Joaquin Murrieta, the Gold Rush, and California’s original sin

I live in a neighborhood with streets named for various characters associated with old California – Dana Way (for William G. Dana), Harte Way (for Bret Harte), Helen Way (for Helen Hunt Jackson), Murieta Way (for the famous outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta), and Joaquin Way (for Joaquin Miller, who named himself after Murrieta and preferred to spell the name with one “r”). Dig a little deeper, and we find Rosita Way (for Murrieta’s murdered wife), Carmela Way (his wife’s middle name), and Salvator Way (presumably for Salvador Mendez, the bandit who identified Murrieta’s severed head in court). These, at least, are the associations I see, although it’s possible that whoever named the streets had other people in mind. But the pattern is fairly obvious.

“The Robin Hood of El Dorado”, written by a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns in 1934, seems to be the first serious effort to write a genuinely historical account of Murrieta’s life. Burns cites places, names, and dates, and claims to have obtained hundreds of oral testimonies from those who knew Murrieta or his victims – or were close to those who did. His most important historical claims seem to be specific enough to have been falsifiable in 1932 if they were, indeed, false.  Consequently, I take the general outline of his narrative to be generally accurate. But Burns is no historian: there are no footnotes, and he does a lot of “filling in the blanks” that required some imagination on his part. Which makes for a rollicking good read, if a bit on the gruesome side. But the literary inventions are not what trouble me: the truth of Murrieta’s legend is unsettling on many levels, to the point of shaking one’s faith in humanity, if one ever had any.

After Joaquin Murrieta married young Rosita Feliz in Sonora, Mexico, they fled to the California gold fields and settled in a mining camp called Sawmill Flat. Murrieta was believed to have been a modest, polite, hard-working, all-around decent fellow. He was known to have built a house for his bride, to have staked a claim and done some prospecting, but mostly for “dealing monte” with an honest hand in the town’s saloon. There are no accounts of Murrieta making trouble for anyone before tragedy struck. One day a group of surly American miners came through his front door, uninvited. Amdist a flurry of racist anti-Mexican taunts, they ordered him to pack and leave town. They told him – falsely – that his claim belonged to Americans now since California had just been “sold” to the United States. Murrieta knew his rights and refused to leave. The miners proceeded to beat him unconscious. While the men were attacking Joaquin, Rosita grabbed a knife and tried to kill one of them. The miners left Joaquin for dead and turned to Rosita. After brutally taking turns with her and satisfying themselves, she finally lost consciousness, and the yankee miners left her for dead as well. Murrieta revived and called out for his wife. He found Rosita and laid her on a couch, where she also revived long enough to speak to him – and then he helplessly watched her expire.

Months later, the decaying corpses of five miners from Sawmill Flat were found in a ravine with one bullet through each of their skulls. Their bodies were too decomposed for identification, but somehow everyone knew.

After exacting justice for Rosita’s murder, Murrieta was evidently done with killing and moved on to greener pastures, settling this time in Murphy’s Diggings to be near one of his brothers. He wanted to live a quiet life. But the yankees weren’t about to leave him alone. Anti-Mexican sentiment was high in the American mining camps, some more than others, though it was by no means universal. In any case, this time Murietta was falsely accused by a belligerent miner of stealing a mule. The baffled Joaquin protested that he was borrowing his brother’s recently purchased mule. He and the miner agreed to meet, with Joaquin’s brother, in Murphy’s Diggings the next day to settle the dispute. The miner showed up with a mob of nineteen rowdy Americans, in various stages of inebriation, eager to hang a couple of Mexican thieves. Some of the more respectable Americans showed up, too, vigorously defending the Murrieta brothers and testifying to their innocence. But their protests were futile. In the end Joaquin could only watch helplessly while his brother was crudely hanged by the mob. His own life was spared, but he was flogged into a bloody pulp with thirty-nine yankee lashes on his bare back – while tied to the same tree.

This pushed Murrieta over the edge. He was forever a changed man.

In the weeks that followed, eighteen of those twenty men in the lynch mob were found dead. Their tortured bodies seemed to reveal a pattern – lassoed and dragged by a horse, rope burns around the neck, small stab wounds all over the body, and an “M” carved into the forehead. The remaining two also died violently. The instigator was shot down in the street by an American miner who witnessed the lynching and flogging and was outraged by the injustice.

