My Gold Country Road Trip: Hitting the Mother Lode

A few weeks ago, this western film and television fan made a pilgrimage of sorts to Ponderosa country. I didn’t cross paths with any Cartwrights, although I did encounter a perfect Hoss hat in a shop in Virginia City.

According to Baron Hats – the company that designed and manufactured all the hats worn on the TV show — the Hoss model was an original, just like the character for which it was created.

“With a gun and rope and hat full of hope!…”– from the lyrics to ‘Bonanza’

I spent 4 nights in rainy Incline Village next to Lake Tahoe, launching several day trips from there: Carson City, Reno and Virginia City. But the best excursion – the one I really planned my trip around – was to Bodie State Historic Park, home to a ghost town. (#Boo.)

W.S. Bodey of Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold on the site in 1859. (He died several months later in a blizzard, which probably explains why the name of his namesake town wound up misspelled.)

At its peak, Bodie had about 7,000 residents. Only about 5% of the structures from that period survive, but that’s enough to provide a fascinating, throwback experience. When California State Parks purchased the land in 1962, it chose not to restore or renovate any of the buildings. It merely maintains them as they were discovered.

The town’s population dwindled after Bodie’s heyday of 1877-1881, although mining continued until 1942. What’s left standing has a bit of a Pompeii feel to it, as if everyone bolted one day with only what they could carry in their pickup trucks. Everything else – clothes, toys, furniture, mattresses, baby carriages – was left behind.

The Bodie cemetery is filled with the graves of residents that didn’t make it out – many of them gunmen killed in shoot outs. The visitor’s guide provides some back stories:

  • Alexander Nixon, a native of Tyrone, Ireland, died in 1878 at age 38. He lost a gunfight with a friend. They were arguing over who was the better man. Not sure there was a definitive outcome to the debate, but the friend was the better shot.
  • Chatto Encinos was killed by Sam Chung in 1880, for raiding Chung’s vegetable garden.
  • John Goff was shot in a claim jumping dispute in 1879.
  • Darwin award winner A.C. Robertson died in 1880 while trying to thaw out frozen gun powder in his oven. Seriously? Who DOES that?

Small flags are scattered amidst the cemetery’s desert brush. They pinpoint possible unmarked graves recently identified by human remains detection dogs. See what I mean? Spooky!

The visit was worth the 2.5 hour drive in each direction. As road trips go, I’d say I hit the mother lode.

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One of the Family

Puzzle photoMy friends and family know I’m a genealogy wonk. Some nights I become engrossed in researching one ancestor or another, until I finally look up at a clock and realize I’m famished and exhausted because… I’ve been head down for hours without a break. I promise myself I’ll eat or drink something, just as soon as I finish one last census search…

Like I said, I’m kind of a geek about this stuff.

I also love television series like “Who Do You Think You Are” on TLC, and “Genealogy Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. These shows often (but not always) focus on celebrities, and zero in on just one or two ancestral lines that reveal Civil or Revolutionary War connections. Occasionally, a celeb will have a ne’er do well, bigamist great-great grandfather or something – but that’s not the norm.

Smiles, everyone. SMILES!

I’m fascinated when celebrities are clueless about their lineage. In other words they’re JUST LIKE THE REST OF US, bless their hearts.

When I dream about how I’d spend a Powerball jackpot, top of my list is hiring baby-faced genealogist D. Joshua Taylor to document my family tree. Knucklehead celebrities would apparently rather blow their loot on tiny dogs that fit in their Prada purses, or gold-plated Cadillac Escalades. Go figure.

Today I read about Ben Affleck’s alleged attempts, during a 2014 guest appearance on Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots”, to suppress that he descends from slave owners. (This was exposed by WikiLeaks. I can only assume the group has run out of serious transgressions when it targets PBS.)

According to leaked emails, Gates felt pressured to ignore Affleck’s slavery connections, and worried about his own professional integrity and credibility if he did so. In the end, he chose to focus on a more illustrious Affleck ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, and whose discovery made Ben “very proud”. Maybe the patriot ancestor had a better narrative than the slave-owning ancestor — but now we’ll never know.

Researching your family tree is a crapshoot – emphasis at times on “crap”. Too bad Ben didn’t ask me for pointers:

  • Genealogy is not for the faint of heart: Most of my family discoveries have been fascinating and exciting, but a few make me cringe a little. Each of us has 32 three-times great grandparents. (That’s the Civil War generation, in my case.) Odds are they won’t all be Union war heroes and captains of industry. Get over it.
  • Descending from slave owners or criminals feels crummy: I get it. Even though YOU didn’t own slaves, rob a bank or abandon your family, an ancestor doing so can make you feel guilty. If the prospect of uncovering a black sheep is very upsetting, family research is probably not for you.

