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Notes On This Foothills Life

On October 20, 2010, in Lifestyle, by Meghan
14

I will move away from the Sierra Nevada foothills next week, after two years of residence. I have not had the shiniest of experiences here, and I await with ample anticipation of moving right along. Then again, a few bright, beautiful lights have populated my view-scape over these years, and those are real tough to leave. Part of me wishes that I could get the fork out of here even faster than the passage of time will allow. The other part of me wishes that, in the remaining moments, I am able open my eyes wide so that I may remember this life.

No doubt, this place is weird. If California is like an average children’s playgroup, then Mariposa County is like the awkward child down the street that doesn’t fit in. Quirky. Bizarre. Some days, like an alternate version of reality. And, still, wonderful.

The Sierra Nevada's foothills are laced with miner's trails, markers of the region's vibrant history (June, 2010).

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There’s an ancient man who lives down the street and who sits in a law chair all day, unmoving. I come and go- so does the rest of the world- while he sits. About him, I wonder, does he get up to eat? Lie down when he tires? Jesus, is he even alive? My worries about his mortality are tempered by the fact that, now and then, he changes his flannel shirt. And, every morning, he proves that being old does not mean unable, by making the old-man shuffle to the post office and back. We’ve all seen that walk, the one powered by atrophied hip flexors and highlighted by dainty foot placements to ward off a hip-breaking fall.

The old man and I share the road to the post office a few times each week. When we cross paths, I greet him with an exuberant hello. I comment about the weather, the red dust hanging in the summer air, the deer footprints on the path, or the poison oak that juts into the roadway. He mostly replies with a silent stare, his lower lip hanging from a slackened jaw. Sometimes, even, a line of white saliva dangles from his lower lip. In this, he does not convey the spite that other elderly folks have accumulated through their long lives. It seems that he doesn’t have many words left to share with others.

Once in a while, he replies with a quiet grunt, a raised hand, or the hint of a grin as the corners of his mouth turn barely up, what must be grand efforts on his part. Our exchanges, if you can call them that, are my morning highlights. I wander off wondering what he thinks of them.

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Proudly behind the times, this little corner of the world is. Though lost into mainstream obscurity, I’m happy to report that the mullet lives on here. Decorating the foothills-sides are dude mullets, gal mullets, permed mullets, french-braided mullets, spiky mullets, and one horribly dreaded mullet.

Living on, too, are the El Camino, using wire coat hangers as car radio antennae, the ethic of driving one’s three-wheeler (Yes, I do mean the three-wheeler, those vehicles retired from everywhere else but here for their tendencies to tip over and maim their occupants.) to the gas station for a six-pack, and the faith that, if a person leaves their washing machine in the back of their back five, it will eventually disappear.

Being behind the times probably helps explain why almost everyone is friendly to an extreme unknown in most corners of our society today. During a snowstorm last winter, I flatted a tire on my truck at the summit of a local pass. I came to rest perpendicular to the flow of traffic, unable to move. A very kind and total stranger exposed himself to both nasty weather and true danger to help push my car safely off the road and change my tire. When I thanked him across a snow-soaked and dirty handshake, his humble response was, “It’s what we do here.” Indeed, this is how things are done here.

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Sarah Priest and her relatives haunt the foothills (photo from http://www.indiancountrytoday.com/yourict/92061434.html?img=2&mg=t).

Sarah Priest was born in 1855, according to her gravestone, which lies in her nearby namesake cemetery. A Native American of disputable origin, she was born into a tenuous local world that had been turned upside down by the 1849 gold rush. White, Euro-American men and a few women came to California in greedy, exploiting throngs with simple goals: get rich and get rich fast mining gold and, soon after, silver.

In some areas of the Sierra Nevada, memorable altercations with violent results took place between the original Native American occupants and pushy white miners. In other areas, Native American tribes welcomed them, even intermarrying the populations. Such is the case of Sarah Priest’s tribe, and she eventually wedded a white guy named Josiah Priest. Together they bore a huge quantity of children who went on to populate the very same hill that my home stands on today.

Sarah lived to be really old, 85 years, I believe, probably seeing a lot in her time on this great big, changing earth. I’ve run past her cemetery, her gravestone, and the markers of maybe 70 or 80 members of her family probably five dozen times in the last few years. Sometimes, as I go by, I wonder what she thought of this place and the changes that she and her tribe endured. Other times, I feel a shadow, not a frightening one, but the shiver-y sense that Sarah might still be watching over these foothills.