The rest of the story is a flurry of criminal genius and organization, casual cruelty, and outrageously daring bravado. The idiot who wrote the back cover of my copy of the book – and who obviously didn’t read it – says that Murrieta’s campaign was all about “defending Hispanos against violence and dispossession by rampaging gold rush miners”. On the contrary: Murrieta created a vast network of loyal bandits who killed for gold, for horses, and for fun. It’s true that he had a special contempt for American miners and unleashed his vengeance on them. But it seldom had anything to do with defending Mexicans. He raided peaceful ranches that had little to do with miners or mining or Mexicans, and for some perverse reason, he targeted the most vulnerable miners in the Sierras, the hard working Chinese, who never bothered anyone and who took abuse from all directions, leaving a sea of blood and tears in his wake. Murrieta had acquired a taste for killing, discovered he was very good at it, and found that he enjoyed it. He assembled a band of outlaws known as the Five Joaquins that terrorized the state from one end to the other, though he was the undisputed leader.

Murrieta apparently had a flair for dramatic effect. He often went to town in costume, to gather information about his enemies, or just to have a good time. There are countless stories of his daring and bravado. But what endears certain criminals to the public mind – what makes folk heroes out of them – is their humanity when it shows up in kindness. We love a bad man who has a tender side and does good deeds now and then. While Murrieta avenged every treason against him, he is also said to have rewarded every kindness shown to him, no matter how small. In many of these stories he appears indifferent to the gold and loot, and gladly gives it away. If you gave him lodging and a meal without protest, he was as likely to reward you as to kill you: flip a coin. Honestly, though, from the dozens of stories recounted by Burns in this riveting book, I have to wonder how certain it could be that Joaquin Murrieta is the outlaw of every story. His gang consisted of hundreds of men and dozens of small bands with their own leaders, and there were at least four more Joaquins besides, so I have think that positive identification was not a slam dunk.

A deputized sheriff by the name of Harry Love was commissioned by the new state of California to organize the California Rangers for the purpose of stopping Murrieta and his savage partner, Three Fingered Jack. Love and his men found them in a canyon on the Coast Range, prevailed with gunfire, and for purposes of identification decapitated Murrieta and cut off the hand of Three Fingered Jack. For years these relics were displayed around the state, finally resting in San Francisco, until destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Legends of Murrieta’s buried gold persist to this day.

What is the reality of Joaquin Murrieta? The folk hero that some Hispanic or “Chicano” activists have tried to make of him is untenable. If he was ever a good man, he definitely went bad and there is no whitewashing this fact. I do think it likely that Murrieta was, at first, not a man with a criminal disposition, and that the injustices he suffered helped to propel him to a life of crime. We applaud the justice he brought to bad men when the law was absent. We are charmed by the mercy he showed, at times, when he could easily have done what by then came naturally to him. Like all criminals, and indeed all men, he was not a one dimensional personality. He was, like most of us, someone who alternated between his better and worst instincts — but his demons won in the end.

In any case, the most disturbing aspect of this book was not the terror inflicted by Murrieta’s outlaws, as awful as that was, or even the idea that a good man could turn so bad due to circumstances beyond his control, but rather the morally depraved milieu of the gold rush itself. This is not news to me, or to any student of California history. However, Burns makes it come alive in a way that caught me a little off guard. Think about it: California’s non-Indian population went from about 12,000 in 1848 to 380,000 ten years later. By some estimates the newcomers were over 90% male. So, the gold rush was an overwhelmingly male phenomenon, lacking the feminine influence that is necessary to tame and domesticate the average man. That’s already a problem. But it might not have been so much of a problem if these were average men. The ’49ers were not average men. They were, by and large, the greediest, the rowdiest, the most ignorant, the least moral, the least religious, the least educated, etc. of the men in the place from which they came. The more respectable among them still found nothing wrong with leaving wives, children, farms and businesses behind in order to undertake a dangerous journey in a fanatical quest for more wealth and riches than they could possibly use. The mining towns were essentially organized for greed and debauchery. It was not uncommon to have multiple brothels and no churches. The overall tenor of the Sierra foothills was greed, violence, debauchery, drunkenness, and very little respect for life. “Fire on the Mountain” by the Marshall Tucker Band is an accurate portrayal.

