Thursday, December 26, 2013

California gold country

Back in the Eighties when we lived in Sonora for a little more than a year, we were too obsessed with making a living to enjoy living in one of California’s best places. My wife ran a germ factory, um, day care, out of our home and worked a few nights a week at the local K mart while I was city editor at the Union Democrat, one of the few daily newspapers along California 49, also known as the road linking California’s gold country.

Even back then the region was littered with small marijuana farms, though not to the degree of more northerly sections of the state. Recent visits seem to reveal a scruffier side of the Sierra foothills -- more homeless people, an edginess I don't recall from the old days.

Though you'd get in big trouble from any local chamber of commerce for suggesting it, the towns all have a similar sense to them -- a main street sloping to the inevitable 19th Century church or Masonic hall, old buildings turned into kitschy store fronts, bars and restaurants ranging from the crude the fancy.

The drive from Sierra City on the north to Oakhurst on the south would take several days done right, by which time you will have had your fill of chocolate shops and antique stores. New to the region in most areas are wineries on the south- and west-facing slopes.
We recently stayed a couple of nights in Nevada City, which was just about enough. Now, traveling with a puppy (another post for another day) has reduced our lodging options, and we ended up at a pleasant-looking place just up the road from an ayurveda college and a meditation clinic, making it all seem harmless enough. The inn, however, hid a homeless camp out back. Kathleen was not pleased.

Kathleen's favorite foothill town is tiny Mokelumne Hill, which is not far from the lovely Ironstone Vineyards, makers of the Symphony Obsession white wine, a cult favorite. Meanwhile, if you really want to get your funk on, head off the main road to Tuolumne City northeast of Sonora. The tourists don't often make it there, so you get a full dose of California foothill authenticity; the sort of which slasher movies are sometimes made.

My personal favorite place is Twain Hart, which is well up the slope from the foothills where the oaks give way to pines and cedar, right about at the snow line in the winter. Named for the region's two more famous residents, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, it's a quiet spot amid the tall trees, whereas the towns on Highway 49 can get pretty jammed on any weekend.

The best introduction to the gold country is Columbia State Park just north of Sonora. It's a well-preserved and restored representation of a mid-1800s foothill village with all the historical information you need and plenty to keep the kiddies busy for half a day.

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