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14 Responses to “Notes On This Foothills Life”

  1. Ewa says:

    Indeed a strange place. I pass places like that on the way to the mountains, rarely stopping, not even looking much. Like the old man you write about they don’t seem to move much with the changing times. There is something reassuring about their stability but at least for me, these are not the places I would like to live.
    Curious where you will move to.

    • Meghan says:

      Ewa, like others, I probably thrive best when my world is a healthy mix of stability and new “stuff.” Too much of either and I get all wither-y. Thanks for your comment!

  2. SteveQ says:

    Meghan, this may be the best thing you’ve written. Thanks!

    I continue to wrestle with my neighborhood, with becoming the old man of the block (no drool yet, but getting there), with becoming the last one whose first language is English, with the old-fashioned notions that you shovel the driveways of those who can’t do it themselves any more and that hanging out laundry to dry isn’t an eyesore… maybe I’ve got a post started here.

    • Meghan says:

      Steve, that does sound like a great post, write it! Times change, and so must we. But I think our world needs people like you who aren’t afraid to hang your underwear out to dry to keep us all rooted. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Leslie says:

    Your Sierra backyard is beautiful, too. Frozen in time, mullets and all, but so beautiful!! I almost enjoyed my taste of the backroads of Mariposa just as much as I did Yosemite!! Happy trails and good luck in future crooked adventures.

  4. JeffO says:

    “Friendly to an extreme unknown” reminds me of the time I was driving home from work in the rain one summer in a terrible neighborhood. Murders were common. Gang-bangers sped in convoys down streets at twice the speed limit escorting stolen cars. Gunshots sound out at any hour of the day or night as I sit outside the factory where I worked eating dinner or lunch.
    I was the outsider. He was the tough guy who lived there. His car was broken down. I got out of my car, getting soaked in the rain, and asked if I could help him. Maybe he had an arrest record? But this night he was alone – in a neighborhood where you best not be. So I gave him a ride home. A white guy in a tough black neighborhood helping a black guy. It was odd, and I wasn’t sure he would accept my help, but then he did.

    • Meghan says:

      A labor of good citizenry: extending a helping hand when you, yourself, already seem a little extended. I like your story, JeffO!

  5. Sean says:

    Excellent post, Meghan! One thing I LOVE about Central OR is that mullets, dreads, shaved heads (not skinheads, just shaved), faux hawks, and pretty much any and all other types of hair-do’s all live together in an orderly manner. This makes for an extremely lively letters to the editor section of the Nugget News.

    Balance in one’s life is a good thing. It helps keep us from becoming an extremist is any one thing.

    I look forward to visiting you in your new home. Maybe if I plan it right, I can help Bryon move his crap in again. Woo…wee…wouldn’t that be fun?

    • Meghan says:

      Sean, I, too, lurve the mullet. And, thank you for reminding me of the faux hawk, as I don’t see those around here. I can’t wait for you to come out and visit!

  6. Heather says:

    This post was passed along to me via a mutual friend. I grew up in that quirky place (Ponderosa Basin) and you captured it quite well. I cried, I was laughing so hard. And, somehow, you managed to make me feel a little pride in a place that I couldn’t wait to graduate and get away from. Thank you. Also, in case you miss the Mariposa drama once you move away, the Mariposa Gazette is online. I read it every week and I haven’t lived there for 15 years.

    • Meghan says:

      Heather, I’m SO glad that, as a person who grew up and was framed by her experiences here, you enjoyed this post. Lest there be a lick of doubt, I possess deep admiration and respect for these people and the land. All of it has made me a better person, and all of it will color my future. Thanks for the comment, and the online Mariposa Gazette tip!

  7. toni says:

    I like Heather grew up in Mariposa and agree with her you did capture us quite well. Unlike Heather I tried to move away to a small town in Colorado but missed Mariposa so bad I moved back now we are starting another generation here at home our 5th generation to be exact (with the recent birth of our Grandson). I will stay here forever where I belong stuck back in the Dark ages as you city folks say here in my little world of saftey and peace where breaking down is never an issue cause there is always someone willing to help, where my kids can never get away with anything cause I know everyone and hear everything, and where my kids can walk the street in saftey not worrying about being shot. Thank you God for Mariposa home that I love.

    • Meghan says:

      Toni, as I commented to Heather, I breathe a huge sigh of relief to know that you enjoyed the post. You probably don’t know much about me, but I am far from a city person. In fact, the Midpines and Mariposa area is the most populated place I’ve lived in my grown-up years. I’m a lover of wilderness and rural places. It’s just that this wasn’t the right place for me. 🙂

      As I also said to Heather above, I have deep admiration for this place because of those traits you mentioned: safety, a sense of caring for complete strangers, a community that shares all. Thanks for your comment and take care of this good land.

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