A Twisted Trip through the 49th State—Of Jefferson

Leaving Well Enough Alone

Deer carcass? Check. Dead skunks? Double check. No Monument signs? A million of ‘em. If your trip chart contains three or more of these items, chances are you’ve blundered into the State of Jefferson. I say blunder, because well, it’s not easily found—and you aren’t necessarily welcome. Sounds like a perfect destination.

Okay, so you can get there from a major Interstate. In fact, the biggest signpost to this Twilight Zone of sorts looms just off Interstate 5, in the shadow of Northern California’s Siskiyou Mountains. You can’t miss the giant barn, stuffed with hay bales, squatting in a vast pasture off the side of the freeway. A stark sign on the roof proclaims State Of Jefferson in eight-foot letters. I’d ridden by the hulking edifice dozens of times, always wondering what was up with this Jefferson thing. I mean, the Oregon line is another 25 miles north...

A couple of Wikipedia entries tell me that the State of Jefferson was on track to become the 49th state in the Union —just ahead of Alaska. A road trip to this curious place was definitely in order.

We’re Not Gonna Take It

Seems the whole thing began with a maintenance complaint. In the late 1930s, one of the local mayors got fed up with the perpetually sorry state of the roadways, and vowed to form a separate government to serve the remote area’s real-world needs since the respective state legislatures of the day weren’t. The State of Jefferson would span the mostly rural area of southern Oregon and northern California. The press got on board, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Stanton Delaplane won the Pulizter Prize for his stories about a small-town mayor who hoped to cash in on the region’s timber and ore resources by improving its dirt paths.

The ball really got rolling in November of 1941, when secessionists met in the former gold-mining burg of Yreka to create a state seal: a gold mining pan with “The Great Seal of the State of Jefferson” engraved into the lip, and two skewed Xs below. The Xs are known as the “Double Cross”, and are meant as a dig against the aloof state governments in Salem, Oregon and Sacramento, California.

Things heated up on November 27, when an eager group of men blockaded traffic near Yreka, and handed out a Proclamation of Independence. That day, the State of Jefferson ‘seceded’ from California and Oregon to form the 49th state of the Union. But the half- serious bid for statehood came to a screeching halt just days later—after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941.

Canyon Cruising

I started my quest in Yreka, where the secession spark first ignited. West Miner Street hasn’t changed much since 1941, with a small commercial strip holding a mix of 19th-century storefronts, highlighted by the elaborately carved Ming’s restaurant and a vintage soda fountain. More importantly though, the 108-mile State of Jefferson Scenic Byway begins here, running to O’Brien, Oregon along State Highway 96 and U.S. Forest Service Primary Route 48.

With nearby Mount Shasta providing an imposing 14,162-foot backdrop, I lean the big Victory Cross Roads into Highway 263. Between Yreka and Happy Camp, 263 rolls over a series of bridges built in the 1930s, which were engineering marvels for their time, but an obstacle later, as their 10-ton capacity couldn’t handle bigger trucks piled with ore. Making the turn onto Highway 96 west, I feel the byway spring free to begin its run through the Klamath River Canyon.

From Grants Pass down to Mt. Shasta, west to the Oregon coast, and east to Crater Lake, the pristine surroundings of the Jefferson area feel like they haven’t changed an iota in 60 years. But at least the roads are better, and it’s poetic justice that the only federal recognition Jefferson earned came in the form of this pavement—the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway was designated in 1992.

As I ride the canyon, the bridges keep coming, first spanning the Shasta, then the Klamath, then the Scott River. The Klamath River Canyon is a wild place with steep rocky walls holding a river that alternates between placid pools and roiling rapids on its run toward the ocean. As it swoops and coils to follow the Klamath’s contours, Highway 96 itself is in surprisingly good shape, considering it regularly gets pounded by rockslides. The sweeping bends serve up views of the rushing river, but among the edges of scattered shale, you’ll find no shoulders and few pullouts. Rolling through the Seiad Valley, I crane my neck to follow soaring bald eagles, while suspicious herons check me out from their log perches along the river.

Looming mountains bracket the canyon, and the farther west I rumble, the greener the landscape becomes, with new streams coming in from all sides. Posters on telephone poles advertise local salmon and steelhead trips, said to lure anglers from all over the country. Among working ranches set up more than 100 years ago, green State of Jefferson flags fly from poles, proudly displaying the Double Cross. Seems a strong streak of ultra-libertarianism still runs through the populace, but the Jefferson Double-X isn’t the only symbol cropping up consistently over the miles. I see NO MONUMENT signs posted everywhere.

C’mon Get Happy

Then a clearing in the road appears, and I’m at Happy Camp—a slightly shabby old mining hamlet that lies at the heart of Karuk ancestral territory. A sign tells me Happy Camp is the “Steelhead Capital of the World,” but it gets its name from the easy gold pickings to be had in the area back in 1851. The Karuk tribe maintains a presence here, and at the People’s Center, you can see the native weavers’ beautiful geometric-patterned baskets.

I’m probably more interested in the giant iron statue of Sasquatch looming at the main intersection in town though. Not coincidentally, the Bigfoot Scenic highway veers off here, but that’s a road trip for another time.

Happy Camp strikes me as a place populated by independent-minded people but other issues simmer below the bucolic surface too. A gregarious bartender tells me there are a preponderance of marijuana growers cashing in on the region’s remote location (“so don’t go poking your nose where it don’t belong,” he grins). It all started back in 1990, he says, when the spotted owl and the timber industry collided—and collapsed. Timber companies stopped logging, mills closed, and families stampeded out of town to find jobs.

What’s got some of that bad blood boiling again is a new proposed designation by the federal government. According to the local press, almost all Siskiyou County residents are united against a 600,000-acre Siskiyou Crest National Monument they’re worried would change their lifestyle—yet again. NO MONUMENT signs festoon mailboxes, driveways and truck bumpers everywhere, and now it’s easy to understand why.

If there’s a healthy sense of skepticism in Happy Camp, it’s also a good place to fuel up and check provisions, because from here, you’re going to get higher. And I don’t mean from the local crop; at Happy Camp, the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway leaves Highway 96 and heads north to climb Grayback Mountain. The Forest Lodge Motel is booked solid, so I turn onto Indian Creek Road and begin the eight-mile ascent up Grayback. The pavement’s in good shape, but it gradually becomes twistier, somewhat trickier, and markedly colder as I climb. It’s 40 miles of nothingness, occasionally punctuated with ominous signs like, “End of County Maintained Road,” and, “Snow Not Removed Past This Point.” Sure enough, I come upon increasing quantities of the white stuff piled among the stands of cedar and spruce. At the 5000 foot summit near the Oregon border, a turnout offers views of the Klamath River valley, but I’m more interested in finding my winter gloves—plus, the view is obscured by clouds. The descent down Grayback’s northern flank is a series of killer bends, but with snow and pine needle slop in some corners and steep dropoffs along the others, I keep my throttle hand in check.

Once off the mountain, I, make a beeline for Cave Junction on Highway 199. Cold and hungry, I check into the Junction Inn, a place that looks like it hasn’t had an upgrade since 1954. The front lobby is straight out of Twin Peaks, and as the 70-year old clerk, dressed completely in black lace, checks me in, I have to laugh out loud.

In my two days searching out the crux of The State of Jefferson, I come to realize that it transcends geographic definition. Jefferson may have missed its chance for statehood but, as folks in Happy Camp and Cave Junction will probably tell you, it's definitely a state of mind. CR