March 21, 2013

Oroville, California - The City of Gold

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 fucking 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 energetic 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.

So yes, I moved. I will tell you that story soon. On one of my last days in Oroville, I felt really sick but had to go to town for an errand. Forcing myself out of my usual box, I went to old town (it's still cute and sort of breathing) and bought myself a latte. I then walked around the blocks and photographed some of the buildings - the ghost town memories of a town that once was. It ended up being a nice farewell ritual for me - a peaceful way to seek beauty and say goodbye to someplace for which I held such negativity. All the photos in this post are from that day, that walk with the latte. 

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.


Wow! Stay tuned for a cheerier tale, my friends. This one needed to be told, for my heart, but I will certainly have pictures of pretty spring dresses and cute kid faces for you next time.  Please tell me your own tales of living in sad places, of dammed rivers and forgotten songs. Have you felt that before?


  1. Hauntingly beautiful writing here, Sadie.

    Your photography actually makes the place look pretty!

  2. oh jeez. i can relate in so many ways. i live in red lion, PA. it's a death spiral town, in my opinion. rather than having a low economy here, it instead seems to just not have one at all. empty storefronts and shitty looking buildings are everywhere. the only business here that thrives is the "tavern", which is as old as memory. the idea of fun here is to drink. and then drink some more.
    it's funny, but at one time, this was one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. the town was build up through tobacco and cigar manufacturing (healthy!). there are all these old, stately mansions in certain sections, a throwback to that time of plenty.
    we're looking to get out. searching for the right time and place.
    i loved your writing and photographs and can't wait to see where you're now living.xo

  3. my mom actually grew up in Oroville, and I spent a fair amount of my formative years just down the road in Chico. It is a strange old town, and my mom always mocks her childhood stomping ground as a hick town with no culture, but there is something to be said for the deteriorating beauty of these towns that were once so essential to the American Dream. These shots are beautiful.


  4. in 1974 i spent a 4-5month summer in the black hills and the bad lands. this NA holy land had only been taken over by the white people for 75 years then. wonded knee occupation was only in 1973 so the area was loade with FBI guys, AIM (american indian movnemet) activists all fused with anger. the local white people's favorite past time was drinking and wife beating, more anger.

    the land was some of the most beautiful ever and some of my visual memories are still my favorites ever. but the newness of the takeover and all the hostilities made for bad vibes all around. in september i flew out of SD into CA and have been west ever since.

  5. beautiful shots. thanks for sharing the stories, even when they are hard to tell.

  6. beautiful shots. thanks for sharing the stories, even when they are hard to tell.

  7. I always took a deep breath (which felt like I held it for too long) as I made that last stretch of a drive through Oroville on my way home to Chico. It was like the last challenge to make it home. Just gotta get through Oroville I'd say. When I was 17 I spent three days in Junvenille detention in this town. (yeah I was a lil rebel) it scared the shit out of me and when I was 21 I had a marriage ceremony to my partner at the time on top of Table Mountain (overlooking Oroville) later to have a divorce ceremony in Mt. Shasta. The energy there is so beautiful, so strong, and yet frozen and blocked as you say. Thank you for sharing the history you found, it makes so much sense. Anyways...I also lived in a small bizarre town called Rough & Ready, California. I was there for six months while I was going to Ayurveda College in Grass Valley (also a funny small town, this was my big city). My house was epic, massive and super cheap. We had a fair bit of wild land, a garden and room to spin fire, build a sweat lodge, and other house shenanigans. I shared the place with a D.J., a Jewelery smith (Cabrina Channing, whom you probably know, lover her), a healer, and a Native American family. It was awesome. I actually have nothing bad to say about this town because there was nothing there, really. Just a liquor/convenience store where I'd buy white cheddar popcorn and ginger beer, and a church that had gospel and pancakes on Sunday mornings, and a funny old bronze statue of a miner. oh those old gold rush towns, how I love them and despise them, especially their history of blasting open the mountains for selfish gain. I pretty much just really loved that my address was P.O. Box 5 Rough & Ready, California.

  8. Wow, girl, this is one powerful piece of writing. Having lived in a dead-end town half of my life (I left home when I was 16), I too can relate. A place who's energy is stagnant, unmoving can slowly start killing your soul.

  9. Don't have an account so....but my name is Ariana. Born and raised in this town. Yes seeing places closed and runned down saddens me deeply. But I also try to find the historic places. The places of nature in Cherokee. Places like that are beautiful. Even with the sad history. You take the good and the bad, make the best out of it. I'm damn proud of my 20 years(how old I am) being here.


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