Born to Wander: Part 1… The Bush Devil Ate Sam

Here I am in our backyard with the family pets. The overgrown graveyard next door and the alley that led off to the woods spelled adventure for me. While the cats stayed home, I could always depend upon a dog or two along for company.

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.

NEXT POST:

Travel Blog Friday: Lyman Lake State Park along Highway 191 in Arizona… The backroad series.

20 thoughts on “Born to Wander: Part 1… The Bush Devil Ate Sam

  1. There’s a wonderful little long-gone town near the Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas named Diamond Springs. In the end, it was done in by the railroad, but there still are remnants of some old buildings around. I don’t think there are any kids there now, but I can imagine some midwestern Curts once upon a time, roaming that glorious countryside and developing their own sense of adventure.

  2. What an interesting peek into your past, Curt. So did your family come to Diamond Springs via your Dad’s job, or some other reason? I can really relate to your escape to the woods – it was my childhood refuge, too. One of my main goals was to find and swing on grapevines like Tarzan. I was mildly successful. 🙂 ~Terri

    • The story behind the move was that we were living in the Bay Area when my sister got malaria. The doctor recommended moving to the foothills as a cure. Love your story about Tarzan and the grapevine, Terri. Especially since I was similarly motivated. And succeeded. Unfortunately the grapevine decided to break when I was about six feet off the ground! I was off by myself a couple of miles into the woods. It knocked the wind out of me. Fortunately that was all. But it signaled an end to my grapevine swinging career. 🙂 –Curt

  3. “I was born to wander, I’m convinced of this…” which is why I count myself among your faithful readers Curt even if our politics [as much as I care anymore] differ. My uncle chastised me after a month in Vietnam for writing Alie travelogues rather than love letters. Crazy, yes; dumb, no; I changed my letters.

  4. One of my distant relatives left England in 1850 to ‘make his pile’ in Placer County California. His last letter home was in November 1854. Like you, he must have been a wanderer!

  5. Born to wander… some of us are like that. I love the way you looked so eagerly forward to adventures in Africa, and the descriptions of the 1-1/2 horse town where you learned the art of roaming. Great post, Curt. I look forward to your tales about Africa.

    • Thanks, Diana. There is something magical about hometowns, where we are first introduced to the wider world, where so much of who we are begins. I include several tales from those years in both of the books I am blogging now. As for Liberia. Wow. What and experience. –Curt

  6. Not sure how I’m so behind and how you didn’t show up in reader Curt!
    A wanderer alright and an amazing story teller at that.
    Love ho you described this: 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”.
    love how you described this place out of Sacramento that I never have heard of before.
    For such a sleepy town your history is rich is sharing it’s roots and culture once shared. Well, I’n glad that the woods and hiking with critters was your entertainment and you didn’t have to worry about the distraction of a whore house … 🤣🤣🤣🤣
    Can’t wait till Africa! ❤️💖

    • Yeah, especially a whore house. 🙂 Of course there might have been one around. I suspect the network of young boys would have been full of it, however. Especially the wild group that I hung out with. 🙂
      Thanks for your comments, Cindy. My backpacking book that I am blogging has many more Diamond tales coming up. They are supposed to happen on Mondays, assuming I have my act together, which can be a big assumption at times. Wednesday is for the Peace Corps tales and Friday is for my travel blog. –Curt

      • That is funny and every town has something of the sort. Wait, the rabbit chasing, wandering wood guys like you…
        Thise wild ones? Hahahahah!
        You are so welcome, it’s my pleasure. You are such a great writer and I’ll look forward to more of your stories about your old stomping grounds! Oh your schedule is the same as mine. I had it mixed up!
        Good to know. 💕

      • Marshall would have been knocking at the door. Not so much me. But I can guarantee that Marsh would have at least known of existence. In a small town like Diamond, everybody pretty well n=knew everything about everybody else.
        Thanks, Cindy. I’ll keep the stories flowing. –Curt

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