The cellular service out here is spotty. The roads a mixture of dirt and gravel.
To call this community, this sparse collection of family farms and cattle ranches nestled between hills that resemble marble rye bread, a “town” seems like a vast overstatement. And it is – I don’t care what the old wooden sign says at the entrance to the Antelope Valley, land that could one day become the floor of a proposed Sites reservoir.
“SITES TOWN SQUARE,” it says, “JOHN SITES, FOUNDER 1887.” Beyond it, there’s only grass.
Everyone around here knows that to find any of the trappings of civilization, you have to drive about 10 minutes east into the town of Maxwell, population 1,100.
Everyone also knows that if the Antelope Valley is indeed turned into a reservoir, as has been talked about for about 50 years, it will be the people of Maxwell, not Sites, who will be affected most.
Sure, it seems counterintuitive. By inundating the valley with 1.8 million acre-feet of water siphoned from the Sacramento River, every landowner in Sites will lose their land. In many cases, that means losing farmhouses where entire families were born, lived and died.
But these owners will be compensated, probably generously, for their land. Many of them also own farms outside the valley that they believe will benefit from the flexibility Sites reservoir will bring to California’s aging, drought-stricken water system. That may be one reason it’s tough to find anyone in Sites who outright opposes building it.
The residents who are left, the hundreds in Maxwell who have gotten used to small-town life and are loath to give it up, are the folks who will have to deal with the consequences of a Sites reservoir.
Will Maxwell turn into a tourist trap, with people drawn to the reservoir for recreation taking over the small town on weekends? Will people build waterfront houses there? Or will Maxwell grow just enough to bring back the businesses it has lost, like the grocery store that closed about seven years ago?
No one knows for sure. And that’s scary.
It took a couple of old ladies to explain that to me. Len Danley and Mary Louie. I met them while they were fussing at each other over when to take a pie out of the oven.
“We’ve got to get your pie,” I overheard Mary saying.
“Oh, yes,” Danley said from her wheelchair. “Help me, will you?”
Their banter, coming from the open door of Danley’s house, was the only sign of life in Maxwell on Wednesday – other than a mangy orange cat sunning itself on the steps of the Colusa County library.
As one might expect in a small town, they invited me, the stranger, inside, offered me a chair, some water, cookies and even a bologna sandwich because it was lunchtime and “you must be hungry.” When I told them I was there to talk to residents, they dug out the phone book – yes, the Yellow Pages – and called everyone they could think of.
They put Midwestern hospitality to shame.
Danley, 90, has lived in Maxwell for more than 30 years. An Ohio native, she lived in Sacramento for a while and moved to the quiet town off Interstate 5 with her late husband. He grew up here, moved away and returned to found a barber shop. The chair is still there, in fact, in the front room of the oldest building in Maxwell, dating to the frontier days of 1848.
Louie, 83, has lived in Maxwell her whole life. Her nephew runs a rice farm and was once offered a fairly big chunk of money to sell land to a developer. The family turned it down. “We were against that,” she said.
Both women have very different opinions about growth and change for Maxwell.
Of Sites reservoir, Danley, says unequivocally: “If you ask me, we’re ready for it. Just get on with it.”
She’s convinced the community won’t change much because she doesn’t believe any new roads to the reservoir will go right through town. And even if they do, she’s not afraid.
“Little towns, you know, we just want to stay the same forever,” Danley said, when Louie stepped out of the room. “I mean, my God. Let’s grow!”
Louie isn’t so sure. If she could keep Maxwell exactly as it is, she would.
She loves living in a town where everyone knows everyone else, where people look out for one another, and where there’s only one gas station, one bank and only one traffic light – and it’s constantly blinking red.
“Maxwell eventually is going to grow,” Louie said, drawing a knowing chuckle from Danley, “but we’re trying to keep it small.”
Both women, like many residents of this farm town, agree that the drought has changed things. They see the benefits of a reservoir more clearly today than they did years ago.
Building Sites seems more likely than it ever has and so the bottom line is, sooner or later, change is coming. Love it or hate it, it’s coming.
Maxwell has made peace with change. So should the rest of California.