Life along Highway 99

There’s more than meets the eye between Chico and Red Bluff

Centerfolds dancer Mya beckons travelers to the club’s car wash.

Centerfolds dancer Mya beckons travelers to the club’s car wash.

Photo By ken smith

I had barely passed Chico’s city limits before making my first stop, prompted by a woman in a hot-pink and camouflaged bikini, stars tattooed along her torso, yelling, “Car wash! Woooooo! Come on in! Topless car wash! Woooooo!”

“Best to start the trip with a clean ride,” I suggested to my traveling companion as we wheeled into the parking lot of Centerfolds and took our place behind three other cars queued up outside a white canopy, from which more “Wooooos!” and the sounds of splashing water escaped.

A woman explained $20 bought a car wash, and included passes to the strip club and a free DVD from the box she carried under her arm. I picked one whose title was a XXX play on Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” and, with the permission of the club’s owner, went to work while waiting for the wash. In the tradition of roving reporters, Sunday drivers and my literary forefathers, I’d struck out on Highway 99 that sweltering summer day in search of America.

Beginning in 1964, U.S. Route 99, which ran the length of the West Coast from Mexico to Canada, was decommisioned and replaced by Interstate 5, a modernized, more direct link to “control” cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland. The face and character of California were changed forever, and many communities along the highway are preserved largely as they were then, small towns populated by people content to live as they have for generations. One can travel hours without spotting a KenTacoHut, corporate gas station or modern subdivision, but there’s plenty of natural beauty and prime slices of Americana to enjoy.

The highway’s northernmost stretch, from Chico to its terminus in Red Bluff, is a prime example of this, standing as evidence why Highway 99 was once commonly known as “California’s Main Street.” Places like Vina and Dairyville are, to many people living just a few miles away, merely signs they speed past on the way to somewhere else. But if you slow down you might find, as one man in a roadside bar told me, “There’s a helluva lot more to Los Molinos than meets the eye, man.”

The siren at the side of the road—whose stage name was Mya—was happy to talk about her job. “I love working here!” she gushed. The 21-year-old Chico native explained she’d worked at Centerfolds for more than two years and previously stripped at house parties and in Reno, which she hated. “This is by far the cleanest and safest environment I’ve ever danced in. The girls I work with are like a small family. It’s more like a night out with the girls than going to work.”

Mya paused to “Wooooo!” at a passing truck driver, who honked and kept driving. “I wish I could keep doing this for the rest of my life but obviously this isn’t a job you can do forever, so you gotta take advantage of it while you have it.”

“We get so many customers that come in and say they never knew it was a strip club,” Mya said of Centerfold’s location. “We’ll pass out fliers in Chico, and people don’t even know where it is. If more people knew, I think we’d have a lot more customers.

“But it’s not bad. I make more than I would at any minimum-wage job, so I can’t really complain.” She said she can make as much as $500 or as little as $20 a night. “It’s scary sometimes, but you just have to have faith it will all work out by the end of the month, and it always does.”

Back at the tent, Nathan Bravo scurried to fasten down the side canopies as another customer’s wash began. Bravo is director of promotions, resident DJ and—for today—car wash king at Centerfolds.

“It’s an odd location for a strip club,” he confirmed before I could even finish the question. “We get a lot of wanderers, drifters, college students, professionals, all walks of life out here on the highway.

Pumpkinland is home of delicious chocolates.

Photo By ken smith

“This little pink and grey building has a lot of mystique,” he said with a laugh. “When people find out I work here, they’re like, ‘Whoa, what goes on there?’”

What goes on, Bravo continued, is nothing too shocking. They have VIP nights and an annual pole-dancing competition (“to highlight pole dancing as an art form,” he explained).

Inside the tent, a bevy of bikinied girls, mostly sporting tattoos and piercings, introduced themselves. I lost track of which girls Heaven, Trinity, Autumn and Nikki were, but remembered Ayla as the one chosen to recite the stripper mantra: “The better the tips the better the show.”

We tipped accordingly, and the show was great, so much so that it might have affected the quality of the car wash. The girls seemed to get more soap and water on themselves and each other than the car, and mostly focused on the front windows.

