What began as a girlfriends’ getaway ended up as three days, 650 miles, 21 stops and not nearly enough sleep. I guess that’s what happens when you send a type A overachiever and a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky pal on a road trip together. My best friend Brianna and I set out on a tour of the Wild West in search of cowboys, old-fashioned saloons and the rich history along Highway 49—from the Yuba River and Nevada City down to Columbia and La Grange. The promise of gold is what drew settlers to this uncharted territory 162 years ago; the promise of some hard-earned fun is what drew us.
We blew out of town late Friday morning and by the time we got to Auburn, the cute Sierra foothills town on the turnoff to Highway 49 just past Sacramento, we were starving. I had planned it that way, knowing our first pit stop would be the much-hailed Ikeda’s, where we fueled up on cheap, homemade burgers and thick-as-mud milkshakes. Ikeda’s is also a bakery (burger, fries, shakes and pies—hello!), and the razzleberry pie was tempting, but we pushed on through Nevada City and northward on 49, hoping to locate a secret swimming hole in the Middle Yuba River called Oregon Creek, which I’d read about on Weekend Sherpa. After a few wrong turns and backtracks, what we found at the end of an unmarked trail off the highway was well-worth the hassle. A calm pool of emerald-green water reflected the late-afternoon sun off smooth granite rocks, forming the perfect summer escape—and we had it all to ourselves.
On the way back to Nevada City, we were definitely feeling the effects of a day of driving, a huge burger and an hour of swimming. Exhaustion had begun to set in, but The Willo seemed to promise a cure. (Spelling is apparently optional in this neck of the woods, at least for roadside bars.) Sitting alone on the side of Highway 49, its neon sign, bear statue and pickup-lined parking lot beckoned us in. With no-frills grub, shuffleboard, pool and the requisite surly bartender, it lived up to its dive status. After a few brews and conversation with some toothless townies, we headed back to Nevada City to check into our hotel.
From the outside, the historic, 156-year-old National Hotel, situated on a corner of Nevada City’s main street in all its stately grandeur, looks like it was transplanted from the French Quarter. Inside it’s more like The Shining, but our efforts at authenticity meant spending the night here, haunted or not. I wasn’t about to sit around in the room, however. To calm my nerves, I insisted on more drinks—a whiskey shot chased by a few Bud Lights at the Mine Shaft Saloon. But all this just prolonged the inevitable: a sleepless night spent imagining a potential run-in with the Twins. Thank God we had one of the rooms with a private bath; I’m not sure I could have ventured into the darkened hallway alone at 3 a.m.
The next morning, dehydrated and hungover, we left the hotel in search of greasy food to soak up all the booze. Ike’s, a Creole-influenced cafe, offered the perfect combination of savory and sweet, with breakfast options ranging from gumbo to banana–pecan–brown-sugar flapjacks. On Saturday’s agenda was Moaning Cavern, an underground geological wonder discovered by gold miners in 1851, so we needed all the sustenance we could get.
Long stretches of narrow, winding roads through sparsely populated, rolling green hills led us south on Highway 49. We made it to the cavern just in time for the last rappel. Yes, rappel. In keeping with the adventure theme, I decided, with a lot of prodding from Brianna, to face my fear of heights and rope myself 165 feet down into the depths of the earth, telling myself that guided walking tours of stalactites and stalagmites were for kids and grannies.
We took the plunge together, wrangling ourselves through tight crevices and increasing darkness. Just as we dropped down into the open underbelly of the vast, marble cave, a visiting Mennonite chorus burst into the most beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace” from below. I’m not religious, but listening to a synchronously timed hymn while dangling 100 feet in the air was nearly enough to make me shout hallelujah.
It was just after dark when we left Moaning Cavern, but the sleepy town of Columbia was already to bed. Eager for a strong drink, we headed to the Jack Douglass Saloon. It was the only building still illuminated and seemed like the perfect place for a sarsaparilla and a shot of whiskey. Inside, its colorful cast of characters included the harmlessly friendly town drunk, a gun-slinging cowboy and his elegantly dressed wife, among many others. And we weren’t the only San Franciscans in the bar: The Mission Three, a washboard-and-harmonica-playing trio, were belting out old-school blues on the small stage while we scarfed down an order of Douglass Deluxe Nachos. Thusly fed and liquored, we crashed at the nearby Union Hill Inn, a quaint B&B that was not, thankfully, haunted.
