The Small Town

by Liz Blakemore

In northern California, about 50 miles west of Redding on Highway 299, there is a small, sleepy town called Weaverville (population of about 3500) that is surrounded by the snowcapped Trinity Alps, so named for their similarity to the craggy mountains of the Swiss Alps. Formerly a mining town, this is where I lived for three years as a young child, but more importantly, it is where nearly all of my mother's family either lives or is buried. There is a certain indescribable scent to the fresh air that can be smelled only in the vicinity of Weaverville. Though I was not born in this town and now live 600 miles away, when I step out of the car and smell the air, I feel as if a part of me is home again.

For me, driving to Weaverville is similar to driving into a different era. Driving southbound on Interstate 5, making a right turn in Redding onto what is considered the road with the most twists in the state of California, sets me towards the Trinity Alps and a far more simple time of life. I can remember an age when I sat in the back seat with my older brother and sister in a '55 Buick every Sunday, driving to and from the church in Redding. An hour drive, we usually counted the turns on the Buckhorn Mountain Pass (52, same as a deck of cards) and played the alphabet game (the "Z" is on the Suzuki sign just inside the city of Redding). Driving towards Weaverville, I know exactly where to stop for water; my mother's Buick once overheated on the pass and we were very lucky to have gotten to the spot before losing the engine. My mother would marvel every spring over the dogwoods in bloom. Though I would not recognize a dogwood in a forest, I can always remember her exclaiming over the beauty of the flowers.

Downtown starts at the corner of Main and Oregon and is one long block. At the beginning of the street, there is an empty building that was once a grocery store and next door, the only town theatre. Walking further up the street, there is old Doc Field's house and office, now converted into a Mexican restaurant. At one time, my best friend and her family lived in that house; it has seen may people since the days that Doc Fields and his nurse, my great-grandmother, practiced medicine there. Next door is the surveyor's office, with the Bank of California next door to that. They are newer looking structures in comparison to the rest of the downtown. The next set of buildings, on both sides of the street, which include outer spiral staircases (that, as far as I can remember back, have never been available for climbing), are quite old, dating back over 150 years. In these buildings, there are assorted businesses, including the real estate office, antique stores, ice cream shops, taverns, and the all-important hardware store that houses the Boston Whaler boat dealer. They have been well preserved and there are plaques on the outer walls describing the original purposes of the buildings. Inside, the original wood floors have been warped from many years of walking. Many proprietors have operated businesses in these buildings, including the department store my fourth grade teacher ran after his retirement from teaching. The old post office was once at the end of the street but has now been moved around the corner. My grandmother would walk up the street to the post office each day, usually with her dog and several cats in tow. The library also resided on this street. As a child, I loved the small library; too many books in a crowded space provided me with a safe haven. The library has moved to a larger building and does not feel as warm and cozy anymore.

The county offices and courthouse are at the end of the street, in an old, bright red building that also has been very well preserved. Though I have never been inside this building, I understand that the courtroom is very beautiful, crafted from fine wood. I can imagine that if it's anything like the other old buildings, the flooring is warped and it smells of old wood.

South of Oregon Street from the main part of town stands an official state historical monument, the Joss House. Built in the late 1800's, it enabled the Chinese gold miners their only place to worship. A Taoist worshiper may come at any time to offer a gift to the many gods that are depicted there or a tourist can pay $5.00 to walk through the Joss House, maybe accompanied by my aunt, one of the tour guides. Next door to the Joss House is the Historical Society Museum, within houses artifacts (old guns, rifles, smoking pipes, old tools), clothing (turn of the century dresses, suits, and shoes), and black and white photographs of former residents. My great uncle's picture from when he was the fireman's mascot at the age of five is displayed behind glass. Downstairs is the original jail, with all the prisoner graffiti, moved to the museum whe the new jail was built. There are dated signatures of the inmates and an extremely detailed drawing of Jesus. Next door is my great-grandfather's still fully operational blacksmith shop, with a plaque that tells the story of how he came to Weaverville. The Historical Society offers blacksmith lessons for anyone interested in the trade. The museum holds a bittersweet memory for me; the grand opening that the entire town turned out for happened the weekend before my mother died.

Behind the theatre and grocery store is a small, tin-roofed house. Once red, now painted white, this is the house where my grandmother was born and where she and my mother died. This is the house that I lived in for the three years I lived in Weaverville. My backyard was a creek, with the rocks set in just the right places to enable simple walking across without getting wet feet. My sister and I, on hot days, would fry tadpoles on the street behind the creek. Or, if we were more curious (or less bored?), we would capture the tadpoles, leaving them in a large pot and watch them grow into frogs. On lazy days, we could sit on the porch and watch the tourists walking through the Joss House and wonder who they were. We didn't have a very large yard, but we did have extremely creative imaginations and invented many ways to play outside. We had numerous cats and a dog; the farm across the creek also had a donkey to ride and a big barn to play in. Those days were far simpler and life was grand.

My most recent trip to Weaverville was over the last spring break, in mid March to visit my only remaining relative on my mother's side. My 70-year-old aunt is a character that fits in well in this town. She keeps saying she wants to sell her house and move to someplace warmer and yet she never goes. An extremely independent, intelligent and beautiful woman, she never chose never to marry. The unappointed keeper of the family history, she boils over with anecdotes and stories and I love to spend time with her in her smallish, two-story house on top of Oregon Mountain, overlooking Weaverville. The house has many large windows and no curtains. The view of the snowy Alps to the north is spectacular and it is a gift from God to witness the sun rising above the Cascade Mountains to the east. She has no TV, no Internet, no cable or satellite dish, and only a small radio that is usually turned to NPR to catch the news. Cell phones have no reception at her house either. It is a true escape from reality to be in the middle of the woods, with the closest neighbor about a half a mile away.

The four days I spent in Weaverville were extremely memorable. The weather was warm and sunny; the sky devoid of any clouds. One evening, after darkness fell, we went outside to look at the stars. My aunt knows the names of the constellations and helped me to recognize the bright starry arrangements. In the darkness on top of that mountain, I saw, clearly, the big and little Dippers, Orion, and so many others that I can't remember their names. I saw Venus, Mars, and Saturn. We saw all of this with either the naked eye or with help from an old pair of binoculars. No fancy telescopes on top of this mountain, at least not at my aunt's house.

On the last day of my visit, those days spent away from reality, I went to the cemetery to look up my mother's family. I spent an hour at the cemetery sitting with my relatives, reading their headstones. Each white headstone displayed a name, date of birth, date of death; most said "beloved son," "daughter," "mother," or "father." I said good-bye to the aunt who died two years ago. I talked with my mother who was taken away from me when I was merely nine years old. I then sat with my grandmother, who died when I was 28. Her parents and two brothers are also buried there and I greeted them as well. As I drove away from this small town, I felt once again at peace and it caused me to wonder if I would ever return. I realized, though, that I am drawn to this town; I will return. Maybe I will be buried here, too. Will it say, "Beloved daughter," "niece," "granddaughter?" One more headstone amongst the many already in place, in the sleepy town of Weaverville.

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