Mount Shasta Vista Thru Time
Wayward efforts of one-time recreational
development to evolve into a functional rural community
Mount Shasta Vista Thru Time
Wayward efforts of one-time recreational
development to evolve into a functional rural community
by Stuart Ward
Last revised January 25, 2023
Note: This six-part article has nothing to do with Stewart Mineral Springs (which independent blog/watchdog site it's under).
It's about writer's longtime home front 20 miles from the Springs, near Pluto Caves, and it needed a home is all.
Shorter versions of parts 1, 2 and 3 first published
in the Mt. Shasta Herald on September 22 and 29, 2021
* * *
The once sleepy, 50 year-old backwoods subdivision of Mount Shasta Vista underwent radical sea change starting in 2015. While the would-be rural community had already jumped down the rabbit hole ages earlier, it would then discover even greater surreal depths as an unsanctioned pot-grow haven. The following insider retrospective by a current, 44 year resident explores where the place has been coming from. It hopes to explain how and why it, well, went to pot -- and on so many levels -- in doing so blending a mostly pre-2015 crazy-quilt of jumping-timeline history with personal love-hate experiences in the peculiar realm and at least semi-informed analysis.
Ward served as a property owners' board member and co-started the Vista's ephemeral official website, online from 2012 to 2014. In 1984 he hosted a controversial quasi rainbow family camp on his parcel. He still brakes for road litter
"...the past is never truly past...it is always tugging up both
its treasures and its tragedies and carrying them insistently into the future."
- Margaret Renkl
Wilderness condos, anyone?
The rustic wooden archway spanning the main entrance at Juniper Drive bore the words “Mt. Shasta Vista” in hand-scrolled, unfinished wood lettering. Surrounded by inviting trees on either side, visitors driving under it might've felt as though they were perhaps entering some enchanted rustic realm.
The sign and trees, both now long gone, imparted a certain grace to the entrance of a rural development begun in the mid 1960s. One felt the love and attention going into its creation. The touch showed how earliest property owners -- then only visiting summers from distant cities -- held a deep affection for their new-found vacation lands secreted away in the high desert foothills, below Mount Shasta's northwestern slope.
In time the place would struggle to segue from its simple recreational land beginnings into a functional residential community. This despite the almost total absence of infrastructure city dwellers took for granted and governing laws insisted on. This lack more than anything kept it from ever making the transformation. Instead, after the evanescent growth of a handful of code-approved homes in the early 70s, it would grow into a kind of permanent, bizarre limbo land, incongruous mix of legal residences and 'unapproved' shelters. As a result it was in perennial hot water with the local powers that be and community at large.
That the shared vacation lands originally hadn't aspirations to be anything more was indicated by its simple CC&Rs. And perhaps by its association status: it was a POA, or Property Owners Association; not an HOA, or Home Owners Association.
Just a Good Sam’s Club out in the boonies, so to speak, an unassuming rural development offering weary city dwellers private campgrounds. Turn-key wilderness condos, as it were.
No water, no electricity, no sewage, no gas lines, no paved roads, no community center, no parks, no playgrounds...no nothing except lots of lots -- 1,640 of them -- and a labyrinthine, 66-mile network of modest cinder roads and signage to access each one.
Called 'ranch roads' by the developer, they were fragile, modest affairs built up of loose rock substrate over often deep sandy soil, with a local volcanic red cinder gravel topping. They were never designed to regularly withstand heavy loads or frequent or fast traffic. A 15 miles-per-hour speed limit was set to help preserve them plus keep the backwoods' relaxed, tranquil atmosphere intact. Ongoing maintenance was covered by an annual mandatory-membership property assessment, informally called road dues.
The realm, situated a few miles uphill and east of Lake Shastina and mostly starting up to a mile off county road A-12, was some fifteen miles from both Weed and Grenada. On the many parcels situated furthest from the blacktop entrance, it could feel more like fifty, what with the land's profound quietude.
The 1,640 lots averaged 2-½ acres each and were flung over seven square miles of mostly juniper trees and sagebrush and a scattering of tall pine. It spanned nearly six miles between furthest points.
The fledgling development flanked national forest on several borders. The square-mile sections had been platted into two giant clumps separated by a mile of Bureau of Land Management land, county highway A-12 between the second, smaller clump of sections 23 and 13, near Pluto Caves and Sheep Rock respectively.
As often happened in rural subdivisions, developers conjured up whimsical imagery to try to tickle the fancies of potential vacation land buyers. Roads often bore evocative names like Lost Mine Road, Zane Gray Drive and Happy Lane. One perhaps harked back to a classic movie line: Rosebud Lane. One was humorous: Frankie Lane. A few were named after saints, as in St. George Drive and St. Mary Road, perhaps giving the development the air of some unlikely Catholic camp retreat.
Born amid controversy,
place was instant problem child
The place officially gave birth November 3, 1965*, brainstorm of Los Angeles area developer George Collins on land he purchased from the pioneering Martin family, which had long laid claim to much of the area. Longtime locals had been grazing livestock on the land, and the region was deemed among the best hunting in the county for over a century. (And before white settlers, Indians seasonally hunted here; writer found a complete obsidian arrowhead on his parcel the very first week.) The story went that when one family member sold the vast acreage to Collins he hadn't first gotten permission from the rest; they were more than a little ticked at him for the perceived nonsense suddenly afoot on their then-lost holding, No doubt they aired their grievances to the region, thus building up community displeasure and even a flinty blanket condemnation of the embryonic development -- years before some of its owners aspired to segue it to a residential retirement hideaway.
* According to the date formal paperwork was filed and stamped in the Siskiyou county courthouse. This was used rather than an earlier date of incorporation, August 18, 1965
Locals grumbled, too, over how their informal rustic backwoods hunting and grazing haven was suddenly closed off just so a bunch of vacationing city folk could lollygag about in fancy Airstream trailers.
Adding to the festering controversy: the county board of supervisors, some perhaps siding with the Martin family's aggrieved members, almost denied greenlighting its formation, ostensibly for lack of water and often rocky land that couldn't support conventional septic systems (should owners ever want to build).
An already contentious situation was well on its way to snowballing out of control.
Then, a few years in a handful of adventurous owners, smitten by the place as a nice one to retire at and enjoy country solitude, began settling on the land. They laid down roots -- each having dutifully drilled an approved well, extended electrical lines and installed regulation septic systems, thus supplying their own infrastructure needs, all before even beginning to build homes to code. It looked like the place had promise for becoming a respectable (if very sparsely settled) community...until, soon after, less solvent people also attracted by the region and irresistibly low lot prices started moving in on the cheap.
That's when things really hit the fan. Code-compliant residents went unhinged. The place's already gnarly spirit, first from outside forces and now from within as well, went into warp drive. The snowball, gaining furious momentum, was growing to such monstrous proportions, it seemed some sort of chaotic polarized energy had emerged to permanently bedevil the realm.
Between teeth-gnashing, code-compliant residents on the warpath over non-compliant neighbors; rebellious non-compliant residents taking the heat and kicking back; disillusioned absentee parcel holders soon stuck with lots they could neither use nor sell; put-upon county authorities in time giving up even trying to enforce health and building codes; and the surrounding community, embittered, viewing the place's inhabitants with jaundiced eye through distorted fun-house mirrors...pile all these up and the place never had (you knew it coming) a snowball's chance in hell.
A vexatious spirit came to infect the rustic realm like an incurable disease. Contentious energy hovered over the would-be serene, high desert woodlands like so many brooding storm clouds forever threatening to rain on the parade of all, dutifully legal and defiantly non-compliant alike.
No matter how many future residents over time might dedicate themselves to try turning things around and redeeming the development's early promise, it seemed the place would never be much more than a stalled-out recreational development that couldn't make the transformation to living community, a place whose compliant residents bore forever frustrated hopes of somehow, some way reclaiming the development's nascent residential promise.
Down the rabbit hole
It appeared the more free-wheeling non-compliant dwellers all merrily jumped down the rabbit hole into their own private world, one the rarefied land energies could so easily inspire. Soon enjoying their own wild Mad Hatter tea parties all but oblivious to the outside world, they'd dismiss as impotent ravings the rants of the Red Queen in the guise of the all but powerless property owners' board and its supporters screaming, "They'll build to code or it's off with their heads!"
Continuing with the Alice in Wonderland analogy: standing in for both the Hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat was, again, the stony spiraling vortex energies of massive Mount Shasta. For the place, clinging to its very foothills, was fully under its sway.
According to one definition, an energy vortex is "a place on earth that acts as a hub for energy...believed to exist at the intersection of ley lines, or lines of natural energy, that make up the earth's electromagnetic energy field." While some went so far as to say they believed Mount Shasta was either the crown or third-eye chakra of the planet, most at least agreed that it indeed appeared to emanate a mysterious and powerful energy.
Being so under the mountain's influence could easily induce wild fantasies, if not outright hallucinations, all but erasing from one's mind notions of society's conventional living modes and their attendant rules. Such mundane-world obliterating propensities and the resulting non-code living scenes cropping up in the Vista naturally sent dutifully code-compliant dwellers ballistic, for they saw their fledgling uptown-rustic dream retirement community in imminent peril. If not stemming the tide by demanding that the county enforce its health and building codes, all their efforts would be for naught, their nascent idyllic retirement village promptly sinking to wrack and ruin. So, at the Red Queen's behest, they mobilized and summoned the Card Soldiers in the guise of the county health and building departments -- sometimes accompanied by a deputy, should a situation maybe threaten to get gnarly -- to try to restore law and order in the Vistan wonderland.
Over time, such vigilant efforts would prove increasingly unsuccessful.
So, despite what had appeared to be a tenuously auspicious start as a popular shared vacation land, and, soon after, a respectable rural retirement enclave, its sea of often-pristine parcels ended up being an oil-and-water mix of code-approved homes and non-compliant 'outlaw' dwellings -- plus the occasional die-hard camping retreat visitor hoping to avoid all the downer polarized politics and simply enjoy the land as originally intended.
Snared between worlds, an unwanted child lacking sufficient 'parental' support from the county, frozen in time and nursing a serious identity crisis, the realm appeared destined to be denied ever finding a rightful place in the sun.
Emboldened by realm's remoteness
Despite the host of initial handicaps that predated the initial trickle of lot owners settling their parcels -- and beyond the disinterested speculators hoping to make a buck and those content to just camp on their lots every now and then -- the cheap parcels attracted land-hungry people. There were always those seeking affordable property to live on cheaply. While some would, perforce, be willing to conform to code, if grudgingly (like writer), others had more of a rebellious "What code? You gotta be kidding; I don't need government's permission to build on my own friggin' land" frame of mind.
The succeeding waves of the latter were emboldened by three things: the place's remote locale, making it feel like its own little kingdom somehow removed from twentieth century realities; its mostly abandoned original purpose, creating enough confusion, chaos and uncertainty to take ready advantage of; and, over time, an increasingly thin residential code enforcement by the county, despite the solid core of code-compliant dwellers and the all but powerless property owners board forever screaming bloody murder.
Casual owner-builders -- dubbed "code violators", "illegal residents", and in time perhaps the unkindest cut of all, 'squatters' -- first moved in with an unconcerned air of "Hey, what's the big deal? we're just building a little shelter for ourselves on our own land out in the middle of nowhere; c'mon." In time, others -- knowing something of the place's code-conformity battle but also the increasingly spotty enforcement -- went on the offensive and moved into unconnected trailers and mobile homes or started building with more of an openly defiant, brazen attitude of either "Hee, hee, what're you goin' to do about it, huh?" or a screaming eagle "Hey, this was still America the last time I checked; this is my land and I can do whatever I damn well please, so back the hell off; my place is protected by Smith and Wesson."
Over time, non-code construction became fitfully epidemic, structures springing up like mushrooms after a good rain. It was as though the place had time-warped back to the pioneer era's wild west, when great plains settlers built primitive earth-sheltered soddies and forest settlers threw together simple log cabins. As if late in the twentieth century it had almost magically become a new frontier, far removed from modern times and all its dratted spirit-stifling regulations on how one as a law-abiding citizen was expected to live on their land.
Eventually, some scofflaws -- feeling light years distant from responsive law enforcement except for gravest matters -- came to deem themselves a law unto themselves.
Buy in Haste...
No doubt many impulsive first buyers, among those interested in actually using the land themselves, were at best no more than vaguely aware of the place's sundry initial handicaps and liabilities, any number of which no doubt turned off your more circumspect land shopper. They were giddy over the prospect of getting such a generous-sized piece of unspoiled woodlands in such a popular recreational region at such a dirt cheap price. Eureka! The parcels proved so irresistible that any normally felt need for doing due diligence seemed to fly out the window; parcels were snapped up like so many bargain basement steals. Before the place's sundry disheartening mundane realities at last percolated into grey matter, new owners spun their excited dreams and schemes how they'd live on their new secluded woodland property.
It appeared that many, given the choice rural location and low price, were willing to make generous allowances for the almost total absence of infrastructure. While this of course presented little to no problem during the initial years of mere camping and retreat use, it was flirting with sure disaster when would-be residents rolled the dice and began casually settling on parcels without seeking anyone's approval beyond their own and flirting with primitive, year-round-camping lifestyles.
Onerous building code & the owner-builder
Unsanctioned building increased as more buyers, though bent on settling their lots, lacked the resources and/ or interest in committing to building a shelter that met code requirements. Some considered them ridiculously over-complicated and needlessly costly, as if perhaps they only reflected the cushy living standard of the more affluent strata of society and the desire to make everyone dance to their tune. Hoping to avoid such stringent codes -- and the inflated lifestyles of would-be upward mobiles, always tempted to live beyond their means and so often drowning in debt -- was often the very reason people moved out to the country in the first place: to get back to basics, live more simply within one's means, debt-free.
It was one thing to have reasonable guidelines in place to keep flimsy owner-built structures from blowing over in the first strong wind and ensure critical hygiene standards, quite another to insist one living out in the middle of nowhere overbuild by a safety factor of five, install double-glazed windows, super-insulate roof, put in fire sprinkler systems...
In the 1970s there was an effort by a group of outraged Mendocino County rural owner-builders to establish less onerous requirements. It resulted in then-governor Jerry Brown approving a Class K housing bill, specifically with such owner-builders in mind. But it got watered down in 1981 by an apparently construction-industry friendly assembly, it being left each county's to adopt or not. Only three did; Siskiyou county wasn't one. Its building department, at home dealing with contractors who knew the score in their sleep, was more or less owner-builder hostile, not wanting to hold the hand and guide rank amateur builders in the myriad ways to conform. They assumed (not always without cause, given the code's impossibly elaborate, pricey requirements) that many such owner-builders would try to 'cheat' on the code whenever they could.
While such draconian requirements discouraged earlier would-be code compliant builders, in later times the scofflaw attitude would emerge towards building your own rural shelter however you fancied, not even thinking of getting any county authority's blessing. It became almost as popular as playing "cops and growers" would be later. Bound and determined to live on their new property and figuring possession was nine-tenths of the law, such Vistans' attitude, again, essentially became, "Hey, this is my property, I'll do whatever I want."
...regret at leisure
Over time an intense love-hate relationship with the water-shy parcels emerged among a multitude of Vista's parcel holders. Especially the minority hoping to actually settle their lots. It was "Buy in haste, regret at leisure". The sad, familiar song: one was lured by cheap rural development parcels that had little or no infrastructure and so, to avoid being hassled, required a small fortune to make it legal to live on. For the same reason the lots became an albatross around the necks of speculators, since they were longer optimal recreational properties once homes went up around them and they were unable to sell them at a profit to anyone knowing the score, which didn't take much digging to suss.
It was a buyer remorse pattern destined to be repeated by thousands over time.
But the subtle magic and simplicity of the tranquil backwoods -- under protective presence of the magical mountain and so feeling worlds away from noisy, over-wound city living -- kept grabbing would-be residents (and investors, thinking to flip parcels fast, moving them up the food chain). And kept blinding them to the more mundane concerns like then-enforced, steep residency requirements. Until out of the blue it bit them on the ass.
Lots practically sold themselves
In fairness to the developer, parcels initially were sold ONLY as private camp lands. They were places of simple retreat for weary city dwellers wanting to rough it and vacation on the largely pristine parcels every now and then. George Collins had maybe sensed he needn't invest any more time, money and effort into the project than he did, creating simple wilderness condos, in order to move the platted lots.
If so, he was right. It appeared enthusiasm over the chance to spend summers amid the solitude of one's own affordable piece of Californian high-desert woodlands, majestic Mt. Shasta watching over the scene big as life, was so contagious that with the help of a little sizzling ad copy the lots practically sold themselves. Again, one suspects a clear majority snapped up parcels entirely or mostly as investments, some maybe intending to sample their 'wilderness time-share' themselves before selling at a decent profit sometime down the road once the place grew in popularity.
No infrastructure besides a reliable nearby water source was really needed for the original city-fleeing visitors. They were psyched at the prospect of roughing it on their backwoods parcels, getting back to basics, making like bears in the woods for a while if need be. As far as things went everything was hunky dory. One had the convenience and luxury of camping on their very own piece of largely unspoiled nature for free up to 30 days a year rather than pay someone daily to camp with others maybe setting up twenty feet away with a passel of squalling kids. A mini-movement was afoot -- many coming from the Los Angeles region, also some from the Bay Area and Central Valley -- to pitch tents or roll in travel trailers to the Vista's inviting seclusion.
The terrain was high desert woodlands, with low precipitation and hot summers. Plenty of junipers trees and a few pines provided welcome shade, though. The mountain’s spectacular, northern glacier-clad side did wonders helping keep one cooler just by gazing at its chilled splendor.
"Bye 'n' bye" came fast
Significantly, it seems developer Collins couldn't resist throwing out the idea of the primitive lots maybe becoming a nice place to retire to "bye 'n' bye." He relayed this notion in passing in the official Vista newsletter sent to every member and avidly read by excited new owners of the charmingly low-key wilderness parcels, so nicely tucked away at the central top of the state, with the regal natural crown of Mount Shasta watching over and offering blessings.
