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Remote Residents Find They Are Off the Radar Screen

September 22, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

MARKLEEVILLE, Calif. — Nancy Thornburg has happily resided just outside this town of 165 since marrying into one of Alpine County's pioneer ranch families 45 years ago. Over scores of snowy winters and bucolic summers she's heard plenty of community chatter -- news of births, deaths and all the amusing gossip in between.

But these days, Thornburg says, there is surprisingly little talk of the wild and wooly recall election unfolding on the other side of the Sierra Nevada.

Although the rest of the state and much of the nation seem obsessed with Gray and Arnold and Cruz and Tom, tiny Alpine County remains for the most part a political Shangri-La, blissfully free of the electoral storm.

Location, location, location has a lot to do with it.

The county -- California's smallest, with 1,210 residents -- perches on the Sierra's remote eastern backside. Nevada looms at its doorstep, just along California 88. Locals mostly shop in Nevada. Many work there. They also get their news -- in print and on TV -- from the Silver State.

"We are very much Nevada-oriented," observed Thornburg, 65. "I'd like to watch the candidates debate, but I don't think our Nevada TV stations bother carrying it."

Size also matters. In the upcoming election, Alpine County will count -- it just won't count for much. The diminutive county electorate, all of 820 registered voters, isn't much bigger than the number of gubernatorial candidates on the ballot (135).

Lacking electoral clout, Alpine County compensates with countryside.

Meadows greened up by late-summer thunderstorms hug jagged granite peaks wearing a bristle of Ponderosa pine. More than 95% of the land is public forest. Cattle ranchers own much of the rest.

The timber industry died years ago, so tourism keeps things afloat. Campers practically outnumber residents in the summer. Up a rolling valley, Grover Hot Springs draws visitors from around the globe. Anglers flock for the prized cutthroat trout. Hunting and cross-country skiing and snowmobile excursions abound.

Crime is virtually nonexistent. The biggest burglary threat is a bear. Just a few weeks back, a wayward bruin lumbered right down Markleeville's main street.

While the fate of Gray Davis rattles the rest of the state, folks around here seem more perplexed that the new owner of the old Cutthroat saloon and grill yanked down the colorful brassieres that once wallpapered the venerable establishment.

"Some of us are probably more up on Nevada politics than California's," confessed Al Pettit, onetime editor of the Alpine Enterprise, an Internet newspaper that folded in February. "We're sort of scratching our heads over the recall."

Which isn't to say Alpine County doesn't have a stake.

In Woodfords, a wide spot where California 88 begins its swoop down into Nevada, Dave Kirby's 7 a.m. breakfast crowd at his deli and market naturally inclines against Davis. In part, theirs is a local beef: The governor has failed to appoint a replacement for Alpine County's vacant supervisor's seat.

"We wait and wait and wait," grumbled Kirby. "Christ, it's been a year! We need a warm body!"

Thornburg, for one, acknowledged having had mixed feelings about the recall at first. But as a Republican, she came to embrace the heave-ho prospect of it, the delicious "popular uprising thing" against the "dirty politics" of Davis and his like in Sacramento.

Given that Alpine County's 305 registered Republicans barely outnumber the 283 Democrats, a dissenting opinion is just around one of the pastoral bends in the road.

Markleeville coffee shop owner Ed Moss, a transplanted San Diego grade-school teacher, happily unloaded on the recall as a GOP coup d'etat.

"I don't find fault with Gray Davis," said Moss, dishing up a warm wedge of blackberry pie along with his opinion. "I find fault with Enron's gouging." The white-bearded bagel-and-espresso merchant summed up Schwarzenegger as a guy with "big muscles," but as far as running the state, "he's not equipped."

Given its remote location and scant votes, Alpine has had no Arnold sightings. Folks expect no visits from any of California's governor wannabes, said Supervisor Herman Zellmer. "Our 800 votes aren't where they want to put their time."

The last real, live state politician showed up months ago, when a rookie Republican exploring a state Senate run came trolling for votes. Nobody recalls his name. Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) has come by a few times to check in with constituents. Years ago, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stopped for 20 minutes on the way to somewhere else.

Anonymity fits the place. A silver strike in the 1860s put it on the map, but the rush died within a decade. Alpine County nearly faded away, its population dwindling to about 200 for much of the next century. The only real town then and today is Markleeville, named after the loser of a Wild West gunfight. Thornburg, a longtime museum director, says the county "reached the peak of its economic well-being the year it was created."

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