By Ashley Loza
Two things happened in the last couple of weeks that were intertwined in my mind: the annual State of the County dinner and the death of Kern River Valley fixture Darl Snyder.
Darl was a 40-year resident of the valley, the guy in the overalls and fluorescent shirt who sold us honey. I’d be surprised if he needs any more introduction than that.
I first met Darl after the Erskine Fire. He lived out in Weldon, and when the fire ripped through his backyard and destroyed everything on the property next door, he was left with a pile of dangerous debris next to him that no one had the means or the legal ability to clean.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Darl made himself a real nuisance to anyone and everyone he could think of to get the hazards cleaned up and even tried to handle it himself. He sent emails, letters and photos to everyone up to the State Legislature, but he was met with pushback at every turn.
That was an improvement over what I was met with when I tried my hand at it, which was silence.
Darl was not a fan of silence as an answer. After we printed his story, he wrote an open letter expressing his annoyance with the “no comment” approach to fire cleanup.
Darl’s letters were my favorite letters to receive. He was always questioning government efficiency in a snarky, but surprisingly polite, way.
“These past practices don’t make me very impressed,” he admonished KVHD last summer in a letter about Measure Q. “Show me why I should consider saving you.”
His pointed tone made me smile, as always.
When I later saw him at the hospital board forum, I waved at him. “Are you here to start trouble?” I asked.
He gave me a big, toothy, mischievous grin. “Not this time,” he said.
I didn’t believe a word of it.
Sometimes he’d come to town hall-style meetings and never say anything, just sit in the front row directly in front of the speaker. I swear he did it just to let his presence set them on edge.
So what does Darl have to do with the State of the County?
When you’re sitting in a big room full of manicured county employees and politicians, eating a salad with unidentifiable nuts in it, listening to politicians and business leaders talk about “Kern County” in a way that sounds more like “Bakersfield,” you tend to start feeling that snarky indignation that Darl expressed so poetically.
These well-meaning speakers use the word “work” a lot. They remind you that they’re “working for you” or talk about how they’re going to “get to work” to improve the lives of Kern County residents. You don’t deny that they really mean what they say, but you zone out on their PowerPoint presentation and wonder who was working for us when Darl had burnt shrapnel blowing through his yard.
Did any of those shiny shoes make contact with the Weldon dust to discover the tattered “DANGER: ASBESTOS” ribbons dangling from fences 6 months after the Erskine Fire? I have no way of knowing, but I know that the Kern River Valley didn’t even earn a mention at the State of the County dinner that year.
You know that these people believe in the work that they do, and they really want to do right by you. Or you hope so, anyway. But you also know that they wouldn’t be able to see beyond their own back doors if not for people like Darl.
In the last year or so, Darl wrote me letters about taxes, hospital administration salaries, the price of gas, the danger of the road through the canyon, the enforcement of the county’s Dark Sky ordinance, and the sale of Onyx Ranch, just to name a few.
“I’m on a roll,” he typed into the subject line of a letter that he stretched out over three separate emails.
He took no prisoners in his quest for straight answers, and I have no doubt that he’s probably still lingering on the voicemails of a few county employees.
He wasn’t just a thorn in the side of local government, though. I learned that he also enjoyed helping kids learn vocational skills, and he was instrumental in alerting me about what new classes were at the high school or what new project the Sheriff’s Activities League would be working on. I could tell that he genuinely enjoyed helping kids learn how to get their hands dirty and build something from the ground up.
In some ways, Darl reminded me of my dad. They’re a breed of rugged, sun-hardened, combative types, with grease under their fingernails and dusty boots, who believe in hard work and aren’t afraid to pound their fists on a government desk just to make sure the forgotten are paid their dues.
So when we hold congratulatory county dinners, I can’t help but feel that the people in Kern County who are really making sure the rubber stays on the road are people like Darl who don’t compartmentalize community issues into work hours and business days.
Congruent with all American history I guess, whenever it’s time to raise Cain around here, it’s never the guy in the shiny shoes who calls me. It’s the guy in the overalls.
When I found out Darl had passed away, I texted a few people to spread the news.
My favorite reply was, “Man, he was a real pain in the ass sometimes, but I really liked the guy.”
I chuckled, feeling sure that Darl would have considered that high praise. The man who probably never “declined to comment” in his life wouldn’t have had it any other way.