My son and I sit on a boulder in the Yuba River when he asks if the river looked this way a hundred years ago. Since I have been visiting this same place for the last forty-five summers and with the exception of a new wash of gravel or a fallen tree that changes the depth of a hole, I tell him that the river will remain the same. Probably.
The river’s granite boulders and jade waters teach firsthand how water takes the path of least resistance. In fact, this small radius of my childhood, Highway 49 running past Nevada City over the south fork and up a dirt road, looks from a dusty car window as it always has—a red earth, scrub brush landscape that curves away from pressures of modern life even as it pulls the imagination back to gold miners and a hundred years later to the rednecks, retirees, and back-to-the-land types.
What’s different today is that when I roll down the window a sirocco of marijuana saturates the car—the new smell just beyond the road that will become the scratch-and-sniff memory for my children’s recollection of this place.
When I was a kid, summer’s first swim began with my nose skimming the water’s surface in an effort to rediscover that familiar scent of river, rock, dragonfly—whatever it was that brewed Gold Country smell. My father, for whom “odors” were of paramount importance, a gateway to memory and feelings, taught me to register the smells of Highway 49. He would hang his head out the car window, shouting into hot wind, “Can you smell it?” For a New Jersey transplant by way of Greenwich Village and Berkeley, California was a land of Lotus Eaters. He never could get over the place and the smell of (what was it?) witch hazel, cedar, manzanita—it drove him wild.
Yes, I could smell it, though we could never name the intoxicating elixir of plants, animals, and dirt, for we were East Coast in origin, summer visitors and hedonists, not scientists. We would leave the diagnostics to people like Gary Snyder who lived year round on the ridge and actually studied the super biodiversity of California in general and this watershed in particular. My father was a romantic and so to smell and to feel, void of precise nomenclature, were enough—were everything.
Perhaps it was his sense of romance that brought my father to purchase eight and a half acres and a cabin on the Middle Fork. Its scrap-wood walls and buddy-taped electrical wires called to his inner yearning for Walden. He was an English teacher, so this wasn’t just a cabin; it was a sanctuary in the way of Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House or Jack London’s Wolf House—a place to slow if not stop time, a place to shelter his kids from the crap of the world. There was no TV, no phone, and for the first two decades, no toilet or hot water. It was a place to play ping pong, eat fudgesicles. It was a place to swim in the clear, moving water that taught me most of what I know about force and abeyance, and set my life’s course so that it feels sacrilegious to mention it in passing. It was a place to preserve what was best in ourselves through reading, watching, and talking under the stars.
In 1972, people were doing this sort of thing. We weren’t the only people who had copies of Whole Earth Catalogue and Shelter magazine, which reprinted today can be found on any earthy boutique shelf in Nevada City. Perhaps sparked by his particular desires to escape the harangue of Berkeley politics and soothe his marriage, he was fueled too by the larger Californian and American consciousness to get back to the land—or get back to something. As a kid, I saw this idea on the cover of The Band album, in a group of musicians who looked as if they had crawled out of a mine shaft in patina leather. What were they digging for? I saw it in the films like Easy Rider and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue—individuals leaving home, setting up watering holes in the middle of the desert, always with dirt-encrusted beards. I heard it in Joni Mitchell’s directive to “get back to the Garden.” And so the Gold Country, like places of the imagination across time, became an El Dorado for those traveling from something to something, and ultimately looking for a return to Eden, even as they looked forward to the precipice of enterprise and fortune.
For a while, the cabin became a halfway station for such dreamers. One Thanksgiving, a family friend, Bob O’Garbage, as we lovingly called him, rolled up from Virginia in a 1954 pearl-gray Mercedes with his family; he left two years later wearing nothing but a pair of lederhosen and his long beard, and carrying a staff. Bob worked sporadically at the mill; his wife, Blanch, would bathe the kids in a horse trough; and we all had great times together on the weekend. During this time, two parcels of land on either side of the cabin were purchased—one by a Southern California contractor who was rumored to be a Republican and the other by his handsome Paul Bunyan nephew who built a Shwartzwaldian zendo in homage to Yogananda. Both of these men loved the land, raised their families, and earned legal livings. Their eventual schism has always stood vaguely iconic of the larger cultural splits that infuse menacing energy into the region: rednecks vs. hippies, meth heads vs. pot heads, retirees vs. entrepreneurs, and perhaps now a subdivision: certain types of growers vs. other types of growers.