I pointed the half-clean car northward, across the Tehama County line and through the town of Vina, where railroad baron Leland Stanford owned what was once California’s largest vineyard. Stanford allegedly sold his local holdings because of bad publicity surrounding the winery operation.

At its peak, Vina was a rough-and-tumble town populated largely by vagrants, criminals and runaways who came for the work and stayed for the lawlessness and debauchery. Today it’s the home of a Trappist monastery.

Past Vina, I raced a train into Los Molinos and turned at Aramayo Way.

Aramayo turns into Third Street as it crosses the Sacramento River, where a dozen or so teenagers frolicked in the water beneath a railroad trestle paralleling the road. Less than two miles off 99, I reached C and Third streets—downtown Tehama, made up entirely of a museum, a park, a mini market and a closed taco shop.

I parked next to the Old Tehama County Jail in the park and got out to read the plaque. It didn’t read like most stodgy historical markers, instead commemorating in part “many a drunk who needed to sleep it off, and walk out its unlocked doors in the morning.” My momentary confusion was cleared up by the plaque’s bottom line: E Clampus Vitus.

The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus is a fraternal organization with two primary interests: drinking and history. “Clampers,” as members are known, trace their history back to West Virginia, 1845, and the organization flourished during California’s Gold Rush years, when whole mining camps would sometimes shut down for Clamper holidays and the organization provided something resembling social support to widows, orphans and members.

Part of the miners’—and modern drinkers’—attraction to E Clampus Vitus is its embrace of the absurd, a stark contrast to Masonic “mumbo jumbo” that proliferated throughout the West.

Across the street from the plaque is the Tehama County Museum, housed in an 1859 building originally constructed, ironically, as a schoolhouse and Masonic temple.

Ellen Burlison works the longest-running fruit stand in Tehama County.

Photo By ken smith

Inside the museum, Paul Quinn was vacuuming the floor. Quinn serves on the Board of Directors and is secretary of the Tehama County Museum Foundation. The TCMF started in 1980, and Quinn has been involved since 1983.

“One day I was driving by and noticed the grass needed to be cut,” Quinn explained. “I stopped in and offered to do it, and ended up cutting the grass for the next 25 years. My duties have shifted a bit now, though,” he said with a chuckle, indicating the vacuum cleaner.

Quinn gave us a tour of the museum and shared his extensive knowledge of the two-story building and its contents. These range from typical museum fare (furniture, old clothing) to oddities (a square piano, a mammoth’s leg) to the downright creepy (a century-old flowered diorama made of human hair). Typical of small-town museums, there’s also the unintentionally funny (a papier-mâché cowboy named Joe in a fur coat).

We dropped $5 in the jar (the museum runs entirely on donations) and headed out to see a pair of 19th-century churches—St. Stanislaus Catholic Church and the Tehama Assembly of God—that stand cater-cornered to one another at Third and D Streets. They look much as they did 100 years ago, save for a colorful vinyl banner that looks out of place on the aged white Assembly of God building reading “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL? WE NEED GOD.”

Demographics carry much more weight when you apply them to small populations. For example, the 2010 census reported that .2 percent of Tehama’s 418 residents—one person—is Asian. I wondered what it would be like to be the only Asian in town, but didn’t run into him or her.

Stopping at the mini market as I left, I met a Sikh woman named Balwinder, who originally hails from Chandigarch, India. I imagined the highways she’d traveled to come all the way to Tehama. She explained she lives in Orland but runs the store with her husband and son.

“People here are nice,” she said of Tehama. “Nobody makes trouble. Some places, trouble is the normal, but not here. People help us, and we help people.”

I passed back through Los Molinos, for the moment resisting the allure of meat smoking outside Roxie’s BBQ and cold drinks at Joannie’s Hayloft or Mike’s Bar 99. The town is also full of unique shopping opportunities, like Marsha’s Minerals and Rocks and a half-dozen junk stores overflowing with merchandise, but I waited to check out the retail action until several miles north, at Sherry’s Antiques, Collectibles and Frivolous Necessities.

