41st Post: 2nd CALIFORNIA – Cannibals and Gun Laws

The Gallows, Downieville, Calif.

2001 April Wednesday

In the afternoon, we drove up into the High Sierras. The Sierra Nevada contains 500 distinct peaks all over 12,000 ft – a truly impressive range. The snow lay piled high on each side of the road but we could see the ice was beginning to thaw on the surface of Sardine Lake. When we stopped there to breathe in the mountain air, Beryl told me the origin of the name. Back in 1849, there was a mule who brought up the tinned sardines from the coast to supply the gold miners. As a result, he became a favourite and was nicknamed ‘Sardine’. One day, he slipped, fell in the lake, and drowned taking their supplies with him – hence the name.

Beryl in the High Sierras

We drove east from the lake and descended the mountain into Sierra Valley, passing the towns of Beckwourth (named after James P Beckwourth, a freed slave and mountain man who first blazed the trail though the Sierras), and Loyalton (in the 19th century, second only in size to Los Angeles in the state of California). As we drove into Loyalton, a car hooted behind us over some minor driving infraction.

Beryl: “I was dreaming away at a traffic light last week. The guy behind me yelled ‘Hey, honey, it ain’t gonna get any greener’!”

The last stop of the day was at the medium size town of Truckee near the shores of Lake Tahoe. The origin of this name stemmed from a Paiute tribal chieftain who gave a friendly greeting to the first Europeans by yelling ‘Tro-key’ (‘Everything is all right’) at them – he may have had cause to rethink this statement later on.

Truckee was also a definite staging post for Oscar Wilde. He travelled through it on the first inter-continental Union Pacific railroad, a railway still very much in existence. The tracks ran right through the middle of the town, and modern day rolling stock was clearly visible at the sidings. There was a First World War memorial in the centre that commemorated the dates ‘1917-1918’, a distinctly American take on the affair. Also, Charlie Chaplin had made the town his base while filming ‘The Gold Rush’.

But the historical event that really distinguished Truckee was the infamous experience of the Donner Party. A large statue to their memory lay to the west of town, together with bronze plaques bearing their names. In 1846, a wagon train of pioneers, 87 strong, had set out to cross the Sierra Nevada in winter. They had become trapped in the snow for months and most of them died of exposure and starvation. The survivors had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.

We went inside the museum dedicated to their memory. Beryl suddenly seized my arm and pointed to a caption underneath an old photograph. The caption should have read:

‘The Donner Party was accompanied by a Native American chief.’

It actually read:

‘The Donner Party was accompanied by a Native American chef’.

The Donner Party Memorial at Truckee, Calif.

2001 April Thursday

The next day we went touring towards the west. The first town on the list was the charming old miners’ settlement of Downieville, situated in a deep ravine at the fork of the Yuba and Downie Rivers. Beryl said that like most neighbours there was a rivalry between the towns: the residents of Downieville were known as ‘Downers’, while the residents of Sierra City were known as ‘Sierra Air Heads’. They shared the same history of boom and bust though – Downieville had once had fifteen hotels and gambling houses before the gold ran out.

These days it also survived on tourism, the main attraction being a large gallows, still in working order, in the centre of town. Its symbolic value as representative of the romantic, lawless days of the Old West was undercut by the fact that it had only been used once, in 1885. We looked around the modern day courthouse, the walls of which were dominated by the photographs of the town sheriffs going back over 100 years. I picked up a pamphlet entitled ‘Know Your California Gun Laws’. Glancing through, I got the impression that no child under the age of twelve was allowed to buy a semi-automatic assault rifle; however, this might have been an overly draconian interpretation of the law.

All in all, though, I liked Downieville. Mark Twain wrote that he also liked the town and had even considered buying a hotel there. He said that he had been attracted by one of the bar mottoes that read: ‘None but the Brave deserves the Fare’.

