Updated: Jan 28

Nothing too horrible, at least in terms of my own self-sabotage, happened on my second full day in Fairbanks. However, I did manage to encounter a hateful, blatantly xenophobic urban legend.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 23, 2016, I visited the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus. The museum was perched atop a plateau of sorts, and when I was leaving, I realized that I could see Denali and Mt. McKinley on the horizon, so I snapped a few photos.

Denali dead ahead, Museum of the North to the right

Then, I biked back to Terri’s place on my snow-tired noble steed. From there, the lady beside whom I’d sat on the flight to Fairbanks, who we will call Plane Lady, and her friend, who we will call Friend Lady, picked me up in Friend Lady’s car to go on a touristy adventure. We drove first to North Pole—a tiny town where Christmas doesn’t end—and got some selfies with Santa Claus. Then, we went to Chena Hot Springs Resort.

As we pulled into the parking lot at the hot springs, I was looking out the window, watching people cross the lot with their bathing suits and towels. When we got closer, I realized that every single person walking towards the entrance of the resort appeared to be Asian or of Asian descent. Having come from Oakland, I’d learned to remove racial and ethnic categorization from my people-watching thoughts, but this was difficult to ignore—I didn’t see a single non-Asian person. I looked around to confirm this observation, and wondered if my new friends had noticed. When I glanced toward the front seat, I found Friend Lady eyeing me curiously in the rearview mirror.

“You’re wondering why there are so many Chinese,” she said smugly.

The statement was so innocently tasteless that I was temporarily stunned. All I managed to do in response was to raise my eyebrows.

Plane Lady giggled and turned around in the passenger seat to look at me through the headrest. “Oh, you’re going to love this,” she said. She looked like a kid, but I’m pretty sure she was about the same age as my mother.

I still didn’t know what to say. I didn’t like the direction this was going.

“So,” Friend Lady began, “the Chinese have this belief that…” She trailed off and looked at her friend. Plane Lady returned the look, and they both snorted into a bout of childish laughter.

I couldn’t help the sliver of a smile that crept across my face. Watching two middle-aged ladies guffaw at some unspoken joke was entertaining. But I was still uneasy—I had a feeling they were about to make a crack at another culture’s beliefs.

“They believe,” Plane Lady said as she caught her breath, but her friend snorted again and they both erupted into another fit of laughter. “Stop!” Plane Lady groaned between chuckles, slapping her friend on the thigh. “Stop it, just tell the damn story, I can’t do it.”

Finally, after a few deep breaths, her friend said, “They believe that if they conceive under the Northern Lights, they’ll have a baby boy.”

They both stared at me through the radio silence, faces quivering as they struggled to hold their composure. I realized that they were waiting for me to react. Thinking quickly but unable to dislodge the mass of disbelief clogging my thoughts, I went with a monotone, ambiguous “wow.”

This was apparently the cue they’d been waiting for because they immediately erupted into hysterics again. Honestly, I don’t remember what all was said after that, I just remember forcing a little bit of laughter to satiate their apparent hunger for reaction.

At the time, I tried to ignore this brazen disrespect. Looking back on it now, though, I can’t dismiss the moral flaws associated with this legend. Even if my new “friends” weren’t flat-out xenophobes or ethnocentrics, by simply recounting and laughing at the legend, they were perpetuating a climate of insolence towards Asian people. As far as I can tell, no Chinese legend appears to celebrate or encourage lovemaking under the Northern Lights for the benefit of the children conceived thereunder. The blasé assertation that this was a Chinese belief implies naïveté, or possibly a lack of care for which Asian culture the legend truly belongs to. Maybe Plane Lady and Friend Lady had heard that it was a Chinese legend from someone else, and they were just regurgitating what they’d been told, but that just shifts the blame up a level. The point is, there’s no telling where the story got twisted, but that is the nature of urban legends, is it not? They say that “good” legends hold a grain or two of truth—in this case, that grain comprised of a long-held belief in Japanese culture—not Chinese—that conceiving a child underneath the Northern Lights will bestow the child with good looks, luck, and fortune. It appears to have been popularized by the 1990s American show about a fictional town in Alaska called Northern Exposure.

Perhaps that is where the legend began its metamorphosis from an innocent cultural truth into a multi-faceted display of the natural tendencies of human groups to ostracize, stereotype, and condemn whatever doesn’t agree with their norms.

