Several years ago, my husband and I spent our anniversary traveling through the Central California wine country. We decided to visit a town called Paso Robles, and were surprised to find all the businesses closed and some of the streets blocked off. What was happening, we wondered? A power outage, perhaps? A bank robbery gone bad, with the robbers holed up somewhere in a stand-off? Parking our car on a side street, we went to investigate. We found people sitting in folding chairs along the curb, lining the length of the main street on both sides. My husband asked why everyone was camped there. We were told it was Pioneer Day, which the town had been celebrating with a parade since 1931. Intrigued, my husband and I waited along with the others.
We were not disappointed. Soon there was a stream of old tractors, people on horseback, vintage fire-trucks, stagecoaches, and other antique vehicles coming up the street. The participants were dressed as cowboys, gunslingers, saloon girls, prospectors, and well, pioneers. Many of the vehicles were decorated with American flags and red, white and blue streamers.
Paso Robles is one of the fortunate Old West cities to have survived the passage of time. The reason Paso Robles still exists is probably because it was not a mining town, but known for its mineral springs and rich surrounding farm and ranch land. There were numerous Old West towns not so lucky. They boomed during the gold-rush, then fell to ruin when the mines ran dry. Many of these towns are now deserted "ghost towns". Places such as Virginia City and Calico have gone commercial and are tourist destinations with guided tours and souvenir shops. Others have become State Parks.
As a child, I was able to see a true ghost town before it was affected by any commercialism. It was called Bodie, and situated high in the Sierra Mountains of California. The first claims there were recorded in 1860, but it wasn't until 1878 that large gold deposits were found in Bodie. From 1860 to 1877, Bodie had a population of twenty; by 1879 it had grown to twelve thousand. Bodie became known as one of the most lawless, wildest and toughest mining camps in the West.
I was entranced when I visited Bodie all those years ago and saw the rickety wooden jail, the Minor's Hall where they held dances, and the stone Toll House. As I peered through the broken windows into the unoccupied buildings, I tried to imagine Bodie in its heyday. It seemed so exciting and adventurous to my young mind. Now I realize what it must have taken for those individuals to leave home and trek into unknown and hostile territory. Perhaps Paso Robles shouldn't be the only place to celebrate Pioneer Day. It was a phase of American history worthy of a parade.