The land that makes up California existed long before the Gold Rush, but it is that galvanizing event of 1848 that made the state the myth, destination, and eventual republic that it would become. After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, north of Sacramento, more than 300,000 prospectors, or 49ers, swarmed in from all over the world to seek their fortunes and stake their claims. That’s back when you could just show up and take whatever you found, never mind the fact that someone might already be living there. The most conniving and ruthless of the invaders became kings.
All night long there’d been a lightshow on the wall of my tent, trees blowing in the breeze, thunder clouds, backlit by flashes of lightning, to a soundtrack of constant drizzle. As soon as the first dim light of morning moved in, I jumped up, ready to roll. The ground outside was wet, and the tent was splashed with mud. I took it down, folded it, and put in in the trunk, still dripping. No one had come around to collect money yet. I looked for anyone on my way out, but it was still dark.
There were some low dark clouds and occasional flashes of lightning, as I headed into the foothills of the Sierras. Having braced myself for a heat wave, the rain came as a pleasant surprise. Grass Valley was my first stop. I filled up on gas and got some coffee and a muffin, then parked in visitor parking and took a walk down the boardwalk, remembering weekends feeling like a cowboy, drinking in the saloons, eyeing the banks. I walked up to the Holbrooke Hotel, established during the Gold Rush and in continual operation since. It once hosted US presidents, Jack London, Mark Twain, even the notorious outlaw Black Bart.
Nevada City was next. Here it was a simpler walk, starting at the Methodist Church and strolling down Broad Street past the various bars and small businesses. I stopped outside the Mine Shaft Saloon and looked at a mannequin of a prospector in a shop window, rain clouds welling up in the reflections around his head, the trappings of the modern world, traffic jams and ATM machines, unable to touch him. It made me nostalgic for a simpler time.
Then it was on to Washington, a secret little town that someone needs to tell you about to find. What used to be the Indiana mining camp on the South Yuba River is still largely off the grid, with only a few hundred residents. It’s about seven miles off Highway 20, all downhill, through thick pine forest. I parked outside the Washington Hotel, a favorite haunt from the past. It was all locked up. There was no one around outside of an old miner type, with a white beard to his waist, walking his dog beside the road.
My idea was to sit and meditate beside the river, so I figured I’d get that taken care of first. I drove a few miles down to the bridge and found a delivery truck parked in the only parking spot, so continued toward a campground I knew about on the other side. The road was closed due to the wildfires, so I went back to the bridge and parked on the side of the road.
Twelve years earlier I’d been out half-heartedly promoting a record and had stumbled across a few gypsies beneath the bridge, having a jam session with a guitar and bongo. My harmonica had been the special sauce back then. Now I was alone, waiting for the rain to stop. In a few minutes it did. I got out and walked down to the river. There I came upon a scene, serene beyond compare. The shallow river reflected the green pines. The sky above, temporarily all cried out, swirled like a blue and grey river above. Someone had balanced rocks in the water like a Zen Garden. Stray drops of rain plopped into the river like temple bells.
I sat down on a wet stone and gathered my legs beneath me. A few birds were chirping. A crow was cawing. Outside of that there were only the few drops of rain that still fell. If I was going to have a breakthrough, this was the place to do it. Rain falling into a river. Wasn’t that eternity in a nutshell? Whatever was behind me was behind me now. Where I’d sleep that night, I couldn’t know. Until I arrived, nothing was real.
Still, I struggled to make it through my breath cycle. All I wanted was to drive. As soon as I’d let out the last breath, I clasped my hands in a show of gratitude, then staggered towards the car, throwing the door open and leaping in, like the law was on my trail.
In town, I passed the old miner and his dog. They were almost in the same place I’d left them. The town itself had almost escaped time. That wasn’t happening to me. Surging back uphill, the rain clouds parted. Highway 20 came up fast. I turned right and sped back towards the valley, the road ahead of me as wide open as the range in a cowboy song.