For more information and to see my sources, check out the links below.








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TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains discussion of gender identity, sexism, and sexual activity.


On the surface, my trip to Alaska was about getting a feel for the university, the setting, and the people. But, as most things were at that time in my life, it was really about being better than Mountain Man. In Alaska, I took the self-sabotage up a notch. Today, I will share with you the first of three experiences that occurred while I was up there.

Before I dive in, I need to explain something about myself. In terms of gender, I identify as a woman. However, my hobbies and ideals tend to be extremely masculine, so, naturally, I tend to relate to men more commonly than to women. As such, I often forget, surrounded by men, that I am a woman. It doesn’t help that I enjoy a good “mine-is-bigger-than-yours” chat, which I tend to do as a means of initiating friendly conversation with like-minded male persons—more often than not, they think that I am flirting with them. They think it’s cute, when I talk about my truck, or the components on my bike, or guns, or knives, or how excited I am to have inherited my father’s tool collection. When I was younger, I was blind to this discrepancy. I was so oblivious that I wouldn’t realize that my friendly intentions had been misperceived until the man I was trying to befriend was trying to make a move on me. At that point, I would often just let the move be made, because it seemed too awkward to explain myself, and I hated disappointing people. Needless to say, I endured a lot of uncomfortable situations and self-hatred before I finally realized what was going on. This is the story of one of these misunderstandings—in fact, I believe this was the very first time that this happened.

On the evening of my first day in Fairbanks—March 22, 2016—I asked my host, Terri, to drive me to a bar. She obliged, and covertly tried to tell me to be careful. She even said I could call her if I couldn’t get a taxi (Uber didn’t exist in Fairbanks in 2016)—even if it was 3:00 AM and I was wasted. I mumbled a thank-you, but forgot about it the minute I walked into the bar.

From what I can remember, the bar had a sort of shotgun layout—that is, it was one, large, rectangular room, with the entrance on one of its shorter walls and the bar occupying most of the long wall to the left of the entrance. In the far wall, directly in-line with the front door, was a little nook—presumably, where the bathrooms were. To the right, opposite the bar was a door that opened onto a little smoker-friendly patio.

I went straight to the back and sat at the bar opposite the patio door. I started chatting with the bartender, and at some point, we were joined by a redheaded lumberjack, who took a seat on the stool beside me. Inevitably, the subject of where I was from came up, since the lumberjack and the bartender, having lived in Fairbanks since childhood, had pegged me for an outsider. I said, innocently, that I was from California.

Mistake number one. Having spent most of my life in California until this point, I wasn’t aware that Californians have different reputations, depending on where they go, outside of the state. As much as I hate stereotypes, this is a fact, although it does seem to be losing weight these days.

But I wasn’t just a “Californian.” No, I was a California girl—a rarity in Fairbanks; and, just as white men killed the buffalo in North America for status, California girls are a respectable notch in a countryman’s belt. I was about to find out that Katy Perry’s horrendous song—“California girls, we’re unforgettable…California girls, we’re undeniable”—speaks the truth; at least, it did in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2016.

Immediately upon hearing that I was from California, the bartender and the lumberjack reacted in exactly the same way. They exchanged a look. Then, the lumberjack turned on the stool so that he was facing me, his legs apart like he was riding a horse, and the bartender propped his elbows on the bar and leaned on them. They fixed me with the same look in their eyes—a look that was unreadable to me at the time, but that I would today recognize as hunger—but in the lumberjack’s piercing stare, it was stronger.

Then they spoke almost simultaneously— “Californy, eh?” said the lumberjack, and, “Do you have any green?” the bartender hissed.

I didn’t understand their piqued interest, but I certainly enjoyed it. I told the bartender that, as a matter of fact, I did have some green—and invited the both of them out to the patio for a smoke.

Standing out there under the clear night sky, wrapped in the scent of tobacco and weed, I was in seventh-heaven: here were two dudes, each some ten years older than I, who lived in a rugged, rural place—a life that I envied—giving me their full attention, laughing at my jokes, and showering me with compliments. I regaled them with the tale of the peanut butter incident, naively assuming their interest in the story to be respect for my machismo.

And then the bartender had to get back to work, and it was just me and the lumberjack.