In the eighties, we rented out the cabin to a parade of seekers: a roadie for Supertramp and a less savory family who made a lab of the kitchen with dusty jars of thick mystery and pot galore. We knew they were not part of the Edenic dream when their youngest, a forest troll of about four years old, came running out of the cabin as we rolled up, and yelled, “Dad, fucking Mohan’s here!” This in contrast to our gentlest renter, Carl, with spritely laugh and guitar, who loved the land, planted a vegetable garden, and wrote a song called Hot Shit in Mexico (a local favorite at the time), and whose refrain “Hot shit in Mexico, paraquot shit in Mexico” reminds us where California’s dope used to come from and why there is a market for organic product.
All of the cabin dwellers smoked their share of marijuana. With the exception of Carl, who later set up a teepee on our land and may have had a single plant for his own personal use, none of them were growers. Now, however, everybody’s growing it. Goat people with dreads coiled around their heads, wearing loin cloths, smoking joints the size of corn cobs with names like Star Compost are doing it, and people like our neighbors, who tired of the excess and pace of the Bay Area are doing it. We couldn’t ask for better weed-growing neighbors: educated, ethical, and organic. They are kind people with refined interests who do not smoke their product.
Perhaps some who come to the Gold Country today to live share that dream of living off the land, escaping the rat race, and absorbing the wisdom of the river like Siddhartha. But people have always come here to make money mining gold, logging trees, and now growing pot. And so the question arises: What is California dreaming? Are these pursuits a means to an end? Is gold still and always the dream? Or, is the work itself the dream: the mining, the logging, the growing? Just months ago, the parcel belonging to the Republican uncle was sold to an investor who employs a property manager and farmer. The wooden fence that once corralled a horse is now six feet tall and possibly electrical. We met the hired farmer—a county native—yesterday, the nicest guy who’s traveled the world only to come home. I wonder if his California dream is growing marijuana for somebody else or if he is still searching.
With both properties on each side of our cabin owned by growers, my summer cabin is the cream filling in a cannabis Oreo. I am caught between accepting this latest gold rush economy as the antidote for a historically poor area and feeling protective of the land. Not all growers are as ideal as my neighbors; many use harmful fertilizers, leave the land worse for wear, and lure cartel types to the area. All growers siphon from the watershed, and most don’t pay taxes on their crops. But I am also protective of a time when people came here to get back to the land and not for the sake of profit, when people believed we had strayed from Eden but ultimately belonged to it. Of course, these are sentimental notions from a summer visitor who has never had to earn a living in an area that offers few options. And, California dreams are so close to California schemes it is often difficult to tell which is which.
Today on the rock, my son asks if the river looked the same a thousand years ago, and this is where I am stumped. That’s a long time for anything to endure, let alone remain unaltered; but if anything around here will remain, I hope it will be the river and that its water will not become the next form of gold, though of course it already is. I think of how just yesterday at the Nevada City library we learned who might have been the first people here. When we touched the computer display, a song of the Nisenan tribe came out of the kiosk, causing me to wonder why it took me forty-five years to learn this name. Most of the history of this tribe is unknown and misunderstood by those who live near and on their tribal land. The stories of recent, successful financial enterprise have masked their past, just as the odor of weed now covers what I recently learned is a major herbal ingredient in the air of my childhood: mountain misery.