Since practically next door Lake Shastina would spring up a couple years later (initially as a second-home community), it assured that bye 'n' bye wouldn’t be long at all. It gave a handful of so-minded Vistan land holders strong impetus to follow suit, but with a twist: building structures not as second residences but, like Collins suggested, as primary-residence retirement homes. Existing in the region's 'banana belt' along with Lake Shastina, it got far less snow than nearby Weed and Mt. Shasta. Usually it was just enough to enjoy a winter wonderland without getting a sore back shoveling the white stuff or having to put on chains to get out on never-plowed roads. (Long ago they tried plowing after a rare heavy snowfall, but the equipment blade tore up the cinder roadbeds so badly, requiring expensive and laborious repair work, that it proved woefully impractical.)
Con su permiso:
dealing with the building code
Of course it was understood that it'd be on each would-be resident to shell out to have power lines extended to their lots (or kick into the one-time power fund, covered in part 5), drill an approved well, and install a proper septic system -- all before the county would deign to issue one a home building permit, only then allowing a parcel holder the option to live on the land in a temporary onsite trailer or shed during construction. (And only then would the post office assign the lot a legal address to be able to receive mail at the blacktop entrance, such an address being needed for things like obtaining a state drivers license, registering to vote and qualifying for FedEx and UPS deliveries.)
This could happen only on department approval of submitted building plans that met stringent health and building code standards. These included thorough specifications for, among other things, a permanent foundation; framing method with specifications down to the exact grade and variety of lumber, size, type and spacing of what kind and size fasteners; a minimum structure size; electrification, insulation, and full kitchen facilities and indoor plumbing. Any unconventional design required hiring a qualified engineer to certify any submitted plans as structurally sound. Most early Vista owner-builders, having hired others to do most or all the construction, didn't move onto their properties until their houses were completed and given the official county blessing, being signed off after final inspection and thus 'green-tagged'.
While the Uniform Building Code had been around in the U.S. since 1915, enforcement was no doubt relaxed to nonexistent in most of the nation's rural areas at first. Primary focus initially was on crowded cities with its close-packed structures, built by detached contractors who'd never live in their creations and were tempted to take unsafe shortcuts that could result in tragedy for eventual inhabitants. Out in the country, property owners could still leisurely build their own cabins and cottages to suit themselves, maybe even play it by ear to their heart's content, finished design only emerging half-way through, if even then. But with bureaucratic regulations' tendency to be adopted by ever greater numbers over time, until victoriously universalized, authorities eventually came to try insisting that the same exhaustive guidelines be followed deep in the furthest reaches of sparsely populated, mostly rural Siskiyou County.
Priced to move
Parcels were priced to move. Writer seems to remember reading how they went for between $750. and $975. each, depending on parcel size, location and features. The developer had relatively low overhead, and it appeared he wasn't out to get rich off the project. He appeared to have a genuine affection for the land, and wanted the lots to be irrresistibly affordable to better enjoy for having gotten lots at such a steal. (He was no doubt already quite successful from urban developments and so could afford to be generous.) There were no steep infrastructure costs beyond putting in and maintaining red cinder roads (many traced over preexisting logging and hunting roads), Entrance and section corner signs were created ,and short, 4X4 inch, wooden road-sign posts with stenciled lettering planted, many soon to be camouflaged by fast-growing sagebrush.
No doubt all kinds of people bought the lots for all kinds of reasons. But countless were snapped up in pure speculation: "Hey, they're not making any more land." Many buyers would never camp on them, some no doubt never even see them. Though a fair number of buyers were no doubt psyched at the prospect of enjoying their own private campground and/or maybe seeing them as something to leave the grand kids, others -- arguably the overwhelming majority -- were basically just betting on the place. They anticipated making out like bandits if and when the place grew and got itself together to become something like, say, a giant KOA-style camp village, loaded with amenities and services and attracting a flood of vacationing campers tickled by the idea of owning recreational property by fabled Mount Shasta.
That or, as instead happened, it segued into a de facto rural community...one that might've actually succeeded and thrived, indeed driving parcel prices sky high, had every would-be resident taken on the responsibility of getting their own infrastructure needs met and built to code.
But that was something only people ridiculously flush with cash from selling pricey city homes, having a big nest egg of savings, or a willingness (and eligibility) to take on a major debt load could do, along with having the mindset to deal with the long, drawn out hoop-jumping process. Understandably, it didn't find much approval among less solvent people also attracted to the otherwise eminently affordable, unspoiled lands -- people who wanted to move onto their lots right away, instant home, sweet home (or why buy it?). They maybe only had enough to cover the modest down and secure some aging mobile home or trailer or maybe throw up a makeshift shelter on the fly and call it okey dokey.
It seemed cheap land and cheap shelters could often go together.
Of course, earliest investors didn't anticipate this major wrinkle of a soon-to-emerge epidemic of noncompliance. Between hearing about or seeing the first batch of fully code-conforming homes springing up and developer Collins talking up a rosy picture for the place's future, they naturally assumed everyone would build to code.
Convinced they'd made a smart investment, they waited patiently for parcel values to soar.*
* They'd only have to wait a half century. Parcel values finally went through the roof starting in 2015. Values of unimproved lots skyrocketed from $5,000 to over $150,000 by 2021, following the national red-hot realty market, and were selling like hotcakes, for reasons totally unrelated to any infrastructure build-up, still almost nil. The startling phenomenon seemed in keeping with the extreme boom-bust nature of the place that -- due to factors beyond the scope of this writing -- caused unimproved lot prices to plummet back down by 2022, when lots would again find few takers at $12,000 to 20,000. ("Price reduced $80,000.") The place's extreme boom-bust nature might be compared to a bone-dry desert that got a brief flash flood every decade or two, a deluge of land-hungry people and/or cagey speculators descending on the region and driving up prices or trying to, then the land quickly returned to bone-dry conditions.
In the Vista's late sixties' beginning, every lot was snapped up in 18 months. This fact belies a later assumption that the developer was somehow stuck with parcels nobody wanted. It was, instead, the hundreds of subsequent absentee owners and those they sold them to who got saddled with the often charming but problematic lots.
Few felt stuck with them during those momentous first years, though. They were exciting times'; an enthusiastic back-to-nature movement was going full tilt. Buyers of all sorts were jazzed at the prospect of owning an unspoiled bit of nature in one of California's popular recreational regions. Vacationers -- and soon, residents -- saw in the sprawling, simple development a veritable backwoods Shangri-la.
Feeling euphoric over discovering such an affordable, relatively pristine wonderland with million-dollar views, it seemed most everyone was merrily tumbling down the rabbit hole.
The Vista Thru Time
Continued sussing of a wayward development
Mt. Shasta Vista was, well, different
In some ways the Vista was different from other rural subdivisions of the region that formed around the same time: Lake Shastina (3,200 lots, started in 1968); McCloud area’s Shasta Forest (791 lots, launched in 1966); and possibly Hornbrook region’s KRCE (2,050 lots, founded in 1967).
One important difference: the Vista, born as a simple recreational development, never hammered out any master plan for residential growth. Its CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions) were basic and general. Once the place switched gears, such a plan would become crucial if hoping to provide an avenue for building out the land with some rhyme and reason, guardrails to steer the development in an agreed on direction by firstcomers, subsequent board members and other involved owners. It could've create,d among other things, legal powers for the governing board (admittedly a two-edged sword) to fine owners for infractions to the agreed on arrangement and put a binding lien on one's land title for chronic nonpayment.
Barring that and any detailed overarching plan for residential growth, the place would constantly struggle to swim upstream in heavy currents, its de facto efforts by its eventual dwellers to segue from a recreational to a residential one were forever an exercise in futility.
With so many parcel owners absentee and seldom if ever visiting, from the start it seemed many were speculating on the actions of the few -- initially those owners who'd actually vacationed here and later dropped anchor and were naturally inclined to pitch in and try to further the embryonic, would-be community. Meanwhile, the former would just sit back and let things progress and then at some point cash in, making a nice chunk of change for their troubles.
But holders were destined to lose heart in droves not long after the one brief burst of development growth. Visiting owners and new residents had pulled together to establish an informal community well, including spigot access and a huge holding tank with a giant overhead valve for filling water trucks, serving both campers and initially well-less home builders; Collins sold the association a water truck for a dollar. Then about the same time many paid into a fund to get power lines extended to, as it would turn out, serve the first few dozen parcel holders who'd committed to settling in and building to code (more on this in part 5). Also, a long mobile in which to hold legally required monthly board meetings was pulled in.
Then group efforts apparently ran out of steam.
Once owners built the first few county sanctioned homes, the place was, momentously, shifting from mere shared camp land to actual, growing community, albeit one spread so incredibly thin amidst the vast wooded acreage that such residences could appear surreally misplaced. Former interest in enjoying parcels for camping vacations no doubt nosedived overnight; the prospect of pitching a tent within view of someone's living room window couldn't have been enticing.
Soon, with 'outlaw' residents flooding the scene, the realm's identity and purpose (and sense of legitimacy) got even more muddled. It was becoming neither fish nor fowl. Without updating the CC&Rs and every would-be resident toeing the line to meet rigorous health and building codes, made difficult for the pronounced lack of any easier water and ability to install normal septic systems, the place found itself at a seemingly insurmountable impasse. It would feel stymied at every turn in efforts to grow into any sort of standard, recognized community...or even the remotest facsimile thereof.
For whatever it was worth, at one point the association actually did get itself together so far as to have volunteer block captains. They'd keep up with the goings on in their respective sections, being informed of sundry matters by other section residents, then relayed reports to board members to appraise at meetings and deal with if action seemed warranted. This phase of more organized local government showed that, despite an unfortunate set of circumstances creating enormous static, there could be some sense of community and cohesion among the residency (even if it was maybe mostly to try to keep a lid on health and building code violations). But this didn't last. Dwellers' search for stable, viable community seemed to be largely frustrated.
In the long run the development's relatively few residents increasingly found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea.
White elephant that time soon forgot
As a result of the impressive series of converging snafus, outside interest in the wayward development would flatline for decades. Since it had outgrown its originally planned use but then stalled trying to segue into something more (by accepted standards), parcel values were lucky to keep up with inflation.
The place became an unmanageable white elephant of decidedly odd lots, more trouble than they were worth trying to move in the minds of some regional realtors.
It was perhaps not unlike other mostly failed rural subdivisions that California developers would hatch over time -- like the controversial 15,287 one-acre lots of California Pines outside Alturas; or California City, "America's Largest Abandoned City," 204 square miles, all platted and with roads in, out in the treeless Mojave Desert. The arrested rec-land of Shasta Vista was similarly frozen in time, just another place time passed by and soon forgot.
This suited most of the few actual few residents just fine. Dwellers relished the rich solitude and park-like setting. But it was terrible for speculators. They found it hard to impossible to sell holdings having nothing more going for them to entice would-be buyers than fabulous views and cheap lots. Lands were longer optimal for camping yet required a huge outlay if wanting to stay more than 30 days a year and remain legal. Not without being made to feel like squatters on their own property, that is, risking getting the bum's rush by a hornet's nest of spitting-nails-mad, code-compliant neighbors forever on the warpath over such 'instant homesteaders' ruining their one-time conservative retiree Shangri-la.
It didn't help sales efforts that the place had, from its very start, already gained a reputation for being a difficult development, one resented by locales and problematic to county government.
"Just a matter of time"
Many parcel owners doggedly held onto their apparent boondoggles, even so. They doubled down, determined not to lose their shirts. Possibly in denial, they just couldn't believe their parcels wouldn't become more valuable some day. After ages, finally convinced the place appeared to have zero chance of ever getting itself together, many would at last bite the bullet.
Raw parcels flooded the market as they scrambled to unload the clunkers.
But there were often few takers. Even with a modest $1,200 to $1,500 asking price. Those who did snap them up were often themselves only disinterested professional investors making small side bets on the place's future or parking a bit of extra cash a while, knowing that the right suc -- er, client would eventually come along and generate a small sales commission. Most other buyers were uninformed investors infected with the latest fitful round of amateur speculation fever.
Beyond such fitful speculation, though, were those who actually wanted to move onto the secluded land, often on a shoestring. To them the lots were pure catnip. Some were eager to secure cheap country land and make like Thoreau, living simply and letting the rest of the world go by. Others were just looking for an easy place to hide out a while on a piece of land they could call their own and avoid paying rent, even if it meant downscaling their living standard to a more basic level. Both hauled in old mobile homes and trailers, set up tents, and/or fashioned little shelters, hoping the powers that be would let them be.
Round and round
And so the mirage of the Mt. Shasta Shangri-la, a place forever deemed undervalued and under-exploited, kept proving itself irresistible to all sorts. It seduced detached speculators and would-be residents alike, for different reasons, and the pattern continued.
Sporadic cycles of short-lived buying mania followed by long-term absences of any interest whatsoever became the Vista dance. After decades, hundreds of the parcels were -- apart from a few campfire stone rings and driveways roughed in, sometimes an outhouse -- still clinging to their relatively pristine states. This the result of the ephemeral fantasies soon abandoned, a long succession of initially jazzed owners and casual small investors over time losing all interest in the lots or belief in their profitability. Some parcels no doubt would change hands a half a dozen times or more over the place's first half century.
As said, the massive mountain was believed to emanate some kind of powerful force. It was thought by some to over-stimulate a person's upper chakras if one wasn't any better grounded. So people coming from distant urban places, where lower-chakra energies dominated and upper chakras often languished, suddenly had their atrophied imaginations wildly activated. Under the mountain's spell the mind reeled, bursting with excited visions and fantasies of what all one would do on their new, secluded properties.
It was California Dreamin' full tilt.
The forlorn development spun round and round on its own short-boom-long-bust merry-go-round. Riders reached out for the elusive brass ring of easy country living or fast profit, while realtors, trying to make their nut moving less prestigious, low-end properties, supplied the calliope's shrill, hypnotic melody.
Stymied by disinterested speculators
It can't be stressed enough: seriously vying with water scarcity, lack of a residential development plan and the high cost and effort of residential code compliance as causal factors for the place becoming a stillborn, would-be community was the widespread disinterested speculative force of the great majority of absentee property owners. It would act to undermine even the most determined efforts of whatever civic minded residents there were to move the place forward onto any semblance of more solid footing. All other problems aside, how could the Vista grow with any rhyme or reason with so many of the 90% absentee ownership harboring investor remorse and indifference to the notion of even lifting a finger to help the floundering boondoggle of a place stabilize?
Nickel and dimed
Those who'd opted to keep the soon largely unsaleable parcels, despite all, along with the latest round of new, soon disillusioned parcel holders, felt saddled with property in a dead-in-the-water development. Not another blessed cent would they fork over beyond the mandatory association's annual property assessment (most of which, again, went to cover road maintenance), and annual county property taxes. As it stood, the former was often paid only amid much kicking and screaming, whines of "I don't even live there to drive on the roads, so why should I pay for their upkeep?" all too common.
The owner assessment (for what it was worth), was worlds cheaper than other regional rural subdivisions. When the writer arrived ages ago, it was only about $20. a year. (By 2021 it would grow to $219; while having become a bit ouchy, it was still far cheaper than others.) No matter. They felt nickel-and-dimed to death. Shook down for the latest assessment each fall, one imagined they felt something akin to mobile home owners in trailer parks, structures theirs but forever having to pay rent on the space they perched on lest they be grabbed through foreclosure process.
Some suspected it was all little more than a racket.
Left for dead
Perhaps predictably, due to the many absentee parcel holders' disenchantment with the arrested development -- "left for dead" in realtors' stark slang parlance -- the association suffered a spate of late payments and nonpayments. Sp the wording on statements got testy over time, key words in large bold letters defying being ignored: PAY WITHIN 30 DAYS TO AVOID SEVERE PENALTY OR FORECLOSURE. The place had obviously fallen away from its once positive, touted visions of enjoying carefree vacations on your own special lands; it was taking on an all-business, hard edge as it struggled to keep enough dues coming in to cover the constant maintenance needs of its endless cinder roads.
Perversely, such chilly exhortations only seemed to encourage some to finally blow off paying altogether. They're daring me not to pay, huh? Well, maybe I'll just take them up on that; hell, they can have their damn parcel back...worthless piece of crap; why I ever bought it I'll never know; 'Impossible Acres' might've been a more appropriate name...mumble grumble...
As more people moved in and the 66 miles of cinder roads got more and more wear, the one-man road crew was soon unable to maintain all of them -- not up the immaculate zen standards of earlier years that had made the roads so pleasant to drive over (and so inviting for mischievous kids to make deep donuts in on their dirt bikes). Regardless, one good gully-washer of a rainstorm could wash away the cinder topping and cut hazardous mini canyons on downhill stretches of road even if they had just been groomed the day before.
This is turn caused various owners to protest paying for roads that weren't kept up -- leastwise not theirs -- the lion's share going to the most heavily trafficked and problematic -- like the steep uphill stretch of Perla Road in the front of section 13. Some sparsely settled regions might not see the road truck for over a decade, sometimes only then because some visiting owner had driven hundreds of miles to vacation only to get stuck in deep sand on the home stretch and was forced to call a tow truck. Rightly furious, they held the association board's feet to the fire, demanding they cover the towing bill. This would at last stir the board to address various neglected roads in the furthest, least visited hinterlands.
Such problems didn't help making for happy campers.
This in dramatic contrast to the very first owners, relishing visits to the land and, later, those who actually moved onto them. Spirits were high and optimistic for being the extraordinary late '60s-early '70s, when waves of spirit-infused euphoria might, out of nowhere, wash over one even if the only drug of choice was aspirin or a good stiff martini.
Raise high the roof beam, carpenters
As said, many Vista lots were fairly pristine. Some had old rotting stumps from lumberman Abner Weed’s harvesting the area’s mature pines in the early twentieth century. And the bulldozing needed to make new networks of roads of course marred the land. (KRCE was born similarly, recycling tree-harvested lands into rec lots to solitude-hungry city folk.)
