Our journey continues through the central valley of California. In this update, we hunt for gold, get stuck in Folsom Prison and come to the realization that a homemade scuba diving suit is probably not a good idea.
Monday, September 16th, 2019
Bakersfield, California, USA
There would be many “lasts” over the coming weeks. The last that happened this morning would be the final time I would wash my clothes in a sink. I was glad to be done with this one.
I stayed in my hotel room until around checkout time before I started heading north. Reno, Nevada was the next song place on my radar, but I had some sights along the way to see first.
David, the manager of the visitors center in Bakersfield, had asked a casual question while he helped me plan my route north. “Do you have any interest in Swedish culture?” My response to this query was anything but casual. He informed me that the city of Kingsburg was a Swedish enclave and I was eager to check it out.
Though I thought I was in a proper mindset to have a pleasant visit, nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle which is the Kingsburg water tower.
It is painted to look like a Swedish coffee pot, one below for reference.
The streets are lined with Swedish flags, murals, dala horses and viking carvings. It was enough to even make a non-Scandanavian say “Uff da.”
I met some nice people who unanimously directed me to visit the Svensk Butik (Swedish Gift Shop) on main street.
I met the owner, June and had a wonderful time chatting with her. She has owned this shop for around thirty years and her dedication and passion are evident. We shared traditions and talked about recipes.
There were lots of things in her store which I’d only ever seen for sale in Scandanavia. From food to utensils to decorations, she had it all.
Glögg! (a warm, festive drink)
Osthyvels! (the world’s best cheese slicer)
June actually grew up speaking Swedish in the home so she naturally left a Swedish signature on Annie’s top case.
I hope I get to come back someday for their Swedish festival in May. I left with a new cookie cutter for making pepparkakkor and a dala horse sticker for Annie’s rear fender. It’s a good thing I’m so limited on space, or I would have left with a lot more.
Further along, I stopped for some library time to do some writing. Keeping updated was starting to feel like a real slog. Being behind in my documentation of this journey always affects my attitude at large.
Perhaps the biggest issue is just how expansive this publication has become. In the early days, I used to be able to publish a post in 3-4 hours. Now, with all of the multimedia (and that I often feel like I’ve run out of words), a post generally represents about 12 work hours. It’s difficult to chisel out room for this in the schedule when there are so many other things that I want to do.
I found a free campsite near the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
It was going to be a chilly night, with the temperature around freezing. I was up around 5,000 ft. (1,500m), so that wasn’t too surprising.
Tuesday, September 17th
I broke camp with frigid fingers and reluctantly hit the road. I really should have been excited. Today I was going to get to visit Yosemite National Park for the first time.
The roads in and around the park were choked with traffic due to both congestion and construction. I spent more time this day idling than sight seeing. I eventually got a few pictures, but I didn’t stay very long.
The Yosemite Valley:
It really bothered me that I didn’t enjoy myself there. My bad attitude was becoming more of an impediment and I worked to diagnose why that was. I think it came down to a feeling of compunction, that I had to go see this place. By this point, the deeper desire for me was to finish off my quest. These side missions, while usually enjoyable, were just a distraction from that over-arching goal. Accordingly, I decided that I would be forgoing any future sight-seeing that was not directly related to my current quest. It was time to narrow my focus and finish strong.
Another thing coloring my attitude this day was that I lost the little dove which had been blessed by the pope that hung from my right mirror. I received this little keepsake from some dear people in Canada and it featured in my official photo for place 61 of 92, La Paloma, Uruguay. (La Paloma means “The Dove” in Spanish.)
The only silver lining of this was that I would now get some empirical data about whether my successful journey up to this point was driven entirely by papal-power.
I had a pleasant ride through some mountainous terrain before stopping to work at a library for a little bit.
I once again went back towards the base of the mountains to find a camping spot. I was trying to be selective, especially considering where we were in bear season. With winter looming, they would be eating everything they could find before hibernation. Speaking purely statistically, you are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a black bear. That said, very few people sleep in a tent all alone in the fall in the Sierra Nevada.
I was ready to set up my tent in what looked like a good area, but then I saw a large mound of bear droppings. I went a little further and found a different spot. I got set up, ate a little bit, then did the final step of pushing Annie a good distance away from my tent (since I had food in the trunk).
While walking back to the tent, I was chagrined to see another mound of bear droppings, this one even larger than the first. I decided not to move since I was already set up. Besides, I was almost certain that there were no falling coconuts in the area.
Wednesday, September 18th
My night was completely bear-free and I got a good, early start.
I rewarded myself with a gourmet breakfast at McDonalds in Angel’s Camp. In the parking lot a friendly guy in a pickup truck asked me where I was going. His follow up question was whether or not I was in a hurry. I responded that I sort of was.
