Oroville, CA: The City of Gold

Nearly 4 years ago, I moved away from the town of Oroville and said my farewell to it in a blog post. Now, as Oroville makes national headlines with a recent massive evacuation and fear of flooding from an overflowing lake and dam problems, I've decided to repost the writing here, on this blog. 

It's always interesting posting old writing: much has changed—but I won't really get into that now. Another time. I would like to add that although Oroville was not the place for me, it is home to many people who love it. And that the nature of Dams is that they eventually fall apart. Somehow, someday. Nature always wins in the long run. 


An abandoned storefront (salon?) in old-town Oroville

An abandoned storefront (salon?) in old-town Oroville

March, 2013:

So, you probably did not know that I lived, for the past year, in Oroville, CA. Have you heard of it? Not likely. It is even less likely that you have been there - it is not near any main veins of interstate roads, though it sits on the side of Highway 70 - for those of you familiar with the area, or who might have found yourself passing it, and then passing rows and rows of peach trees, almond trees, apricot trees. It is the land of orchards and bees, Highway 70. 

Recently, I've left Oroville. Though I lived up the hill away from town (about 20 minutes) and was able to live on a beautiful slice of oaky land, I never stopped hating Oroville.

There. I said it. I hated it. So much. Oroville is a sad, sad place - a perfect picture of American destruction and grief. The shadow of a bustling, mid-century community remains: the beautiful houses, the abundant fruit trees, the old downtown buildings made from brick and stone. It is as though its physical self stopped there, in the late 1960s, and then "modern" America came in, slicing the town in half with a major thruway on which was placed the essentials: McDonald's, Wal-Mart, KFC, and more. More fast food than you could imagine in so few miles. 

The old parts of town stand as skeletons. Beautiful old signs and buildings, gorgeous houses sinking into themselves. Perhaps I am being too harsh here; there are still homes and places that are sweet and quiet, still hosting the tenants from long ago. But many streets of Oroville are filled with people who are slowly dying from The American Way, addicted to food that kills (at best) and meth (at worst). Recently I drove to a part of town I hadn't been to before, and an old house had been converted, by miracle of some California Proposition, to an outpatient treatment center. The parking lot was so full - it was the busiest place I'd seen. Trucks filled the lot, and I saw mostly women going from car to building: women clutching babies, the one thing that could maybe give them the strength to seek freedom from the claws of methamphetamine. 

Suffice it to say, Oroville is a vibe-killer. 

Like I said, it seems frozen in the late 1960s. Like it was so happy then and then suddenly the life force disappeared, leaving only a shell. And do you know why? I figured out why:

Because in 1968 they finished building The Dam. 

I don't even know much actual history, but I can feel it. They blocked the river. The scientists and economists would say the equation is simple - that the dam was finished and so the work was finished. The economy was gone, and demise set in. But I know the other part, too: They blocked the river. The holy vein of this land, the river that carried the (also holy) salmon run, the river that was the life force for this place, the graceful and flowing counterpart to this hot, dry land. So of course, the energy is blocked—on a massive scale, one that we can hardly even conceive. Of course the people are sick and the town cannot breathe. It all makes sense when I realize what undercurrents are at play. 

Anyway, I couldn't stay there anymore. It felt terrible a lot of the time. This post isn't a rant on environmentalism - we all know the sad stories of water and salmon, of rivers and dams, of indigenous people who came before us. This is just my own story. The things I felt from living in a certain place;  how it was for to me to live somewhere with so much trauma and grief in its bones.

Oroville has a rich history that contains stories both sad and beautiful, so I want to acknowledge, also, the light that glows (though faintly) through its cracks. I loved the land on which I lived, the amazing sunsets, the symphony of frogs, and the crystals veining the ground. I like to think about the moments in history that were filled with all this hope. I like to think about times when things were made so carefully that even after 50 years of neglect, they stand regal in their craftsmanship and aesthetic. In many ways, I like the stories here. There is so much hope in its history.