“Have you been to the dump yet?” he asked me.

I was taken aback, and laughed. “What? Why would I have gone to the dump?”

“Oh, man,” he said, “you gotta go. That’s where it’s at.”

I laughed again, and asked him what on Earth he was talking about, but he said the only way to understand was to see it for myself. I asked him where it was and when it was open.

“They never close it,” he said. “It’s open right now.”

Without batting an eye, I said, “Well, let’s see it, then.”

With that, the lumberjack burst back into the bar and I lurched after him. I scurried along behind as he made for the front door, and the next thing I knew I was in the passenger seat of his truck and we were zipping away through the night—despite the fact that we were both relatively wasted. He drove us to either the East Farmers Loop Transfer Site or the West one; I’m not sure which, they look very similar. I don’t know what time it was, but it was certainly after 9:00 PM, and I was surprised to find the place relatively busy. There were at least six people there, pilfering through giant, metal bins or sorting a truckload of old junk into those bins.

As soon as we pulled into the lot, the lumberjack left the car running and made a beeline for an old box-spring leaning against the nearest metal bin. I watched, fascinated, as he snatched it and carried it with ease back to his truck. He tossed it in the back, then grinned at me through his open door. “You gonna check this place out, or what?”

I hopped out and did a cursory loop around the dump, but I didn’t do any serious poking around in any of the bins for fear of finding something that called to my hoarder genes that wouldn’t be totable on the plane back to Oakland. There was a regular business here, though: sorters and traders, people helping each other unload or load up, neighbors chatting as they sorted old magazines; it was fascinating. I observed that it wasn’t actually a “dump,” at least, in the sense that I’d figured it would be—it was a place that people could dump their unwanted things, and where others could obtain new things. It was basically a giant, unmonitored, unregulated swap meet, with no need for an organizer or supervisor, because everyone was aware of and respected an unspoken set of rules.

And then the lumberjack called me back to the truck. As we sped away, I was so enrapt with the concept of that transfer center that I didn’t realize, until we pulled onto an icy, potholed road surrounded by dense forest, that I had no idea where the lumberjack was taking me.

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

He didn’t answer at first, eyes fixed on the road, and then the trees gave way to a wide, moonlit clearing, on the edge of which was perched a little cabin and what looked to be an outhouse.

“Home,” he said, as he pulled up beside the cabin.

I realized then that there had, indeed, been a misunderstanding. But I didn’t fight it; I just followed him inside.

I learned, right off the bat, that he lived entirely off the grid. His cabin was made of recycled materials from the transfer center. The front door handle was a moose antler. The entire cabin was insulated with old mattresses and box-springs, and was not connected to municipal water, but drew water from tanks, which he kept full by filling huge bins with city water from a spigot at a nearby campground and transferring their contents manually. He had electricity, obtained via solar panels. The cabin was heated by a woodstove at its center, upon which was fitted a stovetop for cooking. He wasn’t connected to the sewer, hence the outhouse. He owned the land; he said he’d stayed off the grid because it was cheaper, and he didn’t have to pay taxes.

I think we drank vodka. After a few swigs straight from the bottle, my brain recorded the rest of the night into two, incoherent snippets. First, I remember having to pee, so I walked through the snow to the outhouse, only to immediately become paralyzed with fear that a monster would pop up from its depths the minute I opened the toilet lid, so I ended up peeing behind the outhouse instead.

Me and the Outhouse Monster

Second, I remember lying next to him on the roof of his truck, staring up at the night sky. We must’ve been watching the northern lights, because I had a photo of them on my phone in the morning, but I don’t remember seeing them.

The actual aurora borealis pic I took in 2016

I woke up the next morning in the lumberjack’s bed. I don’t remember whether or not we had sex, but regardless, I realized right away that solely sharing a bed with a stranger constituted cheating on Mountain Man. The justifications came hot on the heels of this realization—it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t intended to sleep with the guy, I had just wanted to be friends, so, “oops,” but, it was the lumberjack’s fault for misunderstanding—and I concluded that I needn’t tell Mountain Man about it at all.

The lumberjack drove me back to Terri’s the next morning. I didn’t see him again after that. Terri was peeved, but she was too polite to say anything to me. I did not take a moment to process what happened with the lumberjack—a fault that would become a theme. Instead, I pushed on, unperturbed by emotions and overthinking, open-armed and open-eyed, stoked to see what Alaska had in store for me next.