It’s true that there were good men, too, whose motives weren’t entirely debased. Many were more interested in adventure than gold. Gen. John Bidwell, the founder of Chico, comes to mind. He was well educated and made his fortune mining the Feather River. Once that was done he turned to farming and ranching, married well, treated his Indian workers well, and founded a new city. He was a deeply Christian man, and his disappointed biographers, two hard-bitten cynical journalists, declared that despite all of their research they could find no “dirt” on him to report.

I suppose that, under the circumstances, one should be surprised to find so many remnants of civilization in the mining camps. The vigilante committees are known today for their excesses and injustices, but they helped bring order to chaos, and they included many genuinely fair-minded men. Burns recounts a number of vigilante trials where the accused is acquitted and released despite popular opposition. He also reports many incidents where fair-minded men stopped, or tried to stop, intemperate vigilante “justice” in the mining camps. Although the lawlessness of the gold rush ceded to the forces of civilization, in part because the miners themselves had grown tired of it, the untamed spirit of the ’49ers remains in this state under various guises. You might say that California is still paying for its original sin.

A Review of “Malcom Muggeridge: A Biography” by Gregory Wolfe

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“In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.” – St. Augustine

“Christ has created you because He wanted you. I know what you feel – terrible longing with dark emptiness. And yet He is the one in love with you.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta in a letter to Malcom Muggeridge

Generally speaking, modern people choose their religion so as to conform to the lives they are living. They believe as they live, rather than live as they believe.  This attempt to quiet their consciences can seem like a brave act of individual liberty in a society that glories in religious pluralism. But in a more Christian age, men did not deny the incongruity of their faith with the follies of their own lives. They knew that truth wasn’t going to change to suit them, and they forced themselves to live with the tension in the hopes that one day they would reform. Malcom Muggeridge was this pre-modern type of man. He lived badly for many years, but God refused to permit him the illusions modern men seem to enjoy.

The outline of Muggeridge’s life is well known. The son of a middle-class Fabian socialist, Malcom became impatient with the gradualism and hypocrisy of a socialist elite that didn’t have the stomach for revolution and, despite lip-service paid to egalitarianism and the plight of the working class, enjoyed lives of globe-trotting luxury and indulgence. He became a staunch communist and an open admirer of the Soviet Union. Upon graduation from Cambridge he traveled to India where he taught in the colonial schools, studied Hinduism and Islam, sympathized with Ghandi, and promoted Indian nationalism. Returning to England, he found work as a journalist and was assigned foreign correspondent to Moscow by the Manchester Guardian. He relished the opportunity to see Soviet communism up close. But what he learned in this revered “worker’s paradise” turned his enthusiasm into horror. Despite his own rhetorical excesses, Malcom discovered in himself a fierce hatred of cruelty and injustice. The barbaric inhumanity he witnessed in the name of atheistic communism turned him against every kind of mass ideological movement. He was furthermore aghast at the calculated dishonesty and, in some cases, the self-delusion of the Western intelligentsia when it came to the Soviet Union, upon which they projected their hopes and aspirations. It was also clear to him that these westerners relied upon the “success” of Marxism-Leninism for their reputations.

Malcom was the first to break the story of the Stalinist famine in the Ukraine, wherein four million perished by starvation and disease while their food – not only grain, but the food in every pantry! – was hauled away to feed more cooperative Russians. Those who resisted, or who were suspected of resistance, were simply shot. To keep the word from getting out, the border was sealed so that Ukrainians had no escape. On a clandestine and unauthorized trip to the Ukraine, Malcom watched starving peasants being loaded onto cattle trucks at gunpoint with their hands bound behind their backs. The story was censored at first, but Malcom would not be silent and became an implacable foe of communism for the rest of his life.

