People can be lonely. Animals get lonely. Surely, we can’t say the same about places. The residents of Loyalton, California are determined to convince you otherwise.
The tragedy of this small town on the southeast side of California’s Sierra Valley is not that you’d find it hard to travel to Loyalton, do something fun there, or meet interesting people. You can do all those things. It’s a mecca for those who love the outdoors, offering plenty of opportunities for hiking, fishing, camping, and mountain biking. But people still find a way to avoid Loyalton, all its attractions notwithstanding, and it certainly feels left out. According to some surprised yet defeated citizens, it has earned the distinction of the “Loneliest Town in America.”
How does one define “loneliness,” especially when it describes a patch of earth? Some residents explain it as the number of non-residents that drive through per day - a number that, in Loyalton, equates to just over 10 people. This is a figure readers should trust, since detecting outsiders is not usually a problem for the 800 or so Californians that live in Loyalton (naturally making it the largest town in all of Sierra County). What must it feel like to be driving through a sleepy town only to see hundreds of curious faces peering through windows and be halted by a strange man fiddling with a notepad and pen who says, “And that’s six. Please carry on?” Odds are, most of us will never find out.
Residents’ frustration stems from the fervent belief that they shouldn’t be as lonely as they are. It’s not like Loyalton is in the middle of nowhere. The town hosts a strip of the famous State Highway 49, a road that twists and turns through California’s gold country, but appears to have diminished in importance once that country stopped harboring any gold…a hundred and fifty years ago. But, hey, at least it’s near stuff! Like other highways. If you crane your neck from the highest point in Loyalton (presumably the top of a mailbox) you might be able to see cars on major Interstates 80 and 395 just under 40 miles in the distance, passing through what used to be gold country without giving a second thought to the lonely people who inhabit it.
It wasn’t always this way. Starting in 1849, when gold was abundant in these parts, Sierra County was the least lonely place around. More than 16,000 miners descended on the county in the hopes of making a quick fortune. However, the economic stability of Loyalton (or as it was called back then, Smith’s Neck), rested not with gold but cows and wood, and logging and agriculture became the major industries of the area. The town was incorporated in 1901 as Loyalton, its name a nod to the loyalty of its citizens to the Union during the Civil War. The 20th century saw a decline in the industries that kept the town afloat, and now Loyalton remains a tough place to attract businesses, or anything else for that matter.
But that doesn’t mean residents aren’t industrious, or even clever. With a little ingenuity, a person from virtually anywhere can achieve a level of celebrity. Even a newspaper editor from Loyalton, California. Well, that would not be doing Hal Wright justice; he wasn’t just the editor of Loyalton’s The Sierra Booster, but also its publisher, photographer, lead reporter, and head of the production and advertising divisions. In 1996, journalist Bill Geist, in an acclaimed piece for CBS Sunday Morning, made famous Hal Wright’s story. Hal was so compelling because in addition to all his other jobs at the Sierra Booster, he was its delivery boy. Granted, that’s not so compelling, until you find out he delivered the paper from his 1949 Aeronca Sedan airplane, dropping his publication with the utmost reliability and pinpoint accuracy on readers’ front lawns.
For a brief couple minutes on a Sunday morning in July, Loyalton was on top of the world.
Now, Loyalton is the loneliest town in America. And it certainly doesn’t expect a visit any time soon.