A Rough Idyll at the Edge of California

Wander up a two-lane highway south of Tahoe into the cool of the Sierras and you’ll find a starkly beautiful, unusually quiet place. California’s least populated county may not be the easiest place to make a living, but it’s a great place to disappear.

Alpine County is, simply, a handful of mountain outposts, ski resorts and ranches amid swaths of rocky peaks, canyons and forestland. Three main roads in and out. And a perhaps generously estimated 1,200 residents, some of whose families have lived here since the county’s Gold Rush economic heyday. It is a get-away-from-it-all kind of spot, whether from the manic, cash-flooded asylum of the Bay Area or just down the mountainside in the relative metropolis of Nevada’s Carson Valley.

Businesses in Markleeville (the affable county seat, population 200-ish) are perennially for sale or closed for half the week, but they’re making a go of it. In the winter, nearby Monitor and Carson passes are often impassable, sheltering the area from civilization even further. A couple summers back, a massive wildfire put a scare into residents, charring nearby mountainsides but ultimately leaving the town unscathed.

Markleeville’s only bar, remembered here more fondly and dangerously in a previous incarnation as the Cutthroat Saloon, still slings beers, cocktails and grub. It’s a sweet-spot kind of drinking establishment that feels as if just about anyone might show up from somewhere else to bemuse and entertain the locals for a while. Whether a phalanx of bikers just down from a rally in Reno, their rumbling Harleys drowning out the chorus of cows on the outskirts of town; a Porsche-driving, middle-aged man intent on scrolling his tablet while drinking Chardonnay at the cramped and wizened wooden bar; or a young woman with her boyfriend announcing she has a peanut allergy and can’t order any food made with peanut oil, then settling for a plate of nachos and sipping her IPA through a straw. The colorful regulars seem grounded by comparison.

“Our town motto: it takes all kinds, and we got ‘em,” said the cheerfully salty woman behind the bar, adding, “I’m not sure how I’m going to get paid, but I can fish out my back door and hike out my front door.” The conservative old timers of Alpine County are joined by a smattering of ex-hippies and artists, the common thread here being simply wanting to be left alone. In fact, many insist this rustic county (particularly the eastern side) is more Nevadan than Californian.

Across the street at the town’s beloved mountain bistro Stonefly, self-taught chef Ali Bornstein and her husband Nick Hartzell (who built the place) are serving up a seasonal menu as enjoyable as some of the finest in the big city — minus the inflated attitudes and prices, and plus an atmosphere of warmth and conviviality. A wood counter overlooks the kitchen and brick oven, and a handful of hard-working staff churn out pizza with roasted grape and prosciutto, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, pea soup with asparagus and mint, or almond torte with cardamom crème anglaise. Behind, local politicians, prospective politicians and judges chat with businessmen and ranchers, or young couples up from Gardnerville for the evening. This shrug-and-you-clearly-missed-it town also includes a courthouse, general store, art gallery, library, hotel, museum, post office and nearby hot springs.

“There’s an awful lot of people that don’t know anything about Alpine County,” said Aileen Merrill, who lives with her husband Stu, the former county sheriff, in their home down the road in nearby Woodfords.

Aileen remembers teaching Native American first- and second-graders — a community descended from the region’s first Washoe settlers, and who still remain here — at the town’s school. “All eight grades in one room,” she said. The Merrill family were once pioneers from the East Coast, and became one of the founding families of the town during the Gold Rush, setting up a trading post and hotel that served the miners. Their descendants have lived in the area ever since. “Having been born and raised here, they know every stream, every mountain, every canyon,” Merrill said. “Our kids would learn to ski as soon as they could walk.”

“There has always been good hunting and fishing,” said Stu Merrill, who remembers spending much of his time doing search and rescue operations as the rugged county’s top lawman from 1958 to 1978. “Some of the younger ones have been trying to make things interesting for the tourists,” he added. Alpine County is inching forward from the days of one-room schoolhouses and cattle drives up Highway 88.

