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CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Is It Dorris' Day?

Residents are tired of tourists just passing through. So they're promoting their town's natural charm, not to mention its Museum of the Unexplained and the country's tallest flagpole.

September 21, 1997|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DORRIS, Calif. — The billboard just the other side of Drive-Up Liquors and the Powder Keg Cafe urges, ever hopeful: "Stop & Visit! California's 1st Friendly Town."

Few do.

To general consternation, the thousands of tourists who zip down Main Street on their way to Oregon each week don't give this place the time of day.

There's plenty of natural splendor to enjoy: Eagles and hawks circle rough marshes, potato and alfalfa farms melt into foothills, and all manner of deer and elk roam the valley. Most visitors, however, tend to take it all in from the windows of their cars.

Remote little Dorris just cannot compete with neighboring lures: the tax-free malls of Oregon, three miles to the north, or the ski slopes of Mt. Shasta, an hour's drive to the south.

But folks here are bound and determined to try.

Figuring to vault Dorris onto at least a few itineraries, they're promoting two new--and unusual--attractions.

First, there's the Bigfoot Museum, recently puffed up to a grander scale as the Museum of the Unexplained. And if you don't brake for dome-headed alien dolls, there's this: Dorris is the home--the very, very proud home--of the tallest flagpole in the United States.

True, the flagpole wasn't erected specifically to drag in tourists. The idea was simply to inspire the locals, all 925 of them, to a patriotic love of country.

Now that the huge flag's way up there, though, visitors might as well stop to see it. As longtime resident Shirley Alston said, "We have room for them."

And if the visitors pause to buy a commemorative baseball cap--or maybe lunch at El Trailero, the Mexican restaurant decked out with framed photos of authentic tractor-trailers--well, so much the better.

This is not a town that reinvents itself easily; one veteran civic leader lost an election six years ago for proposing that City Hall buy a computer to speed up accounting.

Still, most people seem to have warmed to the newfangled notion of wooing tourists--and their wallets--to Dorris.

"Everybody's tickled to death," said Ryan Emerson, a city councilman who also runs the Museum of the Unexplained. "Even . . . the old-timers who have been here all their lives are just tickled to death."

To capitalize on the excitement, Emerson has written a publicity brochure for Dorris, boasting of attractions like a bald eagle nesting ground, a nearby lake stocked with trout, and a brand-new laundermat. Above all, though, Emerson is banking on the draw of the 200-foot flagpole and the mammoth nylon flag that snaps proudly in the breeze.

"Experience . . . [a] sense of rededication to America and all the good things that it stands for," his brochure urges. "Come home to America. Come to Dorris."

Although backed by plenty of gung-ho zeal, Dorris' marketing campaign has hit a few snags.

For one thing, the video camera that is supposed to feed a live image of the wind-tossed flag to the town's official World Wide Web site has been placed in a rather awkward position, in a first-floor window across the street. All the camera can capture from that angle is the fat, white midsection of the flagpole, which doesn't exactly make for stirring footage.

Then, too, the Lions Club, which raised $80,000 to put up the pole, ran out of money before it could buy a plaque. So there's no way for passersby to know that the pole stretches as high as a 20-story building--let alone that it bumped out a 184-foot model in the Imperial Valley town of Calipatria to seize the title of the nation's tallest flagpole.

Despite these limitations, a fair number of visitors have lately been stopping in Dorris, drawn by their view of the flag from afar. When they get to the pole on Main Street, they tilt back their heads, whip out their cameras and ooh in appropriate awe.

Dorris folks take it as an excellent sign.

"With the numbers I've seen taking pictures, I think some of it's got to rub off on us," old-timer Wayne Bay said.

"This pole gives people a reason to stop in Dorris," Lions Club President Roger Meagher agreed.

Glancing over at the flag, which is visible for miles, Bay stuck out his chest and declared: "It makes you want to just pop your buttons."

That's the kind of talk you hear all over Dorris.

Sure, the town has sagged a bit since the big logging mills shut down in the 1970s. The downtown strip looks decidedly tired with several boarded-up stores. And there's not much in the way of industry, just a few dozen jobs here and there, in the high school, the health clinic, the phone company and two small factories.

Yet residents remain devoted to Dorris.

This is a town so laid-back and friendly that locals can't run into the market for a pack of gum unless they can spare 15 minutes to gab. No task, it seems, demands a hurry; a nurse practitioner paused the other day while stitching a patient's gory buttocks gash to yell "Hi, Bob!" and chit-chat with the mayor as he strolled through the local clinic.

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