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Updated: Jan 28


“Once seen, Altaville clings tenaciously to the memory. It haunts one like a dream; the grand scenery of the surrounding country leaves an impression on the mind which time will not efface.”

—A. J. Bledsoe

I heard about Altaville during my first visit to Del Norte County, California, in March of this year, 2021. Struck by Crescent City’s proximity to the mountains, I’d asked around on my first day in town to see if there’d been any mining activity up there. I found out that there had been some mining, but it had been mostly sporadic and unsuccessful. The closest mining district to Crescent City was Low Divide, I was told—the most significant site of mineral exploitation in the county. At one point, a small town, known as Altaville, had sprung up to provide the district’s miners with cabins, a few saloons, stores and a hotel. When I asked how to get there, I was told that it wasn’t worth the trouble, since hardly anything was left of the town today, and anyways, it was “inaccessible” at that time of year because the road was “bad.”

I was well aware that I was being warned to stay away from Altaville, but I couldn’t let it go. I spent the rest of that first day poking around online for more information, and after a surprising amount of difficulty finding the correct “Altaville”—there’s another one in Calaveras County; more on that later—I learned that there had, in fact, been a lot of mining activity at Low Divide in the 1860s; indeed, there’d been an all-out copper frenzy up there between 1860 and 1870. The town of Altaville was named for the “Alta” vein, the copper vein that had produced some couple thousand tons of ore averaging between 15 and 18 percent copper. Descriptions of the mining district made it seem like native copper was just falling down the mountainsides; I knew that had to be an exaggeration, but I was hooked—I had to see the area for myself.

Confident that my truck wouldn’t have any trouble getting to Altaville, I decided to brave the road. In the past, such confidence has come back around to nip me in the butt, but that time, I lucked out: the road was nicely graded and neatly blanketed with gravel all the way to the townsite. My truck did just fine. My mind, on the other hand…well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. What follows is the account of my strange experience at Altaville—the experience that got me inexplicably obsessed with the place.


The "bad" road

I was less than a quarter-mile from the dropped-pin on my map when I saw the truck. I stepped on the brakes, pulling over to the left side of the road and coming to a stop behind a tall bush. I was a little surprised: I hadn’t seen anyone along the old Pioneer Road yet, but now that I’d made it to the edge of the wildlands that straddle the Oregon-California border, there was a truck. It didn’t make sense.

People only go out into the middle of nowhere for a handful of reasons, I thought, eyeing the truck uneasily. There’s no telling what they’ re up to. I killed the engine, but kept the keys in the ignition.

Peeking between the branches, I surveyed the scene. The truck was a forest-green second-generation Tacoma—a two-seater, and both seats were empty. It was parked on a very exposed ridge, near the ruins of a dilapidated wooden structure.

All that remains of the Crescent City-Yreka Plank Road, Del Norte County, California
The dilapidated wooden structure

A jolt of adrenaline pierced my stomach when I realized that the wooden structure was probably a remnant of Altaville. If that truck doesn’t leave, I thought, I might need to think about turning around. It’s probably not a good idea to go snooping around near an abandoned vehicle.

Immediately, I berated myself. “It’s just a truck,” I scoffed aloud. “Just someone else enjoying the scenery, probably. What’s your deal?” But somehow, the ridicule felt just as unfounded as my apprehension. These days I try to trust my gut more than I used to, so, I decided to give my feelings the benefit of the doubt.

I trained my attention on the sparse vegetation surrounding the truck. How long I sat there, watching, I couldn’t say, but when I realized that not only was there no visible trace of human movement but also no birds, insects, or other wildlife, I decided to roll down my window to see if I could hear anything. Perhaps, I reasoned, I might hear conversation. That would be a more surefire way to discern whether there were one person, two people, or a whole satanic cult down in the ravine. And so, I aimed my ear out the window, listening to the mountain air.

Gunshots were certainly not what I’d expected to hear. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect it—it’s perfectly reasonable to hear gunshots in the middle of nowhere, people hunt and do target practice—but for whatever reason, it caught me completely off-guard. The round started right when I rolled down the window, sending me into deer-in-the-headlights mode for a moment as my brain blubbered, Are they firing at me? But as the echo of the final crack trailed off and all of my windows remained intact, I came to my senses. “Nobody’s firing at you,” I said aloud, feeling foolish. I almost chuckled, adding, “and if they are, they’re an absolutely horrendous shot.”