Even so, many parcels felt enchanted to all who could appreciate the land's subtle charm and beauty,who didn't need towering trees and crystal streams to embrace nature. The land possessed inviting groves of mature junipers, riots of colorful wildflowers in spring and early summer, occasional stands of pines, and dramatic rock outcroppings mountain lions once perched on (writer witnessed this once) and groups of deer wandered through.
All lent select areas something of a rarefied, dreamy atmosphere. It could feel like a place where time stood still.
Fresh high-desert air, balmy sunshine, profound quietude and a giddy sense of freedom for being in secluded back country, air like wine...all combined to inspire early repeat vacationers visiting from afar. Enough to eventually inspire some to chuck city life altogether and retire here to enjoy the tranquility and seclusion of country living full-time. After living on tiny, nature-starved city lots for so long, they'd suddenly be able to luxuriate in the bounty of woodlands and country solitude year round. The place would become a Shangri-la for every nature-loving retiree making the bold leap and having the bucks to build.
Legend has it that the very earliest comers -- among them, one building on White Drive, another on Heinzelman -- hadn't even needed building permits to construct their simple cabin or full-on home. If true, this maybe set a precedent energetically for subsequent owner-builders to feel they needed only their own permission to build. And the building department was stuck forever playing catch-up, saying in effect, "Hey, you do need a permit now...no, we mean it... really."
No more sketchy subdivisions
Between 1970 and 1972 California passed a flurry of landmark regulations for subdivision formation. “...[A] new attitude of comprehensive planning and environmental protection emerged,” noted realty attorney James Longtin. The Vista had barely gotten in under the wire before vast regulatory changes would make it impossible to any longer spin out such bare-bones, quick-buck rural developments.
From then on developers would be required to make legally binding commitments to provide all basic infrastructure...plus, over time, they or owner association directors would need to spring for public improvements like parks, playgrounds and community centers. It seemed our place, though grandfathered in under earlier, worlds more lax requirements, would come to feel intense pressure from the county -- in turn under the gun of the state -- whenever a law-abiding owner wanted to actually build an approved shelter on their one-time camp parcel.
As said, would-be homesteaders had to jump through all kinds of complicated, time-consuming, expensive hoops to earn the right to live on their secluded lots..the first and perhaps most daunting being before anything else to bring in an approved well. Often a fairly deep one. Sometimes a really deep one -- hopefully. (Or share one with up to four adjacent neighbors.) This, and oftentimes also having to pay to get power lines strung to one's property to power the well pump and provide go juice for construction needs.
Who’d want to live in the middle of nowhere anyhow?
Maybe county officials had crossed their fingers, hoping there'd never be any who for some strange reason actually wanted to live on their raw, bone-dry lots out in the middle of nowhere. Each new building permit okay-ed would mean several long time-consuming drives out to inspect and sign off the numerous completion stages, and they had better things to do.
And latter residents surely had better things to do than dubiously work on building community. They were there to do their own thing, be left alone, and would only reluctantly try to work together. Any vision beyond the usual volunteer fire department, rummage sales and such often just didn’t seem to go with the dirt-cheap lots with near-zero infrastructure. One paid dearly for those added features in fully developed subdivisions -- paved roads, electricity, water, gas, sewage, security, fire department... When you bought land cheap, expectations for any kind of actual community were low to nonexistent.
Except of course for Vista’s cash-rich, starry-eyed pioneers. They'd been duly smitten by the region’s charm, enough to invest their time, fortunes and fondest hopes. They'd been psyched at the prospect of informally working together to forge an enviable rustic hideaway retirement community. A place far from the madding crowd. As a song lyric went, they wanted to believe they were “...going where the living is easy and the people are kind."
Kind of something, anyhow, as it would turn out.
The Vista Thru Time
Further reflections on a
squirrelly development's first 50 years
"Welcome all! vs. "up the drawbridge!"
Many new residents felt blessed. Swept up in the joy of service and the grand pioneering adventure of it all and living in the bosom of nature as they were, some were only too glad to share their good fortune with new arrivals (like writer), even if they were nowhere near as solvent. They offered cheerful assistance however they could, wanting to see their fledgling backwoods community grow and flourish.
Often the friendlier souls were second-generation residence owners. As such they hadn't experienced the ordeal of complying with onerous health and building codes and so were sometimes more relaxed and live-and-let-live on such matters with newcomers. More sociable than later, reclusive-minded dwellers that often seemed to dominate the realm, they were genuinely happy to have new neighbors populating the backwoods region they now called home.
Not so others; they were a tad less egalitarian. They wanted to pull up the drawbridge post haste. They'd erect snarly warning signs everywhere to try to keep the riff-raff out. They’d majorly bank on Siskiyou county residential-code enforcement to protect their rural outpost from getting overrun by any so brazen as to try moving in on the cheap. Especially revved-up younger folks of decidedly more modest means. Most especially pot-smoking hippie and beer-guzzling biker types they'd hoped to have forever left behind in the cities.
They knew in their bones such buyers were worlds away from ever willingly embracing their convention-locked, dutifully law-abiding, decidedly retiring ways...and thus their flinty insistence that people earn the right to live on the land, just as they had, by first meeting all health and building code requirements no matter what the cost.
Many had naturally become alarmed -- and soon unhinged -- as various and sundry new property owners started moving onto their new raw parcels in sundry tents and trailers, hanging their hats and figuring they were home. Many newcomers didn't seem to care a bit what the existing residents thought about their sudden presence or the county ordinances they were either pointedly ignoring or in blissful ignorance of. It seemed that being out in the middle of nowhere on secluded land could dull one's perception of any need to conform to the convoluted claptrap of city-centric health and building codes. The growling "No this, no that" signs were dismissed as a pure bluff.
When being reminded otherwise, through unpleasant confrontations with furious code-compliant residents and all-business county code enforcers, it did little to make them want to conform, perhaps not even if some could afford to. Many of the first residents seemed so set in their conventional ways, trying to maintain what had become something of a La-la-land-ish, country club enclave, that it invited the more free-minded, often far less solvent, land buyers scoping the tight-wound scene to say screw 'em; they'd take their chances.
So it happened that many such firstcomers -- those who'd diligently dotted every I and crossed every T, making substantial investments in time, sweat and money, fully expecting residency requirements to be followed by any and all future would-be residents -- went nuts. Their one-time conservative, exclusive, safe-haven backwoods retirement community was in imminent danger of turning into its own madding crowd. And many of those of lesser means -- nurturing fond hopes of finally living the good life in the country on the cheap but no heart to buck the system -- would have their dreams dashed to smithereens.
Home in the country
By the early 1970s, after the first wave or two of settlers came following the few late sixties' early birds, a sprinkling of maybe thirty or so year-round residences dotted the landscape. Momentum growing, various and sundry lept at the chance to make the Vista’s affordable boonies their home too. It appeared the notion of not just visiting but actually living in nature was catching on. “Head for the hills, brothers!” was the clarion call of the times as more and more city-weary souls joined a burgeoning back-to-the-land movement.
But with the Vista having no master residential plan or any kind of handle on residential development -- the place instead having more an air of an Oklahoma land rush -- excited new arrivals of all stripes were winging it, flying blind. The land experienced fitful bursts of shelter construction, some to code, some not, sounds of hammering and whining circular saws filling the woodlands. Writer guesstimates that by the mid seventies maybe some sixty to eighty residences of varying degrees of ambition and code compliance had cropped up among the junipers and sagebrush. The place seemed to be spontaneously evolving, everyone playing it by ear in a merry mad scramble, each intent on getting their own living scene established. With so many hypnotized by the land once attracted by its affordability, a wonderland at increasing variance with mundane reality with all its rules and regulations began to thrive...despite the most dedicated efforts of the cadre of livid code-compliant residents.
It's unknown if some of the heavily invested first wave ever gave thought to trying to get the CC&Rs revised by a law firm (if indeed it was even possible; not sure, writer's no lawyer). Conceivably this might've enabled a more orderly growth of a standard community, one in which it was fully spelled out and well understood that each would-be resident, before doing more than visit, would put in an approved well or share one with adjacent resident(s)); pay to have power lines extended if need be; install an approved septic system and gain a county building permit. The procedure would've assured the place established a solid footing and thus remained a 'respectable,' law-abiding community. (Albeit one that would've let out all the less well-healed, nature-loving would-be residents who'd've in effect been told, "Sorry, you obviously can't afford to live here.")
A moot point, though. With 98% of the property owners absent, many with aforementioned buyer remorse, resident owners would've realized they could never muster the needed two-thirds vote to tackle such a monumental, costly re-structuring. And heck, they were retirees anyhow; their days of heavy lifting were done once their modest country estates were established.
A more cynical view might've held that some of the founders, while realizing that their building homes amid a sea of raw vacation parcels was certain to create thorny problems sometime down the road, just didn't care. They had theirs, for what remained of their time on earth. They'd earned it, by gum, having conformed to every last one of the nit-picky pricey legal residency requirements. They'd bogart their Shangri-la to the hilt, let the chips fall where they may. Loaded for bear, their attitude was: screw 'em if they can't afford to live here and build like we did; the law's the law. That's why there's cities, to house the less fortunate. (And if we can't stop them, we'll at least make damn sure they'll never know a moment's peace.)
For better or worse, the emerging neither-this-nor-that place was essentially left a blank canvas. One to be painted on and painted over, and painted over yet again, by whatever the latest in the ever-changing succession of residents hoped for the Vista to become (if anything). Each among the more dominant and involved of current inhabitants advanced their own notions of how the place should be and tried convincing others it was the best course of action. The situation was not unlike excited children building sandcastles on the seashore until the high tide rushed in and erased even the most ambitious efforts. Then, later, new castles were built by others, likewise unmindful of the next high tide. Or like creating an image on an Etch-a-Sketch, then, with a flick of the wrist, elaborate designs were shaken away, returning the screen to blank.
While homebuilding efforts ostensibly fell within the bounds of county and state laws -- ordinances and codes the development and eventual co-owners were legally obliged to conform to as conditions for it ever having been greenlit -- these were obviously never easy to enforce by the huge, sparsely populated rural county's undermanned staff that was tasked with such oversight. A tiny dwelling amid the sprawling, 66-mile labyrinth of private unpaved roads out in the middle of nowhere was not easy to track down...or even be aware of existing without pouring over satellite photos or, as it happened, outraged code-compliant residents started burning up the phone lines to demand swift enforcement action.
With the heady sense of freedom living in such secluded back-country enclave lent newly rusticating dwellers -- often no one living within a quarter mile or more -- something of an libertarian, even anarchistic, spirit emerged. At least among the more rebellious, minimalist lifestyle baby boomer crowd that, fast on the wings of earlier waves, felt irresistably pulled to the mountain like a magnet. They'd quickly discovered the dirt-cheap parcels for sale in the sleepy buyer's market as more and more property holders tried to cut their losses and shake free of what had turned out to be the biggest boondoggle they'd ever had the sorry misfortune to ever get mixed up in.
Basically useless parcels were going for a dime a dozen.
Doing one's own thing
Such a free-wheeling spirit might’ve been fine had the place from the start a solid foundation of infrastructure support and appropriate CC&Rs to build on. But it didn't. Cheap land could indeed create cheap intentions. Recreational use had run its course and the disparate crowd of settlers poured in, most not interested in doing anything other than their own thing on their land. Certainly few sought admission to any de facto retirement community with its rigid, would-be stranglehold on how things should be. It seemed that when different ages, different headspaces, lifestyles, incomes, awareness levels, land-use intents, respect for rule of law, etc. were all thrown together, it became all but impossible to establish common ground to do anything more than complain about each other.
It was the unwillingness of so many to build to code (again, in turn largely due to deep water tables and lack of electricity) that became the one of the main deal breakers preventing the building a viable community. One that would tear to shreds any of the place's would-be social fabric and harmonizing energy. It would spark a long pitched battle between the dutifully code compliant and rebellious code ignorers: The former viewed the latter as illegal residents who deserved nothing less than the bum's rush; the latter viewed the former as uptight power trippers with too much money and a serious need to chill.
All factors combined to make for a place permanently plagued with irreconcilable differences, both within and without. A place built on such a shaky footing -- lacking water, electricity, and supporting CC&Rs; growing scofflaw, 'what building code?' attitudes and a county's inability or unwillingness to effectively enforce established living standards, all on top of being rife with contentious energies being aimed at it by locales' resentment it even existed baked into its very inception -- all seemed to guarantee that whatever elusive hopes more determined civic minded property holders held to try to turn the place around and normalize the development were forever doomed six ways to Sunday.
Hardball with a vengeance
Reflecting and magnifying the place's many woes was the property owners association's elected board of directors. Its two-year term, volunteer membership of five, all living in approved structures, as per eligibility requirements, had declared war once seeing their ephemeral backwoods haven slowly slipping into oblivion.
Infuriated beyond measure, board members' response in reporting violations in turn created a stony legacy of scorched-earth overreach and hardball action. Trying to arrest the intolerable trend, they were grimly determined to bust anyone and everyone not code-compliant, period. In the course of such efforts they'd alienate most everyone who hadn't made similar serious investments to comply with steep building code requirements and create misgivings for having ever moved here. For decades they went about with an at times balls out ruthlessness. They'd do their damnedest to stamp out the plague infesting their one-time respectable retirement haven. This indeed made the place less desirable one to live and scarred off like-minded, would-be-code-compliant owner-builders from ever settling once hearing war stories from bristling, spitting-mad residents. Critical to those planning to move on eventually and hoping to sell their places at a profit or at least get back their investment -- it decreased their properties' resale values.
While time ultimately proved the battle a lost cause, a whack-a-mole effort that did little to stem the rising tide of scofflaw building in the long run, it became a cause celebre -- "the law's the law" -- a hardline policy that seemed to sweep up everyone living here into a polarized fray. There were no innocent bystanders; those who refused to take a stand one way or the other -- "we didn't move out here to get mixed up in local politics" -- were scorned as do-nothing enablers and thus part of the problem.
Alas, the enforcement system those waging war depended on eventually began failing them. It would allow barbarians to storm the gates...and stay. Shocked over shattered dreams of establishing a tranquil, law-abiding rural retirement village, once regulating efforts proved largely futile they'd come to at least take a certain grim satisfaction in exacting a pound of flesh from every transgressor they found, reading them the riot act and threatening dire consequences if they didn't start toeing the line (even if they knew their threats had become little more than bluff). While some of your more unwitting transgressors with no taste for confrontation did give up as a result and move away, shocked and heartbroken, others simply dug in and basically dared them to do their damnedest.
There was perhaps a secondary reason for having manned the battle stations, Klaxon horn blaring: Being a public-benefit corporation, the Vista's board of directors was legally mandated by the state to make a good-faith effort to have the association's members abide by all county, state, and federal codes, laws and ordinances. They could conceivably be held legally liable if neglecting proper enforcement efforts, board members even sued.
As if to show there could be no doubt whatsoever that they weren't ignoring their duties, they made it abundantly clear to county authorities that the board, having no legal enforcement powers of its own, was reporting each and every infraction their constant investigations uncovered.
In any event, short of extra-legal vigilante efforts the place was dependent on the county to keep things right. As taxpayers, they demanded that the stretched-thin county enforcement agencies dedicate themselves to returning the realm to 100% code compliance, no matter how long it took or how much work it meant.
Failing that, it'd at least all be on them.
While each land buyer signed an agreement to abide by all legal regulations and ordinances on purchase of their parcel, it was buried in the boilerplate sea of legaleeze fine print. Beyond blatant law breakers of latter times, there were those who, in the rush to pursue dreams of tranquil country living, remained blissfully unaware they'd ever agreed to any such thing. They were then shocked when told, often with a fire-breathing intensity, how you couldn't do this or that and don't even think of doing this. People started to wonder if they were foolish trying to settle in what had seemed such a nice, tranquil place but for some strange reason had gone off the deep end.
It could radicalize one against the local powers that be in a heartbeat.
Newcomers of more modest means and freer lifestyles knew only that they'd snagged their own affordable piece of rural California. They were psyched to do their own thing and be left alone. Maybe over time they'd try for a well; maybe not. They'd connect with kindred souls who'd right away advise them, "Just ignore the board; I do -- hell, everyone does; it's just a toothless tiger, a bunch of retired power-freak busybodies with nothing better to do than to try telling us how to live. Screw 'em."
The very nature of any good-sized rural subdivision, its vast crazy-quilt of lots tucked out in the sticks, was often problematic by its very nature -- even with supporting infrastructure and CC&Rs. While it enabled any so inclined to buy a bit of rural land affordably rather than go bust shelling out for, say, a pricey stand-alone 20, 40 or 80 acre parcel and then deal with road access and maintenance by themselves, the hidden costs could be steep indeed. One found themselves living with a potluck assortment of strangers concentrated together, mandated by law to cooperate yet isolated from the high-density town and city lifestyle that made the same basic civic-responsibility reality feel normal.
It was that crowded, super-regulated urban reality that many wanted to get away from and so would lead them here in the first place.
Sharing the fantasy
The fact that people wanted their own land and to live closer to nature and a respectable distance from others made it difficult warming to the reality of others living on the land around them -- despite a dramatically thinner density than your typical urban environment. While you may not have seen another house from your property, everyone was inextricably bound together by the legal structure and the many edicts one was supposedly duty bound to follow as law-abiding residents. It was like the bureaucratic city mindset had been superimposed on the untamed countryside. It could feel intolerably intrusive. Because of this, calling it independent country living often seemed at times little more than a happy illusion.
There were so few living here, it was easy to feel one actually maybe had the place to themselves...until being rudely reminded otherwise by a truck roaring by or a blasting stereo not far off.
