The Saga of Kern River Valley: A 21st Century Fairy Tale

Photo by Ashley Fike / Kern Valley Sun

Douglas Schanzenbach

Once upon a time there was a magic valley snuggled in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The valley contained a magic lake and a magic river that ran through the lake and the valley. The valley had survived multiple wildfires, earthquakes, droughts, and floods. Early in the 21st century, a new disaster befell.

The fame of the valley had been building through the whole of the 20th century. It had become famous as a destination for camping, fishing, hiking, rafting, windsurfing, and kayaking. As the fame spread flatlanders from cities near and far visited for holidays, weekends, summer vacations and for retirement away from the maddening crowds of the megalopolis.

Early in the 21st century a virus visited planet earth and changed the way of life for multitudes. People were laid off from jobs. Schools were dismissed with learning to become remote from home. Many jobs were performed from home. Gatherings were discouraged. Sports—professional, college, high school were suspended and then eventually conducted without fans in attendance.

And during that first summer of the plague flatlanders flocked to the Magic Valley. Campgrounds filled, motels filled. And still they came. People who had never camped before bought new gear and drove to the valley and finding no designated places to camp pitched their tents and parked their vehicles anywhere there was a piece of open ground large enough to accommodate them. They tore open their new camping gear and threw the packaging to the ground. They littered their daily trash all around the areas.

They snuggled in close to the magic river ignoring safety and health rules developed over the decades and cut foliage at will to gain faster, more direct access to the river. And they defecated in the open, behind any bush, without regard to health and safety, toilet paper marking their leaving. They had no wilderness ethic, no sense of the respect for the gifts of nature that had drawn them to the magic valley.

Officials, of course, were traumatized. The Forest Service watched, mouths agape, and did what bureaucrats for centuries have done when presented with a new problem. They did nothing. Merchants were ecstatic. More customers to sell beer and soda and chips and hot dogs to. The profits had never been larger so they counseled to leave the marauding, polluting, valley desecrating flat landers alone. Civic groups tried in vain. Volunteers gave of their time to try to save the magic river, the magic lake, the magic valley, but they were discouraged by the profit seekers. In the meantime, the virus quietly spread throughout.

And so as the years passed and influenza mutated and continued to ravage the population of the planet earth so too did the Magic Valley with the Magic Lake and the Magic River cease to be so. First, the river became polluted, then the lake. Disease lurked in the soil, in the river, in the lake. Fish died. Humans were unsafe in the water. Businesses closed. The earth demanded time to heal itself and the Magic moved to other places that rejoiced at their new boon to business and influx of flatlanders.

Jan west - July 29, 2020

Not only the magic valley but the amazing mountains just above. New RVs, OHVs tents, tarps- everyone searching for remote quiet places to be. USFS chose to keep over 100 campsites closed for this summer, thinking that would keep people away. Still they came, in huge numbers, many first timers, they parked wherever, pooped wherever, and now there is no more magic quiet remote place above the despoiled magic valley either. Magic lost.

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