Honey Visits the Gold Country

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August 1, 2010 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)

My older daughter Feride and granddaughter Emma and I arrived at the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge, which is on the old Lincoln Highway — the first coast-to-coast automobile route in the country (1912-1913) — a little west of Donner Lake, at about midnight on July 3rd, after an incident that revealed to me that Feride had indeed inherited my parallel parking gene. (The parking event occurred when a total stranger opened my daughter’s car door and yelled, “I can’t stand it!” and made her get out so he could park the car for her. The first time someone did this to her, she thought she was being carjacked. Now she just tips them, which can be unnerving when the intervener turns out to be a surgeon.)

We took the I-80, which was backed up most of the way, although the backup didn’t affect us because it took her so long to pack. My daughter packs very well. She packs everything. The Volvo whimpered as the last suitcase went into the trunk.

Thirty years earlier, Feride learned how to drive on the I-80. We hadn’t intended that she would learn how to drive on the I-80. She had her learner’s permit, so I pulled off the highway into the parking lot of a coffee shop (It’s no longer there.) Neither of us knew the parking lot exited into the Interstate. Burned into my retinas is the image of my teenager clutching the steering wheel of my rental car with unnaturally white hands as big rigs surrounded us and escorted us towards the portal of eternity. Burned into her retinas is the image of me with my mouth opened like the fellow in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” I promised God I’d give up Marxism if my daughter survived. Fortunately, I hadn’t promised God I’d give up drinking.

In the 1930s, Sierra Club volunteers built the lodge because it was on the Lincoln Highway and also because passenger trains stopped at the station in Truckee. Before Interstate 80 bypassed the lodge in 1956, it must have taken a very long time to drive along the twisting Lincoln Highway from the Bay area, about as long as it took us on 80 the Friday of this Fourth of July weekend.

The three of us schlepped suitcases and sleeping bags up the dirt incline from the highway to our room, which took us fifteen minutes to find. It was to take me three days to figure out where everything was in the lodge, including a very creepy basement that should have been a location for a horror movie and through which we passed by mistake that first night.

We didn’t hear automobile traffic, but, at night, we heard freight cars pass. Amtrak’s California Zephyr — a passenger train – passes at about three in the afternoon.

During the first night, the train’s rhythmic clicking soothed us, and we needed soothing because our room was the approximate size of a San Quentin cell and we had to unroll sleeping bags on primitive bunk beds, something that my granddaughter (who reminded us several times that her father only takes her to first class hotels where maids place miniature shampoo-conditioner bottles within fans folded from wash cloths), had not agreed to, and she also had not agree to swim in a lake with water snakes in it or to hike in some forest with nothing to see but trees, all of which look like each other. I spent some hours watching freight cars moving across the opposite under a net of brilliant stars.

The next day, Feride rented a jet ski, which I initially assumed was a joke name meaning “Polish jet,” perhaps a joke suggesting a jet that did not work well or that arrived at preposterous conclusions assumed from baseless argument, but which is actually the brand name of a personal watercraft trademarked by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, at a tiny marina on Donner Lake and Emma sat behind her, and young girls took turns riding behind Emma. I rented a kayak and paddled around the lake. One of the men in our party from Clair Tappaan said, “Just think back to when you were young,” when I got into the kayak, and this is not a good thing to say to me but Feride said later that I had hit the man in the head with one of my paddles when I was getting into the kayak.

At six o’clock, we climbed rocks above the Lincoln Highway and sat on them until it got dark so that we could look down at Donner Lake during the pyrotechnics displayed from one end of the lake. We learned that, even at that elevation, there are small slender flies that feed on the blood of mammals and that there is no place to pee when you are on rocks above the Lincoln Highway.

We imagined that by Monday many people would have returned to the Bay Area or Nevada or wherever they came from but this turned out not to be the case. We saw stationary cars on I-80, and the line stretched for miles. Feride’s Global Positioning System Minerva (named after the goddess of wisdom) insisted we take I-80 but we didn’t. Instead, we headed down the west side of Lake Tahoe towards the El Dorado Forest. Minerva advised us many times that she was recalculating the route and to make a U-turn. She grew increasingly annoyed with us and picked up the tempo, reminding us incessantly that she was recalculating the route. Utterly frustrated with us, Minerva stopped telling us what to do by the time we reached South Lake Tahoe City.

Once again, the trees did not impress Emma as we passed through the El Dorado Forest. I told her that Ronald Reagan had felt the same way about redwoods and famously said, “When you’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen them all,” yet another thing we said that did not impress my granddaughter. A splendid number of things do not impress her. Emma sat in the backseat and played the one movie she downloaded before we left Clair Tappaan. Her ear buds were in the trunk so we heard all of the film “Glee” seven or eight times. It sounded like a musical. I hate musicals.

“See that river down there?” I asked. She saw the river, white in the afternoon sun and moving between steep banks. “That’s where we go white water rafting tomorrow. That’s the South Fork of the American River.”

