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Smith: Gualala hardly junk food Mecca

Those residents of seaside Gualala still hardy enough to lift their arms are scratching their heads over the San Francisco Chronicle's Page 1 story that portrays their town as a nutritional/recreational wasteland.

Gualala, the picturesque and homey hamlet just north of the Sonoma-Mendocino line, comes off in the piece as a wholly unwholesome spot where junk food is plentiful, healthy food is dear and you're hard pressed to find a place to walk.

The genesis of the story was a public-health ranking that assigned Mendocino County a low score because of its relatively poor lifestyle — too little exercise, too much fast food, inadequate access to health care, too many smokers — and, consequentially, its rather low life expectancy.

But rather than interview residents of the more heavily populated and commercialized heart of Mendo County along Highway 101, the story focused on the health challenges facing a Gualala mom and hotel housekeeper, Irma Barragan.

“JUNK FOOD IS EASY to find where Barragan lives,” the piece declared — to the dismay of Gualalans. The fast-food chain restaurant nearest them is the McDonald's in Fort Bragg, 57 miles north on Highway 1.

The Chron's story also applied other county-wide generalities to little Gualala.

“Walking is simply inconvenient in this vast region,” it reported. Tell that to locals who get their hearts pounding merrily on the Gualala Bluff Trail, along any number of the town's lightly traveled residential roads and within 195-acre Gualala Point Park.

I spoke with Irma Barragan by phone and she doesn't at all regard Gualala as an unhealthy place to live. She said the one point she sought to make in the Chronicle story was that for people like herself and her husband — wage-earners with four children — it is difficult to purchase healthy foods from a remote country town's relatively expensive grocery stores.

Her family's financial situation requires regular drives to Santa Rosa for more affordable shopping at Costco and Trader Joe's.

Despite that inconvenience — one accepted by many who choose to live in rural areas — Barragan said she'd never want to leave Gualala.

“This is one of healthiest places to live,” she said. “We live in a piece of heaven.”

Did I mention that I lived in Gualala, blissfully but briefly, 35 years ago? Given my familiarity with the place, I felt certain the Chron reporter didn't see it for herself before she described it as “a small, unincorporated town near the coast.”

The town is not near the coast, it's on it, perched on a seaside bluff. A Gualalan could stand downtown and throw a stone into the Pacific.

Granted, that assumes his state of wellness enables him to bend over and pick up the stone.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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