A different way of life
January 2, 2008
Living in Graniteville isn’t for everyone. First and foremost, miles of a rough snow-covered dirt road requires a proper four wheel drive equipped with a winch.
There’s no power, and running water can be sporadic.
Residents must split and stack seven cords of firewood, store thousands of gallons of propane and six months worth of dry and canned food just to make it through the winter.
“Some people can’t take it,” said Richard Mehrkens, one of five hardy people who live year round in the remote forested mining support town 5,000 feet above sea level. Graniteville is located 26 miles east of Nevada City on the divide between the San Juan Ridge and Bowman Lake.
In October, Mehrkens was found “buttoning up” his property for winter, draping sheets of plastic over valuables in his tree sheltered dirt yard. Nails stuck through the bulging shirt pocket of his tattered flannel ripped at the elbows.
Mehrkens, a retired cabinet maker and self-proclaimed hermit, first came to town in 1953 when he moved into an old house built on the banks of Poorman Creek.
It’s the last house on the only street that runs through the small town.
His brother lives in the first house at the opposite end of Graniteville. Bright orange Snowcats sit parked in their front yards.
Fifty years have changed the town, said Mehrkens, who watched it grow from a village of mostly squatters to the quaint summer cabin retreat it is today.
“My old man gave me hell for buying here because there was no titles,” Mehrkens said, swaying from one foot to the next as he spoke.
In the early days, Mehrkens remembers putting 6 months of groceries by for the winter because trips to town were so few and far between. Back then, vehicles such as Mehrkens’ snow cat were unheard of and people had to ski out to escape solitude induced cabin fever.
Even today, a trip to town to wash laundry can take all day because there’s no snow removal services 13 miles after the pavement ends on Tyler Foote Road.
“I’ve spent half my life on that road. Sometimes it gets pretty bad out there,” said Mehrkens, who claims he’s never been stuck but he recalls rescuing a group of “squirrel hunters.”
“As long as people venture up here, they’re going to get in trouble,” Mehrkens said.
Long, dark days with snow piled up to the rooftops have caused many an animal to go stir crazy in Graniteville, Mehrkens said. His solution is to fill his days with routine and projects such as checking the thermometer every night and baking cakes.
“You have to count down the days or you get lost,” he said, likening his tally of time to a “guy in prison.”
Even though modern Graniteville residents have access to generators and satellite television, finding a mate to live with so far from town isn’t easy.
“We’re mostly widowers. It’s hard to find a woman to live out here,” Mehrkens said.
Women such as Norma Stone, wife of Fire Chief Paul Stone, are a rare breed indeed.
Stone is the only woman to live in Graniteville throughout all four seasons and seems to revel in the challenges of pioneer life.
The Stone’s house is everything that Mehrkens’ place isn’t with tidy herb gardens and a white picket fence with an address posted neatly on the gate.
Norma offers comfort in style with fresh baked bread and gourmet meals for passing travelers and the town’s bachelors.
“I’m trying to get ’em married off and they just resist,” Norma said.
The Stones are considered the hub of the community in the summer time, and they actively organize the annual 4th of July Parade and head the town’s volunteer fire department.
During the winter, the Stones respond to a half dozen emergency calls to save stranded and nearly frostbit motorists stuck in the snow.
“They get up here and miss their turn,” Norma Stone said. Many a traveler has knocked on the Stone house looking for a phone that works, a store or a gas station.
The Stones moved to town full-time in 1995 and have learned to make a comfortable and full life in their 1862 remodeled cabin.
Neighbors have taught them survival tricks such as letting the air out of the tires to float across the snow, so they can make weekly trips to town for fresh vegetables and fruit.
The town’s five residents don’t “get along famously,” and it has taken time for the Stones to prove to their neighbors they aren’t “flatlanders.”
“It’s a small town if you don’t like each other,” Norma said.
Cabin owners from as far away as Napa and Santa Cruz horde their piece of the simple life for generations. Rarely does a property come up for sale.
Software engineer Janis Bishop and her husband travel from Oakland every weekend in the summer to escape their busy lives. She has been known to rig up a cellular antennae on a hillside a half mile outside of town in order to connect to the Internet.
The Bishop’s Graniteville cabin has been in the family for thirty years, and Janis dreams of the day she can make a go of it full time. “It’s just like another world up there. It’s like a different way of life,” Bishop said.