Thursday, January 23, 2014

To dust you shall return

We spent Sunday picking over our own bones, just like everyone else.

By the hundreds we came, on the new dusty trail we were making along a contour of the damp barren slope, above the quiet water, like nomads afraid to stray too far from sustenance.

But it's too late. The sustaining water of Folsom Lake is disappearing.

In a good year we'd be under 40 feet of water where we walked, near the southern shore of the lake known as Brown's Ravine.

This is not a good year.

Following the driest year in recorded history, 2014 has begun with a warm unwelcome spring, the sky this morning unblemished blue, with a yellow-brown, almost glowing edge along the horizon in every direction. The sky itself, it seems, is drying up.

Folsom Lake is going, going …

Our son and his girlfriend, visiting and wanting to hike, came with us to look for the remains of a Gold Rush town again exposed by drought.

Mormon Island formed in 1848 on a sand bar near where the south and north forks of the American River joined. The town comprised members of the Mormon Battalion, discharged from their duties in helping fight for the United States against Mexico, and Mormons brought to the area by Sam Brannan to investigate this land as a possible home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With not a lot to do, some of the Mormon men helped John Sutter build a lumber mill in the foothills, where the guy in charge of the project, James Marshall, first found gold. Even with carpentry and providing for their families, the men still had a lot of leisure time and spent it looking for more gold.

Mormon Island began as the site of the greatest placer (surface) mining find of the Gold Rush. Heavy gold sparkled from the riverbed, easy pickings. Sam Brannan became rich beyond reason by telling the world about it. Maybe the world wanted to believe that all the gold in California was so easily found. Whatever the reason, tens of thousands came, from every state in the union and every liveable part of the world, as I say on the Underground Sacramento tour.

When the world arrived, sick and gaunt but still lusting for gold — even when it realized getting any would require hard work — Brannan had all the necessary tools ready for sale, at the exorbitant prices the market would bear.

Brannan was also asking finder's fees from the Mormons of Mormon Island making claims on the gold finds, which have been reported erroneously as Brannan exacting tithes from the faithful and keeping them for himself. When the military governor of California told the Mormons Brannan had every right to ask the fees — as long as they were fool enough to pay them — the fees dried up.

Mormon Island, the town, burned up, as Gold Rush towns tended to do. It had a brief glorious existence — from 1848 to 1856 — including four hotels, three dry-goods stores (including one of Brannan's), five general stores, and a Pony Express station. It boasted of having hosted the first grand ball in Sacramento County, and a population of 2,500.

A few people still lived in the town limits until the mid-20th Century, but in 1955 Folsom Dam was built and the three forks of the American River stoppered into a sprawling lake for recreation, flood control, electrical power, urban consumption — all those marks of progress.

The bodies of the town's pioneers were moved to a cemetery high and dry. What little was left of their town disappeared under the dark green water for decades. Its outskirts have peeked out a few times since during drought.

Even with Folsom Lake at its lowest level yet, the center of the old town is still under about 90 feet of the water.

What visitors see now is the periphery, the uncertain edges of the town. So much might-have-been and could-be's. No one seems sure what they're looking at, as the rubble of foundations rise from the wet earth.

More people than would have shown up with their fishing/wakeboarding/party boats on a searing July day have made the pilgrimage to Brown's Ravine this winter Sunday of a three-day weekend. What the Parks and Recreation Department may have lost in boat haulage fees, it's making up in vehicle day passes.

"Go all the way to the end," said the cashier in the ranger kiosk guarding the entrance. She knew where we were going. Down a windy road, past scores of sailboats hauled out of the water months before and imprisoned in their own special parking lots. They'd bob in a marina normally.

The shopping-center sized parking lot, where boaters park after putting in, was filling with cars. Already we could see the dust clouds where clots of people roamed the same dusty trail over the next rise, where the lake had been.

We joined the caravan, the carnival, the strange spring frolic. Part of me felt like we had heard about the little child who fell down the dry well, and had come in our lusty curiosity to witness the anguish. Part of me felt like we were the kid down the well, waiting out the end. Just a couple of vendors and the funereal feel would have made it complete.

Groups of people took selfies and group photos amid the laid-stone foundations, cheery in their collective unknowing doom.

The state parks department has set plastic sandwich-board signs next to each conglomeration of artifacts, each discernible foundation of some building or another. The signs admonish visitors not to deface or take the artifacts, important as they are to the archaeological history of the place.

Were I the dad with the little kids, I would have been the one saying "Don't touch!" too many times. Most parents let their kids pick up all the rusted bolts and nails and discs of glass that someone has carefully set on every tree stump and wide piece of rock.

And what the hell? Why not? The artifacts aren't that particularly important. They may have come from last century; they may have come from last winter. No one knows, no one cares, except that they may be old.

They remind me of the old cars we kids came upon about a mile into the woods across the street from my childhood home. Maybe they were 15 years old, maybe 50. Bullet holes decorated each. Naturally we just knew a bloody gangster battle had taken place here, in what would have been a remote corner of Santa Barbara County. It made no sense, yet it made every bit of sense to us.

So it is with the tree-stump displays. Attach your own idea what they are, where they came from, who held them. No one's going to refute you; no one cares. Not even the parks people, even though their signs say otherwise.

As soon as possible, everyone wants these mysteries to disappear again under green opaque water. What's left of the lake seems like a live thing dying, thick and smooth like a sheen of oil. A boy navigated the muddy banks to throw a handful of pebbles across its surface, as if to awaken it.

Who knows how long the water will last, and what happens when it's gone?

I dream of the water rising again, so gently as to leave the nails and bolts and handles and glass bottle bottoms right where someone set them on their gray tree stumps.