August 1965. Tears tracked across Jo Ann’s cheeks. We had just left her parents in San Francisco and boarded a United Airlines jet bound for New York City. We were leaving family, friends and life in the US behind. I was sympathetic with Jo but my mind was elsewhere. While she was grieving over what we had left behind, I was celebrating where we were going. Mysterious Africa, teaching, and adventure beckoned.
Except for the time when I was 15 and surrendered five hard-earned, pear picking dollars for a helicopter ride at the El Dorado County Fair, it was my first flight ever. How could I not be excited? The jet taxied out on to the runway, climbed above the Bay, and banked toward the east. For seven hours, we would be winging across America and gazing down on cotton clouds, mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, cities, towns, farms and forests.
We waved goodbye to California as the plane flew over the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. The towering granite of the Crystal Range and Pyramid Peak gave way to the deep blue of Lake Tahoe. My mind turned to how the two of us, both from small Northern California towns, had ended up as Peace Corps Volunteers on our way to the remote jungles of West Africa. Certainly, the two years we had just spent at UC Berkeley were a factor. Our time at Sierra College near Sacramento had also played an important role, but my reasons went back farther, back to my very beginning.
Family legend is that I was conceived during a moment of weakness when my mother had the flu. For the record, I delivered my first squawk of protest on March 3, 1943 in Ashland, Oregon. At the time, according to Life Magazine, American and Australian forces were duking it out with the Japanese at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, bow ties were the hot new fashion with American women, and Westinghouse engineers were firing dead chickens 200 miles per hour at airplane windows. They went splat. Success meant the windows didn’t crack.
I grew up in the small town of Diamond Springs, California about 35 miles east of Sacramento. Sleepy is too lively a word for describing the community during the 1940s and 50s. In Old West terminology, Diamond Springs was a one and one half horse town. There was one church, one barbershop, one hardware store, and one grammar school. On the two-horse side of the equation, there were two grocery stores, two gas stations, two restaurants, two bars, two graveyards and two major places of employment: The Diamond Lime Company and Caldor, the lumber company where my father worked as an electrician.
The town hadn’t always been quiet. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Diamond Springs was once a major gathering spot for the Maidu Indians, and later became a bustling Gold Rush town. To the Maidu it was Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring and a very holy place. The Indians came from miles around bearing their dead on litters to cremate on pyres. The smoke and spirits were sent wafting through the air to wherever deceased Maidu went. They had lived in the area for a thousand years.
In 1848, John Marshall found some shiny yellow baubles in the American River at Sutter’s Mill, 13 miles away. The world of the Maidu and Morning Star’s Spring was about to be shattered. “Gold!” went out the cry to Sacramento, across the nation and around the world. Instant wealth was to be had in California and the 49ers were on their way. They came by boat, wagon, horse and foot— whatever it took. And they came in the thousands from Maine to Georgia, Yankee and Southerner alike. They left behind their wives, children, mothers, fathers, and half-plowed fields. The chance of ‘striking it rich’ was a siren call not to be denied.
Seemingly overnight the once quiet foothills were alive with the sound of the miners’ picks and shovels punctuated by the occasional gunshot. Boomtowns sprouted wherever gold was to be found. In 1850, a party of 200 Missourians stopped off at Morning Stars Spring and decided to stay. Timber was plentiful, the grazing good, and a 25-pound nugget of gold was found nearby. Soon there were numerous hotels, stables, a school, churches, doctors, a newspaper, lawyers, vineyards, a blacksmith, some 8000 miners and, undoubtedly, several unrecorded whore houses. Morning Stars Spring took on a new name, Diamond Springs. The Wells Fargo Stage Company opened an office and the Pony Express made it a stop on its two-year ride to glory.
By the time the Mekemsons arrived at the end of World War II, Diamond Spring’s glory years were over. The gold had long since been mined out, the town had burned down three times, and the population had dropped to somewhere around 700. And, as far as I know, there weren’t any whore houses. In this pre-TV, pre-digital era, our entertainment depended on our imaginations. For me, this meant disappearing into the woods as soon as I could escape the not too watchful eyes of my parents. While other boys lined up for Little League batting practice, I was out doing an inventory of the local skunk, coyote and deer population.
I was born to wander, I’m convinced of this…
Why? Check this space next Wednesday.
Travel Blog Friday: Lyman Lake State Park along Highway 191 in Arizona… The backroad series.