On a three-day October weekend, my son Randall, daughter Nicole and I made a trek to the southern end of Central California's gold rush country. With historic towns, caves, caverns and mines to explore, we were as eager to head for the rolling Sierra Nevada hills as the '49rs' seeking their fortune over 150 years ago.
From Los Angeles, the drive takes about five hours. We rid ourselves of the tedium of trucks and farm fields along Highway 99 out of Bakersfield by taking Highway 41, a route you can also follow into nearby Yosemite. This pleasant, forested road meets Highway 49 at its southern end. Also known as the gold road, 49 features a lot of scenic gems along the way.
In Mariposa, we stopped at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. There we had a fine introduction to the minerals of the area, from enormous chunks of gold, silver and copper to Benitoite, California's state gemstone, a pale white and green stone previously unknown to us. We also got our first view of the inside of a gold mine, a scaled down replica within the museum. The specimens are terrific and the displays are well thought out.
The road starts to twist and turn around dramatic golden hills as you head into Coulterville, where the small town museum affords another glimpse into the miners' lives. Well preserved artifacts from the Gold Rush era include mining tools, clothing, books, letters and even medicines of the time, such as Mercurochrome, used for dressing cuts and abrasions. Its orange colour fascinated my kids, raised on no-stain Neosporin.
Reaching Jamestown, which we made our home base for the weekend, we explored the colourful, creative shops and charming old hotels, all located in historic buildings, many of them with their own ghost stories. While my son enjoyed hunting for the apparition of a pregnant, red-haired woman reputed to roam the hallways of the Jamestown Hotel, my daughter and I found French soaps, sprigs of lavender, antique beaded bags and other unique items in the shops to capture our interest.
"I think I video-taped the ghost," Randall insisted. We didn't see anything but his own mirrored reflection during play- back, but everyone knows ghosts are famously recalcitrant about having their pictures taken.
Easier to spot is the vastly entertaining Jamestown Railtown Historic Park. The railroad carried passengers and freight from this station throughout gold country from its inception in 1897. It was also used in the filming of the 1960s era television series, Petticoat Junction. Today, along with viewing the unusual, circular switching platform and a variety of old train cars and engines, you can take an enjoyable hour-long train ride. The ride ferries visitors to a turn around point, where the engine switches to the back of the train. Seats in the passenger cars are literally flipped back to front so no passenger is facing backwards for the return trip.
We rode the Halloween Ghost Train, decked out with orange and black streamers, fake spiders, and costumed conductors, with free, fat pumpkins handed out at the end of the ride. At other times of year, special Spring and Christmas-themed trains run.
Randall had naturally hoped to see an actual ghost, but had to content himself with popcorn and a harmonica-accompanied sing-a-long led by a spirited performer named Huckleberry. My daughter got to play the spoons.
Fifteen minutes north of Jamestown is Columbia, an historically preserved gold rush town dating from the 1850s. Also a state park, the twelve blocks include a blacksmith's shop, general store, hotel, school house, bank, and barber shop. Some contain historical exhibits, and a small museum gives a fine overview of the town's history and preservation. Other shops contain less interesting candy, snacks, and souvenirs for the tourist trade.
Because rain was predicted in the Sierra Nevada, and did in fact drench the wooden sidewalks of Jamestown overnight, we planned to spend most of our next day underground — which is pretty easy with the plethora of caves and mines in the area to tour and explore.
We started with Moaning Cavern in nearby Valecito. Unlike many caves, whose entrance is horizontal, this is a vertical cavern, into which you descend over a hundred and sixty five feet, mostly using a spiral metal staircase. It's easier to go down than to come up. Those over twelve can rappel down through the mustard yellow, chocolate brown, and white formations; I've promised Randall a return trip for his twelfth birthday.
My teenage daughter fell into the correct age-bracket to make the descent but declared "I'm not going to do that." We did watch a few other hardy souls make the descent, much of it crawling backwards into the abyss. They seemed to be having a good time, but I took a pass, too.
Driving up to Sutter's Creek, a charming town filled with antique and boutique shops inside pastel-painted historic buildings. The sun came out and the brightness turned autumn leaves and hillsides as gold as the veins we'd come to see in the Sutter Creek Mine, a few miles outside of town.
Wearing hard-hats, we took a group tram tour into the mine, conducted by an excellent, informative guide who explained mining techniques and equipment, safety, and geology as well as giving us a good look at a thick streak of dull gold embedded in the rock of the mine.
My grandparents were coal miners in Pennsylvania, and my children have a healthy respect for the hardships and dangers of mining. When a girl on the tour piped up that she wanted "to be a miner when I grow up because it would be soooo fun."
Nicole disabused her of that notion. "It's not fun, it's hard and risky work. Taking a tour is fun."
My children are also well versed in the very different struggles involved in earning a living as a writer, but they had to admit that living in Mark Twain's cabin might've been fun. The spot is almost hidden in the woods outside the town of Angel's Camp, and this is the location where Twain wrote his first published short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County." We did not see any frogs, "Or Mark Twain's ghost, either," my Randall remarked.
We finished our day underground again at Mercer Caverns just outside of Murphy's, another nicely restored town with shops and restaurants housed in classic structures dating from the mid-1800s. Cave tours in this location date from about the same time, with visitors led through the cave rooms by electric rather than lantern light today. Crystalline formations of stalagtites and stalagmites grace the caverns.
Despite our proximity to legendary hauntings and the equally legendary richness of the gold mines, our most intimate brush with gold and ghosts came at the end of the day, as we headed back to Jamestown. We stopped for a moment to photograph and admire the rising of the pale moon.
The sun still spilled a thick gold — like the richest vein ever mined — through big cracks in the stone grey walls of storm clouds. The light moved over the deepening evening shadows of a farm pasture. Over that pasture, from a small, bright stream, low clouds of mist were drifting in. And there, breaking through the mist with a very ghostly whinny, a beautiful white horse galloped, turning close to the fence we were parked beside, and spinning off again, abruptly swallowed by the mist. We may not have had an actual supernatural experience in Gold Country, but we did have an experience of supernatural beauty, in a land as rich with history as with minerals and gems.
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