Last Saturday, we set out in search of adventure, well aware of the weather conditions. The night before, Mother Nature had dumped a load on the Mother Lode, and just about every foot of hill between us and our destination was loosely draped in snow.
Most people had the good sense to stay in and admire the view – an undulation of white as far as the eye could see, snow still in the trees even as the sky began breaking blue.
As others snuggled under covers or traipsed in the woods, our family was determined to drive from Coarsegold to Columbia State Historic Park, a real town built in the 1850s during the Gold Rush, with 33 original buildings still intact. The journey was 92 miles on the meandering and sometimes perilous Highway 49, taking us on a road trip from days gone by.
Our goal, my husband Dave and me, was to get to Columbia for the 30 year anniversary Lamplight Tour, set to include a walk of the town along with a mystery in the form of a play. We’d paid for our tickets in advance and looked forward with great anticipation to the night of costumed docents leading us about on foot after dark, gleaning Columbia’s history while searching for clues to solve the mystery performance.
Originally we made arrangements to stay at the City Hotel on Main Street, but when our dog-sitter plans fell through, the on-duty clerk offered us a cottage nearby, with a yard, at a slightly increased rate. We jumped at the chance, because having our 85-lb chocolate lab Jack with us in the car, in the snow, wet and shedding in a cabin is the kind of temptation we cannot resist.
Our hotel confirmation was accompanied by a copy of the in-house restaurant’s two-page menu. Daughter Clara and I nearly drooled on the menu, debating the merits of their culinary offerings. I zeroed in on a dish with creamy lobster on puff pastry. Our adventurous teen was seriously considering escargot. Her dad had not yet decided as we set off for Columbia – the kid, the dog, the husband and me – ready for a night on the town, a walking Christmas pageant, a fine meal, a good time.
The drive was uneventful, if you don’t count the part where I breathed in and never again exhaled as we motored through light snow flurries, rain and wind, with a sheer drop straight down the mountain beside us. I was driving; this is always the case as I’m a horrible passenger, very worrisome and can’t read a map without becoming car sick. I even get carsick reading maps when I am sitting in the comfort of my living room: I just can’t read maps. It’s a big flaw, I know.
We arrived in great shape, I exhaled and bounded out of the car in Columbia, and went immediately to the hotel. It was closed. The adjacent bar was open, populated by an interesting crew of characters. Among them was a droopy eyed, dark circled bartender who soon left his station and walked us back into the hotel, giving us a key to our digs for the night, after explaining the regular desk clerk had gone home.
The question of what to have for dinner was quickly resolved when the bartender told us the restaurant would not be open, as the chef had been unable to leave his house due to snow. Big disappointment! Still, no regrets.
Main Street was cordoned off for weekend festivities, with signs reading “horse-drawn vehicles only,” just a block from our charming little cabin, well situated across from a pub. We still had much to look forward to, and our little family was happy. As we unpacked, Jack and Clara played in the snow, and the cottage thermostat proved reliable. The place heated up quickly and we changed into our colder-weather clothes, in preparation for the Lamplight Tour and mystery we’d come to see.
No. No, that wasn’t happening, either, we found out as soon as we crossed Main Street into the museum. We were met with sad-faced, though accommodating, park rangers who explained the Tour had been canceled for the night. It was to be the second night’s performance; Columbia had put it all on display the evening before. Saturday night, our night, had fallen victim to the snow. With nearly 100 docents arriving from all over the mountains to portray their assignments, safety had become a factor for people coming – and going home late – on icy mountain roads.
I nearly cried, and expressed myself thus to the rangers, mortifying my daughter and alarming their kind souls in the process. I find it helps to alert people to the possibilities and anyway, I was just feeling very unfortunate and needed a little time to adjust to what our new plans would be. The rangers promptly refunded our money for the aborted tour, and gave us a small booklet perfect for walking the town on our own. They were clearly disappointed at the cancellation news themselves.
This was a town all dressed up with nowhere to go! Cedar boughs with crimson velvet bows lined the old buildings that make up the charming, authentic Gold Rush mining village. Occasionally, women milled about in saucy plaid wool skirts, their hooped bottoms swinging into snow and mud. The town seemed full of men with long white beards, and not in a Santa way. These beards were in a ZZ Top fashion, or more accurately, a miner’s way.
We had to eat; I was melting down quicker than the snow. Luckily, the general store in Columbia is stocked with enough deliciousness to produce ingredients for a perfectly credible carbonara, if you’re not too picky. We carefully chose a good Parmesan, box of spaghetti, half pound bacon, garlic, onions, a bottle of fancy olive oil/balsamic vinegar, two bottles of wine (he’s red, I’m white) and some chocolate.
As we stepped outside the general store clutching our prized packages, a random couple passing between pubs rather inexplicably tossed us an entire package of fresh kettle corn, about the size of a newborn. Free kettle corn. Clearly, things were looking up.
Clara and I entered the pub to retrieve the man of our house, and found that the establishment was awash in possibilities but fairly devoid of customers. A table was laid out with cookies of many kinds, hot chocolate, tea, coffee and more kettle corn. This place would have been the last stop on our mystery tour, so they had treats galore and were glad to share. We loaded up a plate of cookies, Dave drained his beer and we returned to the cottage to drop off our provisions.
Walking the dog before dinner, we tramped through the snow with joy, checking out the museums, the candy shop, the gift store. Shopkeepers were busy locking up, trying to get on the road before the black pavement became black ice.
