Trip Report: Petaluma, CA and the Lassen National Forest
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Petaluma KOA June 8 – 17, 2017 Site #18
This was basically a week-long business trip capped by a night of camping. We spent an afternoon getting my iPhone fixed, took the car to get serviced, and visited five sustainable farms that ran the gamut from one acre to more than 600; multi-generational to no prior experience; beef cattle only to several types of animals; and extraordinarily organized to off-the-cuff. What they all had in common though—every single one—was a commitment to treating animals humanely, respecting the environment, and creating healthy products. Unfortunately, all but the largest had this in common too: farming this way allowed them to break even at best, so supplemental income in the form of prior savings, rental properties, or in one case—marijuana sales—was required to stay afloat.
I asked one farmer how he dealt with that—working so hard, knowing he was doing the right thing, and not having it be enough. He said he just tries not to think about it. He focuses on what he has to do that day and derives a sense of accomplishment from finishing each project. It was disheartening to hear this—to listen to these farmers’ passion for raising happy, healthy animals—and know they’re swimming against a current of factory farming that isn’t likely to ebb anytime soon since it’s wholly supported and encouraged by the USDA. It’s hard to get people to pay twice as much for meat when we, as consumers, generally prefer to think of that meat as a package rather than an animal; when we do that, the animal’s life doesn’t matter—how it was treated doesn’t matter—and the decision is simply choosing one package over another as opposed to cruelty over compassion, environmental sustainability over harm, a healthy composition over the perception of healthfulness.
This is one of the main reasons we decided to move to France. I just didn’t see us realistically surviving here as farmers—being able to raise animals the way we want while still having enough money to live, pay for health insurance, fund our retirement, and spend time with our children. Yes, the farmers we met are surviving by expanding their business—teaching classes, catering to tourists, building tiny homes to rent. But they’re doing all of that in addition to farming—in addition to their day jobs. This isn’t because farming is inherently unprofitable; it’s because U.S. food regulations make it unprofitable, and that’s unlikely to change in my lifetime. So leaving the United States and moving to a country whose government supports sustainable agriculture made the most sense to us.
That was all theoretical though until this week, and even though I feel badly for the farmers we met, it’s also kind of validating. The people who are farming the way we want to—people whose knowledge, ethics, and methods we respect—are running into the financial problems we couldn’t think of a way to avoid when trying to find a place to farm in the United States.
While Wendy and I picked the brains of like-minded but much more experienced individuals, the kids had a blast. They ran free among pasture-raised chickens, pigs, cattle dogs, black-bellied sheep, alpacas, a llama, mini-pigs, cats, Nigerian Pygmy goats, Angora goats, and Holstein calves. Better yet, they got to pet many of them.
While the kids saw each farm tour as a fun excursion, Wendy’s and my playtime came later in the week when we met our friend Deanne at her apartment in San Francisco. I sampled Bullet Bourbon from her restaurant-worthy bar and we walked a few blocks to a Mexican place for our first sit-down restaurant experience in six weeks. The kids played with her cats—and in particular her cats’ toys—while Wendy and I appreciated the good company and comfy sofas.
When Deanne came to the KOA the next morning, it felt like we were on vacation. She brought screen and a tool so we could fix the window CeCe modified to include a gaping hole for her snout, but we didn’t actually accomplish that chore. Nor did we retrieve propane from the KOA shop. We chatted, drank beer, swam in the pool, played with two-week-old goats in the petting zoo, ate burgers made from beef we’d bought during one of the farm tours, and made s’mores over a campfire. For the first time since we started this trip, we stayed outside all the way until quiet hours.
Deanne was like a magical wind that led our toddlers into a three-hour nap and deposited a light camping chair with space to rest our head. May not sound like much but Wendy and I had both laid on the dog hair-laden outdoor rug the day prior in an effort to achieve a little extra comfort. “It’s not as bad as I thought it’d be,” I told her, my expectations sufficiently eroded over the course of our trip. But they’ve been raised again; we now have that chair and will return it to Deanne at the end of the year with the name of each place we visit written in Sharpie. She requested that we refrain from adding drawings, but I’m not making any promises.
Rancheria RV Park June 17 – 20, 2017 Site #34
Our next scheduled stop was Red Bluff, CA, where we had reservations at a U.S. Forest Service campground called Sycamore Grove. I was looking forward to going there because our site was by a river, where I could presumably fish. But when we saw 112 F as the forecasted temperature, Wendy and I decided to try to find somewhere cooler.
We settled on Rancheria RV Park, located in the Lassen National Forest. Although it lengthened our trip to an eight-hour drive and cost $40 to cancel our prior reservation, we decided it was worth it to avoid the extreme heat. Besides, full hookups, limited wifi, cable, and a lake to fish in for $39/night? Sold!
My first clue was when we stopped for gas in Old Station, where a sign proudly declared “WARNING: I’m a bitter gun owner clinging to my religion.” The idea of a gun owner desperate enough to cling to anything is disturbing, but I suspected two lesbians traveling as a bi-racial family may cross over into his religious sore spot.
We continued a few more miles down the road and arrived at Rancheria around 7:30pm. Since the office was closed, we searched for some posted notice indicating which site our deposit may have secured for us. But all we found was another sign notifying patrons that:
Who is this notice for, exactly? Is it, like the falling-pine-cones sign in Placerville, born of actual conversations with customers? Or was it simply posted to get a chuckle from the predominantly like-minded residents, without much further thought? I don’t have a problem with any of the activities listed on the sign, but I do dislike its myopia, underlying aggression, and bad grammar. The sign itself offended me and made me want to leave, but it was late and we had already paid for a site. So Wendy and I returned to the car, drove around looking for a spot that looked available, and set up camp.
The next morning, which happened to be Father’s Day, we checked in at the office, where we learned the fishing pond is catch-and-release (bare, barbless hooks only since “That’s how we keep the fish in there,”) and our three-night stay awarded us three slips of paper with codes good for a two-hour block of free wifi… every 24 hours. But hey, with no cell service and fathers to contact, we rolled with it. Unfortunately, here in Rancheria, North Korea, the signal just isn’t strong enough to actually access the web. There are however, nestled within the 16 cable channels (one of which has no sound), two extraordinarily clear FOX channels.
If I hadn’t seen that damn sign or interacted with the staff, I may have liked this place. The pond isn’t as green and scummy as it first appeared, and every camper we’ve interacted with has been really nice.
Plus, no one seemed to bat an eye when I hung a camp mirror on a pine tree and used electric clippers to walk back the camp-hair-don’t-care look I’ve been sporting lately. I imagined the park owner passing by in his golf cart snarling, “Who’s the hillbilly now?” but that didn’t happen.
I’m looking forward to leaving tomorrow to travel to our first national park in three weeks: Lassen Volcanic. Apparently most of the park is closed due to snow, but hopefully we’ll get to see some interesting things. At the very least, it will likely be devoid of we-only-like-our-own-kind signs, which will make me happy.
Read the next trip report: Lassen Volcanic National Park