggested.
Often in winter, she said, heavy rains make impassable bogs out of the few dirt roads serving the area; bridges wash out and some cabins have no road at all. The logging road between her home and paved highways, for example, is 10 miles long and takes an hour to negotiate in the best of times.
"When that goes, there is no other way out" except the train, she said.
Partial service also could mean a continuation of regular mail delivery to the area. U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Phyllis Hopkins in Fort Bragg said there are no plans for dealing with a discontinuance of service by the train, which is paid an undisclosed sum each year to deliver mail along the line. Hopkins said the Post Office would have to arrange for independent contractors to drive through the half-dozen or so dirt roads that snake through various parts of the area.
Homeowners, meanwhile, say train service was a part of the covenant between original home site buyers and the old Union Lumber Co., which built and ran the railroad in sections from 1885 to 1911 to facilitate logging. Later, the firm decided to sell individual parcels along the line. In 1969, Union Lumber Co. was acquired by Boise-Cascade Corp., which sold the railroad and adjoining timber holdings to Georgia-Pacific in 1977.
Gerald J. Allen, the railroad's general manager, denied that railroad service was ever guaranteed to property owners.
He also said that people living along the line account for only about 5% of all passenger traffic. The rest are tourists.
'A Real Hardship'
"It certainly would create some hardships for them," he said of plans to cut back service, "but it also creates a real hardship for the railroad to continue to provide daily service."