Stepping out of the car, I was startled half to death by the unfamiliar braying of a donkey across the highway.

Inside I met Sherry and Leroy Elliot, the store’s proprietors, who were that week celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. “I grew up working at flea markets,” Sherry said, “And we met at one 35 years ago. Because of that, we always joke we get everything at the flea market.”

Leroy interrupted to say they actually met 36 years ago and inserted a joke about testing the merchandise, which Sherry asked not be printed. Much of the conversation ran this way, and the couple’s good chemistry is apparent, Leroy’s grizzled stoicism and salty humor at once a contrast and odd complement to Sherry’s softer, “Aw-schucks-what’s-he-saying-now?” sweetness. Leroy is 12 years Sherry’s senior and calls her his “young little chicken.”

The couple explained they’d migrated from Bakersfield to Los Molinos 30 years ago, and bought the business 11 years ago. As veterans of the junking trade, they wanted to continue in a building they could live in and work out of. Leroy was recently retired from his lifelong day job as a carpenter, so they bought the building—built in 1934 and the former home of a bar called Lou’s Triangle—and Leroy fixed it up.

Mike Dyson and Rebecca Rupe (behind the bar) and representatives of the Los Molinos Social Club greet thirsty travelers at Mike’s Bar 99.

Photo By ken smith

“I can fix anything, plumbing, electrical, I don’t care, and I do it by hand, not with the machines they do now’days,” Leroy said before adding, “but the COPD has slowed me down some.”

Sherry buys, sells and barters for the items covering rows of shelves loaded floor to ceiling, and said plenty of strange characters with strange items wander in off the highway. The biggest scores she recalled were a pair of antique children’s jeans she bought for $100 and sold for $2,500 and a rag doll from the 1800s that sold on eBay (she also has an online store) for $1,400.

“Those kind of things are few and far between, so that’s why I remember them so well,” Sherry said. Leroy added the poor economy has hurt business in recent years.

“We did half last year than what we normally do, and this year’s been really bad,” he said. “We still get our regular customers, but we don’t get the travelers much lately. That hurts because the travelers come in and buy the good stuff.”

“People just don’t have the extra money to buy themselves little things to make themselves feel good,” Sherry said, her sadness for others’ hardships apparent and sincere.

We talked a little about the old building’s haunts: Leroy pointed to the spot where the previous owner had a heart attack (“Dropped dead right over there where the bar was,” he said). He took leave to drink his ceremonial afternoon Budweiser and Sherry started to close up shop. Both urged us to take a bag of homegrown plums from their small fruit stand out front. I bit into one as I waved goodbye to the donkey and headed farther north.

Mature walnut, almond and peach orchards line the highway through Dairyville, offering some respite from the late afternoon heat. Along the way are a few more religious messages, these not as immediately clear as the one in Tehama. “WHO TOUCHED ME?” reads the sign outside the Cohn Community Church, and the sign for the Red Barn reads “THE BEST GIFT EVER WAS FOUND IN A BARN.” The taste of plum lingering on my lips prompted me to stop at Burlison Fruit Stand.

Burlison’s has been there since 1948 and is the oldest fruit stand in Tehama County. There are photos from the 1950s on display showing Aldon Burlison, the current patriarch, working the stand and the orchards as a child. He and wife Ellen’s grandchildren are the fourth generation of Burlisons to call Dairyville home.

There are other fruit stands in Dairyville, prompting me to ask the woman if there’s any rivalry. “We do what we do, they do what they do,” she said with a laugh, crushing my dreams of writing a dramatic expose of the Dairyville fruit wars. When I asked what her biggest concern with living, working and raising a family alongside Highway 99 was, she immediately said, “The traffic. I’ve seen more accidents right here than I care to remember.”

I buy some fruit and local honey and head to my northernmost destination for the day, Pumpkinland Chocolate Company, another place I’ve long wanted to visit.

Though it was right on the highway, Pumpkinland was another world. A thick wall of foliage blocked the noise and sight of the road, and the grounds were immaculately kept. A large paddling of ducks played in a waterfall at the end of a pond surrounded by weeping trees, and giant metal statues of bears and frogs greeted visitors outside the main building, which held more wonders—all manner of delectable handmade treats in dark, white or milk chocolate.

