Remember the Mighty: Sierra Nevada, CA

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Route 20 towards Grass Valley

In early November of 2017, my family gathered in northern California to celebrate the life and work of my uncle James Kuiper, who had passed away earlier in the year. My uncle, one of the funniest, creative and prolific artists I have ever met, was the subject of a retrospective at the newly opened Museum of Northern California Art in Chico, CA. I will have to try very hard to keep this post to the travel and not to the personal: I miss terribly my uncle and his happy crazy self. I will seek therapy…

Part of any therapy for me is getting into the woods, and if that is your therapy too, there is no better place than the northern Sierra Nevada area. While Yosemite and points south (Lake Tahoe springs to mind) are inundated with people, we often found ourselves the only car on the road on an early Thursday morning in November. We did not have the time to get out into the woods but stopped for a few vistas, including Donner Pass.

As is my (cheap) way,  I had found tickets in and out of Reno, Nevada, which is about three hours driving from Chico up and across the Sierras. On our way through, we made an attempt to visit the monument to the Donner Party on Route 80, but let’s be honest, the story is a bit nausea-causing even without the cannibalism. While the Sierras are gorgeous, count me out for four months in a wagon without food. Well, without “packaged” food. I give that whole visit a B- though I will caveat that–on our way back a sudden snow caused me some anxiety (rental car, no chains) but was a delight to my kids, and we have heard that the museum to the Donner event in Truckee is quite good. Next time. There is always a next time.

We soon left Route 80 to take the back way on Route 20 to Chico. I have many memories from these back roads of northern California–one memorable Thanksgiving, my extended family including my crazy uncle had explored Gold Country and stayed in a tiny town called Amador City. There we stayed in a historic tavern as the only guests…except the resident ghost who paid me a visit in the middle of the night. True story.

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Stopping to hug a tree

If you just want to drive as a means to your therapy, get on Route 20 and swoop on the long curves through redwoods bigger than your imagination. I am not a big road-tripper but I could drive here forever. Eventually of course, you run into reality, which in our case was Nevada City, a former gold rush town, now a not-too-touristy glimpse at the past. A second hand bookstore, an old-style candy shop with pumpkin fudge (true story too, but not a good one) and friendly folks, a tourist information office where I could have sat down and shot the breeze with the kind retired man for hours…and the Three Forks Brewery and Bakery where we stopped for lunch.

There is something that California does that no one else can do. Somehow a cavernous brick, long-line, cafeteria table “bakery” is cool. You feel cool even though you are not sporting the lumberman beard and have no intention of eating the vegan menu. Wait, not all of it is vegan, people, do keep reading. I will say the Quatro Formaggi pizza was fantastic…and some of the starters, which I don’t remember because BEER.

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At home I am not a big beer drinker. I like it okay but facing facts, I am a white wine and rose drinker. Don’t judge me–many red wines give me sinus issues, and hard alcohol makes me fall down after a sip or two. But I LOVE a brewery. Love. I love the names of the beers which here at Three Forks included Redoubtable Red, Mud in Your Eye and Oak Tree. You can probably guess which I chose…name a beer for a tree, make it a pale ale, and take my money.

After lunch we headed over to the candy store Lazy Dog Chocolateria. Fudge. Truffles. Salt Water Taffy (I can’t stand the stuff but I have a kid obsessed with it) and old-timey candies like Necco Wafers. A friendly assistant who would have given my kids samples of everything they wanted if I had not kiboshed their idea on that. We bought truffles and three bags of eyeballs and body parts (on sale after Halloween) for the cousins to share later.

Because you really can’t go to Gold Country without at least a peak at the gold mines, we went to Empire Mines in Grass Valley. I had gone with my parents years before but remembered little. I could have spent the whole chilly day there–I have always been fascinated with the gold rush (the state park has quite a collection of stories, photos and tools) and I can’t think of a better place to learn more.

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We spent a half hour in the museum and then wandered out to the mine area. I am no fan of caverns and the underground, but willingly descended to see where the sleds (skips) left to bring men one vertical mile under the earth. Seriously. I can’t imagine a job like that. Inside the museum, there is a huge model of all the mine shafts that lie under your feet–367 miles of shafts covering five square miles. People went down in that every single day. While the mine opened in 1850, all but the very top shafts are now flooded with water which came in when the mine pumps were turned off in 1956. If ever I were to do a horror movie, it would take place in an underground mine.

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The men would line up on this “skip” and be sent down into the mines. No, thank you.

Empire Mines needs a full day. Half a day for the mines and museum, and a half day for the trails and house and gardens. We had just missed the cottage tour and most of the old rose bushes (many original from 1897) were done, but the trees…oh, the trees. Many specimen trees, a leaf-strewn pond, truly lovely. Worth a visit. You can learn more about Empire Mines here.

We got back in the car and took off for Chico, passing through the old ghost town of Rough and Ready. When I visited R&R twenty years ago, it was indeed ghostly …abandoned old buildings, dusty, empty. But it’s made a comeback and looked open for business. Therefore not charming. On the road to Chico. More tomorrow.

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