I’m usually the only one in the car who wants to stop at the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. But today is different: Alex is game. There’s goat-tying, steer-riding, and an unattended toddler marching industriously back and forth across a mud puddle. We debate expensive shirts that say “RODEO” in a lariat script and ask to pat the vendor’s unimpressed pony. “We used to ride but now we live in the city,” Alex explains, as if it needed explaining. As a kid she’d take her horse to the gas station in town as a lark.
In Sonora I instead buy a cheap necklace with a tiny charm of the state flag’s bear. I wasn’t born here, but I am certainly closer to being Californian than to being the type of Californian who knows how to tie up a goat.
Shiny stuff and legitimate claims are interesting subjects to consider in Gold Country. Its history is in front of my face in literal ways—Sonora, Mi-Wuk Village, Chinese Camp—and yet I’ve never really thought about the names or pictured anyone living here other than grizzled white miners. Now, though, I’m reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land, and getting schooled.
The trouble began, naturally enough, in the mines … . In 1850 a mob of 2,000 American miners descended on the Mexican mining town of Sonora and … proceeded to raze the town. The rioting lasted for nearly a week, with scores of murders and lynchings being reported … .”We can see only indirectly, wrote [Josiah] Royce, “through the furious and confused reports of the Americans themselves, how much of organized and coarse brutality these Mexicans suffered from the miners’ meetings.”
In the first 25 pages I also learn that the indigenous population of California pre-Columbus had four times the density of the rest of what would become the country—whereas previously I imagined Indians living mostly in the Great Plains and dying mostly because of East Coast people.
My ignorance is especially egregious because I was assigned this book in college and hardly touched it. Nor was this the first time such a history lesson was lost on me: fourth grade I recall building a model of Mission San Luis Obispo without having the slightest idea of what a mission was—my closest point of reference being Redwall Abbey, where certainly no one (“nobeast”) was ever held against his will, even by weasels.
The road to the Grotto crosses the hills that front the highway and descends unexpectedly into a broad green valley that for its part doesn’t look Californian at all. “Kentucky,” Alex says. She’s in sales and has lived a lot more places than I have. The asphalt runs out amid a smattering of muddy yards and “KEEP OUT” signs, but we determine we’re in the right spot based on the presence (here I initially wrote “pretense”) of a Subaru and a Tesla.
The approach trail winds up from a red dirt road and runs a gauntlet of poison oak, emptying high on a scree slope of volcanic rock. There’s a lake on the horizon and columns of lichen-accented basalt looming overhead like organ pipes; something about the afternoon light makes me expect grazing brontosaurus. There aren’t any of those, but for a relic from the past I instead end up climbing next to some dude I met once on an ancient Internet date. Neither of us says anything, of course.
Both climbing and dating are things I previously believed I could learn to enjoy by diligence and repetition. Having grown bored and skeptical of this I wonder now, why not simply do things that are pleasant from the get-go? To find out, I brunch lavishly on French toast and biscuits on the porch of the Jamestown Hotel and then, instead of climbing, ride my bike. Not far, and real easy—in a place that’s new and warm and blowing up with flowers.