Let Ben Affleck have his revisionist history. I see my family tree as a jigsaw puzzle to solve. I didn’t choose it – it belonged to someone before me, and I just found it on a shelf in the attic. Some pieces are missing, and I may NEVER find them. So I complete what I can, and celebrate my ancestors – even the cads and rogues — because without them, I wouldn’t be here.

Cartoon of Darth Vadar in front of a computer screen, researching his family tree. He exclaims "So, Luke has a sister!"

TV’s Sunday Best

Black and white photo of three women watching a small television, probably 1950 - 1960.Sunday is my favorite night for TV watching. That’s in part because I prep for it. I am generally well-rested and relaxed on Sunday evenings, after two days off work. I’ve spent time outdoors. To do’s like laundry, housecleaning and meal prep are checked off, and I can sit with a cup of tea or glass of wine in my hand, feeling accomplished and caught-up.

Really, though, it is quality programming that keeps me a Sunday night shut-in. Sunday has, at different points, been home to Mad Men, Homeland and NBC Sunday Night Football. And for the past few months, it has offered a buffet of anglophiliac delights on PBS.

Two favorites had their season finales last night: The Great British Baking Show, and Downton Abbey (Season Five).

A set photo from the Great British Baking ShowThe Great British Baking Show is exactly what it sounds like: a reality show in which 12 amateur British bakers compete by whipping up (pun intended) exotic creations, such as Kouign Amann, Schichttorte and Povitica, as well as standards like tea scones. Timing is always tight, and the judges are always uncompromising.

I scoffed initially, and ignored the first few episodes. What could be more boring than watching a bunch of people baking things – especially for someone like me, who is more partial to savory than to sweet? But the desserts were beautiful, and the contestants were so supportive of one another — if they were any nicer, it would have been called The Great CANADIAN Baking Show. One of the bakers, Martha, was just 17 years old and preparing for her A level exams while competing. When she fell behind during one of her final bakes, competitor Richard helped her finish in time.

So Shark Tank, it was not. It has been such a hit in the U.S., I expect we’ve not seen the last of The Great British Baking Show. Until then, bakers… ready, set, bake!

Next up: Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show from the first episode, thus witnessing trials and tribulations of the Crawley family spanning decades. (For the past few seasons, those have felt like some long decades.) The plot often drives me nutty, but… I AM NOT A QUITTER. I know I should cut my losses and walk away, but just can’t shake the hope that the next episode will be better. (I blame Mad Men for this possibly false hope.)

Creator Julian Fellows is well-known for his adherence to historical details. Formal table settings and hemlines at the fictional Downton match the rigid requirements of the day, but social mores are all over the place. Lord Grantham freaks out if his tie is the wrong color at dinner, yet when daughter Edith has a baby out-of-wedlock, then “adopts” her from her foster family, he greets the news with a shrug better suited to Parenthood.

edith-marigold-downton-abbeyPoor Lady Edith. She was left at the altar by fiancé number one, then impregnated by fiancé number two, who was killed by Nazis before he could make an honest woman of her. Also, Poor Edith is sad because she has the meanest sister in all of England.

What is there to say about Lady Mary? This season, she cut her hair short, and took up the same cold, opportunistic ruthlessness she abandoned when she married Matthew. She juggled two suitors, tearing one (Lord Tony Gillingham) away from his betrothed, and sleeping with him… then deciding he was boring. What’s-her-name could keep him after all.

Mary even invited herself to their wedding!

And, she was mean to Poor Edith, who is a better mother to her fake foundling than Lady Mary will ever be to her legitimate, little…um… baby boy Crawley. (Just kidding, I know his name is George but that has a lot less panache than “Marigold”.)

Yes, Tony Gillingham was boring, but so was the other guy courting Mary, whose name really DOES escape me. He resembled Tony so much that I couldn’t keep the two straight. He went from potential second husband material, to a sidekick in Mary’s schemes to dump Tony, to… just… gone. Mary is not one to hang on the vine, though, and last night we were introduced to a third charming, dark-haired (naturally) man at a fancy shooting party. He likes Mary, and driving fast cars. I smell trouble.

This is all standard stuff at Downton. Hapless, mundane storylines run on and on, but they don’t resolve themselves in a satisfying way. They fizzle out, long after the audience ceases to care.

Lady Edith is pining for Marigold!

The village is building a war memorial!

