Thursday, November 15, 2012
Down in the flat southern swathe of the Salinas Valley, 17 miles south of King City, Highway 198 shoots off Highway 101 like a maverick striking out alone. The two-lane state highway winds between sensual hills in pristine geography that changes with elevation—from hilly moonscape to Mediterranean woodlands to rocky mountains. Taken to its conclusion, it deposits the driver in Sequoia National Forest.
Before it leaves the eastern edge of Monterey County, Highway 198 passes Priest Valley Tavern. Built in 1927 as Priest Valley Station, the restaurant is a watering hole in the middle of scrub, prairie and woodlands country, between San Lucas and Coalinga. An oasis within a bigger oasis, in the middle of nowhere.
It’s made up of a ramshackle cinderblock building that looks like a summer camp cabin, painted Boy Scout green and khaki, with a corrugated roof. It’s surrounded by huge oaks, one purported to be more than 300 years old. On its east end, a wrought-iron gate pens two horses and a mule. At its other, backdropped by two mobile homes and a hill laden with trees, is “the barn,” all corrugated sheets of metal painted brown, tan, magenta. Its floor is beat-up planks of wood. There are no windows or insulation, but there is a bar, a stage and karaoke. Over its door a sign that reads “Pepsi” and “Priest Valley Dance Hall.”
Seated just off the highway, the tavern looks like a rambling, peaceful compound that stubbornly still exists. The people who own it, run it, and live in it are funny and earthy. Mavericks.
Lillie Peterson has owned it for three years with Mike, her husband of nine years. They live in rooms off the dining room with Lillie’s 2-year-old grand-daughter Raquel Lillie Lyn and 33-year-old son Carlos, whose mental disability leaves him with the faculties of his little niece. Lillie’s 86-year-old father, Popo, lives in a mobile home out back.
“A lot of families settled here in the 1800s,” Lillie says. “There’s American Indians in the valley. They used to have powwows. People used to ride horseback here…This was the ‘it’ place for Coalinga.” They would come to the barn for dances, to get married, to whoop it up. “There are holes from shooting through the roof,” she adds.
With its 45 residents, Priest Valley is rural, with old families that go back five generations. Some of the regulars here include Gil, an 87-year-old Korean War vet who comes from Salinas for their “power breakfast” of eggs, bacon, toast, potatoes and gravy. Howard, known as the local historian, sells Lillie ranch eggs. Most patrons are cowboys who come at lunchtime while working on the nearby ranches. They like to drink Coors and Crown Royal. Motorcyclists come through too; Mike is a big Harley fan, with his new bike parked in the dining room. Europeans stop by on their way to the Sequoias.
“Great burger,” one writes in the guest book, though Mike says Lillie’s BLT is the most popular item.
There’s no menu and no set hours. “We try to stay open 7am to 5pm in winter because it’s just too cold to stay open later,” Lillie says. “There’s not enough traffic for a menu. It’s whatever I bought from the store to make that day.”
The simple kitchen is open and off the dining room, which is appointed with a POW-MIA flag (Mike was in the Navy), a drawing of Charles Bronson aiming a gun, a flatscreen TV, mixed-matched tables, old signs and photos (including the tavern in 1953), an oar, a specials whiteboard with “potato” written on it, a counter cluttered with sundries, license plates, a board with ranchers’ brands. It’s part business, part home.
The Petersons bought it on a premonition. “I woke up screaming,” says Lillie, a former Yuba County real estate agent. “God showed me this vision. I saw property after property, car after car, lost. This was before the crash.”
In a second vision, the message was “You’re going to be OK.” Lillie saw Priest Valley Station for sale on Craigslist and one day told Mike, a mechanic, to drive her there. When they saw the tavern, they had to buy it. Three years later, they’ve survived hot summers and snowy winters with irregular phone and electrical service. “It’s been like a learning experience,” Mike says.
Little Raquel screams in the dining room, prompting Carlos, who mimics gestures and words, to cover his ears.
“She does that when she’s happy,” Lillie says. “I go into the city and everybody’s so stressed, in such a hurry. Here, it’s peaceful. People passing by stop and stay for hours. It’s quiet. No TV, no nothing. People don’t even realize what goes on up here in the hills.”
PRIEST VALLEY TAVERN is located at 73080 W. Hwy 198, San Lucas. 385-3480, www.priestvalleytavern.com Call for hours.