Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Billy Whiskers Morning

Yesterday morning, my husband and I went down the mountain to Bill Whiskers, our favorite breakfasting place, which some of you may remember from my blog post of February 5th. If we arrive early enough, we usually have the place and the owners all to ourselves, which means we can all have a really good gab fest before their morning pace picks up. Luck was with us and, as we walked in, only Karen, Rick and Coco, the feral cat, were there.

Coco is a silky charcoal and white striped tabby who is independent and peripatetic. She has the run of Billy Whiskers, plus the Mexican restaurant to the south, the Presbyterian Church of the 49ers, to the north, the Gypsy Field and The Rocks (see posts 11.15.11 & 11.17.11). She sleeps in a ramshackle shed behind the restaurant, or wherever else she pleases, and likes to amaze diners, many of whom are tourists and not accustomed to such rural intimacies, by bringing her latest kill in to show it off. Once, it was a live snake and the woman to whom it was presented screamed, “Snake!” and was extravagantly unhinged.

And once, Karen recounted, Coco was locked in the church by accident. I was just about to say, “Church mice, beware!” when Karen added, “And she caught a HUGE rat!” For Coco, wherever she goes, it’s literally breakfast on the house. So important a fixture is Coco that Karen, who is trying to sell the business so that they can retire, has put her into the contract. Either Coco and her future are assured or no deal.

Of course, eventually we had to discuss the weather. It’s been such a mild winter as to be scarcely a winter, at all. Which brings up the topic of water, since, without a big snow pack in the mountains, there is no water to see us through the summer months. Water is a precious commodity in these hills. Some people are lucky enough to have a good well or even a spring on their property. Some live close enough to the ditch that conveys our water down from high country reservoirs to have cheap, untreated water for their gardens.

But for those of us on the water systems of the local utility district, water comes at a big cost – and it was just announced in the paper that we should already be limiting our usage. It was the unanimous opinion of all present, except for Coco, who abstained, that the utility district would use this crisis to push water prices to astronomical levels, an agenda they have been pursuing relentlessly, anyway.

There was also the issue of Hetch Hetchy for us to consider. It’s the reservoir behind O’Shaughnessy, the dam that was thrown across a high country valley that was said to rival Yosemite Valley in scenic splendor. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and called the Father of the National Parks, fought the dam, which was approved by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and was completed in 1923. It is said to have broken John Muir’s heart.

Our local U.S. Representative has just introduced a bill in Congress to have the dam taken down, but as it is the main source of water for San Francisco, it seems unlikely that this will happen. When my father was a Tuolumne Country supervisor, over 50 years ago, he fought long and hard to have San Francisco remunerate Tuolumne County for the water they freely take from us, through the Hetch Hetchy system. He was unsuccessful and, as a result, citizens of San Francisco have cheaper water rates than we do in Tuolumne County, the source of the water. That fact was a dose of bitters to accompany our otherwise excellent breakfasts.

We also spent some time examining the fascinating artifacts that Karen and Rick have collected and arranged artistically on walls and shelves. One item was a rusted spike of metal about 7 inches long, with a loop at one end and a smaller loop, just below that. “What do you suppose that is?” David queried. Karen said she’d found it in the tailings of a mine on their property. The miners stabbed the spike into the walls of the mine. The smaller loop held a candle and the larger loop, into which about 3 fingers could be inserted, or the small end of a pick blade, was for pulling it back out, again.

This same mine, they believe, is now flooded and they are hoping to open it and access the water, for their gardens. They live in one of the original farm houses of Columbia, surrounded by old fruit trees. It’s not uncommon  to have mines on one’s property, in this area that was one of the epicenters of the 1849 Gold Rush. We have 2 mines on our own property. My father used to try to get me to go into them with him, but I was always afraid. I would go about 5 or 6 feet into the entrance, right about where the real gloom started, and go no further. They were neatly dug, squared off, the floor leveled. Pick marks were still visible in the walls. But what really interested me as a child were the heaps of quartz crystals outside, that flashed seductively in the sunshine.

Then, we examined a hand-forged cowbell that had been given to Karen by Marie Rouse, the long-time post mistress of Columbia and that was probably manufactured by Marie’s father. It is a lovely heart shape of rusted metal, with a hand-carved wooden clapper. This led to Rick telling a riotous story about when he was a young cowboy in Indian Valley. Rich people bought the ranch where he worked and conceived the notion that it would be a romantic thing to hear the sound of cowbells, throughout their property. Now, typically, you put a bell on the lead cow, some old, quiet girl that the others like to hang around with. If you can hear her bell, you know where to find the other cattle, too. But these folks had a bell installed on every single cow. In Rick’s laconic words, “after the cattle had stampeded and torn down the corral, they decided this wasn’t such a good idea.”

Just as we were finishing the last morsels of our breakfast, Rick said, “Uh oh! Here comes old Know-It-All.” “Who’s that?” I asked. It was a merchant from Columbia and his wife – his fourth wife, Karen added – and although he was newly arrived in Columbia, having lived here for only 6 years, he considers himself quite a local history buff. In he came, dressed in 1840s fashion, as is required by the State of all concessionaires in the park: a black top coat with a gold watch fob, a vest, shirt and cravat.

David and I excused ourselves and left, shortly after he and his wife were seated. And I knew that the minute the door closed behind us, this fellow would ask “Who was that?” and the gossip would be flying, again. “That’s Suzan Still. She and I grew up together . . . ” Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera: another typical Billy Whiskers morning, in progress.

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