It’s autumn now. The overnight temperatures have dropped to just above freezing and the mountain sides seen from the small town of Stage Stop, California, are dotted in bright yellow, red and orange.
Located in the Klamath National Forest, Stage Stop recorded 102 year-round residents in the last census, which included Roddy Zahn, his wife Zelda (Zany Zelda Zahn, as she is called by the locals) and their eldest daughter May (short for Mayflower, because Zelda swears both she and Roddy have family they can trace back to the pilgrims). The three are the current owners of The Black Horse Inn and Tavern, a hotel and eatery built in 1834 by Irish immigrant Ephraim Jonas McComber.
Stage Stop is the only civilized base in the region for outdoor enthusiasts who partake in all the hiking, camping, river rafting and mountaineering the Klamath National Forest has to offer. It’s a great place from which to launch an adventure into the wilderness, or a sort of resort town to recoup afterward. Roddy and Zelda bought The Black Horse in 1983, right before the publication of the memoir by a well-known mountain guide, titled “Meet Me at The Black Horse.” It became a bestseller and put The Black Horse and the town of Stage Stop on the proverbial map. For the next three decades, the whole region flourished as a result.
Then, about 10 or so years ago, the droughts took hold. Popular hiking trails and campgrounds were routinely closed due to fire hazards. Winter and spring remained okay. The visitors still came around. But the rest of the year, the busiest time, business dropped way off. Even those who built vacation homes in the area all but abandoned their places, opting to go to the coast instead.
Roddy, Zelda and May made the most of the changing circumstances by turning a section of the building in The Black Horse into a sort of hostile for wildfire crews and park volunteers. Then came 2020, with its double-whammy of COVID-19 and constant wildfires, one after the other. The Zahns cancelled what few reservations they had and turned The Black Horse into an evacuee, park ranger, first responder and volunteer’s boarding house. The rangers set up a make-shift office in the back corner of the dining room next to Cal Fire’s relay desk. The evacuees created a similar set up in one of the rooms on the top floor where folks could sit at a desk to use a computer, make a call or fill out paperwork.
No one is a guest, at least not in the typical sense. They help the Zahns prepare and serve meals, as well as help with the laundry and housekeeping. A group of park volunteers cleared out the parking lot on either side to make more room for all the cars, trucks, and trailers people arrived in, as well as for the responders’ large vehicles and equipment. One of the Bridal Suites was turned over to make a quiet room and nursery for the very little kids. A couple of families helped a local rancher build a makeshift kennel and corral for the various pets and farm animals that came along with folks, or somehow found their way to Stage Stop on their own. The Cal Fire folks even worked a deal with the state and the Red Cross to get better satellite service and supplies like, pens and paper, diapers, food, bottled water and clothing.
The Black Horse may look more like a refugee camp these days than a quaint nineteenth century inn in the middle of national forest country, but as Roddy, Zelda and May see it, a rising tide will lift all boats. If they can share their good fortune with those in need, then those in need will maybe not need anymore.
Prompts this week from Unofficial Online Writer’s Guild are: What I write; rising tides lift all boats; I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern
I cut the following out because it wasn’t necessary to the story above. “Murder your darlings,” as the writerly saying goes. But I enjoyed writing it, so decided to post it separately:
Stage Stop was settled on a stagecoach line that once fed into the famous Butterfield Overland trail from San Francisco to St. Louis. Life in Stage Stop in those days was dictated by the hour: The stage to Yreka left The Black Horse Inn and Tavern precisely at 1:30pm. At 9:00pm, a returning coach arrived across town at The White Horse Saloon. In between those times, folks went about their business getting ready for the next departure or arrival.
Times changed and trains took over as the preferred mode of transportation. For forty or so years, a single track lead a twice-weekly train in and out of Stage Stop. The White Horse, located nearby, changed its name to The Iron Horse during those years, and though it was closest to the terminus, The Black Horse remained the preferred lodging. The owner of The Black Horse at the time, a former Canadian fur trader named August DuBois, used one of the former stagecoaches to taxi patrons to and from the train platform, which, as the story goes, was a bone of contention for the owner of The Iron Horse. The many ways the competing owners tried to poach each other’s patrons are well documented in the town’s history files.
Then came the automobile. Gravel from a nearby quarry still in operation was used to pave over the deep wagon wheel ruts left from the stagecoach days, though it didn’t make it all that easier to drive a vehicle over. A couple of locals took to laying out two long sheets of wood planks in front of the tires of a vehicle, then drive the vehicles over the planks, stopping when it rolled off the wood, and repeat the whole process again, until, hours later, they reach the main road. It gave the townsfolk the idea to build a sort-of promenade over the road, which worked for a while, but proved to be expensive and labor intensive to maintain. Fortunately, the train still came up the mountain, but only once a week now, and only a couple of times in winter, weather permitting.
Suffice it to say, everyone welcomed the first asphalt paving crew when the State finally deemed the region worthy of such a luxury. Everyone turned out to welcome the crew, as if was a Founder’s Day parade. And the advent of a paved road marked the final run of the train. Somewhere, someone has an 8mm home movie of the last train to pull out of Stage Stop, rolling off into the distance like the end of some old Western. They used to run it on a video loop at the Ranger’s Visitor’s Center for years.
Getting to and from Stage Stop was an ordeal in automobiles, prone to overheating as they once were. Couple that with the end of mining, logging, and hunting for material gain, and by the 1950s, Stage Stop transformed from tiny, busy nineteenth century regional hub to a mostly isolated mountain community. Regardless the improvement in car engines in recent decades, if you aren’t located near the Interstate, then you are nowhere. And the people of Stage Stop have been just fine with that for the past seventy some-odd years.
What has kept the town alive has been the generations of visitors looking to escape the city. Not only is that old stagecoach route passable now, they can hike or mountain bike in to town from Yreka along the old rail line, the tracks now removed, leaving a solid, clear trail they named The Iron Horse Trail. A little cottage industry centered around summer and winter vacationers grew into a decent economy, and Stage Stop was ordained a “gateway,” as the state touted it, to the “wild and wonderful wilderness of Klamath National Forest.”