CALIFORNIA – April 2001
2001 April: Tuesday
Flying from London to California, although in this case involving 25 hours of continuous travelling, had the compensation of offering an aerial view of the USA second to none. As the weather was clear, it was like an atlas unfolding below. After the vast snow-covered wastes of Canada, the north-eastern states looked surprisingly ordered. The land was divided almost exactly into square grids; only the rivers broke the pattern. East of the Mississippi, it seemed the country was filling up.
This was a trip that definitely mimicked Oscar Wilde’s journeys. The first airport where we were decanted from the transatlantic airliner to a smaller domestic plane was Cincinnati in Ohio. In February 1882, Wilde had arrived in the city to deliver a speech. He reported that: ‘‘They were dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee-breeches’.
Times and priorities had changed. According to the local paper of 2001, the city was now in the middle of a race riot due to the police shooting dead the sixteenth black suspect in two years.
After flying west over the snow-covered peaks of the Wasatch Mountains, we descended through the gasoline haze and landed in Salt Lake City, Utah – another of Oscar’s stop offs. He visited a building there called the Amelia Palace, a grand structure that had been erected in honour of one of the wives of the Mormon leader Brigham Young.
Wilde: ‘When Young died, the next President of the Mormons stood up in the Tabernacle and told the assembled multitude that it had been revealed to him by an angel that he was to OWN the Amelia Palace and that on this particular subject there were to be absolutely NO future revelations of ANY KIND whatsoever!’
In Salt Lake City, we switched to an even smaller plane – just four seats across in each row. The stewardess on this latest flight appeared to be straight out of Hollywood central casting. She was extraordinary. Her make up was so thick that it made any facial expression other than the regulation fixed grin virtually impossible. The only movement in her face came from the eyes. They looked like small mammals staring out of a cave half way up a chalk cliff. Her metronomic head waggle as she delivered the safety spiel completed the illusion – she was a Marilyn Monroe wind-up doll.
From here on, my route almost exactly followed Wilde – with the difference that I was 20,000 feet up and it took ninety minutes. He had taken the train from Omaha to San Francisco and it had taken six days, stopping at all 230 stations on the way. The railroad through the Rockies had only been completed thirteen years previously. He said that the prairies reminded him of blotting paper; that ‘Nature had given up on the job of decorating the country, so vast its size, in absolute despair’, and that the only diversion for passengers was shooting prairie dogs from the windows of the train.
The plane touched down in Reno, Nevada, at 7pm local time. Beryl, my ex-girlfriend, confidante, and now hostess and promoter, stood grinning in the terminal building. “Hiya, pardner, giddy up there!” she drawled in her unmistakably English accent. Tall, blonde, and good-looking, nothing ever shook Beryl’s shoulder-shrugging, laid back view of the world. It was great to see her.
As we walked outside I realised the disparity in our clothing. She was dressed for skiing, I was dressed for a summer barbecue. As the mountain cold began to bite, I realised that my conception of California was radically different to the reality.
Joining the freeway, we left the city and drove west till we reached the Nevada/California border tollbooth, and then turned off along a country road. Occasional snowflakes brushed the windscreen. It was a strange landscape – a natural desert of sand, but also a man-made desert of abandonment. Heaps of rusting cars and derelict tin sheds lay strewn across the scrubland like jetsam on a beach. A mile-long freight train stood utterly empty – its stillness just emphasised the desolation.
We started to climb up into the mountains of the High Sierras, passing small settlements on the way – Loyalville, Hallejulah, Beckwourth. I examined the map and checked the road signs as we went. I puzzled over one sign.
“You know, Beryl, I can find most of these towns on the map but I can’t find ‘Falling Rock’. Have we passed it already?”
She gave a snort of laughter: “No, you plonker. It’s not a town, it’s a warning sign!”
The sun began to set behind the huge black bulk of the Sierras as we drove upwards through the pine forests. At intervals on each side of the road, there were eight-foot high poles studded with reflectors. Beryl explained that they had been erected to help show the snowploughs where the road was during winter weather.
Darkness had fallen by the time we reached our destination. There was a large sign at the edge of town: ‘Sierra City. Population 225’. Beryl: “Right, tomorrow I’ll go and change it to 226 in honour of your arrival”.
We parked in front of her home – The Mountain Shadows Restaurant. Back in the days of the Californian Gold Rush, this had been a livery stable and miners’ tool sharpening shop. It was now a home with an English restaurant attached. A very English restaurant. An aggressively large Union Jack hung from the front balcony, while a large sign astride the sidewalk read ‘Olde English Fish and Chips. With Proper Tea!’ Beryl was having no truck with local sentiment at all.
After 25 hours of non-stop travel I tumbled into bed and drowned in sleep.
2001 April Wednesday
After a ruthlessly Full English breakfast I set off to explore Sierra City. Beryl called after me as I left:
“Watch out for the mountain lions. They kill a lot of the cats and dogs round here. They killed a woman jogger a few months back. Oh, and don’t go near the town rubbish skips. That’s where the bears go. Have a nice day!”
Predators aside, the town turned out to be really attractive. It consisted of a mile-long street of mostly C19th wooden buildings, bordered on one side by a sheer mountain slope, and on the other by a steep ravine leading down to the bubbling Yuba River below. There was a Norman Rockwell steadiness about the place – the library, the fire station, the fishing equipment store, the Wells Fargo building, all were in place and of the place. There was even a sprawling wooden motel down the street – less reassuringly, it had once been owned by a family called Bates.
At the far edge of town, I strolled through the cemetery. The gravestones were mostly from the 1860s, the nationalities being almost exclusively English, German, Italian and Swiss. It turned out that the Swiss and Italians had arrived here because their knowledge of mountain agriculture had been crucial to developing the area. A sign at the entrance to the Cemetery Road read ambiguously: ‘No exit. Use chains.’
Back at the restaurant, the sidewalk sign outside now read
‘Oscar Wilde Show on Friday! Burgers!’
Beryl sat down and told me about the local history. The area had originally been Paiute Indian territory, but the discovery of gold had led to the massive influx of miners in 1849. The whole area became an enormous tent city, until the lodes ran out and the population dwindled. The town had been hit by a bad avalanche in the 1880s which killed a lot of the townsfolk.
“One female corpse was found still with her knitting in her hands.” Another less destructive avalanche had happened in the 1960s. The town and many other towns nearby now relied mostly on tourism. Beryl:
“The movie ‘Paint Your Wagon’ was set and filmed around here.”
There had been another, less publicised, result of the Gold Rush, namely the effect on the Native American people. In 1850, the California Legislature passed a measure known ironically as ‘The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians’. This allowed the settlers to capture and use Indians as bonded workers, a.k.a. slaves. Their villages were regularly raided to carry off and traffic women and children in particular; the men and the elderly often being killed as a result. In the twenty years after 1849, an estimated 100, 000 Indians died in slavery, and 4,500 were murdered. Well, you sure don’t get Lee Marvin singing much about that.
While looking at the local newspaper, ‘The Mountain Messenger’, I was gratified to see that there was a quite large article on the front page concerning my visit and forthcoming show. However, the bubble of vanity deflated when I saw the rest of the front-page news.
“A non-injury traffic accident has been reported’,
‘An air bag has been stolen from a truck in Loyalton’,
and ‘The dog that killed a chicken in Sierraville has finally been apprehended’.