Sheepishly, I restarted my engine and pulled out of the bushes, back onto the road. I kept the windows down and turned up my music in hope that the gunperson might understand that they had company.

When I reached the dropped-pin on my map—a huge, ridgetop pullout that lay conveniently between the two historically most-productive mines in that district: the Union and the Alta California—I saw another truck, a white Chevy, idling at the far edge of the lot. Instinctively, I slammed on my brakes again. The truck’s doors were wide open and I couldn’t see anyone nearby. My mind went wild with worst-case-scenario thoughts: Is it a trick? Are the doors open to trick me into getting out of the car to see if they need help? If I get out, they’ll abduct me, right? Isn’t that how it works?

And then I saw that there actually was someone in the passenger seat, and there was a man coming out of the adjacent patch of trees, zipping up his pants.

“Good Lord, Xannie,” I said to myself as I immediately yanked the wheel all the way to the left to make a dramatic U-turn, “get a grip.”

I had seen a small pullout maybe thirty yards back; I decided to just park there, since I clearly wasn’t in a good mental space for interacting with other humans.

As I turned off the engine, I was still feeling unsettled. Attributing this sensation to the presence of other people in what was basically wilderness, I tried to use pandemic-induced sociophobia as justification, reminding myself that I did just spend the chief of last year locked up in a house with only three (and eventually two) other people. But there was a glaring hole in that explanation: I’d been doing just fine surrounded by people in Crescent City.

I just listen to too many podcasts about bad things happening to people alone in the woods, I thought as I opened the door and hopped out of the driver’s seat.

I switched out my Birkenstocks for mining boots, grabbed my backpack from the back seat, closed all the doors to the truck, hitting the lock button on the fob, and then paused to check my GPS. The old townsite was just east of where I was parked, as expected. I zoomed out so that I could see my location relative to the Union and Alta Mines. The Union was directly north of the townsite, the Alta directly south. With a twinge of dismay, I realized that the green Tacoma was parked near the Union, and the Chevy was right next to the Alta.

“Dammit,” I hissed.

To further compound my dismay, I vaguely remembered seeing, during my cursory search in Google Maps, that both the Altaville townsite and the Alta Mine—and possibly the Union as well; I wasn’t sure—were on private property. This realization was followed by a flurry of disjointed thoughts: What kind of private property is it? It’s legal to walk around on a mining claim, so long as I don’t show up with a backhoe, right? Maybe the two people in that truck are the property owners. What if they live on the land, what if there’s a cabin that I couldn’t see? What if they’re armed? Maybe those gunshots weren’t from whoever drives the other truck; maybe

I shook myself, attempting to halt the stream of anxious nonsense blaring through my brain. Clearly, I wasn’t a fan of the two trucks and the gunshots—I concluded that I should steer clear of the Alta and the Union for now, regardless of whether or not they were on private property. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought. Then, taking a deep breath, I looked at the GPS again. I had placed a pin just up the mountain from where I was standing. I tapped the pin to see what it was, but it was unlabeled; apparently, the data didn’t sync properly, or I’d forgotten to write the description. I knew I’d only put pins in the map where I was either sure there was an old mine, or where satellite imagery showed what could be a tailings pile. The fact that this particular pin was accessed by what looked to be an old mine road leading directly from where I’d just parked was encouraging. So, I decided to hike up to the pin.

I only made it about fifty yards before I heard an engine. I turned around just in time to see the white Chevy come barreling past, engine rumbling alienly through the trees, sending clouds of red dirt billowing into my eyes. Blinking and spitting out the dirt, I barely had time to recover before the Tacoma came blasting by in much the same manner. This time, I managed to close my eyes to avoid the dirt-shower. Coughing the dirt from my lungs, I squinted after the trucks, watching them zigzag up the old road’s sharp switchbacks, disappearing around one corner and reappearing on the next straightaway, until they finally went around the last visible corner and disappeared from my view.