In the Vista's case, a late neighbor (who bore a striking resemblance in manner to actor Sam Elliot) once told the writer, "People need to learn to share the fantasy." That is, with so many undeveloped parcels around them, share in the illusion that while each could feel like they owned maybe 20 or 40 acres or at the least had one heck of a buffer zone surrounding their parcels, they needed to allow others the enjoy the same illusion. Otherwise, the potential for ceaseless territorial squabbling and inconsideration for the rights of others to pursue their own dreams and schemes in an ensuing wild-frontier climate could ruin it for everyone.
Vista's laundry list of neighborhood grievances at times felt endless.
Between barking dogs, roving packs of same, discharging firearms, blasting stereos, driving too fast and/or recklessly, vandalizing and stealing road signs, burning toxic materials in backyards rather than hauling them to the dump; tree poaching; juvenile dirt bikers roaring around on devices loud as chainsaws, making donuts in the roads and tearing up unfenced, pristine lots of absentee owners; roadside littering and flagrant garbage dumping, letting winds blow one's property detritus to the four corners with zero concern for degrading the environment...there was always something to raise the hackles of dwellers.
In sheer frustration, some residents made incessant demands on the powerless board...and on county authorities, who in turn were often so caught up in the swamp of slow bureaucratic procedure that they themselves might also feel powerless to resolve the persistent problems...or, among the more benumbed and burned out on elected public service, be practiced in the art of a nimble two-step avoidance dance in response to constituents' wail of "Can't you do something?!"
Probably it wasn't that they didn't care, per se, so much as Siskiyou county's rural population were all basically seeking a relaxed country lifestyle and most in government beyond law enforcement didn't have the disposition or inclination to pursue the onerous problems sometimes facing its citizens. Also, the rural county simply didn't have the public treasure to enforce its own ordinances should enough, for whatever reason, chose to ignore them. They fully depended on the vast majority being law-abiding. If not, they were in deep doo-doo.
Subdivisions not organic settlements;
no community center
If one's imagination took a surreal bent, it could seem as though the state in approving such rural subdivisions, which each county then dealt with, was maybe employing social scientists conducting some sort of weird social lab experiment. Like they wanted to determine how many strangers could live together in the middle of nowhere and deal with state-imposed mandates before it drove them all nuts. "Hey guys, I think we have a new contender."
Most people move to the country for peace and quiet, to enjoy fresh air and quietude, to live more simply, be left the hell alone. They didn't want to deal with any blasted bureaucratic mandates...and so, many did their level best to ignore them, even if the downside was possibly enabling over time an infusion of scofflaw element, which were attracted to the place as a promising hideaway. Some might say the word 'subdivision' handicapped any such development from ever truly thriving for the very word being, well, divisive.
Historically, when a settlement was founded by one or a few, it evolved over time; there was an organic process at work. Residents gained a sense of belonging and a measure of empowerment and engagement within the slowly growing community. The Vista, in stark contrast, was 'founded' by a realtor who lived six hundred miles away. He had every last bit of land cookie-cutter-platted into 1,641 lots before the first owner ever set foot on it. It was his creation, such as it was, initially commercially motivated and designed as mere shared vacation parcels. When it segued into a would-be community, residential growth was often chaotic and uncertain, lacking crucial cohesive growth guidelines, self-determination, dweller empowerment, pride in place -- and perhaps most critically, infrastructure.
Vista's iffy situation was made dicier with former residents renting out their homes on moving on once the bloom was off the rose of Vista living. Such renters had zero say in how the place was run as far as board eligibility, even if in time one felt a strong vested interest, wanting to get involved to help the place along more than just joining the volunteer fire department or doing fund-raisers for it.
The problem, again, was hugely exacerbated by the legion of disinterested absentee parcel owners who long constituted over 90% of association membership. They held equal voting rights on any proposal as did actual owner-residents. To the speculative it was often just a gone-sour investment. They'd scream over every cent of annual due increase along with many actual residents who'd become indifferent to nurturing community. Even some long-established parties, having their own social scene wired, thank you, discarded as pipe dreams any civic-minded notion that the Vista could ever pull itself together.
A telling example of how big the void of community cooperation was: Back in the 1990's, dozens of unwanted-orange, plastic bagged phone books had been hastily dropped off below the mailbox complex at the busy Juniper Drive entrance. While it created an eyesore for everyone driving by, for over a month no one could be bothered to deal with the de facto litter. Disbelieving writer (who didn't live in that part) held off, waywardly fascinated by such monumental indifference, until finally gathering them up and recycling them. No doubt many had grumbled to themselves, Someone oughta clean those up, but never thinking of becoming that someone, thinking like the wilderness condo residents they were that they must be paying to have such nuisances taken care through annual dues and they should earn their keep, dammit. That, or they got a perverse rush raking the board over the coals for being so discombobulated that it couldn't deal with such a simple matter.
A more far-reaching example: In 1981, indifferent association members gleefully shot down the proposal made by then-board president Eric Prescott. He'd envisioned The Vista building a modest multi-use community center on one of the hundreds of empty lots for the mutual benefit of every resident and owner visitor. Even though it would’ve only involved a modest extra assessment for two years to fund, project cost spread thinly among the many parcel owners, and undoubtedly would’ve benefited myriad over time, fostering a desperately needed sense of grounded community, the owner-majority chorused their favorite refrain: Not One Cent More!
Many embraced the persistent fond illusion that once they bought the land, except for annual property taxes they were home free. As told, they took strong exception to having to feed the parking meter every year for road maintenance on roads they never drove on, lest their property get towed away by the Mt. Shasta Vista Property Owners Association for resale to the next, possibly equally clueless, buyer.
Not that there weren't also absentee parcel owners who, despite all, treasured the fairly unspoiled land and the elusive promise that maybe its early, relatively harmonious beginnings would bloom again. Their nurtured hopes for the place again becoming a great place to live were forever facing powerful headwinds of the prevailing sense of hopeless despair. Some no doubt entertained wistful notions of moving here someday after it finally got itself together -- or perhaps even as-is-and-hoping-for-the-best among those getting ready to retire. Yet others still enjoyed their frequent extended camping visits on the remaining pleasant retreat properties located far away from busy arteries and the clusters of established homes with their unsightly power and phone lines.
But it seemed the overwhelming majority -- jaded residents and absentee owners alike -- grew indifferent to the notion of ever actually improving the place. That is, not if it meant one more penny pried from their wallet or purse. Some doubtless thought a portion of their annual assessment could surely go towards funding whatever civic improvements that more community-minded thought would make the place nicer. But the budget was almost invariably stretched to the breaking point over the high cost of maintaining 66 miles of fragile roadbed, plus the board-repo-ing parcels that couldn't always be resold readily and so had property taxes eating into the budget. Also, there were vandalized or stolen road signs that needed frequent replacing. And insurance rates that were skyrocketing. And thorny legal matters with potential lawsuits that required keeping an attorney on retainer. And...
Disinterested association managers
with conflicts of interest
In the 1980s the association started shelling out for the salary of a professional association manager. Things had grown too complicated and time-consuming for volunteer board members alone. Most were too unversed in legal matters to grasp the intricate procedures in running a development according to Hoyle, especially once the state legislature in 1985 enacted a flurry of new regulations for subdivisions through its Davis Stirling Act.
But it would add insult to injury when over time salaried managers (we've had two) -- who residents might not unreasonably assume would work for the good of the place, helping preserve the Vista's relaxed livability and keeping its best interests at heart -- themselves speculated on lots -- or worse, actually sold lots as a realty agent on the side to parties obviously intent on turning said tranquil lifestyle upside down.
No there there
Many residents, having low expectations going in, accepted that there wasn't any more there there beyond the trees and sage and simple roads and signs, maybe even relieved. It suited them just fine. Some were no doubt simply using the place as a temporary perch, planning to move on as soon as something better opened up. To the thinking of many, stirring up any community involvement seemed to hold negative potential for becoming the intrusive force of a bunch of power-hungry busybodies trying to dictate how others should live.
Many, some of pronounced unconventional bents the wayward place somehow naturally seemed to attract, had, again, moved here to get as far away from over-complicated, peace-eroding bureaucratic urban forces as possible, yet still be not too far from town. As a late section 13 Pilar Road resident, then president of the Siskiyou Arts Council, once said in a public radio interview, "We live out in the middle of nowhere and we love it!"
Those who dutifully conformed to code ostensibly had greater peace of mind with which to enjoy their places. But even those who hadn't and were boldly hunkering down, hopefully keeping under radar, likewise seemed to claim an inviolable right to enjoy it any way they chose and not get hassled -- possession being nine-tenths of the law, after all -- even while studiously ignoring any and all laws and ordinances they disagreed with.
Handy place to perch
The Vista, an arrested subdivision with an embarrassment of empty lots and passel of increasingly unenforced health and building codes, struck burnouts of all stripes from urban living as a promising place indeed to perch. It was cheap and remote yet not too remote. The compliant among them could enjoy simple, stand-alone country living while the non-compliant would, more than likely, get away with not conforming to ostensible rules and regulations. They both paid the mandatory annual dues (most of the time, albeit grudgingly) and as an idle pastime with myopic vision demonized the ownership's volunteer board as the source of all ills, the perpetual fly in the ointment preventing them from ever enjoying more carefree country living.
The most cynical felt the board setup was bogus, probably illegal. Corrupt as hell anyhow, ruining what otherwise might've been a nice scene. "Someone oughta sue", "Why I ever moved here...", "This place would be just fine if it weren't for...", ad infinitum. Idle rumors of members probably dipping into the treasury were rife.
Of course, such gnarly energies weren't always evident, even if it could often feel that way. There were pleasant lulls when the dread beast of contention appeared to slumber. During such relatively peaceful times, people got laid-back, counted their blessings, relished the region's solitude and relatively pristine nature, and all was well with the world. A tenuous live-and-let-live attitude seemed to prevail, denizens so used to the place's politics being hopelessly dysfunctional that it more or less felt normal.
Constant joker in the deck
There was something about everyone being a king or queen of their own regally rustic wild realm, their own little backwoods hideaway, bought for a song. One just had to tune out the joker in the deck that could make said royalty feel more like would-be serfs by the would-be overlords who'd conformed to legal residency requirements and so felt they had the only valid claim to the Vista's backwoods throne, as it were.
But the joker like a Jack-in-the-box kept popping up and disillusioning parcel owners. While domains tucked away along the seemingly endless back roads often had so few settlers that dwellers might've imagined their digs more like pioneer homesteads of yore -- rather than dratted modern-day subdivision parcels subject to a slew of nit-picky, spirit-stifling rules and regulations -- the latter always showed up sooner or later. Such rules were forever trying to be enforced by the board in earlier decades. In turn under pressure from the county and state -- and themselves, wanting to keep up the place's code compliance and market value -- board members as a result often ran amok. like so many little T-Rexes, highhandedly asserting an authority over the domain with barred teeth and sharp claws, terrorizing any hapless inhabitants foolish enough to try living here without first getting the county's blessing (and thus also the board's) and paying a small fortune for it.
It often felt like one couldn't do diddly-squat without first getting the board's approval -- and then grow old waiting for it. ("Motion tabled til next month.") The way board members so often appeared to harbor a retiring, defeatist, no-can-do air, most residents became resigned to just tuning it out and doing their own thing as they saw fit -- like repairing a stretch of road in front of their place right away rather than waiting months by going through channels.
Despite such an often gone-bonkers board, throwing its weight around on red alert, terminally bent out of shape over ignored health and building codes, remote circumstances still lent an assurance to some that one could do what they wanted on their land. No uptight board, lacking credibility and legal fining power -- and no longer getting dependable code enforcement response from the county -- could stop them.
Private-property rights were sacrosanct, after all. The more scofflaw dwellers blocked out being under any external world's bothersome rules. The mundane reality of needing an elected board of owner directors for the monthly taking care of business -- again, key proviso for the place gaining its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit public benefit corporation -- either didn't even register or they went into denial it actually existed. It was too invasive, too arbitrary, too self-defeating to the very reason one moved to the country.
As said, the illusion of anything goes manifested easily also in part due to the vast majority of raw-parcel owners living far away and rarely, if ever, visiting lots. They held no more than an easily tuned out phantom presence. Dwellers came to view the thousand-some vacant, undeveloped, seemingly unsellable parcels as quasi public lands. They felt like veritable land barons, sovereigns of inviolate mini fiefdoms. But on the subtle, some no doubt vaguely sensed the absent owners' extreme collective displeasure for place having become such a dead-in-the-water, arrested development. One with firewood-selling tree poachers raiding their unprotected lots and sometimes harboring bold squatters. With no one else to blame beyond themselves, they blamed the entire residency for not lifting a finger to save their unwise investment.
Whether or not one could sense this additional pernicious force, on one level absentees' combined ire over the dismal state of affairs indeed infected the land. Though subtle, it could gnaw at one's peace of mind no less than the in-your-face, foaming-at-the-mouth, compliant residents their waging all-out war on select non-compliant dwellers (some of whom seemed to take keen delight in taunting them).
Early pot grows and vigilante episodes
inside an intractable tract
In the early 2000s, one of the few residents furtively then growing illicit cannabis before pot laws were further liberalized and decriminalized found himself with new neighbors keen on doing the same. Wanting to avoid increasing the likelihood of bringing unwanted attention to his own operation, he persuaded them to leave by promising violence in no uncertain terms if they didn't.
California, of course, had legalized medical marijuana in 1996, the first in the nation. In time, before recreational pot was legalized in the state in late 2016 changing laws yet again, a few enterprising Vistan land settlers had pooled together scrip from medical marijuana 'patients' that entitled them to grow six plants a year for each. In effect it let them grow up to 99 plants and technically still be in compliance with state law, before triggering possible federal interest.*
*Reportedly, after 2016 this 99-plant figure later would become the tacitly agreed-on limit barring filed complaints, by a seemingly overwhelmed (and/or under-motivated or empowered) county sheriff's department for illicit commercial grows. The six plant limit the state specified for all but licensed commercial grows would be studiously ignored. When some began to far exceed that limit, all bets were off. Siskiyou county, for what little it seemed to matter, had decided not to allow ANY commercial grows in the unincorporated county beyond incorporated city limits. (A town's people had the option to vote to approve certain legal commercial grows and sale dispensaries or not.)
The Vista's few early state-legal grows no doubt in part set the stage for later unsanctioned commercial growers suddenly flooding the still enticingly cheap parcels, starting in 2015. It would prove yet again how the relatively remote place perpetually appeared an irresistible draw to all sorts and for all reasons despite (or maybe because of) its almost total lack of infrastructure.
Between a critical handful of your more anarchistic-leaning residents ignoring any and all rules and regulations interfering with doing what they wanted and the county seemingly throwing up its hands, giving up on the place as a lost cause; the increasingly radicalized times in general; and between about 2009 and 2017 the county not even budgeting a residential code enforcer; respect for rule of law in the Vista got on ever shakier ground.
More examples: as mentioned, some less than civic-minded entrepreneurial residents (as well as invasive outsiders) routinely poached firewood from vacant lots to sell, cutting down scores of standing snags and even living trees, including some of the few mature pines that had long graced the region. Another party set up a huge dog-rescue kennel on unimproved, treeless land; neighbors up to a half mile away suffered the endless barking of the unhappy caged residents often baking in the sun for over a year until the operation was finally shut down.
Bolder souls even took the law into their own hands. When a resident towards the top of White Drive discovered a surveyor had made an error decades ago on his lot boundaries, he tried closing off the road outright with a sign-posted gate -- despite it being ages too late to legally remedy the error. Another neighbor regularly used the road and didn't think twice when encountering the sudden barrier: he backed up his bad-boy truck and smashed his way through. Problem solved.
Another neighbor, furious how certain parties routinely roared by his place raising clouds of dust just to tick him off, one night furtively dug a slanted trench across the road. That night they sped by as usual and promptly lost control. They ran into a tree. When walking back to angrily confront him, he shot at them, missing, and got arrested. On another occasion a resident, furious on learning his neighbor seeming intent to hit on his young teen daughter, descended on the culprit's land late at night when it was known he was in jail and proceeded to wreck and loot the place to a fare-thee-well. And when a black man had moved into a vacant stone cottage and was discovered by the owner late at night, the latter held a shotgun on him for 40 minutes before a sheriff deputy arrived.
Obviously, the place's auspicious start during simpler times with its relatively homogeneous, convention-minded, law-abiding dwellers sharing a warm bonhomie had long ago sunk into oblivion.
Blame it on the mountain
One could maybe at least in part blame the powerful energy of the massive mountain for people not working together more. Through its natural force field, vortex energy, or whatever one felt it emanated, it was as said thought to stimulate one's upper chakras. While often revving one's wildly visionary imagination, it could also pull one meditatively inward. Bolstered by the place's founder, who as a fellow camper in the early years also relished the freedom to do whatever wanted on the land (within the prevailing conservative, buttoned-down, law-abiding mindset, of course), the mountain's influence could work to make one feel their parcel was their own Fortress of Solitude.
Long after the honeymoon camping years had faded into distant memory and the quasi homesteading of all sorts took off in the 1990s, people for a while actually campaigned to get voted onto the board. While some no doubt hoped to mellow the place, more or less willing to turn a blind eye to unenforceable county ordinances, others -- perpetually unhinged from codes not being enforced -- were still loaded for bear, wanting to reinforce the hardline stance on unsanctioned dwellings, their illicit dwellers and inappropriate land uses, reinforcing the demand that everyone toe the line or they'd be made to wish they had.
That relatively community-active period passed soon enough. Fast-forward to the nineties and the place, overwhelmed with non-compliant, often anarchistic-leaning residents, entered a period of pronounced civic indifference. It was a time bearing an increasingly lawless air (reflecting the high crime rate of the nation then) punctuated by the helpless plaintive wail from dutifully code compliant of “What’s happening to this place?”
Lost in a fog, we'd become like a ship at sea without sail or rudder, aimlessly adrift. "Water, water, everywhere / nor any drop to drink" *
* Even as, in supreme irony, residents periodically had to scramble to keep snow melt and mud from next door's seasonally running, sometimes rampaging Whitney Creek from flooding the section 28 lowlands. The Association long ago sued the Forest Service for having allowed the course of the creek -- actually more of a seasonal wash -- to be diverted towards the new subdivision by removing a dam that was built above highway 97 by people in the area that later became Lake Shastina who no longer had need of or even wanted to deal with it.