Pumpkinland offers free samples, and the ice cream is a killer deal—99 cents for three scoops. Knowing the handful of truffles and turtles we bought wouldn’t survive the non-air-conditioned ride home, we enjoyed them on the outdoor patio in this roadside oasis. Then it was time to head home, but the trip wasn’t over yet.

Sherry and Leroy Elliot may not be the only souls dwelling in this possibly haunted roadside curio shop.

Photo By Ken Smith

I’d blame Leroy Elliot and his Budweiser, but there’s really no need for an excuse to have a beer near the end of a long, hot day of driving, so I pulled up to Mike’s Bar 99 next to a sign that said “ECV Parking Only.” Inside I ordered a draft and struck up a conversation with bartender Rebecca Rupe, whose bubbly manner and breathy voice reminded me of Bernadette Peters.

Across the bar, a group of men—Fred, Ron, Don and Matt—talked in the loud but good-natured way men sometimes talk in bars, conversely arguing and joking about everything and nothing in particular.

I asked Rupe what ECV meant, noticing the letters displayed elsewhere around the bar, and realized I should have tried to figure it out: “E Clampus Vitus,” she said proudly, explaining owner Mike Dyson was a dedicated member and the bar an official ECV watering hole where meetings and events are sometimes held.

I praised my good fortune in stumbling upon the local headquarters of a semi-secret society I’d long admired. Rupe also informed the men across the bar of my mission, and they agreed to talk to me about life in Los Molinos.

“Sure, we’ll tell ya about it; we’re the goddamned Los Molinos Social Club,” one of the men said, and they all laughed. I started by asking how long they’d been here.

“What, today? Hell, I dunno, since noon at least,” one cracked, and they all laughed. They mostly ignored me as they began talking through the math: who was oldest, who’d been born there, and if it counted if they’d moved away for a couple years. The conversation was entertaining but not the most informative, so I got up to take pictures of bras hanging from the ceiling and a giant pair of panties on the wall, spurring the Social Club to start in on the topic of paparazzi.

“Those bastards killed Princess Diana!” one of the men said, drawing out the word and adding emphasis to the second syllable: “Di-ANA!”

“Well, she shouldn’t o’ ran!” another said.

I took my beer and headed for the back smoking patio, where I had a fortunate run-in with Mike himself, who sat and spoke to me under a tailgate hanging from the ceiling emblazoned with the words “SHOW ME YOUR TITS.”

Dyson is a magnanimous man with a big personality, and after a few minutes of conversation one realizes there’s a story behind every line and crease on his beaming face. “I’ve been here forever, and my family’s been here forever and ever,” he started, explaining he’d owned the bar for eight years. “We have a lot of fun in here. Most anything goes, but there ain’t no fighting. We don’t even allow arm wrestling.”

The conversation eventually led to the obvious: ECV and boobies.

“We help the ‘widders and orphans,’ and we send a kid or two to camp, depending on what our finances are every summer,” he explained of the local lodge, Lassen Loomis Outpost 1914. “We cut a lot of firewood for widowed women, and we do a lot of plaquin’ on sites of historical interest.”

As for the bras, Mike explained the tradition started shortly after he took over the bar. “One night this gal and her daughter were in here and we got to talking about bars with bras on the ceiling, and how down there in Cabo they got bras and panties and everything hanging up,” he said. “So the lady asks, ‘Do you care if I take my bra off,’ and I said, ‘You’ll never hear me say no to a woman who wants to take her bra off.’ So she took hers off, her daughter took hers off, and I put them on the ceiling.

“I got another box of ’em to hang up; I just washed ’em,” he continued. “That was a pain in the ass. The first time I washed them I just did a washing machine full then threw them in the dryer. … It took me hours to untangle that mess.”

Dyson offered to pay for my second beer, and when a Clamper offers you don’t say no. I drank it lustily, relishing my last 15 minutes in Los Molinos while calculating the cost of a cab ride home to Chico versus a Los Molinos motel room: I was fine to drive today, but would love to see this place on Friday—karaoke night.