Shaking my head in annoyance, I began again to hike up the mountain. After a moment, it dawned on me that I could’ve checked out the old townsite and its adjacent mines, since both vehicles were now gone, but I was still unsure about the private property situation. I couldn’t shake the idea that if anyone lived over there, I had no way to know for sure that they had left in one of those two trucks. Also, by law, private property should be clearly labeled, of course; but in the boonies, that doesn’t always happen—I learned that the hard way in Montana, and I’d heard horror stories from fellow rockhounds about being held at gunpoint when caught walking—legally—across a mining claim. The gunshots I’d heard told me these people had guns, so I didn’t want to take any chances. And, on top of everything, my gut was still telling me to stay away.

Despite heeding its warning about Altaville and the mines, my gut wasn’t satisfied. It seemed that the further I went up that mine road, the more uneasy I felt. I couldn’t get my head around it—I was surrounded by wilderness, the trucks were gone, it was a gorgeous day—I had no reason to be spooked. And yet, there I was, turning circles as I crept up the mountain, peering through the trees, jumping at every sound, fingers gripping the hilt of the knife on my belt.

At last, the mine road leveled out and the vegetation on its flanks thinned, giving way to a small clearing. A creek ran down the left flank of the road, and when I stepped into the middle of the clearing, the calming babble of its waters making their way down the mountain suddenly cut in, as if it had been muted until that moment. I became aware, then, that throughout the hike to the clearing, I’d heard the usual rustle of leaves and branches in the breeze, but absolutely nothing else—no birds, no more engines, no insects, not even that creek, even though it appeared to follow the road all the way down. This perturbed me, and I spun in a slow circle to get a panoramic view of my surroundings.

Darlingtonia californica, California pitcher plant, or cobra plant: a carnivorous plant that grows all over riparian corridors in Del Norte County, California
Some Darlingtonia californica, a.k.a. California pitcher plant.

Beyond the clearing, the mine road continued up the mountain over a huge slab of shimmering rock, which seemed to have been a part of the road since its creation. The creek seemed to come from wherever the road was going, and thus, right where the road disappeared around a bend into the shade of a young pine forest, the creek emerged from the pine forest’s underbrush: a red-green tangle of Darlingtonia californica (at least, along the banks of the stream), ferns, and manzanita.

The road within the clearing was riddled with small boulders, which appeared to have tumbled down the mountain. I traced the route of their fall with my eyes and, sure enough, a small quarry was cut into the mountainside on my right—probably the mine I’d come looking for. Up the mountain from the quarry were mounds of dirt and rock that had been clearly pushed around and piled by humans, extending up through the trees as far as I could see.

To complete my observatory circle, I turned to look back down the old mine road. As soon as my back was to the upper part of the mountain, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I froze, and my ears bent back like a cat’s—some primal reflex, I guess. Someone’s watching me, I thought. Someone’s behind me right now, watching me. The sensation was so strong that a vision came to mind: two pupilless eyes, peering out from behind the foliage, boring holes into my shoulder blades. Heart pounding in my ears, knuckles white from clenching the hilt of the knife in its sheath, I whipped around. Of course, nothing was there. I scanned the trees on the other side of the creek, but again, saw nothing that could’ve been responsible for that feeling on the back of my neck. I stared into the depths of the forest, knife still at the ready, until the dappled sun on the shifting manzanita leaves of the forest’s understory created a dizzying illusion that I was looking not at a forest—with breadth, height, and depth—but rather, a two-dimensional canvas spattered with paint, each droplet of which had been blended at the edges for a “blurry” effect. I blinked and looked away. Sound came flooding back to my senses—again, the air had grown still and quiet without my noticing—and I turned to look at the old quarry.

Broken Ladder Mine quarry. Low Divide Mining District, Del Norte County, California.
The quarry

“Stop it,” I said aloud. “You’re getting all up in a tizzy about nothing.”

I wasn’t convinced it was “nothing” anymore, but I implored myself to go take a look at the geology of the manscaped mountainside, since rocks have always been a great distraction when my mind spirals out. So I tossed my backpack on the ground next to the creek and tromped into the quarry.

