Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Flash Floods and Fires and Freaks, Oh My!

Photo Credit: Brandon Muncy at

Sometimes I get the feeling that I am not in Kansas anymore.

I was raised in the suburbs where semi-identical houses line up row by row. Everyone had a two-car garage, a little patch of lawn to mow and a small backyard area big enough for a pool and maybe a dog or two. My parent's house in Bakersfield was in a nice little cul-de-sac conveniently located near a good high school. Other children in the neighborhood were close to our age and many of our neighbors took their street very seriously.

On the Fourth of July, neighbors would buy firework packs and everyone would sit together to watch while the teenage boys and adult men lit them. Spectacular Christmas light displays appeared the day after Thanksgiving and disappeared by New Years Day, like clockwork. On Friday nights in the summer, one of our neighbors would light a firepit in their front yard and the adults would bring out their lawn chairs and sit and talk while the children played hide-and-go-seek around the neighborhood. Other than the occasional wind storm, gopher-sighting, or overgrowth of a mint plant, we were fairly insulated from the dangers of nature.

And then I got married and moved to the country where nature seems to constantly try and destroy people. To get from Bakersfield to Lake Isabella, you have to drive 40 miles up a windy canyon road where accidents happen at least once a week. Sometimes people drive over the edge. Sometimes rocks or cows fall on their cars. Seriously.

The canyon takes you past the glorious Kern River, which, as a giant sign advertises, has killed over 240 people in the past 40 years. Do the math, people, that's like six people a year! Yet every Labor Day and 4th of July, people from Los Angeles drive up to the river with their families, drink beer, go swimming, and get swept away and killed. The signs are written in English and Spanish, but people ignore them.

On our street, most families own plots of 5 to 15 acres. We can see their houses, but they are pretty far away. There are benefits to having a lot of land. We have orchards, terraced gardens, an above-ground pool, dogs and cats, and room to expand. But every year, after the spring rains, the weeds begin growing and they grow like crazy. We mow them, weed-whack them, hula-ho them, cut them out with shovels, and pull them out by hand. Doing this once for 15 acres is difficult, but not impossible. Once would not be too bad...but a frustrating thing happens once we get them cut...they grow back. So a few months later, we have to do the whole thing again. It might be so frustrating that we give up, except that we have a very powerful motivation to keep the grounds clear: Summer Fires.

Every year in our area, there are brush fires. Usually, the fire department deals with these so well that they never come near people's homes. Up here, the firemen are revered and loved like heroes of old. The survival of our town depends entirely on these brave young warriors and if we forget from year to year how important they are to us, we quickly remember again when walls of flames come too near our homes. However, despite the efforts of our brave warriors, sometimes the fire gets out of their hands and destroys people's homes, especially if they haven't kept their weeds under control.

Having your house burn down is not the only danger of the fires. Sometimes fire season coincides with the summer rain season. A few years ago, we had a fire a few miles up in the hill country past our home. It had burned for weeks and just as the firefighters were finally winning the battle, we had this heavy summer rain. It only lasted about an hour one afternoon, but it was enough. When it hit all that burned land with no plants to stop the erosion, it started a flash flood. Helicopters swirled overhead, screaming warnings at us about the giant wall of water coming down the creek across the street from us.

I've always been a little envious of the people with the creek in their backyard. It's cooler in the summer and they can grow plants more easily than we can being on the hillside, and of course, they have a creek running through their backyard. But that summer, I stopped feeling envious of those people, when the flash flood tore trees down, the creek rose fifteen feet above its usual course, and people's backyards and buildings were swept away. We watched it all safely from the hillside.

There are many different reasons why people live up here in this rural community. A lot of people retire up here and purchase a small plot with a view of the lake. These people are fairly normal. Other people are business owners who like living in a small town. They are also relatively normal. However, other people are like us. We are bordering on freaky. We want to be independent. The land is cheap up here and most people can afford about 15 acres of land on this rocky, weed-filled, unpleasant terrain. We don't worry about the government collapsing or the apocalypse because we have our own water supply, have the capability of growing most of our own food, and we have many many shotguns and rifles.

Some people live up here so they can permanently subsist on welfare. I am not talking about unwed mothers who just need a helping hand for a little while while they care for their children, or families who would normally be employed, but have lost their jobs because of the economy and who need cash aid to survive. They are fairly normal, sort of sad, and will one day no longer require welfare. I don't bedgrudge the help to them because any one of us could be in that position at some point in our lives.

No, I am talking about people who make welfare their entire livelihood for their entire lives. Some of them are pretty freaky. They live in trailer parks, don't wear shirts in the summer, and are often addicted to all kinds of unattractive vices, like chain-smoking, beer-drinking, and other less-than-legal substances. It's amazing how many people up here have pain-management problems who require a constant supply of medicinal marijuana. Or medicinal crystal-meth.

Lake Isabella is kind of a strange place to live, what with nature trying to kill us and all the freaks who live up here. But on the days when the sky is not filled with firesmoke, you can stand on your own property and breathe clean air. There are no cookie-cutter houses up here. I sometimes drive through the suburbs when I visit my parents and I pity the people who live in those little houses. I wonder how they can stand being so close together with no stream nearby or no rocks to climb and no room for a garden. If bears or snakes or freaky neighbors come on my property, I know where the guns are and I know enough to protect myself. It may be wild and scary and barely tamed, but this is my home now and I like it that way.


  1. The KRV is an interesting place to live indeed!

  2. Fascinated - love the sound of where you live, and yes, in England we have the same sort of scary people.

  3. The Kern Valley really is its own world- doesn't really feel like the rest of Southern California.

  4. Sandy I do not know if you got the other post but I really like the part about Nature trying to kill you. That survival of the fittest gets all messed up because of our safeguards. I know I would be out. I did not know there was Medical Crystal Meth.
    Got a good feeling about your home from the writing and maybe I will join you there some day.