“Well that’s too bad. If you had time I’d take you gold panning.”
Very suddenly, I was no longer in a hurry. 🙂 This was how I met my new friend Mike and his dog, Jack. Mike is a guide for gold panning adventures and he offered to show me the basics free of charge. I eagerly followed him to his “claim.”
Now let me say this: Some people have theorized that I have such wonderful experiences since I am such an amiable, friendly fellow. This concept might hold some merit, but this case is sort of an antithesis. I’d probably spoken just 4-5 sentences to Mike before he invited me to come along. This particular experience had a lot more to do with his personality than mine.
Mike’s claim was old-fashioned and simple. He prefers to go about his process the same way that prospectors have done it for centuries. He has found gold on his claim, but this day he was mainly panning some samples he’d dug up from other sites.
I absolutely peppered him with questions, as this was a completely new experience for me. The mixture of art and science in the process was really intriguing. With deft swishes and swirls, little chunks of the precious metal began to reveal themselves. It was exciting!
His particular claim has a tumultuous history. Stories of greed, murder, revenge and fortune kept me captivated.
I stayed way longer than I should have, but I have no regrets. This was an unforgettable experience and just what I needed. He even sent me with a little vile of some of the gold we collected. This will always be something I treasure.
Here is a link to his website. Tell him hello from me if you find yourself in the area.
This was a very timely experience for me. To the untrained eye, these big bags of dirt and rocks look worthless. But with patience and perception, something incredibly valuable can be obtained. Though my attitude was still wavering, I resolved to keep looking for the little specks of gold hidden in each difficult day.
Next on my agenda was Sacramento. There is nothing here which is specifically song related, but I had long been planning on a visit. In the downtown area, there is a large Johnny Cash mural which I knew I needed to photograph. With all of the traffic this is the best I could do.
In the mural Johnny gazes towards Folsom Prison, a place that was near and dear to his heart. More on that a little later.
I had recently had some phone conversations with my Mom and she knew that I wasn’t quite feeling like myself. She offered to get me a hotel for a few nights in Sacramento to get some writing done in a comfortable place. Though I was hesitant to accept, I had to conclude that mother (especially mine) knows best. Thanks, Mom.
Thursday, September 19th
Friday, September 20th
I worked through the morning, but had an excursion to take in the afternoon. Though I’d surprisingly avoided it up to this point, we all know it was bound to happen: I was going to prison.
Folsom Prison is perhaps the most iconic correctional facility in the US. “Folsom Prison Blues” was one of Johnny Cash’s first big hits, being released in 1955. Cash performed two concerts within the walls of the prison. Below is his version from 1968:
Johnny had a deep compassion for those on the edge of society. Perhaps most significantly, those serving long prison sentences. He performed dozens of unpaid shows in prisons and even testified before the US Senate about prison reform. Folsom hasn’t forgotten. Johnny Cash is well featured in the Folsom Prison Museum which is adjacent to the correctional facility.
I was really looking forward to visiting here. Surely the staff of the museum would be huge Johnny Cash fans and take a deep interest in my quest, right? The reception I received at the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville was tepid at best, so I thought I might find some true fans of the Man in Black here. I strode through the door triumphantly and told the guy behind the desk about my incredible journey….
“Why would you want to do something like that?”
The museum was small but really nice. There is a whole room dedicated to Johnny Cash memorabilia which I enjoyed perusing.
The museum also told the stories of the many fantastical escape attempts, including one involving a homemade scuba suit (it did not end well). There is a wall covered with confiscated shanks.
There is also space dedicated to more benevolent creations by the inmates. This ferris wheel made from 250,000 toothpicks is the main attraction.
The city of Folsom has also embraced their Johnny Cash connection. There is a Johnny Cash Trail which winds through the city.
I had seen images online of a 50ft. Johnny Cash statue, but couldn’t seem to locate it. I eventually stopped by city hall and they told me that it had been displayed briefly, but was not yet permanently installed. I’ll have to get a picture with it at a future date. From the internet:
Saturday, September 21st
I worked in the hotel until checkout time, then began making some eastward progress. Reno, Nevada, on the other side of the mountains would be my next song place, but I would have one more night in California.
I made some headway into Eldorado National Forest before looking for a spot to set up my tent.
I found a little dead end road to set up camp. Though I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be back in my tent, the low for the night was only going to be in the 50s. It was a pleasant night.
There were some highs and lows throughout these days, but they are ultimately ones that I am very thankful for. I was still making new friends and still learning new things. And once my parole hearing comes around, I might even be able to finish this journey.
Keep looking for those specks of gold, everybody.