'Excruciating': This working-class California county has the most expensive gas in the nation

Inflation, a severe housing shortage and now sky-high gas prices. The hits keep coming for residents in California's picturesque Mono County. But there's nowhere else they'd rather live.

LEE VINING, Calif. – About five hours north of Los Angeles and five hours east of San Francisco lies California's Mono County, a picturesque region known for its towering, snow-capped mountains and close proximity to Yosemite National Park. 

It's also known for gas prices that are so high, AAA headquarters in Florida uses it to comfort other people complaining about their fuel costs.

“I always say, ‘Thank God you don’t live in Mono County,” said AAA spokesman Andy Gross.

The average price for a gallon of regular gas in the county topped $6.75 this week, the highest county average nationwide, with some stations charging as much as $7.19 in mid May. While people in more populous areas like Los Angeles County are paying an average of $6.06, they have more options to shop around than the 13,000 people who live in Mono County.

The county, pronounced MOH’-no, is also at the extreme end of the colliding crises facing most Americans: Inflation driving up prices on basic goods, a severe housing shortage that forces many of its workers to commute as much as two hours a day and the spiraling fuel costs that compound everything. 

Sierra Chaltry drives 80 miles roundtrip five days a week to get from her home in the small community of Virginia Lakes to her part-time job at Epic Cafe in June Lake.

“It’s probably costing me around $200 a week,” said the 29-year-old, who has been looking for housing in June Lake for eight years without luck.

A recent search on Zillow for houses for sale in June Lake turned up two listings: a mansion for $10 million and a 10th of an acre of land for $129,000. There were no rentals listed.

Sierra Chaltry of Virginia Lakes, Calif., is pictured during her shift at Epic Cafe in June Lake on May 12, 2022. Chaltry says she drives 90 minutes roundtrip to get to and from the cafe and is spending about $200 a week on gas alone.

“Housing is impossible,” Chaltry said. “There is nothing that you can rent around here that is reasonably priced. I live 45 minutes away because that was the only thing that I could find.”

Coping: Cheap meals at home and essential drives only

To help offset the gas prices, Chaltry is eating out less, buying cheaper ingredients for home cooking and cutting down on optional drives.

Lauren Seymore, a 35-year-old emergency room nurse, said she was lucky enough to find a small house in June Lake for $950 a month through friends when she moved to the area from Oregon in November. But that means she’s commuting an hour to work in Bishop, just south of the county line and where gas is slightly more affordable.

Still, Seymore estimates spending $150 to fill her tank every week.

“The gas prices are excruciating,” she said, adding that the mounting costs led her to buy a hybrid car this month.

She’d also like to move to Bishop but Zillow has just four places listed for rent in town, including a 500-square-foot studio apartment going for $1,950 a month.

Norma Grundon of Mono City, Calif., spent $75 to fill up her tank in Lee Vining on May 11, 2022. Grundon says high gas prices in the region have been a challenge for her family.

As hard as the numbers are to swallow, most Mono County residents wouldn't live anywhere else. Their backyard is the Eastern Sierra, a wonderland for anyone who likes hiking, mountaineering, skiing or fishing. Californians arrive in droves in the summer, and annual visitation is in the millions. 

“It takes a bit of traveling to get here, but that’s the way we like it,” the county’s website says. “Because once you’re out here, you’ll start to remember what beauty looks like.” 

Increasingly, the region is vulnerable to climate change. One week, a snowstorm can close U.S. Highway 395, the major roadway linking the towns. Days later, a wildfire can trigger evacuations nearby. 

Between the whims of the weather and gas prices, oil companies, living in Mono County can be challenging. It's also what gives its residents a special grit, a put-your-head-down-and-get-on-with-it attitude. 

That's what Linda and Dave Dore have done since the pandemic, when they had to pivot their full-service restaurant a half dozen times to what it is today, a takeaway café in June Lake. 

"The hits definitely keep coming," said the 62-year-old Linda Dore. "Gas prices are a huge concern. The housing market is another huge concern. The American dream to have a little ma-and-pa business is really a struggle." 

Linda and Dave Dore of Lee Vining, Calif., share a smile in their takeaway restaurant, Epic Cafe, in nearby June Lake on May 11, 2022. Like other business owners in the region, they've been hit hard by high gas prices.

'How many billions do they need?'

Household income in working-class Mono County, with its small businesses and service-industry jobs, sits well below the statewide median. 

Meanwhile, some of the world's leading oil giants reported record profits for the first three months of this year. Profits for Exxon Mobil, Shell and more also rose by billions despite significant costs of exiting operations and/or investments in Russia amid war in Ukraine.

"Here we are struggling to even work enough to get enough gas even go to work," Dore said. "I mean it's definitely, how many billions do they need?"

The average U.S. gas price hit a record high Tuesday – and then Wednesday, and again Thursday and again Friday. The average price for regular gas in the U.S. reached $4.43 a gallon on Friday, according to AAA. 

Dore had three stations to choose from last week near her house in Lee Vining: the Mobil charging $6.69 for a gallon of regular, the Shell charging $6.99 a gallon or the Chevron charging $7.19. 

"I feel helpless sometimes. What can we do?" she said. "We try to write to our congressmen and blah, blah, blah and all that but I just feel like, especially these little towns, rural America, they don't really get heard very much."

Others just accept the price as the cost of living in paradise. 

"I'm not angry about it," said Mark Grundon, a climbing guide living in Mono City who drives more than six hours to get to his job at Yosemite during the winter months when the nearest road to the park is closed because of snow and ice. 

Grundon stays at Yosemite for three nights and drives more than six hours back to be with his wife Norma and daughter Isabella the other four nights of the week. 

"I've kind of gotten used to it," he said of the gas prices.

Many in the county stopped wondering long ago why prices are always highest where they live.

"I remember in the old days in the '60s when we’d all say, 'Oh gosh, Bridgeport gas is 40 cents, and it's 30 cents in LA. How can people pay that?'" said Bob Gardner, a Mono County supervisor and resident of June Lake. “It’s always been an issue.”

He said he's not sure why that is except that Mono County is a harder to get to, though towns within 50 miles have prices nearly $2 cheaper.

Debbie and Shelley Channel chat inside their Lee Vining, Calif., Shell station, where regular gas was $6.99 a gallon on May 12, 2022. The Channels say their semi-remote location and a feast-or-famine tourist season help drive their prices.

Shelley Channel, who has owned the Shell station in Lee Vining for more than 40 years, said his prices are based on the market and his unique location.

His business is heavily dependent on tourist traffic to Yosemite, which can only be reached from Mono County half the year because of winter road closures. 

"When (the eastern entrance to) Yosemite closes in the fall our business goes down 80%, sometimes more," he said. "We just sit here and wait until late spring when Yosemite National Park opens up again."

His prices not only allow him to stay in business but keep six employees in jobs year-round, he said. 

Gardner with the board of supervisors said gas prices in the region might have finally reached a tipping point, adding that the board may start looking at ways of easing the financial pain in the region, such as subsidies. 

"When inflation is running over 8 percent, that's different than it's been in the past," he said. "So maybe it takes some extraordinary measures to try to address that to help families be able to survive and pay their rent and put food on the table."

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