Stu and Aileen’s niece Linda Merrill now owns the family store, located on the same highway and upgraded to the name “Market 88.” She acknowledges the difficulties of keeping a small business afloat here, including having to adhere to the same rigorous regulations that wealthier California counties have to, but she is striving to maintain a sense of community in a changing world.

“That’s the good thing about being in a small town,” Linda Merrill said. “Everybody does care. People want to know you, people want to help you.”

Alpine County’s remoteness and small population has even spurred brief attempts at political takeover. Both gay rights activists and an extremist right-wing group separately eyed Alpine County in the 1970s as a refuge to bolster their movements, spurring concerted opposition from locals. Neither effort came to fruition.

Though change may come slowly to Alpine County, where nearly all of the land is federally owned and economic expansion difficult, there have been shifts. Once a Republican stronghold like much of interior California, Alpine has bucked the trend by voting Democrat in every presidential election since 2004. More non-permanent residents are buying second homes (and possibly voting), to the chagrin of a few longtime locals.

Nancy Thornburg has nearly seen it all here. Originally from Oakland, she has lived in Alpine County for almost 60 years, like Aileen Merrill working as a teacher to Native American schoolchildren, and later as county archivist and director of Markleeville’s historical museum. She once started up a local newspaper and now manages an email newsgroup for the area. Remaining active in the community, she is also not shy of opinions.

In 1981, Thornburg penned an essay attempting to shed light on the reality of living in Alpine County, which she says drew the ire of many of her fellow residents. Among other things, she referred to the area as “dreadfully isolated,” with a “lousy” climate, few jobs and resources, and “nothing to do.” But really it was a heartfelt response to gushing travel stories at the time drawing tourists who had no idea what life was really like in Alpine County or how to best preserve its character.

Years later, Thornburg reflected on local culture and politics, the changes over the decades, and another hard-fought (and finally successful) battle of hers, to get 40 feet of pipeline under Markleeville’s main roadway to deliver water to a small fountain honoring a local sheriff slain in the line of duty in the 1930s. In the end, she offered a somewhat softened perspective about life in Alpine County.

“Your voice does matter,” said Thornburg. “It’s quiet. It’s beautiful. You can make a difference here.” Pausing, she added, laughing, “You can get a pipeline across a highway, if you work at it for five years.”

For a remote area relying on recreation and tourism, and struggling to grow or even maintain its way of life, most seem to feel that Alpine County has held onto much of its formative self, and they like it that way. Aside from a few new residents in the Markleeville area, said Stu Merrill, “Hell, it’s just the same. Quiet. Peaceful.” Its greatest resources may be just that.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at www.openskylight.blogspot.com.


Stonefly: Alpine County’s best restaurant offers a seasonal menu of exceptionally high-quality fare for the lucky residents of Markleeville and the surrounding area, and their visitors. Check ahead for hours. 14821 state Highway 89, Markleeville. www.stoneflyrestaurant.com

Sorensen’s: Along Highway 88 west of Woodfords, pleasant, rustic cabins with fireplaces nestled in the woods afford a welcome respite for travelers, with hearty bowls of beef stew waiting in the on-site restaurant. 14255 state Highway 88, Hope Valley. www.sorensensresort.com

Hope Valley Cafe and Market: The place to go for homemade baked goods – scones, chocolate chip cookies, pies and more – and to soak up some of the local flavor with your cup of coffee. West of Woodfords and just east of Sorensen’s on Highway 88. 14655 state Highway 88, Hope Valley. www.hopevalleycafe.com

Creekside Lodge: A friendly, clean, comfortable and inexpensive option right on the main drag in downtown Markleeville. 14820 state Highway 89, Markleeville. www.creekside-lodge.com

Charity Valley hike: Starting at about 7,500 feet elevation, the 8-mile, sparsely marked trail meanders from boulder-specked hillsides through wooded groves, past streams and down into a canyon that leads to Grover Hot Springs outside Markleeville. From Highway 88 west of Woodfords and past the turnoff for Highway 89, go left on Blue Lakes Road and about six miles to the top of a rise and a small dirt parking area on the right. The trailhead (unmarked) is across the road.

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