This courageous but unpopular act nearly cost Malcom his career. Still a man of the political Left, by this time the Left would no longer have him. He was barely employable as a journalist in England in all but the most pro-establishment Tory publications (which he detested politically) and gossip columns. His family struggled as he tried to pay the bills with various desperate writing gigs. The war came and he joined the armed forces as an intelligence officer, serving honorably. He returned to England and, by a series of unlikely employments and promotions, ended up a media star himself, landing finally at the BBC. During this time his politics moved further away from those of any party and developed into something that resembled a pragmatic libertarianism. He was clearly a gifted wordsmith, a master of the language, and an incisive commentator. The quality of his writing was recognized as superb. He was surprisingly adaptable as a compelling television presence. Malcom became widely respected – and also reviled – for his piercing criticism of those in positions of power and authority. His transparent sincerity was part of his appeal, once admitting “I hate government. I hate power. I think that man’s existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power, to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is the least exerted.” Toward the end of his career his wit, humor, and voice were known to all Englishman. His highly televised face was recognized everywhere.

And yet, beneath all of this worldly success, Malcom had long been miserable.

Malcom read the Bible secretly as a child, enthralled with the Christ-figure. While at Cambridge he embraced the religious skepticism of the day, but found himself drawn to mystics and even to the devout. His best friend was a serious Christian who became an Anglican clergyman. Malcom especially admired his asceticism and religious discipline. At the same time Malcom had fallen into the casual homosexuality of the elite, a phenomenon that was rife in England at the time, though he was still in love with a girl back home. (The extent to which casual male homosexuality was a staple of upper class English life has always eluded me, but it seems to have been ubiquitous for several generations even as it remained illegal. This must have had severe psychological effects on many of its practitioners.) His passions became unruly, particularly his sexual passions. When he married Kitty Dobbs, as good Fabian socialists they seriously considered having an “open marriage”. It might as well have been. Malcom’s sordid infidelities are too numerous to count; Kitty’s are less numerous but no less tragic. This compulsive behavior went on for decades, all through the highs and lows of his career. It always left him feeling empty, despairing, and lost. He and Kitty fought bitterly and constantly. As his family grew, he sought escape in projects that took him far from home. He attempted suicide at least once. He agonized over religious questions, and though he couldn’t bring himself to believe, he couldn’t bring himself to reject God altogether either.

Part of Malcom’s inner torment was his self-image as a permanent outsider. Painful in his youth, he tried hard to belong without success. Later he came to see his outsider status as having important advantages. He was in that sense a free man. As a writer he could say what he wanted to say, without worrying about who it might offend. He relished attacking the “establishment” and its acolytes, but extended his range of targets to anyone whom he felt exercised undue influence over others. Maintaining this posture required a spirit that lacked generosity. He was outside by choice now, and developed a sort of contempt for insiders. This gave him his freedom. Insiders are not free: they have to bow to their institutions and defend their absurdities. Or so Malcom thought. As applied to the Church, Malcom could not see himself accepting a set of doctrines that were above criticism or deferring to churchmen who were, in his estimation, just party men like all the others. The extreme patriotism after the war ended turned him off for similar reasons. You would never find Malcom Muggeridge waving a flag or a pom-pom. But his independence came at the price of arrogance, to the point where, after his acceptance of the Christian faith, he could no longer stand to watch himself on television, deploring this “terrible man” with a “certain arrogance about myself” and “completely lacking in humility”.

Malcom’s exceptional intelligence, energy, and productivity was driven by a force he didn’t understand.  The sheer volume impresses – books, plays, documentaries, interviews, hundreds of articles. He interviewed everyone from Churchill to MacArthur to Stalin’s daughter. His literary circles included all the men of letters of his time, being closest to George Orwell. He described his friend Graham Greene as a “saint who is trying unsuccessfully to be a sinner”; Hilaire Belloc as “not at all a serene man” nursing decades old grievances, and of whom, “having written about religion all of his life, there seemed to be very little in him”; and of Evelyn Waugh he said “I have formed the impression that he does not like me”, which was evidently true, although in fairness Waugh was a misanthrope who didn’t like anybody. Apart from Chesterton, whom he admired, the English Catholic literati did not impress Malcom as men whose Catholicism had changed them for the better. They left him curious but uninspired.

