I have always thought of myself as an outlaw, not a criminal and as someone who tries not to be corrupt. Usually, people either run to me or run from me. That’s been as true for me at the Soda Creek Store as at any other place. The first time I was up in that part of the world I didn’t know the store even existed. It was dark and I was drunk and driving my Ford F-100 truck. I saw lights but that was about all I saw. I was going fast. I couldn't even see Lake Pillsbury. Trees were in the way. Since then they’ve been thinned so you see the water.
That first night, I drove about halfway to Williams, turned around and went back the way I came. Below Scott’s Dam, where the road was all gravel, I rounded the big curve and the truck turned sideways for half-a-mile, with the back tires spinning.
Sometime later, I noticed the store, went in for a soda and met Nick Uram, the owner. “You are either growing pot or you’re nuts,” he said. “No one goes to the mountains as often as you do unless you're one or the other.” Of course, I could have been both. There were crazy folks around, like the Russian who stole a boat on Lake Pillsbury and the police arrested him.
After that first time I’d go into the store regularly for a sugar fix. Once, I asked Nick to come and look at the new, 500 horsepower crate engine in my truck. I popped the hood. Nick looked inside and said, “Yeah, that’s beautiful.” That was the start of our friendship. Nick has thought I’ve talked trash about him. Not so. I’ve only talked trash about some of the idiots around the store.
While Nick and I were admiring the new engine, a Lake County sheriff, a good old boy, showed up. “That your truck?” he asked. I said, “Depends who’s asking.” He said, “Wow, that thing really goes.” He wanted my license, registration and insurance. I replied, “None of the above.” He shook his head and said, “I’ll cut you some slack. I’m not gonna take your truck, but I don’t want to see it on my roads again.”
I did my best ever brown nosing. “Thank you, sir.” The cop drove off. “Dodged the bullet that time,” I told Nick. He said, “He’s gonna wait for you.” I hung out, had a diet Dr. Pepper, went down to the Eel River, killed some time there, came back, sat on the porch and ate pasta. The cop drove back and forth in front of the store eight times. No exaggeration. When it turned dark I got out of there fast, took the scenic route to Nice, where I was living with my wife. I went out the back side of Hull Mountain, took M 1 East to Forest Highway 7 East, to Highway 162 East to Willows, then 20 West to Upper Lake. I wanted to keep my truck and I was willing to drive the extra 120 miles not the usual 30. After that encounter with the sheriff, I went back to the Soda Creek Store with all my paperwork.
The whole world seemed to pass in front of Nick’s place. I saw that it offered anything and everything anyone would need for boating, hiking, hunting, camping and more. Part old fashioned general store and part community hang out, it sold rope, firewood, marshmallows, chips, salsa, ice cream, frozen candy bars in the freezer so they didn’t melt in the heat, plus stuff to fix flat tires, gas for $3 a gallon and lots of booze.
I saw Nick and his wife E.D. do hundreds of loads of laundry for the fire fighters while they battled big blazes in the mountains above Lake Pillsbury. I met their daughter, Jolene, a big blond with a pretty smile, and watched her grow up.
I learned first hand that Nick had a heart of gold, and that he’d help you if you asked. I never saw him turn away anyone.
(Nick has operated the store since 1991. It's open 365-days-a-year from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. “We have whatever it takes,” he says. No wonder it has been rated one of the top “redneck stores” anywhere. Bears and raccoons like it. “I trust them more than I trust people,” Nick says.)
During my summers up there, I saw that hippie growers would hang out at his store. So did hunters with high powered rifles. Some of them went after deer and others went after marijuana. Their attitude seemed to be, “I’ll let the stinking hippies grow it for me and then in the fall I’ll steal it.”
I met mountain folk and flatlanders. I heard Mendo people bad mouth Lake County people, and I also heard Lake County people describe Mendo folks as yuppie, hippie types. The store wasn't a place for anyone shy around four-letter words. You might hear someone say something like, “Look at the size of the horn on that buck, shit, man.” After all these years, I say “Kudos” to Nick and E.D. Lake Pillsbury wouldn’t be the same without them running the store.
(Jonah Raskin is the coauthor, with Oaky Joe himself, of Joe Munson’s Adventures and Misadventures.)