When Rachel and I first started planning this trip, we needed an anchor to hold Google Maps in place between Sacramento and Cambridge, Idaho (where we were planning on teaching our first two lessons). So the fourth dot on the map, after those two cities and Yellowstone, was Alturas, a tiny little nothing tucked into the northeast corner of the state, California's final frontier 50 miles from the state border.
And today, that's where we were headed.
We rode up over the hill out of Madeline and straight down into Likely. Took us like 40 minutes to go 12 miles, and we waved to some bike tourists climbing that hill in the other direction.
Likely was a likable little one-street, population in the double digits, fresh coffee on the pot in the back room of the general store. Whole interior smelled a little like sawdust, a little like wood polish, just like the one near my grandparent's house in upstate New York. I bought a carton of Fig Newtons and ate a quarter of them for breakfast. The lady running the store knew everyone by name. She had worked at the elementary school until it shut down.
White-haired guy named Tom started talking to us on the porch in front of the store; he owned the to-go saloon next door and offered us a place to stay. Inside the saloon, dark and musty and full of valuable crap, Tom showed us around: hundreds of dollar bills tacked to the support and ceiling beams ("people passing here to go to Reno put'em up, so they know that on their way back, they have at least a dollar to their name"); the kittens in the kitchen sink.
We had a dot on the map to get to though, and felt compulsed to leave. Ended up we spent 3 hours in Likely. The rest of the ride to Alturas was full of valley views of snow-capped mountains, and we hit our first batch of bad winds heading down the hill into town. Whole place is clearly still pretty hard off after the recession -- store fronts empty, not a lot of folks walking around -- but it had a main street, which we hadn't seen in a week, and two fire departments and three gas stations, maybe four.
We rode down the length of it to the Wagon Wheel, the kind of diner that inspired Denny's. The fish and chips were solid, and we got to talking to a lady at the table over. When the check arrived, all it had on it was the price of the last-minute piece of pumpkin pie we ordered; turns out she bought us our meal. It was the first act of genuine selflessness from a stranger on our trip; we would encounter many more.
After the early dinner, we rode back down main street and tried to find a fire station to stay at, but they were all closed. We headed toward the RV-campground, just off the main drag, but then I spotted a sign that read "Bingo, 6pm" and it was 6:01, so we went on into the veteren's center to gamble. Ages combined, we were still easily the youngest by 20 years. The lady at the table behind us had a rainbow of big round pens, four card holders, and a big red "BINGO" button (think the Staples EASY button). She taught us how to play, so familiar and intense about the game that she had a hard time explaining the different kinds of bingos to us total novices. (There's more than one kind of bingo? Who knew).
At the end of the night, the guy running bingo, lanky and balding who inflected each letter and number call with a great and genuine joy, invited us to stay at his and his girlfriend's place. It was already dark, and we probably could have camped just in the park right there, but a roof is always welcome.
Plus, this meant more adorable cats.