Behind the scenes of this busy public life was a titanic internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Even as Malcom gave in to the flesh, he would not surrender his mind. He began to see with increasing clarity how the ethos of liberalism had poisoned his own life, making himself and his loved ones miserable. What was previously a slow awakening became a torrent of awareness. He decried the comfortable materialism of his circumstances and longed for poverty and asceticism, for “the simple life”. He saw the rise of sexual promiscuity (with the implied dismissal of marriage), contraception, abortion, and euthanasia as signs of a decaying civilization with a Freudian death wish. He understood that the decline of Christian faith and respect for the Church was the source of these evils. He professed these insights publicly even as he continued to live according to his old habits.

Malcom plunged himself into research about this Jesus, this Man who haunted him all of his life and wouldn’t leave him any peace. The painful alienation and longing for God expressed in St. Augustine’s “Confessions” resonated with him acutely. He recalled with amazement the serene faith of the peasants he encountered in churches behind the iron curtain. He traveled to Lourdes and Palestine and was inspired by the faith of the Christian pilgrims, mostly of humble origins. He befriended a holy priest who ministered to the severely disabled. Finally, he sought out Mother Teresa, bewildered at this woman who accomplished so much with so little, who didn’t shrink from loving the unlovable, or touching the untouchable, and not for an idea or a set of abstract social principles, but for the love of a Person. The publicity-shy nun permitted him to make a television documentary about the works of her Missionaries of Charity, and to write a book about her – “Something Beautiful for God” – bringing her then obscure work to the attention of the world. Still unable to grasp Christ directly, Malcom was permitted to see Him through the life of a genuine saint, and in the faces of the world’s forgotten ones.

And then, in the twilight of his life, the old familiar pain of being an outsider looking in returned to him. He wanted what these Christians had, Who these Christians had, but didn’t know how to possess Him. He wanted to be counted among them, but still couldn’t bend the knee.

Malcom spent the remainder of his career defending and promoting a Christian worldview at every opportunity. Yet he remained apart. Malcom’s difficulties with the Catholic Church were a surprising combination of two things: 1) He was shocked and disappointed at the changes in the Church that seemed to have resulted from the Second Vatican Council. He saw religious life collapsing everywhere and moral teachings abandoned. 2) He was still a theological skeptic himself. Despite the post-conciliar liberalism that had no regard for doctrine, he was an honest man and would not join the Church if he didn’t accept its dogma. It’s not clear that he connected theological orthodoxy or liturgy with the moral precepts that concerned him. Nor is it clear that he worked very hard at theological understanding. This biographer suggests that Malcom was bored by theology. Although a reluctant moralist, he was fundamentally a poetic soul who seemed content with a mystical approach to the person of Jesus Christ.

Despite his distance from the Church, he began to call himself a Christian and tried to live like one. He established a daily prayer regimen. He gave up his womanizing, and further still, his drinking and smoking. He ate sparsely and became a vegetarian. He repaired his marriage to Kitty and tried to make things up to her. Their marriage became something beautiful and attractive, a hard-won prize. Their final years were spent in love, enjoying one another’s company and the company of friends, often reading the Pslams aloud to each other. Kitty would later write: “It is inevitable that in the course of time trouble and strife between man and wife should occur. This is for the most part due to our human vanity and egotism; but these differences can be overcome, and every reconciliation strengthens the bond of love.”

At long last, Malcom and Kitty received a letter from a respected priest and friend. In between formalities, the letter contained only one substantive line: “It is time.” Now 79 and 78 years old, respectively, this was all they needed. Malcom and Kitty Muggeridge formally entered the Catholic Church in November of 1982, finally at home and at peace. In July of 1990, Malcom suffered a crippling stroke. The state of his soul as a Christian penitent is manifest in the words he shouted that first night in the hospital: “Father, forgive me! Father, forgive me!” He died from complications four months later.

When you need to “get out of Dodge”

We recently made some changes in our family vehicles, trading in our 12 passenger van for a Dodge Grand Caravan; trading in the GMC Canyon for a Ford Taurus for the older children to drive at college; and purchasing a Chevrolet Suburban to replace the big van and serve as my work vehicle.

Due to the Suburban’s many excellent features (8 passengers, 4WD, adequate storage, smooth handling, 31 gallon fuel tank, etc.) I have referred to it several times as our “get out of Dodge vehicle” should we ever need to flee in the middle of the night as refugees in the direction of, say, Modoc County in mid-winter during a blizzard. Everyone would fit, including some food and clothing and maybe even a fiddle or two.

