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Runaway Train 

Tricia Sullivan fled her Southern Oregon hometown and the confines of her family in April. Arriving in San Francisco, she melded with the street community of young castoffs, misfits, and rebels. Phoning home, she lied and told her dad she was in New Yor

Wednesday, Sep 13 1995
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Between bits of his chocolate-covered glazed at Rolling Pin Donuts, a chaos punk is threatening to kill me. I don't tak it personally: He's too high to do me any real harm, and I know speed-fueled hyperbole when I hear it. Besides, I've accidentally betrayed his trust: He is talking to me on the condition that I not use his name - not even his street one - and has agreed to accompany me later to Polk Street in search of a key witness to a recent murder.

But the agreement explodes when one of the teen's friends approaches, affectionately cuffs him on the head, and calls him by his street name. Without thinking, I write the alias down.

"You fuckin' narc!" he yells when he glances at my notebook a few minutes later. "I'm gonna kick your fuckin' face in. I'm gonna kill you right here."

I apologize profusely, plead habit, then stupidity, but to no avail. He rips out a clump of pages from my notepad and storms out of the Castro District doughnut shop.

The friend starts scavenging the abandoned pastry.
"You weren't gonna find him anyway," he says of my search for the murder witness. "It's pretty easy for people like us to disappear."

On May 12, 1995, a different street teen disappeared - for good. Police found her body stuffed into a closet in a burned-out church taken over by squatters. She had been strangled. Black and red occult symbols adorned her face. Downstairs, in the makeshift bedroom of one of her alleged assailants, a dresser held dirty laundry, a bottle of bleach, and used syringes. Above it was a fading Judy Collins photo and a bit of graffiti scrawled on the wall: "There's nothing like senseless violence to snap you out of a depression."

There was no identification on the corpse, just a Muni transfer ticket and some pocket changes. The body was transported to the morgue, placed on a slab, and classified as Jane Doe No. 16. Autopsied by the city pathologist four days later, she was found to be a healthy woman, between 15 and 18 years of age.

A runaway who had given herself a new identity and rechristened herself "Stevie," she melded with the other lost souls, young discards, and misfits who have thrown off mainstream society's rules and call San Francisco's streets home.

Something akin to fate delivered Stevie into the arms of two other denizens of the street, who shared with Stevie the belief that they had been abused by parents and life. One, a young woman, had escaped the suffocating confines of her family; the other, a young man, had been exiled from his. Together, the two had built a relationship based around the idea that he was a master of an ancient religion and that she was his priestess in training.

In the squats and parks and coffeehouses of the city, far from the boredom and conformity of lower-middle-class neighborhoods in which they had all been raised, the three made common cause. So when Stevie expressed her oftspoken desire to end her life, her two new acquaintances were faced with this ethical question: If a troubled friend asks you to assist her in her suicide, what do you do?

The city of Klamath Falls is incredibly flat. The Southern Oregon town of 18,000 people sprawls lazily in a huge valley rimmed by imposing treeless mountains, gone scrubby and brownish-yellow in the 90-degree heat. Everything seems open, the cloudless sky a cornflower-blue tease of infinity. There's space to spare, so architects build out, not up. No edifice seems to be more than two stories tall.

Main Street runs through Old Town, a once thriving business center now inhabited mainly by thrift stores and the occasional upscale sandwich shop. In the neighborhood, there's a roller rink, a Holiday Bowl, and art deco theater, a grocery store, and a large antique mall catering to the tourists who blaze through the city on their way to Reno. Or to Cell Tech, "the hope of the town," a New Agey company that specializes in Super Blue Green Algae products like nutritional supplements and skin-care systems. The algae is harvested in Upper Klamath Lake. The falls of the city's name dried up ages ago.

A small highway leads into the new town, a service-economy mecca of strip malls, fast-food franchises, car dealerships, and motels. Numerous churches dot the landscape. It's a hot summer night, but there are no young people out on the streets. There's absolutely nothing to do.

In Klamath Falls, high-school baseball scores make the front page. Strangers nod at each other in the Safeway aisles. The waitress at Denny's tells you to finish your eggs, honey, because you need to put some meat on those bones. The elderly man standing in line behind you at Sizzler tells you not to order the steak, dear, because 70 years of T-bones gave him the gout and you've got to watch your cholesterol or you'll drop dead of a stroke like his wife. A teen-age floor sweeper at Taco Bell takes one look at your shoes and guesses that you're from "some big city," then asks why you're visiting "a boring shithole like K. Falls." Big city anonymity is out of the question. Any deviance happens behind closed doors.

"This town has been on the skids for years," says a frowning reporter from the local newspaper, the Herald and News. "It was fairly affluent at one time, from timber-related activities, but now that that's gone, the economy is depressed. You have to work to stay here, 'cause the winters are hard and you have to travel just to get anyplace. But that's the Oregon ethos, you know - the pioneer spirit."

"Children are born here, raised here, educated here, and then go off to make their fortunes," he continues. "There's not much to bring them back besides Dad's farm."

About The Author

Sia Michel

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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

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    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
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    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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