Lake County History, Chapter 97: A Perilous Beginning

This next cheerful travelogue may lighten your spirits. The author, Marilyn Johnson, took everything in easy stride, including her slightly inebriated Aunt Hester. Ms. Johnson’s description deserves recognition, if for no other reason than she takes us back to that day as if we made the trip with her. Her marvelous incite and awareness of things around her, and her ability to impart her impressions with the written word is almost too fine. The reader might have the sneaking suspicion Ms. Johnson fabricated this tale. It is too perfect. Whether a genuine experience or a work of fiction, Kudos to Ms. Johnson. 

“My Aunt Hester and I leave San Francisco early in the morning. We take the ferry-boat to Vallejo. The boat trip is, by far, the most pleasant part of our journey. At Vallejo, we catch the train and traveled north toward Calistoga. Train travel leaves much to be desired. When I opened the window, cinders blew in. When I closed it, the air became appallingly close.”

“In a corner, there is a group of men playing cards. Occasionally, someone in the party makes the spittoon ring with a wad of his tobacco. The porter comes with a basket of refreshments, and that same group of men cleans the porter out of miniature whiskey bottles. By the time we reach Calistoga, they are all quite tipsy. My Aunt Hester, who rides with me, whispers, ‘They should all be thrashed.’

“We reach Calistoga, and there is a stagecoach waiting for us. The rear wheels are six feet high, and they tower over our skinny driver. The front wheels are smaller, only four feet in diameter. There are three spans of horses (a team of six animals). We board the stage. The driver and his helper store our luggage in the boot. Our round-trip fare has cost Aunt Hester and I, $ …. each (The fare is not named). Travel has become simply shocking. Dear knows where it will end.”

“Our driver climbs on board, and we ladies adjust our dusters. The passengers brace themselves, and the driver shouts, ‘Gee-Haw.’ The stage lurches forward, and we are all thrown on each other’s laps.”

“The road is narrow and winding. It twists tortuously up narrow mountain gorges and down steep canyons. Dust boils up around the stage in great clouds. The leather thongs of the stage, which are its springs, do their best to ease the shaking, but we bounce about at each chuckhole we pass. When the big wooden wheels strike a ‘hard head’ (Ms. Johnson may be referring to a large stone or a boulder in the road), we fly upward and bump our heads on the roof.”

“The road up the mountain has its perils. There were times when the coach wheels go dangerously near the edge of a cliff, and the whole body of the stage sways. I have the impression we are certain to go over the edge of the cliff. Coming around a narrow curve, we nearly collide with a buggy drawn by a single horse. It is such a close call the buggy is forced to drive with his wheel partly up the side of the mountain. That makes his horse slip, and the animal goes down all tangled in the reins.”

“While we wait and listen, the driver of the stage and the owner of the buggy shout at each other. I am sure that violence is imminent. But then, they help the horse to its feet, untangle the reins, agree that the road is murderous. I hear our driver say, ‘I wouldn’t live in the city if it was given to me.’ The other driver agrees, and we are soon on our way.”

Next Episode: Hard Road to Seigler Springs


To enjoy all Gene’s books, visit his website; http://genepaleno.com/

Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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