Man In A Suitcase

Auburn, California

I'm ashamed to admit that for my first ten years in Northern California, I thought of this half of the state as beginning and ending within sight of San Francisco Bay. Eventually I learned better and began exploring further afield. A few hours to the northeast of Silicon Valley takes you into the Sierra Nevadas, once the site of the gold rush of 1849 and now home to dozens of small and picturesque little towns that owe their existance to that event.

Auburn, on the road from Sacramento to Reno, is a fine example. Its downtown recalls an earlier and grittier time, although the quality of its restaurants and its shops, thankfully, don't. Most people zip by at 70 miles an hour on the Interstate, perhaps stopping for a quick bite (I almost wrote byte) on their way to blow money at some casino. I'm glad I stopped that first time. Auburn does a nice job of a difficult balancing act: part tourist's history lesson and part real home town.

Moving uphill takes you past the magnificent 19th century courthouse and, after a few miles, along the American River. The picture at right doesn't do justice to the view, which darn near took my breath away the first time I saw it. It's scenes like this that make me wish for a holographic digital camera, something that shows off the depth of the gorge, the height of the highway and the vast expanse of hills all around. But for a plain, ordinary 2D picture it's not too bad.

(The gold rush is another fascinating moment in history. A pair of notes from my Despair, Inc. calendar, a brilliant takeoff on those smarmy Successories posters that some managers actually think make people work harder:

Is this what they mean by a self-fulfilling prophecy?)

Bodie, California

Not every place was so lucky. Bodie, at the California end of Nevada's Comstock Lode, began in 1859 with the discovery of gold and had more than ten thousand people by the 1880s. Once it was second only to San Francisco among California cities in population and second to none in its reputation for violence and depravity. I guess the hope of vast wealth and the reality of its harsh weather can bring out the worst in people.

Bodie died in the early 30s, although the decline had been going on for half a century. Now it's a state park, although one few people know and even fewer ever visit. A three hour drive south of Reno along US 395, the road into town consists of ten twisty miles of paved road and three more of dirt and gravel. But the drive is worth it. Coming over the last rise and seeing the old mill and the hundred or so buildings that have survived a century of nature and man's worst is a sobering and awe inspiring experience. Now it's all in ruins, maintained in a state of arrested decay by the California Park Service.

What structures remain give only a hint of what a wild and energetic place must have been here. This was a town where killings were commonplace, where a couple of churches competed with five dozen saloons for the hearts and minds of the populace. One wonders at the changes seen by those who outlasted the supply of gold in dem hills. The Boone General Store at right, owned by a descendent of Daniel Boone, is fitted out with gas pumps. As ancient as they are, they must have arrived long after the gold left.

Looking at the flimsy construction of the surviving houses, one can only imagine the hardship of surviving one harsh winter after another with nothing but a wood burning stove for warmth. But it wasn't winter that killed the town. By the time a fire gutted Bodie in the summer of 1892, the mining interests had closed up shop. A few people kept the town going until the summer of 1932, when a second fire took much of what was left. The Methodist church at right saw its last service in that year, four years after the town's Catholic church was destroyed by fire. Bodie has been godforsaken for a very long time indeed.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite occupies a big chunk of east-central California. Most people who visit from the Bay Area know the western end of the park, since that's the side that faces the populous parts of the state. I happened to end up at the other end, having come all the way north from Laughlin, Nevada. From the east you enter the park at Lee Vining, a wide spot in the road at the edge of Mono Lake. Even in the dead of summer you're presented with icy lakes and snowcapped mountains; at over nine thousand feet, this is not a route to be tried out of season.

One nice aspect of entering Yosemite at one end and leaving at the other is how much the terrain changes. As you move west the road descends slowly toward the valley. As a photographer driving alone, the challenge is scouting for especially magnificent vantage points while keeping on the road and not driving so slowly as to antagonize the other drivers. I did stop now and then to absorb the scenery. The shot at left is my favorite and graced my laptop's screen background. (If you'd like a copy of the full size image, just ask.)

The western side of the park is quite a change from the east. There are a lot more people, for one thing. And I spent a lot more time looking up at the scenery, instead of looking down from it. I also wasn't prepared for the heavy traffic and the poor quality of the roads heading back toward civilization. Definitely, if you can swing it, the east side of Yosemite is the place to be. God, whatever you conceive him to be, was really on the ball the day he built this place.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is a couple of hundred miles and 180 degrees from Yosemite. It's hard to imagine two more different environments, and even more of a shock to find them so close by. To drive across Death Valley in spring is to imagine the world after some great disaster. No life, few signs of civilization beyond the road itself. It is stark beauty, a dry and barren landscape as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, with just enough traffic to make the lack of a cell phone signal seem less ominous.
The image at right was taken at Zabriskie Point, a name I remembered from one of those strange counterculture movies from my high school years. The point was named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, a superintendent at the nearby borax mines. These are the mines that give us the famous Twenty Mule Team, the brand that sponsored Death Valley Days, the program hosted by a B-movie actor Ronald Reagan before his unfortunate entry into politics.

There aren't a lot of people living in Death Valley. It's hard to imagine enduring the harsh conditions, especially in the century or so between the California Gold Rush and the arrival of air conditioning. Which makes Scotty's Castle, a Spanish style mansion in the exact middle of nowhere, even more amazing. Death Valley Scotty was a former cowboy with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, purported gold miner, conman and local character who somehow talked a Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson into building a magnificent residence and then letting him live there for the rest of his life. That's Scotty's grave at right, giving him and his visitors the best view of a most remarkable bit of property.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California