The ensuing periodic floods periodically washed out various Vista roads and parcels. It won the suit and the quarter-million dollar settlement went to funding the massive earthen berms that are still along Buckhorn Road and Rising Hill Road to protect section 28 from future flooding. Between summer bulldozing efforts and the creek itself cutting new courses, the creek is now diverted mostly out of harm's way, but not always: in August 2022, part of the berm was again breached after prolonged, record 100 degree weather generated extraordinary amounts of snow melt (plus likely glacier melt), flooding property on both sides the of berm, prompting Code Red evacuation alerts.
Bored writer joins the board
In the early 2010s, after over 30 years feeling little fondness for the board and at times being demonized by some of its members in return, short fuses being common all around (see part 6 for account of controversial 1984 rainbow family camp), the writer finally warmed to the notion of actually serving on it. At the time, civic interest had hit an all-time low. The board was hard-pressed to fill out more than three of its five seats, three being the legal minimum to legally conduct essential business like approving road maintenance outlays.
They weren't too picky about who volunteered so long as one was a code-compliant resident. If not rallying, the place could go into state receivership as a failed subdivision and face monumentally unpleasant and costly consequences. As I was one of only a few who sporadically attended the monthly meetings, one evening in 2012 I got roped into serving on it (under president Pamela Simpson) before I knew what was happening.
While it turned out the place actually defaulting was never a serious threat, it had at least flirted with such an ignominious fate from time to time. The community-minded few who rotated to serve on the board could get jaded and/or embittered. It could feel like no one cared what happened to the place, that no one appreciated or respected how they were volunteering their own time to meet the state's mandate, trying to help the place out by doing what needed to be done. For all their troubles they often got vilified as power-crazed busybodies.
With so many members -- resident and absentee alike -- routinely damning the board (or at the least being indifferent to it), all but the more determined and thick-skinned civic-minded members burned out fast. Those who continued on could become charred remnants of their former selves, sleepwalking through meetings but, like a dog with a bone, determined not to let go of the reigns for fear no one who had the place's best interests at heart would ever replace them. From time to time the board would attract volunteers who only had their own private agendas in mind, or who simply idly sought a little dubious prestige. Enough of that happening and the place actually might've defaulted as a public benefit corporation.
The board's pressure-cooker meetings proved detrimental to one's peace of mind. One had to be in full psychic armor, ready for battle -- of boredom, at least. While few if any property owners usually attended, one could still be made to feel like cannon fodder when told by the manager to sign a stack of legal foreclosure papers on property owners who'd given up on the place, or were in dire financial straits, or both.
One struggled to rise above the endless sea of paperwork and dry, formal meeting procedure -- all endured in the cramped, cold-fluorescent lit firehouse backroom -- if hoping to accomplish anything one might conceivably be proud of. Spirits often felt subdued to the point of our seeming to be in a clinical group depression. It was as if everyone felt the thankless grand futility of it all but plugged away anyhow out of a sense of civic duty.
All is futile
No doubt like many well-meaning board members before and after me, I'd hoped to help turn the place around. The situation just seemed so ridiculous, so all-is-futility, that surely it wouldn't take much to break it free of its too often dispirited, calling-it-in, do-nothing operation. While some of my newsletter features and editorial write-ups were appreciated, the boat had left the harbor ages ago. The die was cast, the dismal course set. It was a dire situation, so all but irreversible that any hope of rallying members to work together for mutual benefit and pull out of the dysfunctional quagmire we'd collectively gotten ourselves in for decades, like dinosaurs flailing in the tar pits, was only wishful thinking.
No twentieth monkey was anywhere in sight, let alone a hundredth one.
Born under a dark star?
Though mindful visitors might've sensed the land's special healing qualities -- some overnighters reported having the best dreams of their lives here -- cynics, not without some justification, sneeringly dismissed the beleaguered realm out of hand: “no water, no trees; nothing but desert and rattlesnakes.” It was nothing but as a cheap, substandard rural bedroom community; hideout for hard-drinking loners, small-time growers and spaced-out nature freaks; maybe a few more respectable, hardworking residents hoping to play out some elusive dream of simple country living and obviously having built in the wrong place.
The way so many came to routinely slam the place, you'd think it was born under a dark star, a wicked witch’s cauldron boiling over with gnarly contention, any effort to reverse its dismal fate utter folly. Resistance was futile.
A bit of Esoterica:
Vista's Aastrology and cardology
Those into astrology might appreciate the celestial forces at work the day the place legally came into being, November 3, 1965. The calendar date was none other than the birthday of TV's Scorpion Rosanne Barr, along with Collin Kaepernick and Charles Bronson. Some might say the resulting brooding super-wound energies imprinted on the development at its moment of birth practically guaranteed the place would always be on the intense side. Lightening the mix, both Mars and Venus were in nature-loving Sagittarius, along with a compassionate, dreamy Pisces moon.
Then, according to cardology, or the further study of planetary influence mixes forming a unique DNA signature for each day of the year, symbolized by playing cards, its 4 of diamonds birthday, according to the book Cards of Destiny by Sharon Jeffers, created "innate restlessness, possible dissatisfaction with what one was doing," and could make one "...a dreamer who doesn't always allow dreams to become reality."
The last surely fit the Vista to a T.
Somewhere along the way, the once openly shared, carefree vacation land apparently reached a critical tipping point and then passed the point of no return: Scofflaw residents, each determined to do their own thing (whether legal or not, no matter); landholders with buyer remorse and little to no interest in the place except possibly to cash out without taking a bath; the scene getting so sketchy that few to none were any longer interested in building to code; and, crucially, the county dropping its residential code enforcer position. These sobering realities, among others mentioned, in time combined to create the perfect storm.
The coalescing situation was already letting any so inclined have a field day pursuing whatever inappropriate land uses they conjured up -- junk yards, dog kennels, meth labs -- for being off private dirt roads, tucked away far from all but the prying eyes of nosy neighbors and visit-adverse code and law enforcers. No matter if such dubious uses upset the peace and quiet and country solitude so many had dropped anchor here for and collectively invested decades of blood, sweat and tears in establishing homesteads, it tended to be Anything Goes.
Without any more pro-active harmonizing force, one with at least a semblance of respect for the rule of law and community involvement, an increasingly lawless spirit tended to hold an outsize influence on the place. The majority of the realm's less invested residency, used to the place being dysfunctional -- a quirky, low-key hideaway with a powerless board -- either couldn't, or wouldn't, read the writing on the wall, how the place was leaving the door wide open for further potential calamity -- at least as far as every resident seeking peaceful country living was concerned.
One didn't need the omniscience of 20-20 hindsight to realize that by the early teens two things had become crystal clear: the place was a rudderless ship drifting into potentially perilous straits; and residents either didn't care or felt powerless to safeguard a sometimes tranquil, even idyllic, rural lifestyle taken for granted.
The Vista thru Time
Further tales and reflections on
Mount Shasta Vista's first 50 years
Knowing where the Vista came from could go a good ways to understand where it went. Had the place’s metaphorical foundation, as it were, first been tents and trailers set on sand; then evolved to conventional homes built on rock; then went sideways to makeshift shelters ... set on sand?
Whatever happened, all along the lack of easier water played a major role. KRCE (Klamath River County Estates) landowner Will Jensen, in long ago reporting in his blog of an exhaustive search to find the ideal rural home property with inspiring Mt. Shasta view, noted, “No matter who we talked to we were warned away from Mt. Shasta Vista...we were told repeatedly that Mt. Shasta Vista was bad for wells…”
To try to remedy the chronic water shortage, in the early 2000s a few solution minded residents applied for a government grant to fund a proposed centralized water distribution system. It was declined, deemed too much effort and expense to help too few. (More on the water situation in part 5.)
Back to the ‘80s
By the mid 1980s Vista’s resident population had grown to maybe 150 or 200. Scattered over the vastness of nearly seven square miles of high-desert woodlands, it was still a light sprinkling; the development was worlds away from ever even beginning to get built out. Dwellers still felt like land barons -- especially if on parcels distant from the relative concentration of structures by the few scattered power lines and closer to the highway. Some city owners, used to paved roads everywhere, couldn't get into driving five miles over often narrow, winding cinder roads; any desire for seclusion was outweighed by the desire for convenience. Between the sparse dwellings was the grand buffer of over a thousand empty, largely unspoiled parcels that forever lent various regions a distinct park-like ambiance.
No matter how much pristine land one might’ve enjoyed, though, it seemed there was often some distinctly unsettling undercurrent lurking just below the surface. One that could jam one’s peace of mind and ability to better experience the elusive joys of simple country living. Due to the lingering resolve of often imperious code-compliant residents waging relentless war on code violators, one always seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even if one was compliant, an almost palpable tension could fill the air. On the subtle, it felt like one was living in some crowded tenement, angry landlord pounding on the door.
It was one of the ironies of living in the Vista. Either you detached and became philosophical about it all or perhaps you soon found yourself over-identifying with Munch’s screamer.
It would drive more than a few to drink.
A missing word sank efforts
About 2012, an overdue effort was launched by the more civic-minded residents. They formed a committee to try to revise the woefully outdated CC&Rs. Not overhaul them, but at least tinker around the edges to try to make them more relevant. After much slow sledding, a glitch in a progress report sent out to everyone promptly sank the effort. The pamphlet cover’s title was supposed to read: “Proposed Changes to Mt. Shasta Vista Bylaws”. But the all-critical first word was left out, making the changes sound like a done deal.
This prompted a barely-peaceable pitchforks-and-torches crowd storming the next board meeting. Residents who normally avoided meetings like the plague came out of the woodwork, suspecting the property owners board was maybe trying to stage a coup or something.
Long and winding roads;
rambunctious part-time creek
While you had your own private parcel, modest annual ‘road dues’ assessments were, again, strongly resented by those not getting their own roads any better maintained. Various absentee owners added to the chorus, claiming they could barely reach their parcels located in more remote and unsettled regions because the roads hadn’t been touched in ages. Most-neglected stretches could develop deep dry pools of tire-grabbing, quicksand-like silt, so bad AAA tow trucks eventually refused to even come out to rescue them, after once getting their own rig got stuck in turn and a monster tow truck had to be called.
It didn’t help matters that summertime neighbor Whitney Creek, rambunctious when summer's extended 90 to 100 degree F. weather melted a heavy winter's snowpack, could cut new courses and flood its banks. It once actually put most of Section 28 under nine inches of water, forcing an evacuation and making regional TV news. The worst of the many floods over time until a massive earthen berm was finally built up, it washed away some areas roads so badly that the board abandoned them and bought the parcels of those who could no longer reach their parcels without driving a Hummer. They figured it was cheaper than having to keep rebuilding the remote roadway.
Train wreck of a place
Vistan parcel holders were often a frugal lot: bought the land cheap, moved in cheap, wanted to keep things cheap. It seemed futile to even try to build community with such a bare-bones, contentious social climate. The situation was, again, hugely compounded by the sea of absentee owners keeping parcels as investments, then coming to feel the holdings an albatross about their collective neck, both for the ouchy annual assessment fee and chronic soft market conditions. Their pronounced disenchantment with the discombobulated development further arrested any positive efforts to pull the development together.
At some point, having no legal foundation on which to build a standard community, the place -- caught between a rock and a hard place -- had simply shorted out. It became a broken development that some first-time visitors would routinely drop jaws over. It was a spectacularly failed, "left for dead", train wreck of a would-be rural community. A place that had seemingly grown too big for its britches trying to rise above the lowly station it was born to and paid the price.
Those who had early on built code-approved homes -- initially most everyone who had first moved onto the land -- were realists. They knew it would take everyone following county health and building regulations if the development were to continue emerging into a legitimate rural community. Once people started moving in on the cheap, displaying either innocent "Hey, I'm just building a little vacation cabin here, no biggie", or defiant, "Whadarya goin' to do about it, hee-hee?" attitudes, they knew their one-time retirement hideaway was in mortal danger. Its survival depended on the county stepping in with its time-honored, no-nonsense code enforcement. When its efforts proved inadequate, the place was sunk as far as conventional thinking went.
Still a nice place to live
Over time, the place -- now a broad willy-nilly mix of approved living structures and unsanctioned dwellings -- stabilized of sorts. It became perhaps not too unlike a quarter-risen cake that had stopped rising, partially collapsed, dried out and solidified. Though caught between worlds, it was informally recycled, its residency becoming like hermit crabs moving into abandoned rec land shells. Many and sundry considered it a nice place to live, despite all. Hey, it was our failed subdivision and home, sweet home.
Living here then could be like wearing a comfy if disreputable-looking old pair of sneakers that had yet to develop worrisome holes in the soles.
No such kind regard was felt by most of the now some eighty percent of property holders constituting the development's absentee membership, living all over the nation. They were clearly NOT enjoying the land. Some, possibly hoping for a miraculous turnaround, had, again, been clinging to title deeds for decades, gritting their teeth and doubling down and shelling out each year for upkeep of roads they never drove on lest their land be repossessed -- as countless hundreds indeed were over time.
This churn rate of ownerships created extra billing time for the salaried manager processing the sea of legal paperwork, driving up associations dues while generating quick commissions for expedient realtors who kept low-keyly offering the embarrassment of beleaguered lots as sleeper land steals to gullible or undiscriminating, land-hungry buyers. They often didn't have to say anything, as the remote dirt-cheap lots with fabulous mountain views could often sell themselves.
Meanwhile, absentee parcel holders, like characters in Waiting for Godot, patiently stood by, waiting either for values to rise so they could finally lose the clunkers at a profit or the place getting it together so they or other family members could enjoy it themselves.
Beginnings re-visited: ten-cent parcels
with million-dollar views
Earliest campers in the newly formed wonderland savored it like fine wine. In spring the realm delighted the eye with tiny surprise splashes of lavender, purple, red, and yellow wildflowers. Rich lichen moss on aging and dead junipers seemed almost magical, dazzling the eye with its bright, near-phosphorescent green. After rains the pungent earthy scent of damp juniper and sage smelled like perfume.
Abundant wildlife included deer, jackrabbits, cottontails, plentiful birds, ever-friendly chipmunks, polecats, porcupines; yes, rattlesnakes; a rare mountain lion and other wildcats; tiny kangaroo rats with impossibly long tails, hopping about at dusk...
First vacationers returned home refreshed, anticipating next year’s visit to their shared wilderness hideaway and all the new improvements they’d work on during momentous rendezvous with friends new and old, making their new private retreat nicer for all parcel holders.
Seldom heard: a discouraging word
Early parcel owners gathered at night to enjoy campfire get-togethers. Sometimes, coyotes yipping up a storm in the distance no doubt time-warped the more suggestible back to days of the Old West, maybe prompting spontaneous choruses of “Home on the Range”, "Red River Valley" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." And they enjoyed daytime potlucks and barbecues under the unfailing majesty of Mt. Shasta’s northern side, offering staggering views that local photographer Keven Lahey would race over to snap giant lenticular clouds flying off it or one impossibly large one hovering above it like a mothership.
Judging by the writings in the association's old Vistascope newsletters, visitors shared in euphoric waves of feelgoodness that were sweeping the land during those rarefied purple-haze days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s...along with gnarly uprisings and protests, of course.
...and the saucers flew by-y-y all night
Even if one was a hard-line Nam war hawk, hostile to the emerging counterculture with its sometimes outlandish and free-minded ways, spirits ran high...no doubt aided and abetted by their own mind-altering drug of choice, alcohol. And the group buzz might’ve been further heightened by something quite extraordinary: unknowingly copping a contact high from parties aboard then-frequent UFOs sighted darting about the mountain around this time and nationally reported on.
The embryonic community might've thus gained a rarefied super-charge from curious advanced extra-terrestrial beings checking out the singing earth people camping out on the mountain's then sleepy side.
To any susceptible to the subtle charms of the land -- magnified for being under the mountain’s spell -- it was a nature lovers’ paradise, one they’d work to make nicer for everyone. Light-duty cinder roads were immaculately groomed by the membership’s workhorse road truck, flowers planted at the highway entrances and the welcoming archway lifted up. As recounted, group civic improvement efforts peaked in establishing the de facto community well and extending power lines to parcels whose owners had committed to drilling approved wells, along with installing septics and building to code. (Covered in depth in next part.)
It’s said in metaphysical thinking the imprint of earliest inhabitants on a land establishes a subtle vibration signature it then forever resonates with no matter what might later happen on it. If accepting this as possible... Prehistoric indigenous people had seasonally hunted game here but didn’t settle, probably over lack of water and not daring to live so close to the powerful and sacred mountain. Beyond them and the isolated first white settlers on the land like Eli Barnum by Sheep Rock in the 1850s and later hunters and livestock grazers, it might be said that the first major indelible imprint on the land was made by none other than the modern-day-pioneering Vistans in the mid to late 1960s.
If true, they bestowed on the land an euphoric, industrious, somewhat topsy-turvy energy, a DNA signature the land would forever resonate with, even if it got all but buried under the surface over time. (Another example: often wild, free-spirited San Francisco: reportedly in nice weather its first inhabitants loved nothing better than to roll in the mud and run around naked.)
Apart from such possible influences, whenever a mindful visitor unwound and tuned into the land they could sense a pronounced soft, almost-otherworldly dreamland quality. In spots beyond earshot of highway wash, no jets droning overhead or train rumbling in the distance, the land held a profoundly deep quietude; one might've sensed they were actually hearing the earth breathing. Repeat visitors and residents alike came to embrace the feeling like a long-lost lover. (Explorers of Pluto Caves, just beyond one Vista border, might've experienced something of this quality.)
The dreamy atmosphere came with its downside, of course. Tenuous new residents wowed by woodland parcels bought for a song could get so caught up in their rich fantasies, they never integrated being there with doing what was needed to be done to get things legally squared away and so give their brainstorms a chance to actually manifest. Instead they remained only so many fond, exquisitely visualized dreams the region's rarefied energies could inspire.
