Tim Holt

Viewpoints: Reinvention is key to economic recovery in Siskiyou County

Published: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 8:12 am

Up here in Siskiyou County we're launching a 3-year-long celebration of poet and novelist Joaquin Miller. It's not surprising he's getting all this attention. Miller was a fascinating character, with large and contradictory impulses: a gun-toting desperado who wrote lyrical poetry, a gold miner who railed against the pollution caused by gold mining. He fought Indians and married the daughter of a Wintu Indian chief. Not for him a life of humdrum consistency.

There will be talks by Miller scholars, bus tours to the sites of battles he fought. A life-size replica of a log cabin he inhabited will be on display at a museum on the outskirts of Mount Shasta.

Much will be said about Miller's role as an early advocate for the rights of American Indians, and as an early champion for the environment.

But I think Miller's real relevance for this economically troubled county is that he was one of the first and most celebrated practitioners of the art of self-reinvention, a scrawny teenager who migrated here from Oregon and gradually evolved from renegade outlaw to celebrated man of letters.

That tradition of self-reinvention continues right up to this day, right down to the former Bay Area stockbroker who owns the fly-fishing shop here in Dunsmuir; the ex-banker from San Francisco who owns the hardware store; and the transplanted Long Islander and former carpenter who owns the art gallery in Weed.

Perhaps it's the mountain air, the inspiring sight of vast mountain ranges, with majestic Mount Shasta always looming on the horizon that inspires folks who come here to break out of old molds and carve out new roles for themselves.

Joaquin Miller is getting his second act at a time when our county as a whole needs some serious reinvention, due to the decline of the timber and railroad industries, and I think we can draw some inspiration from Miller's example.

His farsighted views on American Indians and the environment made him unpopular in Siskiyou County in the mid-1800s. He had to travel all the way to London to find success, doing it with his usual pizzazz and gusto. He marketed himself to the English as "The Poet of the Sierras," strolling the streets of London in his sombrero and spurred boots, his red shirt open at the neck. "It helps sell the poems, boys, and it tickles the duchesses," he chortled. His "Songs of the Sierras" flew off the shelves, as did a later novel, "Life Amongst the Modocs."

Miller's style of bold, brash self-reinvention was on display recently at an art gallery opening in Dunsmuir, in the person of a tall, imposing fellow in dark glasses and cowboy hat, sporting a bejeweled, sterling silver chain around his neck. David Gochenour looked as though he'd be equally comfortable strolling the streets of Dodge City or San Francisco. Actually, he's the transplanted Long Islander, the former carpenter and current gallery owner mentioned above.

At the gathering of about 300 art lovers, Gochenour sipped his wine and spoke of his vision of Siskiyou County as "a new Soho." He told me about the "art map" his wife and gallery partner Sharon LoMonaco had drawn up, aiming to get busloads of art lovers to tour the county's galleries the way wine lovers tour the Napa Valley.

Gochenour's ideas about how to market this "new Soho" in the big cities down below are a little vague, but he has the imposing physical presence and the outsize personality that, with a little help from some artist friends and allies, could make his vision a reality.

At best, though, it would only replace a fraction of the jobs lost in the formerly thriving lumber mill and railroad towns of this county, where unemployment is currently at 16 percent.

Gochenour's bold ideas need to be part of a mix that includes further development of recreational tourism and high-tech startups. We already have a new rail-to-trail project near McCloud well under way, and an official map of the county's bike routes is in the works. Even my little alpine town of 1,700 souls has seen a couple of high-tech startups emerge in the past few years.

We need a healthy, diverse approach to our economic reinvention. We've learned what happens when small towns depend on one industry. And we can follow Miller's example by reinventing ourselves with style and gusto, with an outsized sense of swashbuckling fun.

Tim Holt is a freelance journalist and the former editor and publisher of a Sacramento weekly, the Suttertown News.

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