Notes from Home: Away from Home


By Trudy Wischemann

I’ve been away from home for a week, visiting my brother in Dunsmuir, Calif., population 1,600. My memories of this place are few, mostly as a stopover between Washington and California. I’ve driven by it many times, and seen it once from an Amtrak window at night, draped in snow. But Dunsmuir looks different this time, a place my brother calls home.

The upper Sacramento River cuts through the town, having shaped the canyon whose steep sides are laced with curvy streets and antique buildings. The main north-south railroad tracks also cut through town, bearing mostly freight trains. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight slips through quietly twice a day, southbound then northbound, stopping briefly in the wee hours of the morning.

My brother’s home is an old cabin on the far side of the river, nestled against the steep hillside on a small strip of flood plain. It is also on the “wrong side of the tracks,” an expression from our mother’s era. Fires have taken some of the older homes; some have been replaced with expensive, upscale new construction. But most of the houses are modest, built a few steps off the ground with steep-pitched metal roofs to shed snow, and sweet garden-wire or picket fences around tidy gardens. It is an unadorned picture of simpler times.

Life is simpler here in many ways, more difficult in others. Things we take for granted in more populous parts of the state are indulgences here, like stores open after 5 p.m. or all-night gas stations. Most medical services are located elsewhere and police cars are rare. Neighbors have to look out for each other because there’s no one else.

From my brother’s porch, the sound of the river overrides most else. It can be punctuated by a dog barking or the train horns blasting, followed by the ding-ding-ding of the crossing signal, the metallic whine of steel wheels on steel rails and gigantic diesel engines roaring. But the rushing river always takes back the silence, more unrelenting than desert winds.

Dunsmuir instantly felt like home to my brother when he arrived 12 years ago, and it did to me, too, when I got here last week. Surrounded by green vegetation and abundant water, our memories of home in western Washington are tapped and revived. The constant sense of urgency about desiccation, which I’ve had since I moved into the Central Valley, evaporated. And the people here, who my brother instantly perceived as “real,” are also like those we lived among, making livings and homes from what’s locally available more than from corporate offerings and long-distance commutes.

What Dunsmuir shares, unfortunately, with many of our valley towns, is its disconnection from its founding purpose: to serve the people in primary production from the surrounding lands. I’ve seen no logs on passing trains or trucks on I-5 as in the past, only milled lumber coming south from Canada. The trains rarely stop. Traffic from the highway pulls off to shop for antiques and artists’ wares, but leaves with groceries from the little IGA. The money earned from logging the forests is long gone, and what comes from the land now is thinly spread. What is left is a degree of priceless beauty that only the rich — and the poor — can afford.

Trudy Wischemann is a homesick Valley writer on assignment in Heaven. You can send her your ideas about home c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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