Over time, countless one-time owners came and went, their happy bubbles burst after a few months or a few years ignoring -- or being ignorant of -- mundane realities created and enforced by the powers that be, which legally obligated one to establish a minimum standard of living or else...until suddenly shocked awake like a bucketful of ice water dumped over the head.
It was phenomenal. The serene, almost mystical land would keep grabbing newbies as affordable and magical and get them wildly enthused, until -- like a Star Trek television episode where the landing team finds a planet that at first appears to be a wondrous paradise -- they're shocked to discover its fatal flaws.
A fine place by George
Developer George Collins, apparently smitten by the land's subtle charms no less than other earlycomers, actually joined vacationers during the first, visiting-only years. He'd become the glue that held the place together, being the place's cheerleader, first board president and daddy moneybags, informally pitching in with funds and resources to help the place along at every turn. “...I consider myself privileged to be a neighbor to each and every one of you,” he said in early newsletter, going on to wax poetic how the place was “...our home away from home, our frontier, our Shangri-la...there should be a constant flurry of barbecue parties, coffee klatches and just informal get-togethers all through the year.”
While he might’ve only developed a primitive recreational subdivision -- one lacking critical infrastructure to facilitate ever evolving into anything more, the limited would-be-community creation over time causing endless headache and heartbreak for visitors, residents and wannabe residents alike -- at least he was far from only being some disinterested land developer who took the money and ran.
He was central in the place's beginnings on so many levels -- founder, midwife, spirit-rouser, board president, project funder -- that other property owners likely got used to the place being in his capable hands. Perhaps in time they became something like passive land tenants, dependent on him to do what needed to be done, "Let George do it" the frequent response to any matter that cropped up. He was in effect something of a benevolent overlord, doing all the heavy lifting and thus sparing the rest the bother, in return being acknowledged as the main man by mostly willing subjects. As a result, so long as he stayed in the picture few probably felt motivated or empowered to take on more themselves to further organize and grow the place according to their own lights.
When he finally did move on for reasons uncertain, new owner residents, their 'father' having abandoned them, suddenly had to scramble. On their own, they were faced with a steep learning curve, assuming responsibilities and dealing with ongoing realities some probably never knew existed and were now staring them in the face. One might speculate that it was at this point that the association, on some level now lost at sea, first began to founder. They'd been abandoned by their captain and were forever left struggling to get their bearings and steer a course on their own, while at the same time busy bailing out water.
Over time the development might've now and then gotten back on track under more able and altruistic board members, who'd scramble to get things tenuously up to speed once tackling all the remedial catch-up work, then derailed again under the endless shuffle of new, sometimes less motivated and knowledgeable resident volunteers. There was always a lot of slow on-the-job training involved; by the time new volunteers got the lay of the land they'd often already burned out and the learning process began over again with yet other newbies.
One's left wondering if perhaps originally Collins did have loftier ambitions to launch an actual infrastructure-supported residential development -- or at least after seeing how next door Lake Shastina was doing so. Or if all along he'd envisioned the development -- perhaps thought too far from town amid the sparsely populated farming community to attract enough people to want to actually live here -- never being more than a simple shared recreational land. (But still one you might want to retire to bye 'n' bye.)
Or if he'd changed his tune. Maybe he hoped the place in time might indeed become an actual rural community -- despite having no better water, electricity or CC&Rs to support any easier growth. Then he lost heart when various divisive squabbles erupted, perhaps the first over the power fund (covered later) and some, realizing they had to forge ahead on their own, began to tell him where to get off. Feelings hurt after all he'd done for the place, he just might've finally said the hell with everyone and his blessing was replaced by a curse.
Or maybe the parting of the ways happened later (if still here, writer's not sure exactly when he exited), over the gnarly fracas between the code compliant and outlaw builders. He might've realized at some point that the county wasn't equipped to keep a handle on things, despite compliant residents working closely with regulators, and, foreseeing an increasingly thorny situation, maybe even taking indirect heat for allowing such a thing to happen, beat a hasty retreat...his and others' happy visions for the place soon to disintegrate into nothingness.
In any event, something seemed to have happened between Collins and his one-time fellow vacationing lot owners, now emerging homesteaders, to turn the wine to vinegar. Something -- or series of somethings -- would appear to permanently change the tone and tenor of the entire place.
Lookin' for a sign
The Vista’s raw parcels on a per-acre basis were some ten times cheaper than those of next door's Lake Shastina, started a couple years later in 1968. The Vista first attracted an equally solvent if more rough-and-ready vacationing camper crowd than the second-home buyer group Lake Shastina's developers initially wooed with its full-on infrastructure and nearness to town amenities.
Road signs were critical inside Vista's endless 66 mile maze. Even longtime residents like writer could get lost if venturing beyond accustomed routes. One night driving about, I suddenly realized I had absolutely no idea where I was. Finally getting to an intersection and spotting a stenciled 4X4 wooden road sign post, I climbed out hopefully and shone a flashlight on it: the painted lettering had faded into illegibility, done in by the elements.
Second generation signs were small, four-foot tall vertical metal signs that soon rusted. Delinquents would topple and steal them and especially the third generation's tall, elaborate, rust-proof, reflective metal signage. Perhaps they felt the latter's slick, citified quality clashed with the place's rustic ambiance -- that or they just wanted to make it harder for anyone to find them if they didn't want to be found, leaving those unfamiliar with the roads feeling so lost that they'd give up the search and switch focus to trying to find their way out of the maze.
Place 'haunted' by vast number
of phantom parcel owners
As said, many lot holders never even set foot on their properties. They'd snapped them up in pure speculation, plus maybe the excitement and bragging rights for owning a piece of California, hoping eventual improvements like central piped water and extended power lines would skyrocket their parcel's value.
Over the decades property titles traded like baseball cards at recess. If each parcel on average changed hands just three times over its first 50 years (probably an underestimate), then the place up to 2015 then had had a rotating ownership of some 5,000 individuals, from all over the nation, plus all their sundry involved family members.
That was a world of absentee ownership, guaranteed to forever keep the place more than a little sketchy around the edges.
While there was loads of phantom speculative interest in the place, there oftentimes was, again, little interest among most of the relatively few actual residents to ever work together to build community. Those that did would often content themselves at board meetings with small matters like authorizing funds from a rainy day fund to send get-well cards to ailing retiree neighbors. Many latter-day newcomers who'd first plugged in and involved themselves soon experienced the realm's dread undertow, which in turn created a Mt. Everest of dead inertia and shattered dreams and overwhelming sense of futility. They either gave up in disillusionment or seriously dialed back involvement. The few undeterred, more thick-skinned and unwavering could appear like so many Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills.
By the Vista’s fiftieth anniversary in November 2015 -- a milestone noted by few if any, much less celebrated -- absentee parcel owners still outnumbered residents over seven to one.
Setting the standard
As related, the first residents, maybe seven or so couples, were recent retirees flush with cash from selling their big-city homes, psyched at the prospect of becoming modern day pioneers of sorts and establishing their very own rural hideaway retirement community.*
*Among them the Nortons, Sheltons, and Smothermons. The last surviving one, Bill Waterson, died at home in 2015 at age 98. (Future residents claimed they sensed his spirit haunting the place.) Interesting how all names ended in -on.
They nurtured fond hopes of the place blossoming as an enviable, respectable, relaxed backwoods community. One which they as founding members would have established a comfortable living standard that others would naturally be attracted to and follow suit.
But its very success as a growing standard community hinged on every newcomer doing exactly that: generating their own infrastructure first off and conforming to health and building codes.
“You gotta permit for that?"
Health and building codes were so rigorously enforced in Siskiyou County then that the first wave of owner builders, being law abiding citizens, never thought twice. They dutifully jumped through every last hoop, even if some maybe gritted their teeth and grumbled a lot. So anyone else wanting to stay longer than 30 days a year -- legal limit for staying on one's unimproved property anywhere in California -- had to earn the same right just as they had, by gum. That was only fair.
Seeing how firstcomers went totally bonkers when people started moving in on the cheap and were reported like so many desperadoes, the more philosophical might've thought it all a tad ironic. How could a place starting out with such humble camp beginnings turn 180 degrees to become so wary of owners still opting to camp on parcels that they'd systematically check them out, tracking their permissible days left before throwing them under the bus?
The place had started as do-your-own-thing recreational lots, then tried to transform into a normal backwoods residential community, but was soon so muddled in purpose and lacking in respect for rules and ordinances that more and more residents thought oppressive and worthy of being ignored, that it soon wouldn't support either.
The Vista Through Time
1965-2015, Part 5
Continuing informal history, tales and reflections on
singular Mount Shasta Vista's first 50 years.
Power to the people
In the early 1970s Vista’s landholders started up a power-and-light fund. Funded by volunteer donation, it hoped to remedy the domain's primitive conditions, too primitive for some visiting property holders. Roughing it a little was okay, but having none of the standard go-juice much of humanity was so hooked on was taking things too far.
The fund initially hoped to enable extending power lines to each and every parcel whose owner committed to building to code once bringing in a well. The power company -- on the strength of developer Collins’s assurances he’d work to get everyone on board -- made a tentative commitment to extend power to every lot in the subdivision.
The place was yet at another crucial turning point: If everyone went along, it might be on its way to developing as an actual bonefide community. It would meet one of the three crucial infrastructure needs, along with water supply and proper waste disposal. It appeared on the verge of dramatically leaving its simple recreational-use beginnings behind and becoming an embryonic community.
But only three fourths got on board with the plan and ponied up. A quarter of the membership rebelled, refusing to contribute. This, despite a membership newsletter plea from Collins that began along the line of, "I know you each bought your lot out in the middle of nowhere so you could do with it whatever you damn well please, but...". He encouraged the holdouts to reconsider. But some had undoubtedly decided they were fine enjoying the rustic lands just the way they were, thank you. They relished roughing it and some no doubt felt unsightly power lines and poles would despoil the scenery and erode the place's relative pristine charm. Besides, they'd bought the land cheap for simple vacation use and didn't want to try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, as it were.
Others, maybe the majority, were only absentee-owner speculators, many already souring on the place and loathe to sink another cent in what was now looking like a loser money pit. It's likely some thought getting power to every lot alone wouldn't be enough to increase the place's market value due to the remaining iffy water situation and sometimes problematic waste disposal situation.
Sorry, out of luck
So the fund was a limited one that worked on a first-come, first served basis. After a dozen or two owner-builders went for it, the fund bled dry. The power company, having anticipated a flood of new power-guzzling customers, backed off from its tenuous commitment. They'd been discouraged anyhow by all the frequent drill-shattering lava rock strata encountered that required expensive bit replacement. (A similar problem was later experienced by some owners trying to dig a workable septic system leach field.)
Before efforts finally shut down, the expectant power company had planted tall street lamps at each highway A-12 entrance. The beacons -- which gave off an eerie cold bluish glow -- kept getting shot out by locals. No doubt they were still fulminating over the subdivision ever getting greenlit in the first place and took keen delight in being able to sabotage it without even having to leave the blacktop. After a few such persistent rounds of target practice, the road lamps were removed; the five entrances once again were obscured by darkness after nightfall.
All told, maybe 10-15% of the 1,640 parcels got connected to the grid. No doubt some owners who'd contributed to the fund -- assuming everyone would -- became bitter and sold in disgust. Or kept their lots, furious over the sad course of events in which they'd effectively subsidized enabling others to become legal residents while they were left out in the cold. When finally ready to build they'd be told sorry, out of luck, and the power company would then quote them a shocking five-figure estimate to extend lines.
Place didn't catch the solar-electric wave
Later, the place missed a sure bet not embracing solar electricity, what with its enviable banana-belt micro-climate and solar technology's in time plummeting in set-up costs ten-fold. It could be so sunshiny on some March days, one might be soaking up the rays while in Weed, a mere fifteen miles away, hunched-over snow shovelers still only dreamed of springtime. The first solar electric system was installed by 1970s' resident Brian Green, co-founding photographer of the now thriving HomePower magazine.* (In contrast to the Vista, not far away McCloud region’s Shasta Forest subdivision, much further from power lines yet its lot owners dutifully code-compliant, came to embrace solar full tilt as an affordable -- and environmentally friendly -- alternative.)
Writer in 1989 became one of very few Vista residents to embrace solar electricity. In my case it became sunshine or bust (no backup generator), which even now powers this article's periodic reworking. (A HomePower story on my small system was featured in issue #30.)
* While the home's later owner lost the place to the Lava Fire of 2021, one thing miraculously survived unscathed: the latest bank of solar panels. Safely perched above on its metal stand in a clearing amid otherwise total devastation, it looked like nothing at all was amiss as far as it was concerned.
While many hit good water between 200 to 350 feet or so, the wells of others were plagued with iron levels that dyed laundry pink or arsenic levels that made drinking the water a bit dicey.* And sometimes Shasta Vista’s underground water table proved FAR deeper -- 700 to 800 feet or more -- in areas like section 23.
*A retired couple on Gilman, a mile from writer, drilled a well with water having arsenic within former health department levels if treated. They died a while apart. While not sure if arsenic poisoning was determined their cause of death, not long after the department sharply reduced acceptable arsenic levels.
Developer Collins and a group of volunteers got together the ad hoc community well with huge holding tank and faucet that any land owner was welcome to use until their own wells were in, or to fill up containers during camp visits. He'd sold a water truck to the association for a dollar. Once the truck was eventually switched to fire use only, those with prohibitively deep water tables still found getting wells problematic -- one resident alone had three costly drilling misses -- and so formed the group Property Owners Without Water, or POWW, and got another water truck together.
Closing down the informal community well
In 1980 it came to light by County Health, on the wings of steeper California water-use laws, that the unofficial, never-sanctioned community well was in fact totally illegal. And the water truck wasn't certified for delivering potable water. Department head Dr. Bayuk capped the 26-residence water-truck club membership with an iron fist. He told us at a specially called meeting that he had discretionary powers and would let POWW members -- but only POWW members -- continue drawing from the well and hauling in light of so many of its members having sold their former homes and bought or built on the realtors’ assurance there was a community well, so one needn’t drill right away.
He then insisted all others drill approved wells first, before they could get a septic and building permit, and thus the official blessing to live on their property. Leastwise, not for more than 30 days a year before maybe being made to feel one was overstaying their welcome by ever-watchful neighbors, intent on trying to keep the rabble out. (Perhaps the wrong kind of neighborhood watch.) He hoped the POWW memberships, nontransferable to any subsequent home buyers, would fade away as people eventually got wells in, died, or properties sold to new owners, who'd then have to prove a well before moving in.
We were on our honor to comply. But inertia, ridiculously strong in Vista's manana land, reigned supreme. Some, rather than ever spring for a well, simply became resigned to hauling water in as the price one paid for living here affordably -- if sweating to keep below the radar of snoopy neighbors and official powers that be. They wanted to avoid spending a fortune on drilling efforts that might not even hit water, or hit good water, or enough water, plus the often-prohibitive expense of getting electric lines strung to power the often deep well pumps.
While the water-hauling membership was supposedly nontransferable, it was seldom if ever enforced. Decades later, there were over a half dozen otherwise code-legal homes in section 23 alone, which water hauling rights had technically been voided long ago through property ownership change, but later owners never proved wells and were still merrily hauling away. The county apparently didn't like to mess with homes once passing final inspection; the code enforcers' job was done as far as they were concerned.
Unfortunately this lent the impression one didn't need a well first in order to get a permit to build a house to code in the Vista. Or that maybe you could build first, then sometime down the road try for a well at your own convenience. Or not.
While Dr. Bayuk had strongly cautioned Vista board members to forbid anyone using the now restricted well beyond POWW’s own group, efforts to control access were sketchy to none. No one wanted to volunteer for guard duty, and fencing off and padlocking access was maybe seen as either unfeasible, impractical. or more work than anyone felt even half-way motivated wanted to do.
Hey, it comes with the property
Fast-forward decades and things were still out of control. Residents on the cheap and below radar, never intending to drill, kept relying on the quasi community well. They came to assume it was an official, sanctioned community well, a permanent water-rights amenity that came with one's land.
One neighbor would make daily drives for his teeming menagerie of farm critters in an ancient Cadillac with backseat removed and crammed full of lidded five-gallon buckets and Jerry cans.
Some reportedly copped showers there. During exotic bone-dry weather, a few of place's more free-spirited denizens often went with few or no clothes, so chancing a quick shower at the site with only sporadic traffic going by 60 feet away was no doubt felt no big deal for the chance to luxuriate in a fast cool down and rehydration on exotic 95-degree days. (It was the kind of place that in another time and circumstance might've made a great seasonal nudist colony.)
Finally, Vista board members, led by then-president George Gosting, were fed up and fearful of maybe getting fined by the state. Or sued by well-owning residents outraged over their dues going to replace the pump and cover monthly power bills. They rightly felt they'd been effectively subsidizing code noncompliance. The board came up with a solution: get rid of it. They sold it outright, no discussion or prior notice to association members. Done deal, end of story -- except for the unbridled fury of the well-less, mostly non-compliant residents suddenly left high and dry. And they got sued anyhow, by one irate section 23 resident at Stewart and Mildred in a code-approved home (perhaps leaning on its mistakenly believed transferable POWW member status) on faintly related, far-fetched racketeering charges. He promptly lost and the lawyer got a NEW Cadillac convertible as part payment.
“It’s all a big scam, I tell ya…”
Between earlier, fitfully enforced legal-residency codes and the end of the longtime common well, it must've seemed to all non-compliant dwellers, suddenly told to get own wells or else, that some grossly unfair building moratorium had been clamped on the place. Of course, it was all standard procedure to gain legal residency anywhere in California. But our place had always felt exceptional, perhaps in part for having such difficult water and being in such remote hinterlands. And maybe, too, because the Vista seemed to be under its own special dreamland spell. Somehow it just felt beyond the pale of normal regulations. Almost as if it was a realm unto itself, operating on its own unique frequency and penciling in its own rules as residents saw fit. Only suggestions, of course.