We drove on through a brilliantly clear day along the gorgeous Yuba Valley. Wilde described this country as ‘Italy without the art’. After forty miles, we reached Grass Valley, a suburb of Nevada City, and stopped for a snack. I had a sandwich the size of a brick.

Grass Valley’s most famous ex-resident had to be the Irish dancer Lola Montez (née Eliza Gilbert). Having acquired a local husband, she arrived there in 1853 from Europe. Although still only aged 32, this was roughly her fourth marriage. But matrimony was only the backdrop to Lola’s numerous and spectacular affairs, her lovers including the composer Franz Liszt and the writer Alexander Dumas. The peak of her sexual career arrived when she became the mistress of King Ludwig 1 of Bavaria, a tempestuous liaison that almost ruined both Ludwig and Bavaria – Lola did not come cheap. On the run from the ensuing revolution in Southern Germany, Lola managed to end up in Grass Valley. Predictably the latest marriage failed, and Lola moved on to Australia (where, after a bad review, she publicly horse-whipped the offending newspaper editor), before dying in New York aged 39. A local lake has been named in her honour; a distinction she shares with Sardine the mule.

(During Lola’s early career she was partnered by an American dancer called Miriam Folline to form ‘The Montez Sisters’. Later Miriam married her way into the name of Mrs Frank Leslie. After Mr Frank Leslie’s death she went on to marry Oscar Wilde’s brother Willie in 1891. The marriage did not last.)

Beryl in Nevada City, Calif.

Nevada City itself was quite large – another pretty survivor of the Gold Rush – but almost ruined by a four-lane freeway along the valley bottom that split the town in half. We called into the evocative National Hotel; dating from 1856 it claimed to be the oldest continuously functioning hotel in California and had kept the Victorian decor. Outside its windows, a row of horse-drawn carriages awaited the tourist trade. The town council also had copied the idea of turning Nevada City into a second-hand book repository; along the main street, bookstores outnumbered everything else.

Carriage in Nevada City

In order to inject some professionalism into the Forty-Niners, Cornish miners had crossed the Atlantic to teach them some of the tricks of the trade. Their descendants still lived in the area with the result that, in the heart of the Rockies, a Cornish Christmas was still celebrated each year.

On the road back we stopped off at a village that Beryl described as the main hippie stronghold of the Yuba Valley. I ate a pizza in a café and ordered a ‘pitcher of Budweiser beer’ from the menu. I had no idea what a pitcher was and discovered that it was about two and a half pints. I polished it off nonetheless. The beer was so weak I might just as well have had a cup of tea.

Beryl said that the village was called North San Juan. “Nobody’s ever discovered where South San Juan is. I guess everyone’s too stoned look for it.”

By 7pm we were back in Sierra City at the Mountain Shadows Restaurant. I sat out on the first floor balcony and smoked a cigarette. The road below was totally quiet; just a few lights flickered in the houses along the valley. The air had become a lot colder and, on the TV news, a winter storm was predicted for tomorrow.

 2001 April: Friday

As I came down to breakfast next morning, the restaurant was already crowded. The eggs, bacon, and the rest of the Full English were flying off the hot plates and Beryl was hard at work. It turned out that there was a National Rifle Convention taking place in Reno and mountain men were streaming in from all directions to take part. About thirty large gentlemen were sitting around the tables downing the food. They all wore beards and had straggly long hair descending from thinning pates. It resembled a Kenny Rogers Lookalike competition.

I sat at a table with one man who turned out to be an ex-cop. He was fat and unusually jovial for his profession. He explained his philosophy: “You see, cops only get to see the worst of human nature. It’s only when you retire, you get to see good people. People with guns who don’t want to kill you.”

I spent the day rigging lights for the show, and then wandering round Sierra City muttering Wilde lines. The weather had definitely worsened: darkening clouds loured over the mountain and a cold sleet made the rooftops and the road tarmac glisten. As I returned to the restaurant, the first snowflakes fell.

Start of the Snow Storm in Sierra City

Next Week on Tuesday 20 March – the Californian Show – and then a Looming Disaster!


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