Thanks to the windfall of some friends – the use of a summer home for a couple weeks – we spent the July 4th weekend getting a taste of gold rush country.
Copperopolis is a small town nestled in the Sierra foothills, just over two hours east of San Francisco. It is located in Calaveras County, made slightly famous by the tale of an unwitting frog, told by that uniquely American troublemaker and storyteller, Mark Twain. While Angel’s Camp is the only incorporated city, dozens of small towns are scattered throughout the rolling hills, some as small as Carson Hill with only 37 people. Steeped in the history of our westward expansion and entrepreneurial spirit, we connected with our new Californian roots.
The weekend was filled with such wonders as Natural Bridges, where a forest creek has cut through a ridge of limestone deposits creating watery subterranean caves. The first cavern is the most impressive, sporting a high ceiling crenelated with stalactites. Halfway through, there is a bend with an outcropping one can stand on and jump into a deeper section of the slowly flowing creek. The downstream end is the most magical, as one navigates around sheets of rain falling from the ceiling, fed from another creek above. I spent at least half an hour in an innertube with my legs crossed, pushing off the sides with my hands, crisscrossing the cavern. When one starts to get chilly, just crawl back out and lay on any number of large rocks that line the creek. One of the things I love most about California is her diverse geographical beauty, and Natural Bridges is one of the most striking places that I’ve seen in my year and a half here in the Bay Area, and it’s completely free. There’s a part of me that wants to hide this secret place, but instead I’ll just caution those who might feel inspired to treat all natural resources with respect and to Leave No Trace.
As if that wasn’t already a great way to spend a Saturday, we went from there to Ironstone Vineyards, where we joined a couple thousand revelers relaxing on the grass waiting for the sun to set. Once it was dark enough, the sky erupted above us in a star-spangled shower of fireworks. I have seen flashier individual explosions, with longer trails or intricate shapes, but I have never seen a choreography so well executed. The timing was flawless, taking the audience on a roller coaster of fiery joy. Every time we thought the show would end, there would be another volley of light over our heads.
Yesterday, the proper 4th of July, we stepped back 150 years into the wild wild west, wandering up and down the streets of Columbia. With mid-19th century storefronts and townspeople in historical dress, it felt like walking through Frontierland at DisneyWorld, only more authentic. There were watermelon and pie eating contests, gold panning stations, horse-drawn carriage rides, and Sarsaparilla flavored shaved ice. We watched more than a dozen kids try to climb two greased poles, which was more entertaining than any of us expected. Both collaborative and competitive, it was exciting to see different techniques being used. Some kids would wrap their hands with their shirts to wipe off the grease, others would throw dirt on the pole to provide traction. As one technique was shown to work, others would copy it. Since I could not climb a pole, greased or otherwise, every child had my respect.
Eventually it was time to leave, and we made our way back to Copperopolis, spending the evening drinking, grilling, lighting fireworks, and stargazing. Between stunning natural beauty, immersion in gold rush history, spectacular fireworks, and the making of new friends, it was the most truly American celebration of our Independence Day that I have ever experienced.