Various land-hungry buyers on a shoestring, lured by seeming bargain lands and not exercising due diligence, later felt majorly scammed if roused by the county and 'concerned citizens' and told they couldn’t live on legally without first spending a fortune to satisfy code. They’d accuse the Association board, management and realtors of all being in cahoots, churning difficult marginal properties for quick gain, keeping an opaque power hold on the place by constant lot shuffling, preying on people's desire to own their own land but knowing full well many buyers couldn't afford to legally live on their parcels short of winning the lottery or an rich old aunt dying.
The unending cycle, as parcel buyers saw it: a lot sold after the realtor, downplaying how problematic lot was to live on it as-is, offered a wink as if to say the rules usually went unenforced; the purchaser, disillusioned when hassled, quit paying the annual POA assessment; then the lot got foreclosed on and the Association re-listed the parcel and realtors waited for next suc -- er, buyer -- to come along.
In later times probably a buyer DID know the score and just didn’t care. They were game to join Vista’s growing non-compliant population, further emboldened over the County having scrapped its residential-code enforcer position for a critical five years (and then lacked teeth when brought back, forever playing catch-up and still considering the Vista a hopelessly lost cause). The situation easily lent the impression that anything went in the wild and woolly back country.
Of course it was always Buyer Beware. But you’d think more sporting realtors might’ve at least posted this sobering reminder over their doorways.
People with enough resources to pay $30,000 or more to drill a well and perhaps half again as much to get power extended to the property also had enough to buy land -- and more than any piddly 2-½ acres -- with far easier water access and unencumbered by the ceaseless ornery squabblings of disaffected neighbors. Why would anyone spend a fortune to buy into such a discombobulated sub-standard place?
Cheap land and million-dollar views could only go so far.
Plenty of room left in Hotel California:
recap on troubles in River City
Shasta Vista’s founder families had either known each other from down south or met during early annual summer camping vacations. Retirement-age couples flush with cash from selling city digs built most of the first full-on legal residences. In so doing, territorial imperative being strong, they worked to transform the remote rustic red lands into their own de facto law-abiding retirement community. One with a pronounced conservative SoCal social flavor.
In ways that counted, the Vista became their place. They sprang to volunteer and serve on Vista’s state-mandated board of directors, which ostensible main task (some maintained only) during required monthly meetings was deciding on budgeting road maintenance and keeping a handle on signage, plus address any member concerns brought to their attention by fellow owners.
Firstcomers felt a keen angst seeing their place lose its respectable quality once people started moving in on the cheap. So keen, the board’s appointed duties quickly, quietly expanded to include blowing the whistle to County for any and all discovered unapproved construction going on or camping visits seeming to suspiciously lean towards permanency.
Desperate to keep their endangered Shangri-la alive, they rang the phones off the hook reporting infractions. Infuriated board members and cohorts demanded appropriate county authorities respond and hold any and all scofflaws’ feet to the fire for having flagrantly tried sneaking in.
If enforcers didn’t do their job and the non-compliant got away with it, it could amount to selective ordinance enforcement, possible grounds for a lawsuit against the county. Stretched-thin enforcers obliged for a while, but eventually started grinding their teeth for having to constantly deal with what had become a major problem child for the county...one that, no matter how much they tried to get a handle on things, would never last. It seemed some new rash of illicit structures was always erupting, demanding yet another round of enforcement action, including threats of dire consequences if one didn't come into compliance in a timely fashion.
Authorities tried and tried, Whack-a-Mole efforts blitzing the land perhaps becoming an unlikely plot for some far-fetched tragi-comedy movie: "Invasion of the Building Inspectors."
Going bonkers over their genial scene being so rudely violated, compliant residents embraced law and order for all it was worth. Volunteer posses geared up the crusade patrolling endless back roads, running to earth any and all trying to call the Vista home but ignoring county ordinances -- whether willfully or in ignorance, no matter; the law was the law. Sometimes imperious posse members wouldn’t even talk to the culprits. They’d maybe tried earlier but got huffy when told what they could do with their procedures. Instead they just drove by, stopping briefly to scope the scene, later getting the parcel assessment numbers from their master map index and calling in a formal complaint...over every minutiae of noncompliance the latest bloodhound efforts revealed.
It was for such a scorched earth campaign the unkind moniker of "the gestapo" was eventually bestowed on the board by Vista's more live-and-let-live residents. They were shocked that a rigid, zero-tolerance policy existed; playing such ruthless hardball somehow just didn't seem to go with the would-be tranquil lands. Even though the place had seriously gotten off track over code compliance, one thought there must've been a better way to resolve things than to pursue such hostile tactics. But maybe not; maybe things were too polarized. Maybe the only alternative was to grimly accept that their Shangri-la was toast, property values sinking fast. That was unacceptable, even if it appeared to be fast becoming an irreversible fact. So, like Egyptian fish, they lived in denial, while making things as unpleasant as possible for every scofflaw resident.
Driving around a neighboring section long ago, the writer one day met a high-spirited man and his very pregnant partner on their land. He'd just thrown up a little makeshift two-story crackerbox palace of 2 X 4's and pressboard. Instant home, a goat or two grazed contentedly on nearby brush. I returned with sense of foreboding a month later. Sure enough, they were long gone and their shelter bulldozed to the ground, looking like it'd been struck by a tornado.
It was far from an isolated incident.
One might say it was people's own fault for not doing due diligence. Or that they knew the score but rolled the dice anyhow, thinking it was such cheap land, it was worth a try. Or rationalized that the realtor shouldn't have sold it to them, obviously being aware of their non-compliant intentions. In any event, many would-be country dwellers’ fondest dreams of cultivating simple affordable backwoods living were obliterated during Vista’s Intolerable Years, spanning roughly from the mid 1970s through much of the 1990s. Half-completed structures of varying ambition and construction skills stood abandoned and forlorn, radioactive from code-enforcement busts. In time they got picked off by furtive lumber 'recyclers'. ("Hey, it's just going to waste; I'm recycling, doncha know.")
Vista’s seemingly affordable, easy-come, easy-go lands over the decades were often proving instead to be more easy-come, hard-go...that is, if one dared try do anything beyond briefly camp out on their land and not bite the bullet to establish legal residency.
Welcome to Mt. Shasta Vista, now go away:
Writer's first impressions
The large imposing signs planted at each of the place's five county road A-12 entrances, plus every section corner, made the board's policy crystal clear in large black lettering: HEALTH AND BUILDING CODES STRICTLY ENFORCED.
And woe betide any poor soul failing to heed such no-nonsense warning.
So along comes your hand-hungry writer, a rambling 29 year-old would-be nature boy of threadbare means, burned out living on the road, with visions of building a bower in the wilderness dancing in his head. With champagne taste but living on a beer budget, I soon warmed to the notion of building in the bone-dry yet unspoiled, super-affordable juniper lands instead of the redwood creekside of my dreams -- to blasted code if that’s what it took and as meager resources and steep learning curve allowed. Though it would prove by the biggest project of my life til then, at least lumber was relatively cheap and the building code a smidgen less onerous -- if far more zealously enforced -- and costly to comply with.
To my highly impressionable mind the growling entrance signs were of more than a passing concern. Even if lots were cheap -- most listed for $1,750. with $250. down and $25./month at 7-1/2 % interest -- the place somehow appeared more than a smidgen unfriendly. To me the signage seemed to essentially say something like, “Welcome to Mt. Shasta Vista. No this, no that, no the other thing, under penal codes such and such; violators will be hung by their toenails; in fact, we DARE you to even enter.”
Or, more directly, “Welcome -- now leave!”
On reading a further warning in huge letters, “Private Property -- Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, part of me felt I might be arrested any second. It was as if I’d stumbled onto some top-secret government compound and should turn around while there was still time.
As was the case with countless others on a shoestring, keen land hunger and cheap lot prices would win out over common sense and negative first impressions that instantly screamed Red Alert.
Sign wording was, of course, meant to discourage any would-be substandard dwellings and, perish the thought, white trailer trash, or scraggly hippies with their outlandish communes, from ever trying to settle in their still mostly code-compliant scene, eroding the enclave's genteel, law-abiding ways and solid property values. Also, to dissuade any would-be wood poachers, game hunters, trash dumpers, vehicle abandoners or miscreants harboring designs of plundering the goods trustingly left in trailers and mobile homes on briefly visited lands. (Even decades later, an entire 10 X 40 foot vacant mobile was actually snatched in the dead of night from one lot and hauled over a mile to another without consequence.)
Alas, maybe they needed that loud bark after all.
...with screenplay by Rod Serling
However...the working Chinese philosophy of feng shui held that the given energy at an entrance set up a vibration that the entire place then forever resonated with. Sadly, the essence of such gnarly wording indeed seemed to ripple out throughout the realm, especially when reinforced by the large warning signs planted at every section corner. Friends visiting me decades later, not wanting to tempt fate, parked their vehicle by the barking sign and walked the entire way in, over a mile.
Entering the Vista for the first time could be like walking into the middle of a movie and trying to figure out a plot that seemed in turn scripted by Zane Grey, Rod Serling and J. Edgar Hoover.
That nice welcoming wooden arch once spanning the main entrance? After the writer in due course got his own 'unwelcome wagon', he felt it might as well have said, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Vista through Time
1965-2015, Part 6
Conclusion of rambling informal history, remembrances and reflections
of the first fifty years of central-top California's Mount Shasta Vista subdivision
"We can chart our future clearly and wisely only
when we know the path which has led to the present."
-- Adlai E. Stevenson
It perhaps came as no surprise that the Vista entrance sign's less-than-welcoming energy was reflected in its mandatory monthly board meetings. Open to all parcel owners and family members, the proceedings, though sometimes dull as dishwater, could be lively: one time a fistfight broke out on the floor.
It was as if the place had somehow gotten infected with a deadly cancer that was slowly metastasizing into total self-destruction. The swelling tsunami waves of bickering among dwellers was so mind boggling, it would've made rich fodder for gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson: “Fear and Loathing in the Vista.”
First residents must've felt something like the earliest prospectors during the California Gold Rush. Their once-idyllic scene of briefly having the diggings all to themselves quickly turned to pandemonium once a flood fellow seekers of the prized yellow stone descended en masse. Similarly, earliest Vistans briefly had the vast nature-rich domain all to themselves and luxuriated in it, establishing their own dominant social flavor and ways and insisting any future would-be residents get in lock-step and follow their lead and establish their own code-approved homes...or else.
As more moved in, many opting to ignore the code, they still had the ball through their lock on board membership and ran with it, clinging to it for dear life. They'd soon dismiss as idiots anyone who took exception to their hardball tactics; they clearly didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Beyond desperate, their bottom line was that come hell or high water they'd do their damnedest to keep the place from getting overrun by any willfully ignoring the health building codes they'd so dutifully complied with, having (briefly) made the place a respectable -- if surreally thin-spread -- standard rural community.
Desolated and shocked to the core, imperious board members clad themselves in full armor, mace and swords at the ready, prepared to do battle. For a while they tried avoiding any public discussion on a controversial matter by mumbling “public comments?” out of the side of their mouths before taking a fast vote. "Motion?...second?...all in favor...passed." They'd banked on newbies’ unfamiliarity with formal meeting procedure. Shouts of protest once concerned newbie residents got wind of their furtive maneuver were countered by simpering yells from board supporters: “Robert's Rules! Robert's Rules!”
The well-heeled firstcomers’ dream of establishing a dutifully conventional backwoods Shangri-la had turned into a nightmare. The Vista was coming apart at the seams before their eyes.
As more and more settled among the junipers and sagebrush -- many of such modest means and free spirited, if not rebellious, natures that the notion of building to code, again, wasn't even considered -- the country's code-enforcement officers response finally reached a critical tipping point. Beyond it, they were unable and/or unwilling to enforce the codes and ordinances here (the very ones that people living in town, nowhere to hide, perforce toed the line on). This despite being duly appraised and constantly updated of the intolerable situation by the seething mad code-compliant dwellers who constantly plagued them with their latest complaints demanding action. The prospect of taking an early retirement perhaps started to look good to some.
So it happened that county authorities appeared to almost entirely abandon code enforcement efforts within the sprawling, misbegotten realm. One got the feeling they liked to pretend it simply didn't exist. (Not unlike the place's scofflaw dwellers towards their residential ordinances). That is, not beyond the county's property tax collectors' and property assessors' unfailing attentions.
It seemed the only responses made, other than actual emergencies, were to the most persistent calls from fuming parties who knew the law and perhaps threatened legal action if they didn't respond. They'd become such pains, it no doubt became easier to finally drag themselves out and tell the culprits, "Hey, you can't be doing this, you better stop or else," and hope the admonishment would stick. There were times when a sheriff deputy accompanied them to back matters up and the scofflaws would then in usually clear out, fantasy of easy cheap country living gone bust. But other times the non-compliant, some quite hardened, kept right on living the way they were on their parcels, feeling inertia and property rights would win the day.
White bread outpost?
Though some might've felt mixed feelings towards firstcomers over their seething-mad intolerance of substandard construction and sanitation, one had to sympathize. What a heartbreaking situation it must've been to see a place they'd held such high hopes for irretrievably slip away... perhaps not too unlike a predestined romance shorting out for one party being asleep at the wheel at the critical moment. The Vista could’ve, should've, would've become a nicely settled, convention-minded, enviable backwoods community...
...if still only a white bread one.
For although in later years absentee ownership appeared to become racially diverse judging by file list of owner names, actual residents in 2014 -- numbering yet only perhaps 300 to 350 -- were still overwhelmingly white. While there were a few Hispanics, there seemed to be few to no Black, Asian, or Native American. Growing up in the polyglot melting pot of San Francisco, writer didn’t find anything amiss about this -- other than wincing whenever a neighbor dropped the ‘n’ word in casual conversation (or later, the 'c' word). I’d learned to pretty much adapt to any ethnic mix or lack thereof in a place, given an even playing field, no parties having expedient intentions.
The scene perhaps reflected rural Siskiyou county as a whole, so predominantly white that it might've appeared to be -- not without a degree of truth -- something of a narrow minded, racist backwater to any minority members arriving from a larger, melting-pot city with its relative mutual racial tolerance, inclusivity and intercultural blending.
But maybe it wasn't ignorant prejudice per se that made the Vista's overwhelmingly white population -- simply white folks out in the sticks -- so seemingly unwelcoming to people of color as much as the inclination of like-minded ethnic and cultural groups to stick together over time and so be slow to adapt to radical change in its ethnic make-up. There was a steep learning curve -- fraught with great potential for suspicion and mutual misunderstanding -- for both groups. Regardless, a willingness to be law abiding went a long ways in helping the process along.
A more diverse Vista residency from the start might've made for a more culturally rich and thriving development, such as it was. But it was all moot, for Wonderbread it was a half century.
A fine line
Anyone respecting the rule of law held that a development had the need of residents working together on some level and following the county's and state's rules in order to keep things safe and pleasant for everyone -- the acid test being one’s children -- who'd committed to hanging their hats there. Otherwise, weeds of civic indifference and scofflaw attitudes could spring up, filling in the social vacuum and choking the place's livability.
However, it could make simple country living all but impossible if ordinances were TOO strict, too expensive, too onerous for the majority to successfully conform to. As the poet Kahlil Gibran noted on this eternal dance in The Prophet: “You delight in laying down laws / Yet you delight more in breaking them.”
It appeared there was maybe some fine line between having enough rules and regulations to keep at least a semblance of fair-minded order and having too many and courting sure rebellion. In any event, as mentioned, developer Collins would never have gotten the Vista development greenlit if not having set up the CC&Rs to reflect every buyer legally agreeing to observe all county and state rules, laws and ordinances on signing the title paperwork.
But (as often pointed out) the rush of having one’s own land in such a relatively remote region could easily obscure the reality of there being ANY county or state regulations at all to conform to. It looked like one could do anything they wanted on their property. There wasn't anyone around to say 'boo', especially once the county's residential code-enforcement efforts were abandoned in budget cuts.
“I say we got Trouble...with a capital ‘T’...”
Writer's personal experiences
In October 1978 I snapped up a nice, fairly level lot with an inspiring mountain view for $1,750., $250. down and easy terms. I got by on it for eleven years with kerosene lamps and candles before at last going solar in 1989, when solar panels cost ten times more than now, not even allowing for inflation. (A one-by-four foot, 50 watt panel cost over $400.)
It was an early fall, so I set up quick camp. While days were still pleasant, overnight temperatures plunged to a bone-chilling 13 degrees F. On my first morning after overnighting on the land, an older man driving by saw me heating coffee water and defrosting myself over a tiny rock-lined campfire in a clearing some 30 feet from the road. He braked suddenly, climbed out and stood, pointedly looking at the fire.
“You got a permit for that?” he demanded to know. Thus were my first words of welcome from the would-be community. They weren't assuring.
Fast forward six weeks and I'd apparently waited too long to apply for my building permit -- and crucially, join the POWW water-truck club in lieu of drilling a well. As a result I got the full "Unwelcome Wagon" treatment from sundry busybodies of a development that, as I quickly began to appreciate, was more than a little squirrelly.
While I had intended to conform all along, a good part of me being a timid, law-abiding citizen (if also one having a pronounced contrary, intellectually radical streak), I was by nature gearing up slowly; I 'd intended to submit formal building plans the following spring. Meanwhile I planned to research tiny home designs and construction methods and building codes and then draw up tentative designs to submit. I was staying in a not-distant 12-by-16 foot cabin that kindhearted neighbors, leaving as the pleasant season wound down and taking pity on me, offered to let me, a total stranger, winter in.
This so I wouldn’t freeze to death camping in my tent as I'd first resolved. I'd wanted to stay on my brand-new land and future homeland no matter what. Cold alone could be endured with my extreme-weather bedding and jury-rigged wood stove in the tent (not recommended) but, unbeknownst to me, the region was notorious for windstorms of incredible fury. Coming out of nowhere, they tore through the land like a runaway freight train on a steep downhill.
