Gold, Frogs and Ghosts

We are at the southern end of California gold rush country, and yesterday we saw several towns that survived to tell that story.

The first was the town of Angels Camp, familiar to those of you who have read Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”  While Mark Twain didn’t enter into the mining fields, he did strike gold with that story and so did the town.

We are two weeks too early for the county fair and the annual Frog Jumping contest, but evidence of the competitive nature of this event is everywhere.  We learned that people don’t come with their own trained frogs.  No, bullfrogs are collected the night before the event from local ponds and carefully grouped by pond of origin so they can be returned after the contest. Our source for this information was very proud that 140 of the 500 frogs participating last year came from the pond in her backyard.  Can you imagine how noisy it must be when those frogs are in full throat?

At any rate, the way you get a bullfrog to jump is to scare it, hence the frightening looks on this winning froggers.  We also learned that it takes over 400 volunteers to manage the frogs – more than they require for the entire rodeo that is part of the fair.  Mark Twain really started something here. (Rosie the Ribbeter is still the world champion, in case you were wondering.)

Then on to Columbia, a ghost town now run by the state, where the buildings are preserved and tourists can buy yet more fudge and tee shirts. (On the way, we saw evidence of just how bad the drought is here along the Central Coast.)  But it is a sweet town, and it gives you a good idea of how a well-organized mining center looked – with a street plan, a firehouse, and, of course, a jail.  You can still pan for gold – there’s just not enough to reward the effort.

The town also addresses the often sad story of the Chinese, who were not allowed to stake claims, but did a lot of the hard work and opened stores to supply the miners and serve other Chinese. It was a mad time – the miners were so crazed that they were hacking away at rocks within the town, stripping them and leaving a mess behind.

Much further down the road, we came to a town actually called “Chinese Camp.”  Only 150 people live there now, but you get the idea. We also saw the last Wells Fargo stop in gold country – on a road now appropriately called Route 49.

And not to leave out an important denison of the land we left, here is a record of our stop at the (closed) boyhood home of John Steinbeck in Salinas, outside of Monterey.  He hated it there, so we didn’t feel guilty for not stopping longer.)

It was a long day – we drove and drove and drove to get through a corner of Yosemite to the town of Fish Camp, where we are now staying.  Off to the park today.

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