Highway 49: 1959
There weren’t many good memories when dad was around, mostly him being his stiff military gruffness, handing out punishments, drunk or hung over. Lucky for us he was not a mean drunk, but he was a grumpy one.
One experience continues to rise high above all others, and we revisited those weekends many times in a two- or three-year period.
We would load up the family car, a 1957 DeSoto station wagon with the far back seat turned around so that the passengers could see where one had gone. At that time there were six kids and we barely fit, but we were going to the Gold Country in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.
The journey across the Sacramento Valley was long and hot, but mom kept us kids occupied by reading stories about the outlaws and homesteaders of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mom was an accomplished storyteller and she brought outlaws like Joaquín Murieta, Black Bart the stagecoach bandit, and many others to life.
I’m guessing that she planned it, but often we would be enthralled by the latest adventures of the long ago heros and villains, then find ourselves in the very town she was reading about. It was like the stories had come alive. We’d walk around those towns, oftentimes a ghost town with no or few people living there, and imagine the gunfights and bar brawls.
Mom was always on the lookout for “blue glass” and at one point, after making many trips to the gold country she came up with the great idea of going into the burned or rotted out buildings and using a box with a screen on the bottom to sift the dirt. Oh my god, it was a gold mine of artifacts when we found a virgin dig and in the late fifties there were many. Although we never found any gold or gold coins, we did find tools, coins, bottles, rotting shoes, belt buckles, whatever the people of those times used.
Around noon we would usually park close to an old bank foundation or burned out saloon, find a nice spot to dig and sift dirt, then have a picnic.
By nightfall we would be asleep while the car burned away the miles heading back home. I don’t ever remember staying overnight in the gold country.
We never got as far north as Nevada City, where I now live, but you have to remember there were no freeways and the gold country roads, including Highway 49, were narrow two-lanes that slowly wound in and out of canyons with old crookly bridges at the bottom. Twenty-five miles per hour was top speed on those barely-serviceable roads.
Our objective was to explore the old abandoned towns, and there were many. If we progressed twenty miles in a day it was a fast day.