We stayed at Coloma Country Inn, which is next to a pond and located in the Marshall Gold State Discovery Park in the Sierra foothills. A swing hung from the limb of a tree. Two docile dogs guarded the lawn and kept ducks off of it.

The next day, we passed some of the machinery and buildings that had been part of Sutter’s enterprise in the state park before we got into a raft and went down the South Fork.

In 1841, Swiss national John Sutter became a Mexican citizen. The King of Spain granted Sutter 48,000 acres, and he created one of the first ranchos in the Central Valley. Californio ranches were humongous. He built an adobe fort on the Sacramento River, and this area eventually became the city of Sacramento.

Then Sutter did something that seemed practical and intelligent: he expanded into the Sierra foothills into the small valley the Nisenan Indians called Cullemah in order to cut down timber and to mill it for the his buildings.

Sutter’s decision to build a sawmill to mill his own wood led to the Indians’ enslavement and death, the contamination of large sections of the natural environment, the immigration of many American men, women and children into California, the creation of the State of California, the collapse of Sutter’s empire, the rebel states’ loss in the American Civil War, and the beginning of just about everything you and I know as modern California: iPhones, Google, telegraphs, public schools, the pony express, highways, the railroad, property weighted voting by Water Storage Districts, Jack London, the Los Angeles Times, court houses, suburbia, trolleys, the City and County of San Francisco, Chinese restaurants, and everything else.

Imagine what California might have been like if Sutter had been able to keep the gold find a secret.

Most of us would not be living in California. Those of us who lived here would be citizens of Mexico and speak Spanish. The United States might end in the west at the top of the Sierras. Without California gold, the Union Army might not have prevailed, and our country might have remained a confederacy of equally powerful states, some of which depended on slave labor. The enormous ranchos in Alta California, dependent on peonage, would have survived much longer. Mexico would have had control of what was to be the bread-basket of the world: the Central Valley. The Southern Pacific would not have reached Los Angeles. Mexico would have owned our oil fields when oil became important. Industrial revolution era residents might have learned from the Indians rather than exterminating them.

Sutter partnered with James Marshall to build the sawmill in Coloma, and Marshall discovered gold in the South Fork in 1848. All hell broke loose after that. A New York newspaper had already used the term “Manifest Destiny” by 1845, when it called for the annexation of Texas. The United States invaded California and also annexed the Mexican state of Tejas because of its manifest destiny.

When lawyers use the word “manifest,” or when they say, “it is clear,” or that it “is evident,” they have no evidence for their argument. Congress had no evidence that the destiny of the United States included moving out to California. Therefore, that destiny was manifest. As my mother and every other Californian except probably John Muir used to say, “You can’t stop Progress.” Thomas Starr King, the orator with the big voice whose five feet long body rests in a tiny sarcophagus near the magnificent Unitarian Church on Geary in San Francisco (California Registered Landmark 691), urged union in mystical terms, as inevitable. King’s speeches roused the public to send California gold to help the federal government win the war against the rebel states.

After we rafted part of the South Fork of the American River, Feride’s valiant 1997 Volvo drove us along Highway 49 to Placerville, through hot pleasant woodlands, and then to Amador, where Feride fell asleep in a parking lot and Emma and I learned how to cross a street to get sodas in a town without stop signs or crosswalks.

Writers arrived in California along with the money-grubbers, gunfighters and lynching mobs, although the best of the writers were to return to the east after roughing it for a time in the Sierra Mountains, on California’s rugged coast, and some time on San Francisco’s hills.

Bret Harte had arrived in Gold Country in 1855, at the end of the Gold Rush, when he was nineteen years old. He found the foothills “hard, ugly, unwashed, vulgar and lawless.” His The Luck of Roaring Camp, one of the seminal mining stories first published about eighteen years after the Gold Rush ended, portrays miners as so ignorant they barely speak English, and is set in the Sierra Foothills. The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and the Idyll of Red Gulch, both also set in Gold Country, sketches similarly formulaic myths of the pioneering miners, but these are myths that shape our consciousness of how things used to be.

“Dame Shirley,” (Louise Amelia Knapp Smith) wrote a series of letters to her sister, later published in the literary magazine Pioneer (1854), about her years in Sierra mining camps on the Feather River. These letters, lucidly written in prose that reads as well as anything written today, without any of the cluttering pretense of much Victorian writing, provide a clearer insight into life in Gold Country. Dame Shirley’s letters may have been Harte’s inspiration for his sentimental stories.

In 1864, Samuel Clemens met Harte in San Francisco when Sam was working as a lokulitem (The fellow who checked police and fire stories as local items) for the Morning Call. Bret worked in the same building at 416 Commercial Street at the U.S. Mint Annex.