Though my own fourth-grade education favored constructing sugar-cube missions over studying California Indians, I learned a potent lesson in California history by visiting Malakoff Diggins, now a state historic park in Nevada City that preserves California’s largest hydraulic mining site. The eerie lunar landscape—hills blasted bare as skin by massive water hoses between 1853 and 1884—told me of a one-sided relationship between the miner and his environment. The nearby settlement, more of a ghost town than an historical site, appeared to have been left in a hurry or simply wandered off from. In the 1970s, you could simply press your nose against the window and peak over the pharmacy bottles to spy a woman’s shoe in the middle of the silty floor, sitting there as if she couldn’t find it but walked out the door just the same. You could wander into a leaning barn and see, or perhaps imagine, a noose swinging from the rafter, not unlike the make-shift gallows some miles up the North Fork, which hosted the only female hanging in California—Juanita—in 1851. At least the gallows had a crude plaque bearing meager details that belie a story of racism and sexism made obvious with hindsight.
But Malakoff Diggins was just another place, leaving me to wonder what we Californians make of our own history. Perhaps our history is too recent, too dredged in profit rather than ideals to have warranted in the 1970s, a mere 125 years from the Gold Rush, a cordon rope, a plaque, or tour guide with a badge. Perhaps California, like a child, did not have the perspective that comes with a more critical contextual awareness to take itself seriously enough to see itself as a historical subject.
So too, it has taken me a good chunk of my life to inaccurately, incompletely define the smell of this country, partly because of my own ignorance but also because the smell of the Gold Country isn’t only about plants and animals; it’s about the residue of the human endeavor that is palpable in the great piles of mossy boulders that Chinese miners pulled from the Yuba River that now sit on the roadside without ceremony or documentation. The smell is edible apple trees in the orchard, planted an unknowable number of years before my family bought the land, and which survive without irrigation or pruning. The smell is audible in the hush of rapids, momentarily drowned out by the motorcycle shifting into high gear on Highway 49. I suspect every California region from the county of Jefferson to the Imperial Valley provides a synesthesia of evidence to classify particular landscapes, histories, and endeavors, but I wonder if this Gold Country smell isn’t somehow more potent than it is in other areas. I wonder if the heart-cleaving beauty of the area coupled with a desperate drive to unearth a living hasn’t made love of this place more hard won. If California is, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “like the rest of America, only more so,” then perhaps the Gold Country is like the rest of California only more so—the unofficial capital of what the state is about—the always changing dreams, which following complicated labor, birth the next reality.
But odor is not a competition. California doesn’t need to compete with itself to define its character. The state is too diverse to characteristically identify with science or fiction; likewise, it remains impossible to name the smell of the Gold Country. So, I am not surprised when I ask my son as we sit on the rock what he thinks he smells and he says he doesn’t know. I instantly flash on a Gary Snyder poem that intimidated me with his authoritative chronology of the Malakoff Diggins area, citing millions and millions of years of evolution. That poem, “What Happened Here Before,” is one that still appeals to me for its allegiance to defining place using the names of plants and animals while imagining the erstwhile lives of miners, Indians, tax assessors, and a prophetic blue jay who screeches in response to the question of who we are: “We shall see / Who knows / How to be.”
The computerized kiosk at the Nevada City library emitted a Nisenan song, but it cannot produce the smell of the Gold Country, although I recently came across liquid soap in that aforementioned earthy boutique bearing the name Yuba. Its admirable but inadequate attempt to capture the river’s essence displays that no amount of technology will allow one to push a button and smell from the car window those first hits of red earth, stonefly, and mountain misery—odors that are now absorbed into the marijuana growing just feet from Highway 49.
I wonder what the Highway 49 smell will be when my children are grown, if they will bring their own kids here in the summer. I wonder if they will keep the TV, phone, computer, and other technology out of the cabin as we have done in hopes that without these distractions we can read, play ping pong, and eat fudgesicles. What will be the new industry of their time? The one that takes the path of least resistance. What will be the latest technological distraction? Will they have the inclination or grit to tell their kids to turn it off, crawl into bed, and inhale that Gold Country scent that travels through the screen window, the one we can never name that leads them to dreams of the river?
All photographs by Conny Heinrich.
Caitlin Mohan is an educator and writer living in West Marin. She is currently working on a collection of essays and can be found every summer swimming in the rapids of the Yuba River.