In a little over three decades California will celebrate 200 years since the gold rush. Comparatively a couple centuries aren’t much. After all, Europe can boast several millennia of historical places, artifacts and verifiable history. And arguably the miners who built California were not the first humans who made history here. From my childish perspective the old west was my history, and since I felt personally about it, every ghost town and hitching post all up and down the foothills of California engendered a certain nostalgic fondness.
I remember panning for gold with my father in the icy mountain streams near Strawberry. I have a vivid memory of riding the stagecoach in Columbia, terrified when two men with their faces covered in bandanas ‘robbed’ the stage and took my father’s watch. We drank Sarsaparilla at the saloon, the only time my father ever darkened the door of any kind of bar. It was my father who loved the old westerns, not the gritty ones, but the soft, gentle ones, where the good guy never really shot his gun, never really kissed any women, and rode off into the sunset with his favorite horse as his beloved companion. It was, I admit, an idealized view of the ‘wild, wild west’ and I, being an idealist of the highest order, ate it up.
I dutifully took my children and husband, all mid-west born, to my favorite places, and re-lived my childhood. I added a whole new level of understanding by studying with them the Miwok (now long gone from their natural habitat) native peoples of the Sierras, finding grinding rocks and tulle grasses by the water. This time, however, I realized that there wasn’t much chance of finding gold in the stream, and even if I did it wouldn’t be mine because the stream is owned by the government, and that the ‘robbers’ were actors. I saw that the saloon was really a tourist attraction, and you can order Sarsaparilla on Amazon. Even basketweaving, often the butt of an old joke, requires more skill and patience than I possess.
So much of what I knew and loved was just an illusion. But still, I found myself dreaming about how I could make a calico dress and bonnet. Maybe I could even start my own sourdough bread? And I couldn’t resist getting a picture with my husband in those old-timey costumes. Why then, am I so disappointed to find that many of those old buildings are crumbling, the old hotels run by opportunist innkeepers who have no idea of the gems they are curating, and the only real lovers of the history, costumed docents, are older than the hills, and not likely to be replaced by the younger generation?
I suppose it’s the same reason my daughters’ generation lives and breathes Harry Potter. We have a fundamental need for the intangible dream of another world. Those other worlds we like to escape into have heroes and villains, and require courage and bravery in the face of tragedy. Hmmm. That sounds vaguely familiar. It is far easier to imagine I’m a pioneer woman and must bake my own bread than to remember to thaw the chicken for tonight’s dinner because I’m at work all day today. Biting the bullet was something you did in leu of anesthesia. Today the equivalent might be paying for your healthcare out of your hard earned money.
After I mourned the loss of the old western days, I realized that someday someone will be thinking of my lifestyle in the same nostalgic funk. Today will be history, and after a little fanfare, will pass on to the next wave of modernity. And on it goes. Death and rebirth all over again. It’s entirely possible that when we reach the 200 year mark of the gold rush most people won’t even care. And why do I care? Why not let things go when it is their time to go? The alternative is? Living in denial, or living totally in some fantasy world.
I’m still hopeful that I can take my grandchildren, when I get some, to see their grandfather get ‘robbed’ in the stagecoach, and to pan for gold. I’ll make sure they know what a hitching post was for. I still believe that without understanding our past we have no healthy foundation for the future. If I’m able, I’d like to be able to teach them that while also embracing their future, which will likely involve more electric auto recharge stations than hitching posts. Come to think of it, is there really much of a difference?