Harte and Clemens both wrote for The Golden Era. They got along most of the time, and they shared sort of thing of some sort for the young poet Ina Coolbrith, who had moved up to San Francisco from Los Angeles after her drunken ex-husband tried to shoot her and shot her stepfather instead.

It appears that people in 1860s California generally brained each other, stabbed each other, yelled at each other, cursed each other, and, most especially, they shot each other. Sometimes they sued each other. Twain attacked San Francisco’s notoriously corrupt police department in the Enterprise, and the police chief sued Twain and the Enterprise.

A little after that, Sam’s companion in night raids on San Francisco’s low spots, Steve Gillis, got in a barroom brawl, and it looked like he might be charged with murder after bringing a cut glass ash tray down on the head of the bartender. Sam posted bond. Steve Gillis fled to Nevada. Sam decided to take a vacation.

When he reached Murphy’s in the foothills, Twain signed into the hotel guest register as J.P Morgan, Lord Byron, a bandit named “Black Bart,” and a group of people known as “The Belgian Tourists,” inasmuch as everything with the word Belgian in it is humorous.

Clemens said he couldn’t have been colder if he swallowed an iceberg the months he stayed in the one room cabin on Jackass Hill, according to Nigey Lennon in The Sage Brush Bohemian Mark Twain in California (1993,Paragon House) (Boryanabooks is going to republish Sage Brush Bohemian.) By then, Jackass Hill was comprised of derelict shacks left over from the Goldrush and a number of people who called each other, “Bitch.”

He spent a lot of time in the Angel Saloon, which was on the first floor of a hotel that had started out as a tent during the Gold Rush years. In a boring monotone, the Angel Saloon bartender Ben Coon told Twain the entirely unoriginal story of a man who had a frog who jumped well. He (The man, not the frog) wanted to race this frog. He gave another man a frog. The other man put buckshot in the first frog and this second frog consequently won the race. Twain wrote up this tale in “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Obviously, this story would and did take New York City by storm, mostly, I contend, because New Yorkers enjoy thinking of us as idiots.

Back in the twenty-first century, the three of us stopped at the Best Western that stands just outside Angel’s Camp. A big CVS anchors a shopping mall that very likely killed any chance for real business in the little town. There is nothing any normal person from the Bay Area would want to eat in that shopping mall, but there are likely descendants of people who grew up eating raccoons and boiled squirrels who might appreciate the relatively more tasty Mexican, Chinese and burnt pizza and ribs provided at mall restaurants. There is a real restaurant in Angel’s Camp but it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and there is a real movie theater.

The hotel where Mark Twain heard the jumping frog story is still there, and there are an awful lot of frog tchotchkes in store windows in Angel’s Camp but there isn’t really anything anyone, local or tourist, might covet in any of the stores. Jackass Hill has to be around there somewhere because there’s a photograph on Internet in color showing a fence around the one room Sam Gillis cabin.

The next day, we went to the Moaning Caverns off Highway 4, and men put helmets and restraining devices on Feride and Emma and drove them up to a platform and sent them zipping down a metal line. I did not do this stupid thing. After that, Emma persuaded me to buy a bag of dirt with fools gold and crystals in it.

It was incredibly hot and clear and a million miles from the Van Nuys train station where I got a ride in a cab driven by a newly arrived Armenian immigrant through ugly streets and smog to the Bob Hope Airport, which has a big banner with Bob Hope’s face on it hanging from its tallest structure, where I began my part of the journey to Gold Country.

I thought of something as we headed back to the Bay Area: Jack London’s sister gave him the money to outfit himself for the Yukon gold rush, and the stories London heard in a miner’s cabin were his real gold, as the stories Brett Hart heard and read and the story Mark Twain heard were the true gold they found in the mountains.


Most important is to read Nigey Lennon’s, The Sage Brush Bohemian, referenced above. It’s delicious.

http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6516/, retrieved July 11, 2010. “Dame Shirley” Describes Life At A California Mining Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1851.

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moajrnl&idno=ahj1472.1-01.001 (retrieved July 11, 2010)

The Luck of Roaring Camp, The Outcasts of Poker Flat & The Idyl of Red Gulch, Francis Bret Harte, The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, Vol. X, Part 4. Selected by Charles William Eliot Copyright © 2001 Bartleby.com, Inc.


Gary Noy “Director, Center for Sierra Nevada Studies” Sierra College 5000 Rocklin Road, LRC 442, Rocklin, CA 95677, 916-781-7184, sierracenter@sierracollege.edu, gnoy@sierracollege.edu

Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Oxford University Press, 1973)

http://www.jstor.org/pss/27746285 (retrieved July 11, 2010), “Mark Twain in the Overland Monthly (1868-1870), by Daniel Wells, in American Literary Realism (1870-1910), vol. 20, number 2, winter 1988, published by University of Illinois Press.

http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/price/frog.html, retrieved July 11, 2010. The text of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” by Mark Twain, edited by Angel Price 11/96.



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