Eden Ridge: Paradise Imagined
Updated: Aug 10, 2022
My wife and I lived in the forested, foothill California town called Paradise for over twenty years. We loved it there, and turned our little half-acre with the 1960 Gold Medallion house into a place we truly called home. We lost everything of material value, as well as two beloved cats, in the November 8, 2018, conflagration known as the Camp Fire.
In my first novel, Where You Will Die, our love for the Town of Paradise lives on, in a fictional Sierra Nevada foothill town called Eden Ridge.
I started the first draft of the book sixteen months before the fire. Aspiring authors are advised to "write what you know", so I decided that a version of Paradise - with a few key differences - was the perfect setting for my story. It had everything I needed: a small, quiet community where the main character, Alan Wright, escapes the big city and the grief of his wife's death; a rich history in which many generations grappled and cooperated to live and thrive; and most of all, a town that flourished within the pines and oaks and manzanita without destroying the forest in which it was built.
There was a deep and calming beauty in that town mainly because no one felled a tree that didn't need felling. Our homes and roads, businesses, and schools fit in as naturally as the bird's nests and rabbit dens and the patches of brush where deer hid from the heat of the noonday sun.
Paradise was a forest where people made their homes, not a town with a lot of trees.
To work for my story, however, Paradise lacked one key feature: a road to the Sierra summit.
The Sierra Nevada gold fields of the 1849 rush are centered just east of Sacramento, at Sutter's Mill. The area extends as far north as Lake Almanor and south to Mono Lake, on the western slopes of the Sierra range. Along the rivers, creeks and ridges of those slopes, miners flocked to pan and dredge. They established hundreds of camps, dozens of which grew to become towns, centered on mining at first, then on the lumber trade as the gold gave out and the Civil War began. After the lumber trade moved into the hands of major conglomerates, many of the towns were abandoned or, like Paradise, became small retirement communities for Californians with modest savings.
But some of those gold rush towns found a new resource to mine - tourist dollars.
Scan a map of that area and you will find a number of twisting, two-lane highways starting in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys that climb toward the crest of the range. All of them connect to summit roads that take the traveler to the gambling havens of Reno and to the rich playgrounds of Lake Tahoe. The Forty-Niner towns along those roads have one thing in abundance - antiques. So, when people drive up the mountain on their way to ski and to sail and to lose bets, they often stop along the way to lunch and wander antique and secondhand shops. The flow of this traffic through the towns is like the streams once laden with gold - the dollars in the travelers' pockets - so the townspeople play the part of the whiskered miner with a gleam in the eye, catching tiny glistening flakes in their wide, flat pans .
For better or worse, however, Paradise has no link to the summit. The road that leads there from the valley - called The Skyway - ends unceremoniously some twenty-five miles further up the mountain. Two other highways run past Paradise from the valley to the crest, but the Skyway goes nowhere. The town is just as full of antiques as those sister cities, but the stream is dry. Vacationers have little opportunity to discover the gem on the ridge.
So, to set the stage for my story, Eden Ridge needed some things Paradise didn't have. Prime of these is the main road - called The Ridgeway in the novel - that delivers tourists to the crest highways. This makes my fictional town a magnet for antique hounds and travelers with money to burn, so there are always chances for something out of the ordinary to happen.
I made use of my imagination in one other key aspect: Paradise has its own lake, and so does Eden Ridge. I added a hot springs close to the lake modeled after Wilbur Hot Springs near Williams, California, where I spent many pleasant days back in the early nineties. I wrote a history of Eden Ridge, including the story of Atticus Theodore Merriweather, a gold rush millionaire, who, like Ezekiel Wilbur, builds a spa and hotel near Eden Ridge Lake that lives on in my story as a wellness and spiritual retreat. I'll write more about that part of the history in future posts.
So, I did take a number of liberties with the reality of Paradise to construct the fictional Eden Ridge, but the fictional setting is very much an homage, a salute to the real town and area we loved so much. I don't think that Paradise should be a tourist town. But if the road had gone through, there's no doubt it would be different than it is.
And now, with so many residents returning to Paradise and digging in to rebuild, you can see what real treasure is there - the spirit of the people who love the town, the craggy, volcanic buttes, the impossibly tall pines and gnarly red-barked manzanita, the deer, squirrels, and birds. There is always "gold in them thar hills" - the love of the people for their community.
Eden Ridge is just my way of tipping my hat to that love.
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Ron Howard directed an excellent documentary about the rise of Paradise from the ashes titled Rebuilding Paradise.
The journalists Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano wrote an excellent book covering the entire tragic turn of events titled Fire in Paradise An American Tragedy.
NOTE ADDED LATER - Another great book is Paradise: One Town's Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire by Lizzie Johnson. It's a compelling, first-hand account of the fire and an exhaustive report on the causes and consequences. News is out that Jamie Lee Curtis is working on a movie using Johnson's book as source material.