The Madeleine Brand Show for September 30, 2010

'Town For Sale' — A Talk with Writer Dana Goodyear

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The tiny town of Bridgeville, Calif., is privately owned. It's even been auctioned on eBay.

California has long been a rich subject for writers and the new book "The Devil's Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today," aims to define the state. In one of the book's essays, New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear explores the town of Bridgeville up North in Humboldt County. Humboldt is a privately owned, and has been offered up for bid on eBay several times. Goodyear talks with Madeleine about this crazy tale of one California town. Excerpt from Town for Sale by Dana Goodyear:

Late in summer, when the Van Duzen, a tributary of the Eel, begins to clot with rich, bright-green algae, the children of Bridgeville, California, get the river itch and stop going in the water. Instead, the kids, with names like Sonrize and Nervona and Crystal ride dirt bikes down the town’s one street, which is lined with Himalaya berries, wild fennel, and falling-down kit-houses painted pastel colors. They wander back and forth across the old stone bridge, built in 1925 and closed to traffic several years ago, or drift into the post office for a piece of free candy. One hopeful day each August, the townspeople hold a festival, and everyone dresses up in alien costumes. There is a competition to see whose homemade UFO can fly the farthest when launched from the old bridge. The grown-ups try earnestly to win. They know best how hard it is to get away.

Bridgeville is in Humboldt County, geographically and psychologically sited, locals say, “behind the Redwood Curtain,” — meaning that as a place and frame of mind it is as incongruous with outside reality as the world past the furs in C.S. Lewis’s attic wardrobe. It is an out-of-the-way place, with thirty or so residents, and not a single restaurant, bar, or business of any sort. But the town itself is a kind of enterprise: it is privately owned. It became famous in 2002 when its owners, a family called Lapple, offered it for sale on eBay, with a $775,000 minimum.

The Lapples had bought the place in 1973, for $150,000. Four years later, the Pentecostal Faith Challengers, a congregation from Fremont, bought it for $450,000 after their preacher heard an advertisement for it on the radio. The parishioners sold their homes to raise case for a down payment, with the Lapples financing the rest of the deal. When the Challengers arrived, they found, according to Time magazine, “a rural slum in the middle of God’s country” — trashed cars, broken septic tanks, buildings in disrepair. They renovated the café and banned alcohol and tobacco from the general store, where they held their first service, singing a hymn to the tune of “Okie from Muskogee”: “I’m proud to be a Christian in Bridgeville / A place where repentant sinners can have a ball / We don’t smoke marijuana in Bridgeville / As a matter of fact, we don’t smoke at all.” Prayer services rang through the valley, spooking the ranchers. “We came up over the ridge and my husband’s mule, Gomer, looked down there like, “What is this?” the matriarch of an old ranching family told me. “They’d put up speakers. We said we should put up a speaker on our mountain and say, ‘Amen.’ It’s not that we’re not religious, but … ” Before too long, the preacher disappeared, his congregation followed, and Bridgeville belonged once more to the Lapples.

When the Lapples put Bridgeville on eBay, they advertised it as “a private retreat, basking in the glory of the redwoods” and a possible “economic powerhouse with the potential for generating a large cash flow.” The prospect of owning a zip code was compelling and novel. Ideas for Bridgeville ranged from corporate getaway to hairdressers’ camp and stuntman training ground. At the frothiest moment of the eBay bidding war, which rose to $1.8 million before falling through, one contender suggested turning it into a brothel. Eventually, an Orange County mortgage banker bought the town, for $700,000, thinking he’d make it over into a mind-body health resort modeled on Esalen. He sold it — nearly doubling his money, in 2006 — when he realized that he and his wife and children were quite happy in Laguna Hills, and he didn’t want to end up like the Harrison Ford character in Mosquito Coast.

Copyright 2010 Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission.

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