Daisy likes reading!

Let’s just hope we’ve seen the last of the Bates family’s legal woes. Neither of them murdered anyone, OK? That storyline was the biggest, smelliest rotten tomato (or should I say toe-MAH-toe) of them all.

Downton returns in 2016, and despite my misgivings I’m sure I’ll be watching, if only to enjoy the sight of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson flirting! Score one for the old folks!

For now, I’ll get my Sunday night “Masterpiece” fix from the much-hyped Grantchester. James Norton plays a dreamy country vicar named Sidney Chambers, who spends far too much time loitering at the local police station. He solves approximately one crime per week… but his sermons are usually crap, because he doesn’t have time to write a good one.

Also, he has the meanest housekeeper in all of England.


What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey's Lady Mary Crawley,  Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham and Lady Edith Crawley
Lady Mary Crawley, Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham and Lady Edith Crawley


The answer is… nothing. Nothing is funny about Downton Abbey — or compelling, or even mildly entertaining for that matter. Not anymore, and not for a long time.

Last night, American viewers flocked to season four’s finale with hope in our hearts — despite all that has come before — and we were let down. It was sad, like Lady Edith. So today I’m one of many bloggers bemoaning what Downton Abbey has become, thanks to Julian Fellows and his writing staff. (At least I assume he has a writing staff; finding a group of people who can collectively churn out such awful storylines and dreadful dialogue must take some doing.)

Like anyone who appreciates smart, imaginative television, I go nuts when a series that once captivated me starts to implode. It’s even worse when the season ends without an enticing twist to make me nostalgic: “Well, maaaaybe I’ll give that show one more chance.” Think Homeland, which deteriorated over time, with a plot so frenetic and characters so deliriously overwrought my head is still spinning. Yet a fourth season approaches, and Brody is DEAD, Carrie is about to GIVE BIRTH, Saul is ON A MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE and Dana is STILL VERY RESENTFUL. Anything can happen, right? I’m not ready to let go!

Meanwhile back at Downton, Julian Fellows appears completely out of ideas. Lady Mary Crawley has emerged from mourning her late husband (and cousin) Matthew Crawley, and make no bones about it — her shingle is OUT and she’s open for business. She is dangling not one, not two, but three suitors with the chilly efficiency of… Lady Mary Crawley, the season one version. Aside from her elusive baby George, and her sudden interest in profitable pig farming, Mary has not evolved one bit.

Her hangdog sister Lady Edith is still the unluckiest character England’s fictional aristocracy has ever seen. In the first three seasons, Edith was dumped twice by Anthony – the second time at the altar. She also fell hard for a mysterious World War I veteran, wrapped in more bandages than an Egyptian mummy. He too flew the coop, as NPR’s Linda Holmes blogged, “as quickly as a writer who suddenly realizes he has no idea where this plotline is going.”

At the start of season four, Edith falls in love with Michael Gregson, a London newspaper editor. He’s married but his wife is mad. (Julian Fellows, meet Charlotte Brontë.) While he’s planning a trip to Germany – sure to be a romantic paradise for generations to come! — for a quickie divorce, he and Edith enjoy a quickie of a different sort, and she ends up in a family way.

Of course she does, because she’s Lady Edith.

Alas, Michael disappears on his first night in Berlin after a run in with a band of Nazis(!), forcing Edith to flee to Switzerland for nine months with Aunt Rosalind to (a-HEM), “learn French”. She has her baby there – a girl she puts up for adoption — then returns to Downton, her absence having scarcely registered.

Nearly every other plotline on Downton Abbey is now superfluous. Tom the ex-chauffer remains in a limbo state, wrestling with his socialist conscience while enjoying port and cigars in the Downton drawing room. He flirts with a suffragette and considers moving to America. (I’d offer to help him pack.)

Thomas still schemes, engineering the hiring of lady’s maid Baxter, who he is blackmailing – with what, after nine episodes, we still don’t know. And there’s Bates and Anna, Molesley, James the pretty boy footman, Alfred and Ivy and, um… ZZZZZZ.

And so it is after four seasons: I’m through with the Crawleys and everyone who works below stairs at Downton Abbey. Sunday night simply must have more to offer.

Come to think of it, Baseball — America’s pastime — resumes in April and there’s always a Sunday night game on Fox Sports.

Blimey, enough with the manor born. It’s time to put down the Pimms cups, strap on your athletic cups (not you, ladies) and PLAY BALL!

"Old Baseballs On Folk Art Flag" by Gary Gay.
“Old Baseballs On Folk Art Flag” by Gary Gay.