The walls of the quarry shone in the sun, just like the slab that crossed the old road. Up close, I could see why: the rock had a slickenside texture—a grooved, lineated appearance that results when a rock is rubbed smooth by tectonic movement in a fault zone. I studied the glistening surface, marveling at how much that rock had been through before being hacked to pieces by men. I ran my fingers along the quarry wall, noting the familiar waxen feel. The oily surface, combined with its blue-green color and slickensides told me that the rock was serpentine. It didn’t surprise me at all—serpentine is all over the California coast, and occurs in huge swathes throughout the Coastal Ranges, which run most of the length of the West Coast. (Below are a few photos and a video of serpentine, for your reference.)

I made my way to the edge of the quarry and clambered up to stand above it. I watched the serpentine glimmer as I walked around the quarry rim. At the opposite end, I stopped and looked up the mountain. As I’d seen from below, the area had been severely rearranged by humans at some point. Judging by the trees growing out of some of the dump piles, I estimated that the alterations must’ve been done around the time mining activity began, so, the late 1850s, early 1860s.

Alas, even looking at rocks wasn’t enough to entirely ease my nerves. While poking around in the dump piles above the quarry, I got the sensation that someone or something was watching me at least three more times—from the same direction I’d initially felt it. It dawned on me that getting a “funny feeling” about something more than twice was highly unlikely to be a coincidence, and finally, I stood up, hand on my knife. The air was quiet again, except for the breeze. The air around me felt electrically charged, and when I looked down at my arms, my hair stood straight up on end. Something isn’t right, I thought.

Cautiously, I made my way back to the rim of the quarry and climbed down the way I’d gone up. Looking around nervously as I stepped into the road, I saw something in the manzanitas on the other side of the creek that caught my eye. It looked to be two “somethings,” actually, both clearly manmade: one was white and billowy like fabric, the other brown and softly corrugated, like cardboard; it appeared to be a large piece of fabric sticking out of a carboard box.

The fear crystallized in my veins, cementing me in place as I contemplated the reason why a cardboard box containing fabric would be sitting in the middle of nowhere. People only go out into the middle of nowhere for a handful of reasons, my mind whispered.

The fabric rustled, shifting in the breeze.

Morbid curiosity took hold—I had to know what was in that box. But I stayed rooted to the spot, afraid of what I might find.

The fear won. I shook myself, hard, dropping my gaze to the ground. I just need to leave, I thought to myself. I just need to walk back down that road and get out of here. I took a deep breath and marched out onto the road, keeping my eyes cast down until I reached the spot where I’d dropped my backpack. I snatched it up, fully intending to keep right on going down the hill, but as I straightened up from grabbing the backpack, I saw the stream, and, on the opposite bank, a game trail leading into the forest. From there, my gaze inevitably traveled to the left, and there was that damned fabric, shuffling softly amidst the manzanita branches. I could see, now that I was a little closer, that there were two types of fabric, tangled together, in the cardboard box. From the way the fabrics flowed over the sides of the box, I knew they weren’t its “main” contents—they were only there to provide cushioning, protection, for something else. But what?

What if it’s a murder weapon, or a body part? Somebody’s loved ones might be seeking closure—what if this is it? Can you live with just walking away?

I knew I couldn’t just walk away. If I didn’t check, I’d wonder for the rest of my life.

Crossing the creek was the easy part. On the other side, I was accosted by manzanitas, their leafless branches clawing at my pantlegs with surprising strength, and I nearly tumbled into the creek a few times. It was as if they didn’t want me to satisfy my curiosity.

The closer I got, the more certain I became that I was approaching some portion of a human corpse, or a weapon caked with blood. I could smell it. I just needed to document it so that I could show the police later.

When I reached the box and fabrics, I stepped onto a boulder beside them and squatted down to get a better look. The box was tipped onto its side. The fabrics, indeed, flowed out of the box, but were tightly packed against its interior—as one would do with packaging material in, say, a moving box containing fragile objects. One of the fabrics, I noted, was severely discolored in places and appeared to be made of burlap. The other one, which was much larger, might have been woven plastic, but looked splintery—from serious weathering, it seemed. The cardboard box also appeared to have been exposed to several wet-dry cycles, and had been bleached by the sun.