Back in the cabin, we relaxed, chatted and made an easy dinner which we consumed greedily while watching Date Night on DVD. After the movie, dessert, some wine and all the effort it had taken to make our weekend getaway, we were tired. The dog was exhausted from the effort of having been on a leash. We retired to a good night’s sleep, without interruption.
Sunday morning was glorious. We grabbed Jack, once again, and went out walking. We were the first to cross many snowy lots, making our way as quietly as possible down rocks, across parks and roads and play areas. Tiny ice crystals had blossomed on the snow overnight, leaving the pure white stuff studded with what looked like a spill of silver glitter, gleaming in the sunlight.
The bakery was open, and we ate twice. First, the sweets: lemon bar, walnut cake, berry muffin. Then, still hungry, we tried the egg and bacon hidden inside an uncut bun of a sandwich. It was pretty good, and definitely a clever way to transport breakfast on the go, mixing some protein with the sugar.
People were filing into town again, and slowly, things started to pick up. The blacksmith opened and his hammering could be heard a block away. Babies in strollers, doggies in sweatshirts, an entire gang of seniors in matching lettermen’s jackets… all the people who’d braved wet and icy roads to visit Columbia were out and about and having a blast.
Inside Columbia Booksellers & Stationers – a must-see stop for us – the proprietor was busy on the computer, searching out information on a certain settler buried at the old cemetery, built on higher ground. What can I say? I am Irish and German, so whether it’s the morbid foreboding my people wear like a comfy shawl, or the sense of organization and serenity brought about by well marked graves, I love a good cemetery.
Leaving our daughter behind so she could do some “secret” shopping for Christmas, we drove to the gate of the cemetery, parked the car and began to walk around. The old stonework was beautiful, partly covered in the melting snow, overshadowed by giant oaks and cypress.
I marveled at the sheer number of names some of the women had. Were they repeatedly widowed, tagging on name after name as they picked themselves up and married again? So much can be learned in a cemetery. The best cemeteries leave you with more questions than answers.
The cell phone buzzed and Clara was ready to be picked up back on Main Street. We grabbed her, buckled up again and prepared to leave Columbia behind. To kick things off, as I usually like to do, I made a wrong turn and, determined not to admit it, drove two more blocks until we encountered a most wonderful vision. We are not talking reindeer, here.
Before us was a house. In front of the house was a marvelous sight: five feet high with an eight foot tail, an amazing cold-weather mermaid was curvaciously carved, entirely from snow.
Now is the time to confess: I have never been interested in snowmen. I’m a beach girl; we make things out of sand, all year round. By the time I moved to a cold-weather climate, my snowman making days seemed behind me, and I struggled to build even a scarecrow in fall for my chicken yard. Snowmen, scarecrows, they just seemed plain or uninteresting. Many will disagree with me, I know.
This, though! This was no three-tier Frosty. This was magnificence personified! Wearing sunglasses, holding a magical staff, this snowmermaiden was beyond life-size, her tail undulating through the garden like foothills rise and fall across the state. The architecture was phenomenal, the art was ephemeral to the nth degree, and I was thinking things just could not have gotten any better. That’s when the artist walked up.
She, too, carried a bag of groceries, and graciously answered questions about the sculpture. Peg Reza is an art teacher at Columbia College, and also fronts the Blue Shoes Ukelele Orchestra. About this time, I’m thinking “I knew the free kettle corn was a sign something great was taking place!”
Peg explained how the sculpture was made, the arcing of the tail alone consisting of at least three of gigantic snowballs grafted together, side by side, then carefully carved out with a knife. She worked on the ice sculpture with two friends, Shaw Shwall and Erich Quinn. The latter, Quinn, is a bass player in the band with Peg and was around when we stopped to marvel at the snowmermaiden. They were getting ready for a performance of the Blue Shoes Ukelele Orchestra on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. The event is billed as a Christmas Sing-along; admission is free.
My husband Dave is an avid recreational ukulele player for the last eight or nine years. He even has a banjo ukulele hybrid. On hearing this, Peg invited us inside to see her Ukelele Kitchen, which is like Cadillac Ranch for ukeleles. She explained details about some of the various instruments hanging on the wall, ready at any moment to be played and always available for admiration.
The home of an artist is often a revelation, usually a trip itself, and Peg’s was no exception. As disappointed as we had been Saturday night to learn there would be no lamp lit tour, we were thrilled to have met Peg and her band-mate, witnessed the ukuleles and the spotted snowmermaiden.
Reluctantly, we got back in the car and began the two-hour drive back home. We’d gone to Columbia for a miner’s Christmas and wound up with something quite different, though I’m sure the miners would have loved it. We laughed, driving carefully across the ridge of the foothills back along historic Highway 49, remarking on the history we’d made as a family, in just 24 hours. The dog slept the whole way. I think he was nauseous.
Arriving home, the transmission in our 10 year old Volvo gave up before we could make it to the top of our driveway. I parked at the bottom, pitched a fit, tramped away through the snow before I recovered. We’d roasted several squash the Friday before we left, and chopping onion for saute almost always calms me down. With those ingredients and others, I cooked up the best homemade soup that’s ever come out of our kitchen, according to my patient husband. We all went to sleep early, snug in our beds. After all, another adventure was about to begin.
Visit the website for Columbia Booksellers for more local history.