My dear wife, who speaks excellent English but is still unfamiliar with some English idioms, thought I meant “get out of the Dodge Grand Caravan” when I referred to our “get out of Dodge vehicle” … until an associate of hers at the pharmacy explained the saying’s hazy origin with Dodge City, Kansas and its legendary assistant marshal, Wyatt Earp.

The old Durham Cemetery

The town of Durham, California, was founded by Robert W. Durham of Virginia, who inherited 240 acres of Rancho Esquon from his business partner, Samuel Neal. The town was planned by Robert Durham and his nephew, William W. Durham, in 1870 when the railroad came through, as a transportation and supply center for local farming operations. The Durham family and the town’s early pioneers are buried in an old cemetery just a few miles outside of town. I lived about a mile away from the cemetery in my boyhood and remember the place as being overgrown, neglected, and abandoned. According to a group of concerned citizens who restored the cemetery:

“In 1978, the defunct Christian Service Society deeded the cemetery to a private family. Over the years, weeds, brush and huge bushes of poison oak were rampant throughout the gravesites, and it became impossible for families to place flowers or visit the final resting place of their loved ones. When building materials appeared on top of the gravesites, the community of Durham became outraged. Residents banded together in a joint effort to protect and defend this sacred and historic site. In 1994, after many years of conflict and legal proceedings, the Butte County Board of Supervisors initiated eminent domain proceedings and subsequently approved an agreement designating the newly formed ‘Durham Cemetery Preservation Association, Inc.’ as caretakers. The non-profit Association was given the responsibility for restoration, repair and maintenance of the cemetery.

The monumental task of cleaning up years of neglect and disrepair was started immediately. The cleanup has revealed beautiful marble and granite grave markers which have not seen the light of day for decades. Other stones were repaired, and families contributed toward obtaining new stones for those missing or destroyed. Records of burials at Durham Cemetery had long since disappeared, so research was conducted to document evidence of those buried there.”

I had about 30 minutes to kill this afternoon and stopped by the old cemetery to take a few photographs. The place is now properly cared for and is obviously being used again by local families. The large monuments of the Durham family are the most most prominent graves in the cemetery, as they should be. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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Vallejo and the Four Flags

VallejoFourFlagsBookI’m almost done reading this fine little book out loud to the children. We’ve been covering about two chapters a night for the past week. Californians should know their history, and this is a good place to start. General Vallejo’s critical influence in the founding of our state is often overlooked. Like Chico’s John Bidwell, he was genuinely a man of honor and decency. We Californians can be proud of his legacy.

Among his many notable contributions, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo founded three cities, named more than twenty counties, provided a vast amount of information for Bancroft’s seven volume “History of California”, and was a delegate to California’s constitutional convention. He has many living descendants who have remained in California and who continue the family tradition of service to the people of this state. Vallejo’s family home in Sonoma, Lachryma Montis (latin for “tear of the mountain”, which refers to an Indian legend), was donated to the state of California on the condition that the Bear Flag never be raised over the land. You see, Vallejo was rudely taken prisoner by yankee ruffians who raised the first “bear flag” and declared California an independent republic. (This independent nation status lasted 26 days.) The women of the family never forgot the indignity.

Chasing Small Towns

When I was about 9 years old, I used to study a topographical map of California hanging on the wall of my grandfather’s den – one of those plastic maps with bumps and valleys. On that map I noticed a little town named “Mulberry” between Chico and Durham, supposedly located on a route we traveled frequently. I asked my mother and grandmother, on separate occasions, to take me there. We looked for it, but there were no signs of a town or anything else with the “Mulberry” name in that locale. For some reason this puzzled me greatly. My mother encouraged me to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking if any readers knew about the place.

What followed was astounding. The newspaper published my short letter, not realizing at the time that I was just 9 years old. Scores of long-time area residents responded with memories, anecdotes and photographs of the forgotten old Mulberry railroad station and the community that grew up around it. The newspaper devoted several full pages to these letters and pictures over the next few weeks. After this amazing outpouring of historical memory, my mother wrote a letter to the newspaper thanking them, and all those who contributed to the series, revealing that the original letter writer was her young son. Shortly thereafter the newspaper published a sentimental editorial lauding the power of childhood curiosity and supportive parents.