Perplexed, I pulled out my phone and took a few photos of the strange scene. Then, swiping my phone into video mode, I began filming. I made sure to get a good 360 on the items, and then I grabbed a stick and began carefully separating the fabrics. As I did, the wind shifted and my nostrils were blasted with the unmistakable smell of rotting meat and I dropped the stick, drawing my forearm across my nose to keep from gagging. The wind shifted again, and I took a few breaths of fresh air, steeling myself for whatever gruesome thing awaited. Then I picked up my stick, and resumed my careful prying. At last, I managed to tip the box upright so that the fabrics lay draped over its sides, its contents open to the sky above; I peered into the box and saw…nothing.

I dropped the stick again, staring into the clean, white bottom of the box in utter disbelief. Not only was there nothing in there, but the smell of rot had completely vanished, as if it had never been there. Simultaneous with the disappearance of that smell, the sounds of the forest reemerged and the icy fear that had possessed me throughout this adventure seized my middle in a vice, and I realized that, not only had the forest sounds again been muted without my noticing, but I’d forgotten my fear. Indeed—I’d wandered out into the open to see what was under those damned fabrics, convinced that I would find some grisly evidence of foul play, without an ounce of concern for what might be crouching out of sight, waiting for a clear shot.

I had to get out of there. I nearly fell off the boulder as I scrambled away from the box and those godforsaken fabrics, my eyes wildly scanning the trees for either man or beast as I stumbled frantically through the manzanitas, across the creek, and back onto the mine road. I ran, tripping on boulders, all the way back down to the car, continually looking back to ensure that nothing was following me. Finally arriving at the driver’s side door, I tried the handle—like a fool; I knew it was locked—and then hurled my backpack to the ground, unzipping the top pocket with my eyes on the old mine road, expecting, at any moment, some creep to come hurtling down the mountain. I found the keys and yanked them out, hand shaking so badly that I could barely grip the fob, jabbing the button uncoordinatedly until I heard that familiar chirp that meant the doors were unlocked. With a final glance up the mountain, I pulled open the driver door and tossed my backpack through to the passenger seat, gripped the handle on the doorframe and hauled myself into the driver's seat, slammed the door, shoved the keys into the ignition, and started the engine. As soon as the engine was rumbling, the child lock engaged with a little click, and I cherished that sound for the first time in my life. I was safe.

Instead of going straight back to my Airbnb, I drove to Hiouchi and stopped at the ranger station. I was dazed, still shaky, and feeling relatively disconnected from reality. I don’t know why I went to the ranger station; perhaps I just needed to talk to someone, since the first thing I did when I arrived was approach the ranger behind the counter and blurt out, “What’s up with Low Divide?”

The guy looked at me with one eyebrow raised and said he didn’t know what I meant.

“Have you ever heard of people having weird experiences up there?” I asked. “Or, have you had any weird experiences up there? Like, sensory experiences?”

His expression changed then. Maybe he saw something in my eyes that spoke of my unexplainable experience, I don’t know, but he said, “I don’t go up there alone anymore. I used to go up there to camp by myself and late at night, I’d hear these noises.”

I asked him what kind of noises, but he beat around the bush, and then, conveniently, a couple walked into the ranger station asking about the best hikes nearby, as if I weren’t even there. He turned his attention to them, and I, still reeling, slipped out the back door and returned to my car.

When I got back to the Airbnb, I couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid cardboard box. I opened my photos and started to scroll through the ones I took at the quarry. I was hoping to watch the video that I took while pilfering through the fabrics, but I couldn’t find it. I checked everywhere on my phone that I could think of, but it was just gone. I wondered, briefly, if whatever unruly entity I encountered at Low Divide was responsible, or if it was something simpler—maybe, somehow, I hadn’t actually hit the “record” button—but it’s gone, without a trace, and I have no explanation why.


That was my first experience at Low Divide. Someone in their right mind would probably try to forget about something like that. But for me, that was only the beginning. I became obsessed with Altaville; I needed to understand its history, I thought, in order to take a stab at understanding what happened to me up there. And yet, after poring over hundreds of conflicting resources, I am no closer to answers than I was when I stood over that empty cardboard box in the manzanitas.

In my next Del Norte article, I will do my best to recount the history of copper mining in the 1860s at Low Divide, since Altaville owes its brief existence to that period, but consider yourself warned: it’s patchy, at best, and does nothing to explain my experience there. However, it is a fascinating bit of history that has all but been forgotten. Besides, being a writer and amateur historian, I feel that it is my duty to tell its story—it’s the least I can do—before it fades into oblivion.

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