On normal days, driving through Columbia, California, feels like a trek through time. The past tends to overlap with the present as families and retirees explore the state park and historic downtown. This is California’s gold country in the foothills of the Sierras, a few hours from where they first struck gold at Sutter’s Mill. The main drag of Columbia is lined with buildings that have high wooden facades masking squat brick structures. It’s like a movie set made to represent the “Old West” that would look over-the-top if it wasn’t real.
There are dozens of little gold rush towns like this up and down the foothills with names that match that era: Twain Harte, Drytown, Big Tree and Big Bear. Today, as I drive through Columbia on my way from Murphys to Sonora, it looks like a ghost town, more like Bodie, the husk of a long deserted village on the California-Nevada border that’s usually open for tours. They’re both empty now. Everyone is under a shelter-in-place order to prevent the spread of the first true pandemic of our lifetime.
I’m not sheltering. I need to pick up my husband. He’s just flown into San Francisco from Honolulu and is driving a rental car up to Sonora where I’ll grab him. We were midway through a military move from Hawaii to Rhode Island when the country started locking down. As I flew out with my sons—two and seven months—to stay with my parents two weeks ago, my husband and I didn’t know how long it would be until we saw each other again. Two weeks was the best case scenario, a rarity in military life. We were prepared for months. It feels like a gift to see him again so soon.
The past two weeks have been strange. Murphys is usually a tourist hotspot in the Sierras. The one mile downtown strip hosts over 22 wine tasting rooms and a cupcakerie that boasts a win from Cupcake Wars. Tourists from the Bay Area flock here throughout the year to drink too much and spend their money. At one end of downtown there’s a novelty street sign reading “wine-o crossing” with a stick figure crawling on hands and knees.
Like those living in most tourist destinations, Murphys residents largely disdain the visitors that prop up their economy in direct proportion to how much they rely on them. But today, without the outsiders, many of the local businesses are closed, hoping to be able to reopen when things get back to some kind of normal.
My parents’ place sits on 20 acres, 4 miles from town and down a dead-end gravel road. When my family gathers there at the holidays my husband and brother-in-law shoot guns in the yard while my dad sits nearby on his tractor watching, smoking a cigar. After decades of working in corporate jobs in the Bay Area, my parents retired here a few years ago to get away from the crowds, along with a good chunk of their neighbors.
Their hangout spot is a tap room that also serves sandwiches run by a husband and wife who have told me before they adore my folks. My dad has one of the coveted wooden mugs reserved on the wall for a select few favorite patrons. My mom drinks wine, not beer, and they don’t do wine goblets. Once or twice a week my parents head to town for lunch and a couple rounds, before stopping into the market and heading back home up the hill.
The tap room is open now, but only for take out. That’s the best any of the restaurants can do. Last week my mom sent me to pick up lunch and told me at least twice to tip 25 percent. My parents crave the socialization of sitting at the bar and talking to a slew of regulars. Despite their choice to live in the middle of nowhere, they don’t do well in total isolation. Tensions have risen, especially with the addition of me and my two loud sons. My boys can’t understand the changes so they add to the anxiety with their recurrent cries.
My parents are watching the boys now while I wind my car along Parrots Ferry Road heading towards Sonora. My ears pop as I follow the curves of the mountain pass, and as much as I love my sons, I’m grateful for the 45 minutes alone. While others are spending all of their time alone, I have a toddler and breastfeeding baby. Between the two of them, someone has been in physical contact with me every moment of every day. Relentlessly. For three quarters of an hour, I am a person on my own.
The uncanny quiet I saw in Columbia continues into downtown Sonora, as I pass Dorothea’s Christmas Store and even more deserted buildings built more than a century ago. The car rental lot is a few miles out of downtown across from Walmart. It’s near the hospital my dad went to a few months ago when he found out he’d had a minor heart attack. He spent the whole day on a gurney in the hallway because there weren’t enough beds. I pray that we won’t need to go there soon.
When I finally see my husband in the parking lot, we don’t hug or even touch. After he loaded his luggage into the car I squirted hand sanitizer into his palm and watched as he rubbed it in. Three years ago when he returned from a deployment we hugged so hard that a picture of our embrace made the front page of the navy newspaper. This time we won’t touch until after he showers and changes in the apartment above my parent’s garage.
On the drive back he tells me about having to move out of our home and stay at a hotel in Waikiki for the last two weeks. He heard tourists laugh and joke about how the Coronavirus wasn’t serious and they wouldn’t give up their vacations. It was all an inconvenience, a hoax, something clearly designed to ruin a perfect week in paradise. Meanwhile, locals deemed essential worked nearby serving those tourists, anxious about making rent on reduced hours as most of their coworkers were already laid off. It’s easy to see why so many lifelong Hawaii residents can’t stand people from the Mainland.
I tell him about my parent’s house. How our toddler won’t sleep by himself anymore so one adult has to sleep with him while I sleep with our baby so I can feed him at night. I warn him that it’s claustrophobic and that we’ve all been drinking too much to cope. He says he understands, but he won’t until we’re there.
We pass through downtown Murphys in the final leg of the drive and see a large traffic sign that’s changed to read “wine pickup available.” My parents keep saying the wineries will be fine through all this. They can sell online and it’s not their busy season. I’m not sure there will still be over 20 tasting rooms lining the main street in a few months.
Like Columbia and Sonora, Murphys is also a ghost town. Even the hotel that once hosted Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant is closed. It anchors the town. I don’t know if it’s ever closed before in its 150-year-plus history. There’s no word on when it might reopen.
Today as we drive through town it’s empty, but a week later when the CDC would start recommending wearing masks, we’d see someone walking through wearing a bandana around his face like a bandit in an old movie. As novel as everything feels in this new normal, it echoes where we’ve been before.
Like everyone, I don’t know when or if things will go back to how they were before. I don’t know how many people will die in the interim. But odd as it is, I’m comforted by the glimmer of the past overlapping into the present. The world is always going through cycles, and as hard as this is, mankind has been here before, and we will get through it again.