Thus began my lifelong fascination with small towns and their hidden stories. Like so many small towns – especially here in the West – Mulberry thrived for a short time and then faded away. Why? I began to pour over maps and found other places like this. Granny was often available to help me chase after these places.

On one of these maps I located Pulga, a little town on the Feather River, and Granny took me there. The road to Pulga was a narrow, winding, unpaved mountain road that eventually descended into the canyon and stopped at cluster of run down buildings and shacks. There was a “store” that also served as a post office and everything else, but it was closed. I suspect it was also someone’s home. A few dwellings could be seen in the surrounding hills, but they looked scary to me. If it weren’t for the clotheslines, you wouldn’t think they were inhabited. Not a single person was in sight. I wondered who lived here now … and who lived here 80 years ago? What did they do? How did they live? What was it about a railway station on the river that attracted settlers in the first place? Are the folks here now related to the original families? Why did this place feel so … strange? Like we were being watched?

Granny and I walked down to the river and had a picnic lunch. She had brought some coffee with her, but it was cold. She drank it anyway. Looking back I realize how kind she was to me, cheerfully indulging me as I worked myself up over inventing a new soft drink that would make us all rich – cold, sweetened, carbonated coffee! After this excursion, we both agreed that we had an uneasy feeling in that place …

Once, I asked Granny to take me to a town called Dingville. “Downtown” Dingville consisted of one small store and an unappealing coffee shop. We stopped in for lunch – the only customers, probably the only customers they had all week. I’ll never forget the waiter, an unshaven man in a dirty white t-shirt who so shamelessly flirted with Granny (she was widowed by then) that she was visibly shaken. But we laughed about it all the way home.

Not too far from here is the little town of Nelson, with a population of less than 100. It has one store and the residents look none too friendly. What is strange about this tiny little place is that it has a huge, beautiful park! How did that happen? Come to find out, Nelson was once a thriving settlement of 2,500 souls. On the north side of town was the vice district: saloons, brothels, gambling dens. As the story goes, the town was almost completely destroyed by fire. It is believed that Nelson’s battalion of “church ladies” deliberately set fire to the saloons. The fire unexpectedly spread to the rest of the town and destroyed the place. Nelson never recovered.

Places matter. What happens in a place tends to stay with it, somehow, entering the ground and the walls and the air – whether good or evil. The protagonists in a great spiritual war fight over territory. A priest once celebrated Mass for us in our living room. Before leaving he told us: “The angels never leave a place where holy Mass has been said”.  When a priest blesses a home or building, if he is thorough, he will even sprinkle holy water in the closets and hidden nooks and crannies.

Small towns are interesting because people are interesting, and in a small town the people matter. I don’t romanticize them. Most small towns are not Mayberry. Some of these towns are crawling with ghosts, some are haunted by an evil past, some are plagued with old grudges and feuds, and some are refuges for scoundrels of all kinds. Others are healthy and happy places, God-fearing places, wholesome and friendly places, and it’s fun to try and find these little gems. But most are a mixture of things, and that mix is unique in every town.

Take Graysville, Tennessee, home to a settlement of Melungeons, an Appalachian people thought to be of mixed European, Indian and African ancestry. Their story is utterly fascinating, and whatever you might say about them, there is no place like Graysville anywhere else on this earth. I could read about such places for days on end.

To this very day, I continue to chase small towns. Yesterday I took the kids on a little excursion to the ridge community of Cohasset, one of many remote California mountain settlements that could easily be mistaken for a hamlet in Appalachia. Like the “hollers” back east, there is only one road in and out of the place. The history of the ridge is volatile and tragic and triumphant – its best and worst days seemingly in the past. Today Cohasset has a somewhat negative reputation in the valley, mainly due to an unsavory element that makes the news from time to time, but also because it is visibly quite poor. Recently, I asked a fellow who lives in Cohasset about his neighbors. Who lives up there? He said the ridge is a haven for the “far left” and the “far right” and not much in between. Perhaps so, but it’s a beautiful ridge with an established community that is proud of its heritage.