The Magical Olden Days

by Daniel Borgström

I'll be 72 this month, and I've spent most of my life here in California, living in various parts of the state, right now in Berkeley, on a rise where I look out across San Francisco Bay and see the City, the Bay Bridge, Mount Tamalpais . . . .

Mentally, my gaze fixes on Mount Tamalpais, and my thoughts drift over to the seacoast on the other side of that mountain, onto a winding road along the sheer cliffs, the ocean a couple hundred feet below. Mile after mile of hairpin curves unwind themselves till the cliffs give way to a wide beach, and a small town. The road traverses the town, skirts an estuary, then goes up the San Andreas Fault Zone, a long narrow valley eventually becoming Tomales Bay. West of the fault is the Point Reyes peninsula, and at its northernmost extreme, the land narrows to an extended windswept ridge with the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. At the end of the road there's a farm.

It's the old Pierce Point Ranch, dating back to 1858, now preserved as an historical site, which I visit sometimes, the cold wind whipping around me, summoning up the fantasy of my actually having lived there, perhaps in some previous lifetime. The ranch is quite large, having been almost a small settlement, maybe around 1900, with a huge barn and numerous other buildings, including a tiny school for the dozen or so kids who attended it, some from a nearby fishing village. The old classroom is kept locked; I peer in the window and fancy having been the teacher, maybe a century ago.

Point Reyes, and that ranch in particular, so often come to my mind, even though I never actually lived there. I'm not even from California, not originally. I was born in Alaska and my first home was in a remote mining camp in the Fairbanks area, a place I have no first-hand memories of, only a few photos and what my parents told me of it. They used to talk about it a lot. The mine probably employed less than a dozen people, my father having been one of the miners. Gold was what they mined. My father had also worked in other mines up there in Alaska, and before that at the coal mine in Bellingham, Washington. It was in 1938 that he went to Alaska, and after saving up some money, he and Mother returned to the Puget Sound area where they bought the farm I grew up on. They were looking it over prior to their buying it when Mother turned on the car radio and heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That was on December 7, 1941, before I was old enough to have any memories.

The Pacific Northwest was a beautiful place to grow up. Our farm was between Bellingham and the Canadian border, and to the east of us we could look out our window on a clear day and see snow-capped Mount Baker, a volcano which had last erupted in the 1880s, showering ash on the city of Bellingham. Since that eruption was something of the past, people around there considered it a "dead" volcano. Eruptions over. And that symbolized the region for me -- beautiful, but quiet, dormant, everything over with, done with. Like the ending of a Western movie with some really exciting action and then ending with the characters living happily ever after, which to me meant a dull, uneventful, unchanging existence.

Life on the farm was pretty humdrum. All the exciting stuff was over. My parents used to talk about their time in Alaska, of their adventures in a territory where people hunted and fished and prospected for gold. I grew up reading Jack London stories; many of them about the sort of things my parents had experienced. My father had been a fisherman, a coal miner, and at other times a prospector, but was now a farmer.

We raised chickens, and when you raise chickens, you have to feed them and pick eggs 365 days a year. We had about three thousand chickens, so it didn't matter if it were Christmas, the 4th of July, or whatever. You had to be there taking care of those chickens, and it wasn't just a regular nine-to-five situation. It was all day and often late into the evening. One day each year my parents finished up the chores early in the afternoon, so we could take a drive to the seashore or the mountains. One day, just one day.

Our farm was on flat river-bottom land, fertile but ordinary. Interesting things seemed to happen only in interesting terrain – that is, in rugged, mountainous terrain. At least that's the way it was in Western movies. The distant Cascades loomed so beautifully, so intriguing and enticing. That was where adventure was to be found, and from the stories my father told, that seemed to have been the reality.

My father and his partner Joe Crnich used to go prospecting in those mountains. That was before my time, back during the Depression years, when work at the Bellingham Coal Mine was limited to a few days a month They had staked a claim up there, on the North Fork of the Nooksack river, somewhere above the falls. My father once took me there. The tunnel went some 20 feet into the mountain. I don't know if they ever got much gold out of it. Maybe a little, but they lost the mine to a claim jumper who must've thought it was worth stealing. But apparently the claim jumper didn't get much out of it either, or so my father thought, because the mine showed no indication of having been worked since my father and his partner had last seen it.

They put in the majority of their time at the Bellingham Coal Mine. Besides Joe Crnich, I can still name half a dozen of the other guys on the crew. They were all close friends in later years, the ones my father went to visit whenever he had an evening free. Although I remember little about them, I do remember their names, since I'd heard my father talk about them so much.

The Bellingham mine was in operation from the 1850s till it closed in 1954, and at one time as many as 250 men worked in it. The entrance was on the bank above Squalicum Creek, close to where it emptied into the bay. We drove past it whenever we went to town. There was a large superstructure above the mine entrance, which my father used to point to, calling it the "tipple," telling me that it contained a hoist which was used to load the coal onto trucks. It's all gone now; there's a supermarket where the mine entrance used to be, and there's not even a monument to the miners who once worked there.

