SPRAGUE RIVER — Residents of this small town 42 miles northeast of Klamath Falls are rarely in a hurry.
It’s the kind of place where drivers going opposite directions on the road through town can stop, roll down the window and converse from inside their cars without holding up traffic.
The same leisurely pace is the norm at The Feed Bag Café, where locals gather each morning to enjoy coffee and talk.
Alaska Joe — also known as Joe Dugish — is one of them.
“This is a big part of my day, coming in and BS-ing with the guys,” he said.
Dugish added that Sprague River has changed over the years.
“It used to be kind of a tough little town,” he said, “but we haven’t had a shooting for a long time.”
Dugish has lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, and in San Francisco. He worked as a roofer, but fled the latter city for a better lifestyle after seeing a land advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The area’s harsh winters drive some people away, he said, but those who stay are nice folks.
What’s the nicest change from living in San Francisco?
“We have a shooting every six months here, not every six minutes,” Dugish said.
There is no police department in Sprague River, so law enforcement is up to the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office. Dugish said deputies respond quickly when needed.
But that wasn’t always the case. Craig Simpler, who goes by the nickname Stogie, said he’s been in Sprague River 30 years and remembers when sheriff’s deputies were wary of the town.
“They wouldn’t come out without two of them in two cars,” Simpler said. “We took care of our own.”
He once moved to the Willamette Valley, but didn’t spend much time there before moving back to Sprague River.
“The people are rude,” he said of Oregon’s populous valley.
Simpler likes Sprague River’s elbowroom and easygoing pace. The 69-year-old man said his great-grandchildren from Redding, Calif., enjoy visiting the small town. At night they always comment that “the whole sky is the Milky Way,” Simpler said.
He sat by himself at a corner table in the café recently while working with a knife sharpener. He had seven or eight knives laid out in front of him, a weekly event.
“I come in on Fridays and do their knives,” Simpler said. “They give me free coffee and a roll or something.”
It’s just one way people help each other in Sprague River.
“People here wave to you on the road,” Simpler said. “If somebody breaks down, somebody else will stop and help.”
He worked as a greenskeeper at a golf course in Vallejo, Calif., before heading north after a divorce.
“Oregon called me and I came on up,” Simpler said. “I like the clean air, and you’ve got your own little space here.”
Theresa Lizama is the morning cook at The Feed Bag. She stops by her regulars’ table to see what the day’s topic is. When asked what she likes about Sprague River, Lizama mentions the way people know each other and pull together.
For example, the Friends Church serves a free community dinner each Tuesday evening. Box meals also are available from a social service agency, she said.
“We’ve even got our own thrift store,” said Lizama, who is a member of the volunteer fire department and ambulance crew.
The post office is housed in the same building as the restaurant, and the library, a branch of the Klamath County Library system, is just a few doors down the street. The library has high-speed wireless Internet access.
Postmaster Joyce Hardman said it’s hard to pin down the exact population of Sprague River. Some people estimate it at a few hundred, but she said there are 1,200 people in the Sprague River Ambulance Service District.
Like many others who’ve settled here, Hardman previously lived in California.
“My son was going to school down there and it was unsafe,” she said. “We found this place and we love it.”
Across the street, Jimmy Haskins and Bud Litzenberg pulled their four-wheelers to a stop at the Squaw Flats Store. They stocked up on a few supplies for their trip to explore the local mountain roads.
Litzenberg’s dog, Patches, sat in a seat directly behind her owner. The pooch is something of a Sprague River celebrity.
“She’s everybody’s favorite dog in town,” Litzenberg said.
A bulletin board outside the store serves as a community information link. There are notes offering a reward for a lost wallet, and another for two missing dogs. An upcoming bingo night also is
Inside the store, owner Butch Browning says you have to sell a little bit of everything to make a go of it here. That means the inventory runs from cheese, frozen pizzas, film, beer and wine, and canned goods to padlocks, jewelry by local artists, and DVD movies that rent for $2 apiece.
There are T-shirts with the inscription, “End of the World, 9 miles. Sprague River, 12 miles.” Browning says they’re popular with people traveling through town during the summer.
He also sells gasoline, with regular unleaded priced at $3.70 per gallon as of last week.
If prices tend to be a little higher than those in Klamath Falls, residents of Sprague River are willing to make the tradeoff to live life on their terms.
It’s a community where people are friendly, but not afraid to speak their mind. The latter freedom is evidenced by a placard stating “Impeach Bush” that someone posted at the Squaw Flat Flea Market, which operates on Saturdays from April through September.
Bill and Liz Wilson are two more California transplants to the remote town. They are from Santa Rosa, Calif., and celebrated their 50th anniversary at the Sprague River Community Center last August.
The Wilsons searched throughout Nevada and Idaho for a retirement spot before settling on Sprague River. They don’t miss big city attractions or services they left behind. For example, Liz calls the local fire department “the best dad-gum volunteer fire department of anyplace.”
“Since we moved here I haven’t met a person I didn’t like,” Bill said.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Liz added.