Why I Live Where I Live
Mokelumne Hill--He was a mountain man with a cougar for a neighbor. I was a city lady from Palo Alto. We fell in love at the Leger Hotel and found our dream house the next morning just around the corner.
From then on all I heard was, "You're moving WHERE!" Well, yes, the name is challenging. Mo kah la mee. Sounds like a Camp Fire Girls chant. Small wonder most residents call it Mok or, more euphemistically, "The Hill."
Whatever you choose to call it, Mokelumne Hill is the town that time forgot. A village of 500 just off highway 49 in the Sierra Foothills, it's a place of meandering, storybook lanes, Victorian houses and flower gardens. There are no traffic lights, stop signs or meters--because there's no traffic.
Mok wasn't always this quiet. The slumbering village used to be the biggest, baddest, most important town in the gold country (records claim 17 people killed in 17 weeks, then five more shot the following weekend.) The hotel has a dungeon where miscreants were housed and a tree out back where some were hung. Small wonder they say the place is haunted.
Mokelumne Hill itself is a kind of ghost town, a piece of the American frontier frozen in time. Why would someone up and move here, as opposed say, coming for a weekend? More specifically, how could I leave the sophistication, the convenience, the civility of the Bay Area, most particularly Palo Alto, for a wide spot with a name no one can pronounce?
Well, to begin with, things are pretty up to date in Mokelumne Hill. They've gone about as fer as they care to go. Does it strike you as some kind of wonderful that a town of 500 would have historic bar and a boutique winery? On second thought, folks 'round here have been bellying up to the bar for more than 150 years. What's really wonderful is that no one has one for the road guilt. Home is within walking distance.
Additionally, the town has two good restaurants, a two saloons library, five parks, an antique shop and a post office where you never have to stand in line. There's also a coffee shop where people go to read out-of-town papers and talk about the Meaning of Life. At night they attend book signings and poetry readings. On nice days, spill out onto sidewalk tables to read or gossip.
OK, that's the good stuff. What do I miss? A nearby grocery store. It's seven miles to Jackson, "the big town." My husband invariably says: "It takes just as long to get to your yuppie store in Palo Alto, when you count all the stop lights and signs and then you have to find a place to park."
He's almost right. And, truly, once I'm in the car threading my way through forests, historic ruins and steep mountains, I forget the distance. After eight years, the scenery still stuns me with its beauty.
Of course, once I get to the supermarket, I must confront two things that I miss dearly. Cheese and a decent deli. Sure, they have cheese, but its awfully Velveeta. And the deli is about as hohum as it gets. But what can I say? You can practically drive up to the door, the aisles are wide and well stocked. The employees are nice. They never got the word about attitude. Maybe they don't know what it is. Nice if they never found out.
I miss movies, too. Jackson has a uniplex but it caters to teenage boys and families with young children. Phantom of the Opera never got there, much less Being Julia.
That's what I miss. But whenever I start to complain, something fantastic happens that reminds me what a lucky choice I've made. Like the other day I had a question about my property tax bill. When I called the number on the letterhead, a real voice answered.
"May I speak with Donna Monahan?" I asked and was assured, "This is Donna."
"You're Donna Monahan!" I gasped, overcome. Like, am I really talking to God? So, OK, when's the last time that you called a city office and spoke to a human-- much less the human you needed?
The accessibility of people here never ceases to amaze me. Sooner or later anybody and everybody turns up at the hotel. The Leger bar is the town living room. You needn't be a mover or shaker to argue with a planning commissioner over martinis. (But maybe you feel like one.)
Which brings me to just who lives in Mokelumne Hill. Are you thinking rednecks? Think again. My new friends are witty, funny and thoughtful, not unlike those I left behind. (Some are even Democrats.) Out of this tiny population, a surprising number are artists, three world famous. Songwriter Randy Sparks founded the New Christy Minstrels. Pamela Hill and James Aarons have work displayed in the Smithsonian.
Many residents are expatriates and repatriates. Some are newcomers fleeing the City. But others, grew up in Mokelumne Hill, moved to the Bay Area and then came home.
By design not accident, the "modern" highway 49 bypasses Mokelumne Hill, a hidden treasure, off the beaten track and far from any freeway. We like it just that way.