Another thing I remember about the town of Bellingham were the remnants of a railroad track running down Holly Street, part of the Inter Urban --a defunct public transportation system from the "Early Days," as my father referred to them. Those unused rails added to my general feeling that just about everything of interest in that entire region was from the past, and was over and done with.

Our next door neighbor was also from the past. Then in his seventies, Fred Strickland had been born in Missouri in 1875. Like my parents, he'd been in Alaska, and still had an old rifle that he acquired when he was a young man, a 45-70 with a rolling block action, a real cannon, huge and heavy, or so it seemed to me at the time He also had a team of plough horses. The name of one was Dixie; I've forgotten what he called the other. Fred used to come over and mow our hay for us, after which I got to ride on a horse-drawn hay wagon.

Fred wore heavy boots that almost came up to his knees; people in the area called them "loggers." Fred spoke with a Missouri accent, using old-timey expressions such as "like to broke my heart," (which appears in the lyrics of The Yellow Rose of Texas). and "pretty near" which he pronounced "per' near."

He was a living connection with the old west, and those were some of the memories he left me with. He lived in a house that was a actually a joining together of a bunk house and a cook house from an old sawmill on the property. This whole region had once been covered by a forest of large trees, Fred told me. By our time the trees had all been cut down and sawn up, with just a few very large stumps remaining to remind us of what had once been there. One of such tree, on display in a roadside park, had been hollowed out and was large enough to drive a car through.

By my time there were roads, power lines, electric lights, and automobiles -- that was the world I grew up in. All the trappings of modern life and civilization. The olden days were over with and the frontier was gone, though memories of it lived on in old-timers like Fred. Some of that world was also preserved in stories, like "The Little House in the Big Woods," which our teacher used to read to us. "Pioneer Park" was within walking distance of my grade school; it had some log cabins filled with displays of interesting old stuff, everything from an old mail coach to a cavalry saber and a couple of muzzle loading rifles. Each year they held "The Old Settlers' Picnic," an event, including a parade, to honor the pioneers, some of whom were still alive in the 1950s.

On Friday nights we'd sometimes go to the movies. One that had much of the imagery I dreamed about was "Track of the Cat." The story takes place around 1896 on a remote ranch in the cold of winter, and centers on a panther who's attacking the cattle. The three sons set out through the snow, one after the other, to track it down. It was an intense human drama, but being a little kid, I pretty much missed that part of it. What I saw was the snow, the mountains, the ranch -- portrayed in a way that fit with my dreams of life in the frontier world of the olden days before electric power lines came and wiped all that away, replacing oil lamps with electric lights.

The Indians were also gone, most of them anyway. They'd been victims of "progress," that supposedly holy word that was used out on the frontier to justify and legitimize every bad thing: the cutting down of forests, the polluting of streams and rivers, slaughtering the buffalo herds and dividing up the land with barbed wire fences. I hated barbed wire.

As a child, I tried to recreate that world in my dreams and projects. Most of our acreage was wooded pasture land, and that's where I built my fort. From the age of seven until thirteen I worked on it, starting with a small log cabin, then adding a tower and a surrounding stockade. That's how I spent my Saturdays. I'd get the tools I needed from our workshop, and I'd also take some food scraps from the kitchen -- lunch for the kitty cats. I'd call the kitties together and we'd march out to the fort, where they'd have their lunch and then hang out with me while I worked on the fort. I created a world of my own, just me and my cats.

There's something almost magical about the early days. In my travels I've come across places that fit with those fantasies. Some have been out in the Mojave desert, some along Death Valley. Another is Fort St. Frederic, the remains of an old stone fortress built by the French in the 1730s, across Lake Champlain from what is now Vermont. Each autumn I go to Vermont, staying with friends who live in a house made with hand-hewn timbers, sit by the fireplace in the evenings, and in the daytime go out in the woods and cut firewood. So much of the past is still alive in Vermont, and while I'm there I just live in it and around it, being part of it.

Then I return to the San Francisco Bay Area and the 21st century. Still, from where I live, I get a view of the hills and mountains of Marin County, where Point Reyes is, and in the most isolated and remote part of it is the old Pierce Point Ranch, now a portal to the past which I can visit, fantasizing about an imaginary sojourn that I might've spent there, back around 1900 or so.

But what would I do there, were I to actually step into the past and journey to that ranch? Maybe I could get a job there as the school teacher. That would be kind of neat. And since some of the kids would've been from a tiny fishing village on Tomales Bay, just below the ranch, I'd go down there sometimes, visit the parents of the kids in my school room, and maybe I'd help out on a fishing boat. I'm sure they could use an extra hand.

August 2013