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City refugees go to the flow

Life along the Colorado River is isolated and inconvenient, and that sits just fine with residents.

December 09, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

LOST LAKE, CALIF. — Leonard Hook hangs dead catfish from a tree as testimony to his angling prowess and tribute to the river that still fortifies his spirits six decades since it first drew him here as a kid.

His porch overlooks the shallows where carp forage in the mud and great blue herons impale minnows on pointed bills. Beside him, flashes of color flicker in a bucket of water.

"Bait," he said, peering at the goldfish inside.

Like others here, 62-year-old Hook fled smoggy, cramped Southern California for the slippery banks of the Colorado River.

His wife, Debbie, 47, came along for the ride and was seduced by the solitude.

"It was my husband's dream to live on the river, though it was difficult for me at first," she said. "But the river is always there to call you."

Here at the ragged edge of California, where mile markers double as addresses and 100-degree temperatures are welcome respites from the oppressive heat, hundreds of people have staked out lives in a stark world of sun, water and rock.

Known as the Colorado River communities, this string of remote, often hidden hamlets stretches out north of Blythe along the river, ending just below the crumbling semi-ghost town of Vidal, where Wyatt Earp once mined for gold.

This isn't Lake Havasu, with its beer-soaked frat boys and drunken flotillas of barely clad young women. These are the real river rats, the hard-core few who live with a hot desert behind them, a hotter desert in front of them and a ribbon of water in between.

They gamely endure the daily harshness of life in a place where rattlesnakes are not only plentiful but come in two colors -- red and green. A place where scorpions slink into empty shoes and vinegarroons, their creepy cousins, spray acetic acid at anyone getting too close.

Most residents live down narrow dirt lanes obscured by trees and brush. Until recently the roads didn't have names. Addresses are still hard to come by. One woman simply lists her own as, "the house next to the Lost Lake store."

Cable television is unavailable; newspapers arrive late and by mail. Emergency medical situations usually involve helicopter flights, and a routine doctor's visit is often a two-hour drive.

Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson represents the area. At 5,000 square miles, his district is one of the largest in the nation and this is its farthest-flung corner, the last outpost of the Inland Empire.

"It's easily a good 180 to 200 miles from the county seat," he said. "We have had problems with emergency personnel finding people up there."

And yet many thrive here, taking frequent refuge in the river as it bends gracefully between California and Arizona.

"I can stand the heat," said Cordelia "Corny" Schlabitz, taking in the sweeping river view from under a giant Indian laurel shading her home. "I walk my dog Rosie along the banks, then float with the current back home. I'm like a fish in the water."

Schlabitz, 72, left Riverside in 1986 for Ranchos Not So Grande, a collection of trailers off California 95, the sole route in and out of the area.

"We feel somewhat isolated here," she said. "You need to drive to Indio or Palm Springs to see a doctor. There is no DSL or newspaper. When people ask where I live I tell them mile marker 15 or 16."

Yet the sheer remoteness is what attracted neighbor Barry Bennett.

"I like the fact that it's isolated," said the 57-year-old former Anaheim resident. "What do you want to do, be around people all day listening to them complain?"

Bennett works at a service station in Blythe 30 miles south and clearly hears lots of complaints.

His community began as a weekend getaway, but gradually people began staying year round. The same happened at Aha Quin, Paradise Point, Water Wheel, Twin Palms, Hidden Valley and other neighborhoods off the highway.

On holidays they fill up, but full-timers number only around 60 or 70 in Lost Lake and some of the other larger settlements. Places like Ranchos Not So Grande have as few as 20 permanent residents, maybe fewer.

Some are irascible, rough-and-tumble types badly wanting to be left alone. Others are fixated on boating and fishing. And there are those who seem to have stepped from a Somerset Maugham story, genteel expatriates in an exotic land sipping cocktails in 115-degree heat.

"You either love it here or hate it, there is no middle ground," said Janet Keener, who chairs the board of directors of the Colorado River Senior Center in Hidden Valley, one of the more upscale river communities. "We are a flyspeck clinging to the edge of California."

The center is a focal point of river life. On Thursdays, knots of women array themselves around card tables, playing dominoes.

Others talk, cook or quietly sew, basking for a time in the company of others.

"I live in a place with 19 trailers, but only three are occupied," said Pat Miranda, 74, who moved from Pasadena. "I keep pretty busy and I'm a reader. I have a dog to talk to and she doesn't give me any lip."

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