Here we are, ending another year! It seems crazy to me that after 3 ½ years, I’m now becoming a veteran traveler. I’m watching several travel friends start to slow down or settle down. 2019 certainly threw a couple of wrenches that questioned my purpose, my sanity, and my plan. But it has ultimately led me to realize that while the streets are not paved in it, the path to get there is as good as gold itself.
California, as it tends to do, lured me back for the entirety of the year. Some travel friends I met in Santa Clara moved on to work in Sonora, CA so my friend Dave and I jumped on the opportunity to visit them for a backpacking trip in the western Sierras early summer. They lived in a small town of 2,500 people called Twain Harte, named after American authors Mark Twain and Bret Harte who both have ties to the area. It is also known as the “Harte of the Sierras” as it sits at ~3,000ft elevation on Route 108, about an hour from Sonora Pass, the second highest pass over the Sierra Nevadas at 9,623ft. The highest elevation pass is Tioga Pass, just to the south on Route 120 which also runs to the entrance of Yosemite National Park. Needless the say, the area is world renowned for hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and is an outdoors persons Disneyland. Our friends lived in a log cabin surrounded by pines and redwoods a short walk to both a town lake and an adorable downtown area that immediately tugged at my heart strings. I stopped in a local shop and talked with the owner who had just relocated there. Her daughter’s young family had been preparing to move there when her husband suddenly passed and she had to continue the move with her small children all on her own. Her mother told me how she was amazed by the community when her daughter was met by an outpouring of love from people she didn’t even know yet bringing her food and chopping firewood for her. This small community feel brought me right back to when I was living in Ketchikan, Alaska and I knew I needed to be here for a while.
So, because the universe consistently puts me right where I’m supposed to be, our friends’ contracts ended right when Dave and I were ending in Santa Clara and we were able to take over their positions and their cabin in Twain Harte. Sonora and the surrounding area is named “the Motherlode” after a long vein of gold deposits in the Sierra Nevadas was discovered in the early 1850s and began the California Gold Rush. The area is so rich in Gold Rush history. Having mostly traveled through California’s big bustling cities, this absolutely fascinated me. Columbia State Historic Park is a quick 15 minute drive from Sonora where the buildings and culture is maintained just how it was in the 1800s. People are dressed in period clothing, there is an active blacksmith, stagecoach tours, and endless history in all of the buildings that makes you feel like you are stepping right back in time. It was our go-to spot to bring visitors and we always enjoyed it. In October, I went to “Stories in Stone” where docents brought us through the cemetery at night, lit by candles, and acted out histories of various people buried there. They described the tough conditions they faced in their travels from the East coast and the rest of the world in hopes for gold and great wealth. They faced life threatening conditions, weather, illness, and disease. The famous Donner party emigrating from Illinois attempted a shorter route across the Sierras and were trapped by heavy snowfall, unable to move on for an entire winter. They were forced into cannibalism and only half of the party survived to finish the journey.
Another incredible spot was the ghost town of Bodie, in the eastern Sierras. The drive out to it was a few miles on a dirt road off the main road in the middle of nowhere. What was once a true Wild West town is now preserved in its decaying form. Peering into leaning dilapidated buildings you can see remains of living conditions that seems as though someone just walked out one day and never returned. The gold rush itself lasted only a few years. In 1876, Bodie had only a few dozen residents. By 1880 it boasted 10,000 people, by the 1890s it was on the decline, and by the early 1900s most residents left until it became a ghost town, finally preserved as a National Landmark and now a California State Historic Park.
So what is it that we go looking for? The gold rush was always thought of as so glamorous. People at the time would say you could go to California, take a walk, kick a stone, and check to see if it was a gold nugget. Tens of billions of today’s US dollars was discovered there over this time but the reality was still very harsh. Many, of those who did make it, did not end up any wealthier. Is it the promise? The hope? The possibility? To hit the motherlode means “to produce or find something that will make you very rich, happy, or successful.” I compare my own “manifest destiny” and I truly do feel like I hit the motherlode. Sometimes the best things we find are the ones we didn’t intend to.
California, “the Golden State,” has enamored me since I initially came out 3 years ago. I have always mused about its nickname, derived from the Gold Rush history. But the waves of golden grass fields, turned from green in very early summer due to lack of rain, as well as the California poppies that burst in golden fields, and the vast Pacific sunsets all contribute to California’s Golden beauty. The one thing I have always granted supreme about the East Coast is the fall foliage. This fall was the first opportunity I had to experience foliage in the Sierras, as Yosemite has eluded me the past four times I have lived out west. I had heard about the flickering aspen trees, but never imagined anything could outdo the patchwork quilt trees that adorn the rolling hills of New England in the Fall. And then the Golden State had to go and turn my world upside down again. We took a drive across the pass to the Eastern Sierras for a foliage scavenger hunt and I was blown away by the pockets of bright yellow dispersed through the green pines and quintessential granite mountains of the Sierras. I spent many weekends in Yosemite, the last few boasting these incredible colors. Proof again that most times you find things even greater than the ones you are looking for, as long as you’re open to appreciate them when you find them.
So after a whirlwind of a year, I got just the slowdown I needed, a lot of nature for my soul, and a perspective on what it means to strike gold. You can chase it, you can risk everything you have for it, or you can stumble upon it when you didn’t even know it was what you were looking for. Trust the journey.