This past weekend was Tyler’s birthday. Rather than comply with the usual drinks-at-a-local-bar motif, Biz and I opted to plan something a bit more adventurous. It appears to be a birthday theme for the past year; hers was spent in a log cabin in Big Bear. Tyler is a pretty low-maintenance guy… when asked what he wanted to do this year for his birthday he responded with “something under the stars.” I took this to heart, he could have said whiskey, San Francisco, or Disneyland… but “under the stars” felt at the same time very specific and also very vague to me. Literally we could have done ANYTHING under the stars but I chose to take Tyler LITERALLY under the stars. I found what appeared to be a nice campground up here in the Sierras on the banks of the South Yuba River.
So with little to no effort we had our pillows and bratwursts packed and were on our way. After what appeared to be one or two wrong turns we stumbled upon a very faded sign pointing to River Rest Campground. We made it. Kind of… After sluggishly unpacking our necessities while simultaneously being distracted by the wondrous green canopy we were underneath we discovered something of mild importance… We had forgotten firewood. Amateurs. The one laboriously disassembled wood pallet Tyler remembered to pack was not nearly enough wood for what would be probably ten to twelve hours of firepit-centered activity. While none of us in our family of four different cell phone carriers had a single bar of reception between us, Tony and I decided to take a trip into “town” while Biz and Tyler set up camp. (Secretly he was just hoping for a glimpse at a TV to check the score of the hockey game.) I, of course, was eager for a peek into the local color of this town called Washington, CA.
Population 166. Founded in 1849. Population. 166. Seriously. This area is called Gold Country, named aptly after the pilgrimage many miners and prospectors made to forage for the gold in them there hills in the late 1840s. Washington itself was founded and established by a group of miners from Indiana. It is plain to see that probably not much has changed since they built the first structure in this town. There is a tiny hotel with a saloon on the first floor, a firehouse, a post office, and a fenced-in lot guarded by a sweet pit bull containing a large pile of firewood in the center. EUREKA! (pun absolutely intended)
Enter Ronnie. Apparently the best way to acquire said firewood is to holler “RONNIE!” over the tall fence until a young kid with large ear gauges and shaggy brown hair emerges. Most out-of-towners would probably have assumed ominously that this may or may not be a friendly and/or profitable experience. WRONG! Ronnie was my favorite part of this trip. As may be obvious by now, 99.9% of my favorite experiences arise from encounters with new people. Ronnie was no exception. Not only is Ronnie probably the most successful businessman in town with his wood pile, he is also the local (and from my understanding, only) fireman. Every minute or so the large police radio strapped to his shoulder would emit a muffled crackling code or warning from a dispatcher over in Nevada City. Ronnie explains that he kind of takes care of all emergency needs in this area. And that “If anything happens to you guys down on the river, I can get here to help much faster than any ambulance.” But the icing on the Ronnie cake was this… The biggest smile spread across his face as I helplessly threw up my hands admitting my embarrassment upon forgetting the essential aspect of a camping experience; the wood. Needless to say Ronnie was very helpful. Upon explaining to me that I would most likely need around ten or twelve of his rather large pieces of chopped cedar (for the right price of just under $10) for my firepit I held out my arms for him to start piling it on. Ronnie stared and began to laugh, “No, no… you do NOT carry the wood.” He said, “Where do you come from anyway, girl? Go open your trunk and I'll take it over to the car for you.” Who would have thought… Southern hospitality, in Washington, California. I started beaming from the inside. While I popped open the trunk to Tony’s wagon, Ronnie came bobbing around the corner pushing a wheelbarrow that contained what was most definitely at least twice as much wood as formerly advised. I figured the rest must be for the fire inside the saloon next door. Wrong again. As Ronnie dumped every last bit of that firewood into our wagon he graciously explained each type of wood in their various shapes and sizes and how it burned (kindling vs. logs) and when we should throw it on the fire and what it smelled like. Like an angel sent from the gods of the forest, this kid. Upon seeing my look of confusion as to why so much more wood than he said, Ronnie simply replied “It’s just gonna sit here anyways, might as well give it to someone who’ll enjoy it.” All I could really do was give him a big hug and offer to buy him a beer at the saloon. “Nah,” he said, “I gotta go to work!” After which he sauntered down the tiny road to the fire station, the crackling sounds of his radio trailing behind him and out of our lives. Whether or not Ronnie was a wood nymph bestowed upon us as a momentary birthday gift from the forest spirits, or just the sweetest damn kid in the Sierras remains to be seen. All I know is that he will stay with me. In all of his gauged, shaggy, smokey glory.
The rest of the weekend went beautifully and smoothly. After grilling up a few German beer bratwursts and one or two card games over a generous amount of cheap beer we all eventually gave in to our collective overwhelming sleepiness after a long day of travel and exploration. The next day on our drive home, we stopped into Nevada City for a cup of coffee and, I can only speak for myself, FELL IN LOVE! The most adorable small mountain town I may have ever seen with actual two-hundred year old authentic historical buildings still intact, Victorian and craftsman houses from the early 1900s, and tiny local coffee shops, old saloons and turquoise jewelers on nearly every corner. It would be entirely an understatement to say I enjoyed this place. Nevada City, I will be returning to you. And Washington, you did us well. Happy birthday, Ty!