December storm assaults kept blowing the tent down, no matter how tightly I secured it. When it collapsed yet again in the middle of a howling blizzard, I finally surrendered. Grateful I had the option, the next morning I moved into their vacated shelter. Thereafter I made the quarter-mile hike each day to work on my place clearing brush, roughing in a roadway and building an earth-sheltered storage shed that would became my legal onsite construction shelter once gaining my building permit.
It seemed that ever-vigilant Vista board members and their cohorts had established an inside pipeline to local realtors for every Vista parcel sale made. Unknown distant neighbors soon learned of this rambling upstart of obviously modest means ostensibly daring to sneak into their would-be proper domain. My Strout realtor informed me later that while telling them he'd just sold a lot to a young hippie-ish man, he refused to divulge which one or where. (I found that sporting.)
A determined posse, hot on the scent of a new scofflaw, combed the endless back roads. Weeks later they finally tracked my place down when I wasn’t home. They took one look at my thrown-together, mostly underground shed and verboten outhouse and duly reported me to the county health department. They didn’t know -- or, I suspect, care-- that I had earnest intentions of starting the legal process of building a home to code come spring.
Their scorched-earth policy allowed no such wiggle room.
Summoned onto the carpet of then head county health department honcho, Dr. Bayuk, I wasn't even allowed to explain my situation and intent to comply. He was loaded for bear and I was read the riot act. He gave me 120 days to get compliant by installing a septic system -- even though I wouldn’t have a cabin to connect to it for years -- or he'd get me thrown off my land. “And don’t think I won’t!”, he growled, shaking his head, jowls shaking like Nixon's, probably thinking I needed an extra dose of fear instilled in me to get properly motivated.
The only reason he accommodated me at all rather than giving me the full bum's rush was because at the last moment another kindhearted neighbor had come forward and explained that they’d promised to let me join the water truck club as soon as I was ready to build.
Being thin-skinned, the whole experience happening within months of arrival traumatized me. Before getting into POWW as its last member by plunking down $125. I'd all but given up. Devastated and demoralized, part of me had briefly geared up with dread to fade away into yet another depressing homeless sunset. Instead, though fondest my hopes and dreams felt hopelessly mangled, I dredged some reserve will, dully determined to invest the required time, money and effort to get legal and squared away. I'd then at least manage to live on my land with a modicum of salvaged dignity and some threadbare peace of mind.
I passed the perc test and dug and installed an approved septic system. By agreement I built an outhouse over the top of the buried tank for use until completing the approved cabin. In part for the benefit of any who might drive by to check out the latest almost-bust, as if hoping to find some new reportable offense, I painted on the side facing the road in bold blue letters, “Welcome Halley's Comet in 1984.” That should baffle 'em, I thought.
It'd be decades before I'd ever warm to the board and appreciate its potential to do good for such a sketchy, seemingly forever dysfunctional-and-proud quasi community.
Over a leisurely three and a half years I built my code-approved, 1½ story, solar-tempered little-big cabin using only hand tools. I hired help for open-beam roofing and electrical and scrounged recycled lumber when possible. It appeared I was on the verge of becoming a tenuously respectable resident -- not that I was longer interested in being accepted as such. It was like the classic Groucho Marx quip made over a restrictive country club's finally offering him a membership despite being Jewish: I didn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Working under the gun of county code enforcers, no doubt sharing notes with ever-wary Vista board members and their spies, was so depressing it drove me to drink. I'd learned firsthand how board members and their guard had a gift for radicalizing the place's denizens in the hell-bent campaign to try to return the place to its initial full code compliance. It felt as though the place were caught up in some negative reactionary spiral, trapped in a contention-drenched time loop without end.
On the wings of getting my new shelter signed off in early 1983, I was still something of a rebellious 33 year-old. One now thoroughly disenchanted with the Vista's imperious, would-be overlords and their ceaseless ax grinding.
Right away I'd get into even more serious trouble. It seemed I decided to celebrate Halley’s Comet return by hosting a rainbow family camp on my land.
In 1984 the annual national alternative-culture rainbow gathering was being held in California for the first time, in an area a two hour drive away in the Warner Mountains wilderness, located in the remote northeast corner of the state. Come spring, a flood of psyched early-comers, some returning for the first time in decades to their countercultural roots, came from everywhere. Many had nowhere to go, as the public-forest site would not be determined for months.
Hoping to be of service while at the same time reconnecting with my own roots (and maybe liberating the development a bit), I opened my land to all comers. I solemnly tendered an invite by letter to the rainbow steering committee, then holding monthly meetings in far away Chico. Word spread fast. Though never recognized or supported as an official rainbow camp (for being on private land), for the next six months hundreds of early comer wired spirits in their colorful, glad-rag garb and sometimes outlandish rigs traipsed in and out of the depressingly buttoned-down-and-proud Vista lands. It came to feel a little like the scene in the animated feature 'Yellow Submarine',when the Beatles' triumphant music turned the dreary frozen black-and-white world into dazzling technicolor.
Residents, most living miles off, had a veritable conniption fit. While a few more liberal-minded retirees seemed tickled by it all, possibly rebels at heart who didn't see anything really threatening, most wanted none of it. No free-spirited long-hairs with their flagrant pot-smoking, shameless public nudity and vaguely threatening tribal drumming long into the night. Not in their one-time promised land now going to rack and ruin, thank you very much. One family per parcel; that was the Vista rule etched in stone. Claims of “Hey, we ARE one family” wouldn't cut much ice.
Frothing at the mouth, they reported me to every enforcement agency they could think of: sheriff, county health, planning, building departments, fire marshal, probably the dog catcher... But earlier I’d initiated a meeting between then county sheriff Charlie Byrd and rainbow elders on the land. Law enforcement was keen to know what they might expect with 33,000 rainbow celebrants (as it turned out), soon to flood the wider region. The sheriff, reassured our ragtag group was basically a harmless if freaky bunch causing only a temporary glitch in the conventional order of things, must've basically told apoplectic neighbors to just chill a while, grit their teeth, that it'd soon all be over. Jaws no doubt dropped.
Writer liked to think the liberated scene helped break the ice of the Vista's astonishingly oppressive atmosphere, even if at the risk of possibly encouraging anarchy to gain too free a reign. It seemed the place would naturally swing from one extreme to the other over time: From firstcomers' honeymoon period, happy campers giddy over the endless possibilities; to ruthless law-and-order minded "No this, no that, don't even think about it" intolerance," then back to "Whoopee, anything goes!"
Gone eleven months of the year
Their extreme control-freak stance was, as said, in part born of initial parcel holders feeling the need to post growling signs everywhere to try to protect the place and left belongings while living 700 miles away some 11 months of the year. Mischief-minded locals, resenting their bogarting former stomping grounds, had a field day during their long absences...which of course got visiting owners spitting-nails mad on their return.
The endless miles of ungated, groomed backroads were ideal for dirt bikes to make deep donuts in, and they tried reclaiming the place for their continued enjoyment, if now on a new, rebellious level. Among the more criminally-minded, locals engaged in spirited hell raising, stealing and vandalizing at will. The unruly among the locals had obviously geared up a protracted war with the foreign la-la-landers who'd so rudely appropriated their one-time wilderness. Law enforcement could only do so much trying to work with long-absent owners, there being maybe at most a single overseer watching over seven square miles of properties off season and the actual owner needing to report any incident to get an investigation.
By the time civic-minded lot owners actually started living on their parcels and joining into the larger community, enrolling kids in the local schools and joining PTAs and attending churches, it seemed too late to reverse the long-established vicious circle. Dislike and suspicion of the Vista and its lot owners seemed firmly ingrained in the minds of a majority of locals.
“Permit? We ain’t got no permit...
I don’t need no stinkin’ permit!”
As related, through the ‘80s and ‘90s the county's health and building ordinances were by and large still strictly enforced. Unless one didn’t mind being deemed an outlaw and never earning recognition or acceptance as an “official” resident -- in time it seemed more and more wouldn't mind at all -- many landowners, hoping to become respectable residents, tried to comply. Or at least provide the illusion of trying: "See here? I started a well; I'm a hundred feet down and I'm waiting on my next paycheck to drill deeper, cut me some slack here, will ya?"
After the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hit, devastating the global economy, county supervisors had to make tough decisions. Among other posts, they decided to ax that of the residential-code enforcer. It seemed to be having little effect, anyhow -- leastwise not in the Vista; the place was so far gone by then it was a lost cause.
Over the next half decade, residential-code enforcement basically disappeared. With no official telling you anything different, it was easier than ever for Vista newcomers to foster the notion that they could do anything they wanted on their parcels. The threatening signs erected everywhere were biodegrading, slowly fading away into illegibility, lending the place the air of being a forlorn, semi-abandoned ghost town living out its half-life in the boonies.
No legal power to fine;
Could a place find center without a center?
Other subdivisions forming about same time wanted to assure having the best chance of creating and keeping a law-abiding residency. They gave their property-owner boards legal power to levy fines for infractions of agreed-on rules. If not paid, they could slap legal liens on culprit's property. Examples: in Lake Shastina, visible clotheslines, solid fencing and dirt bikes were all verboten; in Shasta Forest, one could get fined fifty dollars for changing oil on their own property even if capturing every drop for recycling.
No such legal powers ever existed in the Vista.
That had always been the place's two-edged sword. While its relative lack of sometimes nit-picky, overreaching rules and regulations (or enforcement thereof, leastwise) empowered residents to feel more like lords and ladies of the manor, such freedom could also attract those with scofflaw intentions, those wanting to exploit the lands and thus further disturb the place's long-cultivated peace and quiet. Example: the place long ago had a monumental junkyard eyesore, surreally surrounded by yet-pristine empty lots; it took the board ages to get the county to condemn it and the place get cleaned up.
It basically came down to giving people the freedom to do what they wanted just so long as their actions didn’t interfere with rights of others to do what they wanted. Liberty vs. license. The flip side of liberty was, of course, the obligation to support the rules of law set up to safeguard those freedom rights of the greatest number. (That the rules sometimes seemed to clearly favor the wealthier class at the expense of others getting the short end of the stick was what made people want to rebel.)
The Vista never built a community center. Even though its population had grown enough to merit one, there was never enough community support for creating such a facility. A place where residents and visiting members could meet, get to know each other in a relaxed setting, form informal volunteer action groups like litter patrol and community gardens, hold swap meets...
Instead, monthly board meetings were held in a cramped, cold-fluorescent-lit backroom of the volunteer firehouse on Juniper Drive, just beyond Vista boundaries. And the annual property owner meetings were held ten miles away in Lake Shastina. (In earliest years, they were held hundreds of miles away, at places like many members’ then favorite, the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, to make it easier for the dominant southern California ownership to attend.)
It was hard for a quasi community to ever gain a sense of centeredness without a center. Driving ten miles away from the place to attend its annual meeting was too weird for words.
“Wouldn’t give you a dime…” vs. “Only $29,999!”
As related, due to the place’s sundry shortcomings the sale values of parcels stalled for decades, barely keeping pace with inflation. Until 2015, unimproved two-to-three acre lots often went begging at $5,000. Lacking any easier water, septic systems and electricity or a more can-do, fair-minded, and empowered board, or any more appropriate CC&Rs, the place fairly shouted, "Beware, failed subdivision!"
It didn’t at all strike many as an inviting place to drop anchor. Only those enjoying roughing it for a while and relishing the novelty of having their own piece of California land. Or those determined to live on the cheap and wouldn't lose any sleep for being non-compliant; "Screw the system" could've been their motto. Or those renting houses and mobiles from code-compliant owners, who'd moved away, for their affordability more than anything else. Or long-timers who'd known the place in kinder times and had sunk deep roots and so weathered the changes.
Long ago I met a former realtor who said of the properties, with a bitter disdain apparently then common in certain property hawking circles, “I wouldn’t give you a dime for any of them!” He said it with such vehemence, like the realm was an radioactive waste dump or something, that it made one wonder if he or his colleagues had maybe skirted ugly, protracted lawsuits over misrepresentation of Vista parcels' livability or endured some other such unpleasantness, making it not worth the paltry commission fee a parcel sale might generate.
Two realtor groups who specialized in scouting developments deemed undervalued thought differently. In the late aughts they snapped up for cheap hundreds of the bedeviled hinterland's parcels that had long lay fallow (at least relieving many long-stuck or more recently-stuck parcel owners). They promptly mounted slick sales campaigns to try to remedy the woefully under-exploited situation...and hopefully make a mint for the helpful middleman services they were glad to render.
The first outfit was National Recreational Properties, Inc. It hired former CHiPs TV star Erik Estrada as their aggressive pitchman. Out of Irvine (possibly the same town as Vista founder Collins), it apparently had a penchant for going after failed, “left-for-dead” subdivisions, sharp talons squeezing out any easy quick profit before swooping off to next rural developmental roadkill. In ad promos "the Ponch" would enthuse how the place was so great, he even owned a parcel. (He was given it as part of the deal just so he could claim that.)
The outfit offered to fly prospective buyers in to enjoy a champagne brunch along with the big pitch and a grand tour of the overnight high-priced properties with such solitude and dazzling mountain views. When they held a grand open house, balloons festooning highway entrances, rumor had it no one even showed. (They were more successful with their Alturas, California area development of California Pines., which boasted over 15,000 one-acre parcels, each demanding the installation of pricey, engineer-designed septic systems.)
A few years later, around 2012 Billyland realtors -- possibly taking lots off the former’s hands -- likewise grabbed a mess of raw Vista parcels. They in turn seemed to aim at land-hungry Internet surfers. They'd hawk parcels online Ebay auction style, 'winner' being the one having made the highest down-payment bid when the timer ran out. “Only $29,999!” they gushed. (With low monthly payments and high interest rate, final cost could run over $50,000.) Their campaign attracted many living on a shoestring, some soon to grow a few cannabis plants, no doubt in part to make land payments and avoid losing what some legal residents, perhaps uncharitably, viewed as little more than private campgrounds for the homeless. (As of late 2022, they were still trying to hawk a lot or two at $80,000.)
By 2015, according to county records there were some 80 legally permitted residences. Out of 1,640 parcels, that was one in twenty, five percent. The rest -- some 1556, 95% of the parcels -- either held unpermitted dwellings, were once lived on under radar and since vacated, or were still as relatively pristine as the day the place was launched a half century before.
“Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away.”
It was no great secret the county supervisors rued the day they ever greenlit the woebegone development. One former Vista board president stalwart, Jeannette Hook, who worked with county officials, said they came to view the Vista as the red-headed stepchild no one knew what to do with.
Meanwhile, the place, having no fining power, was -- short of extra-legal vigilante efforts -- fully at the mercy of county officials and enforcers to keep intact any remaining shreds of law and order.
But the huge, mostly rural county, on an overstretched budget and often understaffed, had long before burned out dealing with the forsaken realm. Responsible enforcement and policy-making parties grew numb to the perpetual thorn in their side. They tried to forget its minority of legal residents paid their salaries through annual county property taxes and, not unreasonably, expected them to earn their keep.
Despite (or because of) non-code-compliant residents growing greater in number, some becoming bold and blatant, they still wouldn't respond short of serious incidents; they knew a lost cause when they saw one. County officials kept kicking the can down the road on automatic pilot, determined to avoid dealing with the disaster area whenever possible..
...until the day of reckoning finally came in the spring of 2015. The sudden flood of illicit growers had seemingly popped up out of nowhere like a giant jack-in-the-box, catching everyone flatfooted, asleep at the switch, out to lunch... "No one could've possibly predicted such a thing could happen" one official explained to the media, head firmly in the sand. Studious ignoring of the development's plight -- born of a rural county too poor -- and perhaps too lackadaisical -- to enforce its own ordinances and regulations should enough rebel -- had been careening towards a collision course with reality for ages...
...until the officials' studious avoidance of dealing with it finally proved an unwarranted luxury.
Fifth century B.C. Chinese philosophy Lao Tse once said that the cause of anything is everything, and the cause of everything is anything. It'd be grossly over-simplistic to try to pin the blame for what happened to the realm on any one cause or party.
There was an extraordinarily daunting combination of cascading factors at play over time, many diverse ingredients in the place's recipe for disaster.
A brief recap:
First, the seller never got permission from the rest of the Martin family to sell it, thus establishing the foundation for all the place's later contentious energies amping up
Then, the surrounding locals had an abiding resentment of the place ever being allowed to develop, including county board members who nearly voted against the formation of the limited ambition, recreational-use development for lacking crucial infrastructure
Then, a few years, the ambitious efforts of first settlers to each provide their own well, electrical hookup, etc., was not emulated by most later dwellers despite being crucial to become a normal community
A sea of indifferent absentee owners, often speculators, countless eventually nursing buyer remorse and loathe to sink another cent in the place for any reason whatsoever;
A firebrand property owners board, reacting to the rash of scofflaw residents determined to live on their lots without the county's blessing;
Expedient-minded realtors, not giving a hoot what one intended to do with a lot;
Uninvolved association managers, largely unsympathetic or ineffective in helping residents' efforts to make and keep the place livable, speculating on or actually moving lots themselves on the side, indifferent to the consequences;
County officials who all but abandoned former efforts to enforce minimum national standards of living through health and building permits and code inspections;
More and more residents who deemed California's home building-code standards so high, complicated and expensive for simple country living, they were worthy of being ignored.
Mix together and bake 50 years. Result? A giant question mark of a place that popular opinion loved shake their heads over and dismiss as one helpless, terminally dysfunctional mess of a development.
Was it any wonder it became such a basket case? All along it seemed it was perversely vying for the 'Most Dysfunctional Rural Development' award in some bizarro alternate universe.
Countless influences -- some maybe not even touched on here -- led the Vista to become the way it is now: a former shared recreational land trying to be something more despite the cards being stacked against it from the start...
...and, people being people and the Vista being the Vista, is still trying to, any way it can.
Can the place ever find redemption? It might appear unlikely, but you never know.
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