A Trip to the Foothills

Redbud was in bloom

Our recent trip to the Sierra foothills to view wildflowers yielded few flowers but we did discover an IPA with 11.1 percent alcohol content in Murphys. We watched fledgling nuthatches from the second floor front porch balcony of the old Columbia Hotel where we stayed and we saw the “Pioneer Cabin Tree” in its fallen state at Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

The old gold mining town of Columbia has been a state park since 1945 but I discovered it on the way home from a backpacking trip in the 1990s while looking for a toilet. We walked out of the public bathrooms onto car free Main Street and stepped back in time to the 1850s when this town was a bustling community of 5,000. We were too grungy to stay, having spent a week in the woods, but we vowed to return and we did.

Open year-round, Columbia gears up in the summer but it was happening this weekend of the vernal equinox. It’s a great place to bring kids, with ice cream and sweet shops, blacksmithing and candle dipping, a gold panning station and bowling in one of the old brick buildings. You can learn history, too, in the many displays set up by the State Park Dept. The two hotels in town are owned and run by the state. The other businesses are privately owned, like the book store, which features the works of right wing ideologues as well as historical tomes.

You can ride the stagecoach around town

The State Parks wants workers to dress in period dress. You know, big long skirts for women with elaborate shirtwaists like they wore in 1860. The men get off easier. They can wear suspenders and bow ties and caps or top hats. We were greeted by the hotelier, a young woman in male drag. Her name is Abby and she told us she has worked for three seasons as a park ranger aide. She leads tours and also teaches classes for kids on the state website ports program. (Ports is a free State Parks distance learning program that uses interactive videoconferencing to help K-12 schools teach common core state standards). She told us she had tried to maintain the dress code, wearing long dresses and aprons, but her short hair didn’t fit with the program. During that time she made up reasons for the short hair on her tours. She’d had to cut her hair because she’s had lice, or she’d had a fever. Someone suggested she wear a wig, and she did that for a season during the hottest part of the summer. None of her colleagues recognized her and the wig was really hot. Finally she just decided to switch genders. Now she wears a cap with a period shirt and pants, boots, suspenders and a black leather vest. She said she rides her motorcycle to work so she’s now ready for anything.

Abby the hotelier and guide

The state classifies the park ranger aides as seasonal, to avoid paying benefits it seems. The only unionized workers are the housekeepers, who are allowed to work full-time. Sidewalks rolled up before sundown. We watched the park ranger aides close up the tall steel shutters (originally built to foil fire) on all the windows and doors. We could drink in the saloons, but there was nothing else going on in the evening. The playhouse doesn’t start its season till April. We hoped for live music on Friday or Saturday night. Nada. Later we learned the place for adults is Murphys, just up the road on Highway 4. A drinking person’s haven where one can taste all the local wines without having to drive all those winding roads to the wineries. Stopping by on Sunday, we discovered we had missed Irish Night the night before, but locals told us we would have had a hard time fighting the crush of drunks. They did have live music though. Maybe we older people could find a happy medium somewhere.

Columbia’s sidewalks rolled up at day’s end

A day trip took us up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park up from Murphys on Highway 4. Since I’d been there several years ago, the California Conservation Corps has built a walkway across the swampy meadow (we heard frogs but saw no newts) and a new visitors complex. Most of the trails are still closed for the season but we could walk to the big stump and as far as the two thousand-year-old “Pioneer Cabin Tree” that fell down this winter. Which was not surprising as a century ago humans cut the heart out so cars could drive through. Actually, it was amazing the tree stood as long as it did.

Driving home we crossed some of California’s iconic Gold Country rivers and creeks, all in good form after the season’s big rains. The town of Columbia is reached by Parrott’s Ferry Road, named for the ferry that crossed the mighty Stanislaus River before a bridge was built. Now the crossing is over the lake created by New Melones Dam, target of environmental protests in the 1970s. Until the dam was built, the Stanislaus was arguably California’s best whitewater rafting river, coursing through the deepest limestone canyon in the West.

We drove into the deep river valleys of the Mokelumne River and Sutter Creek, over Amador and Dry Creeks and the undammed Cosumnes River. Then we crossed the American River on the way into Roseville, and finally the wide muddy Sacramento on Highway 80.

Bridge over New Melones


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