Explaining Our Neck of the Woods to the World BeyondJan 11th, 2013 | By Chris Bateman | Category: Bateman's Blog
It has come to my attention that a few readers of this blog may live in the netherworld beyond the Tuolumne and Calaveras county lines, and thus have no context in which to put the tales that unfold here.
Which is like reading stories of orcs, ents, trolls and hobbits without knowing anything of the culture and geography of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. And what would more than a dozen Faulkner novels and stories of the Deep South be without Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha County?
Yes, Middle Earth and Yoknapatawpha – which is even harder to spell than Tuolumne – are fictional, but we here in the Mother Lode come close.
Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are part of Republican California, a little-known neck of the political woods that is about as likely as Democratic Utah, which I’m not sure exists.
The California known to the rest of the nation outlaws plastic bags, funds sex-change operations for inmates, mandates earth-tone houses in upscale neighborhoods, drools over electric cars and sends Governor Moonbeam to Sacramento.
We in the Sierra foothills drink ditch water, drive pickup trucks, hang laundry on lines, buy guns, let our dogs run free and elect a congressman who voted to plunge off the Fiscal Cliff rather than compromise with the dreaded Dems. Our lawns go unmowed, and rusting cars clutter our yards. We want to get out of not only the UN, but – when plans to split the state occasionally emerge – California. You can buy ammo, while it lasts, at a few of our bars.
Some of us are ornery, rude and just to the right of Attila. Others believe in Big Foot, UFOs and the Democratic Party. We have a lot of bars, a lot of churches, many true believers at each, and some at both.
But we aren’t some outtake from “Deliverance” or “The Heat of the Night.” Folks are friendly here. If the guy down the street stubs his toe, we’ll organize a benefit dinner. In fact, we throw so many fund-raising feeds that an enterprising diner with a tolerance for spaghetti and rubber chicken could survive years eating for charity.
We have theaters, poetry readings and writers’ workshops. The local junior college’s debate team has a better record than its hoops squad. Our high schools send kids to Cal, Stanford and, once in a while, the Ivy League. But, yeah, a few grads wind up in jail.
At Christmas, we gather in downtown Sonora to sing carols and eat beans cooked up by a beloved, bandana-wearing character named Mut. Visitors are welcome to join us and often do: Hundreds of thousands migrate here each year, spending hundreds of millions while getting lost on our dirt roads and wondering where their Internet and cell service went.
Ranching, logging and mining were once cornerstones of our economy. Fortune-seekers still dip pans into our creeks when the economy takes a particularly bad turn and logging rasps back to life when it takes a particularly good one. Yes, we do dress up like cowboys for May’s Mother Lode Roundup Parade in Sonora, but – as the song goes – most of us just found the hats.
The retail and service industries (read Wal-Mart, McDonalds and their strip-mall ilk) now power foothill communities founded by rough-and-tumble prospectors in the Days of ’49.
Speaking of the Days of ’49, we in the foothills are all about that age or older. I’m 66, right in the middle of our new retirement community demographic. For you readers from afar, we graying hill folk could be a fountain of perceived youth: Come up here to Geezerville and you’ll at least feel much younger.
The Mother Lode periodically makes the national news, but it’s usually for forest fires or sensational murders. But occasionally it’s for something stupid – like when a sheriff’s lieutenant shoots himself in the foot while showing a reporter one of the department’s new sidearms. Or when the local narcs bust a Columbia couple for, yep, snorting toad slime.
We’ve also made the movies, scores of them. “High Noon” was filmed here, as was “Back to the Future 3.” We were also Hooterville (or at least Hooterville’s train station) for TV’s “Petticoat Junction.”
A few locals take exception to any comparison to the 1960s show, reckoning that we’re now far more sophisticated than Billie Jo, Betty Jo, Bobbie Jo, Uncle Joe and the rest of Hooterville’s good-natured yokels.
But I’ll let you readers decide that one.
Chris Bateman, 66, is a longtime journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, comment below.