We loaded up the car Monday morning and took off not long after 9am heading due east on the 580 out of the east bay towards Stockton. Our goal for the day was to swing by Angels Camp and Murphy’s, site of my aunt and uncle’s old cabin off Highway 4 before heading on to Yosemite. It was overcast with cloudiness predicted for that day and the next and with a heated tent cabin reserved for us at Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley, we knew we could dawdle a bit on the way there.
Our attraction to Murphy’s stems from my six month stay there in 1978 when I worked for my good friend Norm and the California Department of Forestry on a re-seeding project. It was originally planned that I would join one of three crews that would collect seed cones from various tree species along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada from Porterville to Sacramento. As it turned out the scope of the project meant that large amounts of seed cones would be collected and need to be processed (sorted, dried, and bagged) prior to being taken to the CDF nursery at UC Davis.
A site for this operation was located, the California Conservation Corp (CCC) camp off Highway 4, midway between Angels Camp and Murphy’s. Modeled after the original federal Civilian Conservation Corps created in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt, the CCC was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on July 7, 1976. He envisioned the program as “a combination Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz and Marine Corps boot camp.” The CCC no longer operates out of the site, which is now occupied by a unit of Cal Fire, the primary wild land fire-fighting agency in California.
Given my accounting background and some experience in shipping and receiving, it was decided that I would manage the receipt, storage, and transfer to Davis of the seed cone after it had been collected by the crews. I had originally anticipated that while working on a crew that I would live out of my recently purchased 1965 VW camper van, but as luck would have my Aunt and Uncle, Agnes and Dick, owned a cabin off of Highway 4 between Murphy’s and Avery. And so I would come to live there for six months.
This would turn out to be an thought-provoking period in my life, being able to live in a gorgeous area, full of the history of California, with of all of the trappings of the Gold Rush era and yet I lived by myself, isolated from people I knew and this would form an important element of my growth into adulthood, coming to understand myself and want I needed to be happy. A brief stint he following spring back home in Los Angeles, grounded in some fine arts classes at Santa Monica College, punctuated by mine and Rendy’s three plus month hitchhiking odyssey in Europe completed my education. I needed to be grounded, supported by folks I knew and cared for to succeed. The life of a solitary traveler was not for me.
It’s about a two hour drive to Angel’s Camp and as we approached Highway 49, which runs through the heart of town, we tried to connect how it looked today with how our memories recalled it. Turning left onto the 49 we went a short distance to a small shopping center; there since the days Rendy and I (he spent a week with me there) did our laundry one Saturday afternoon. We parked in front of the Angel’s Food Market and went in to provision for our days in Yosemite and grab some lunch from their deli counter.
We consumed a large and excellent sandwich outside the store and then drove south to the junction with Highway 4, turning left to ascend to Murphy’s and the cabin. Not knowing it at the time but coming to realize it later this was a new stretch of the highway, completed since our last visit. It wasn’t until we were halfway to Murphy’s, after we passed the road leading to the CCC camp I’d worked at, that we realized that it was a new section. We cruised past the outskirts of Murphy’s and continued on up the hill to Brice Station Rd., the turnoff to the cabin.
Continuing up the dirt road past the old cabin and the one across from it that once belonged to Aunt Aggie’s parents, we turned the car around to park and gaze yet one more time at the rustic abode I’d lived in and which we’d returned to a number of times for holiday outings. It had a for sale sign outside and later we looked up the listing; it was going for about $125,000, not bad for a small but livable abode in a highly desirable semi-rustic location.
We bade farewell to the house and the memories it contained and returned back down the highway, turning right to enter the downtown area of Murphy’s, which had undergone a number of upgrades to its historic buildings to encourage tourism, the lifeblood of any small town like this. Wanting to get to Yosemite before dark we didn’t stop but continued back down to Angels Camp on Murphy’s Grade Road, which still has remnants of the gold rush era water system traversing the banks alongside it.
As is often the case, much had changed in Angels Camp and the surrounding area and yet, much was as remembered. Isn’t that the case with life, new experiences become the memories we take with us and yet are burnished by those we bring to the moment? It was time to head to Yosemite and make some new ones.
Cal Fire: http://www.fire.ca.gov/
Angels Food Market: http://sierrahillsmarketinc.com/
Murphy’s Grade Road: http://www.calaverashistory.org/post/angels-camp-murphys-transportation