Forty-eight hours in and only one cowboy sighting. Sunday’s mission was clear: Find some men on horses. An hour’s drive south, we pulled into La Grange’s 63rd annual Rodeo, where we were quickly introduced to bareback riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and of course the crowning of this year’s rodeo queen, a bubbly, blonde 18-year-old named Alyssa who looked like she was straight off the set of Hey Dude. We gorged ourselves on hot dogs and tri-tip burritos, washing it all down with plastic cups of Coors. To my credit, in no time I was able to successfully call a dirty stock—a term I’d learned just an hour prior—predicting which horse would be prone to ducking and diving rather than jumping and kicking, an unfortunate situation that yields a low score for the rider. The rodeo emcee had a charm all his own: “That’ll rub the ‘W’ right off your Wranglers!” he yelled as the first bucking bull threw his rider hard into the dirt. The massive animal then refused to clear the ring, prompting this response: “That bull’s as hard to get out of the ring as my wife is out of Walmart.” Dorothy, we’re not in SF anymore.
Fat, happy and high off testosterone, Brianna and I booked it home, stopping only to take a mini-swing through the Delta and to check out the hyped-up taxidermy bar in Rio Vista called Foster’s Bighorn. Its walls were lined with the heads of Alaskan moose, Canadian deer and a zoo of African animals: zebras, an elephant whose tusks each weigh 110 pounds, and an innocent giraffe, one of fewer than a dozen like it in the world. The late owner Bill Foster must have hunted down half of Kenya for his collection. It was amazing—and creepy: a little like stumbling into a David Lynch film in the middle of a Sunday afternoon.
Sunburned, dusty and longing for our own beds, we stumbled out of Foster’s in our gingham and sandals just as the night chill was setting in. Hardly an hour later, the lights of the Bay Bridge came into view, and internally I felt myself shift from the unbound, simple rhythm of the small towns in our wake to the fretted-up pace of the city. My iPhone buzzed in my back pocket and, resistant to check it, I instead slapped my heels up on the dash, raised the volume on the CD player, and decided to relish my last few minutes of freedom.
Ikeda’s 13500 Lincoln Way, Auburn, 530-885-4243, ikedas.com
Oregon Creek 16.3 miles north of Nevada City on Rte. 49 (the trail starts just behind the 1-mile marker after the Oregon Creek day-use area)
The Willo Bar 16898 Hwy. 49, Nevada City, 530-265-9902
The National Hotel 211 Broad St., Nevada City, 530-265-4551, thenationalhotel.com
Ike’s Quarter Café 401 Commercial St., Nevada City, 530-265-6138, ikesquartercafe.com
Moaning Cavern Park 5350 Moaning Cave Rd., Vallecito, 866-762-2837, caverntours.com
Jack Douglass Saloon 22718 Main St., Columbia, 209-533-4176, columbiacalifornia.com
Union Hill Inn 21645 Parrotts Ferry Rd., Sonora, 209-533-1494, unionhillinn.com
La Grange Rodeo Hwy. 132, 30 miles east of Modesto (other upcoming rodeos include the Mother Lode Round-Up in Sonora, May 8–9, motherloderoundup.com; and Livermore Rodeo in Livermore, June 12–13, livermorerodeo.org)
Foster’s Bighorn 143 Main St., Rio Vista, 707-374-2511, fostersbighorn.com
Holiday Vampire Weekend (Contra)
Ridin’ in My Car She & Him (Volume Two)
Unknown Legend Neil Young (Harvest Moon)
Down to the River to Pray Alison Krauss (O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack)
Tightly Neko Case (Blacklisted)
Warm Heart of Africa The Very Best (Warm Heart of Africa)
I’m New Here Gil Scott-Heron (I’m New Here)
Wayside/Back in Time Gillian Welch (Soul Journey)
Big Chief Professor Longhair (Crawfish Fiesta)
Billy 1 Bob Dylan (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack)
Perfect Day Lady Antebellum (Need You Now)
Love Long Distance Gossip (Music for Men)
Shadows Au Revoir Simone (Still Night, Still Light)
Fake Empire The National (Boxer)
Long Way Home Tom Waits (Big Bad Love)