From the official site of the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association:
The 51st annual California State old-time fiddle and picking contest championships will take place March 17-18, 2017, at the Oroville Veterans Memorial Hall, Oroville Calif.
The notice is dated in relation to publication of this article of course, but events of recent times have served to stir the old melancholy enchantments that lure the heart and soul back down paths once traveled, but now trail away into time and distance. The fiddle festival at Oroville was a refreshing pause back there on life’s long meandering trail an interval where a dormant musical interest was revived and enduring friendships were born.
The fiddler’s festival was a convenient place for a scattering of “bluegrassers” from the North State to take an early holiday, to pick, sing and party even though the fiddlers association was sometime cool toward our presence there, considering the never ending acoustic jams taking place across the grounds a distraction from the activities of the fiddling/picking contests and other entertainments. The impromptu music jams also competed with the “fiddle dusters” for public invitations to entertain at local venues around town.
The Oroville Veterans Hall sits on a high levee, or embankment betwixt the south side of the Feather River and the low-lying part of town a short ways downstream from Oroville Dam, recently in the news for damage and stress caused by torrential rain and flooding which put the dam in danger of being breached, in the process threatening perhaps a couple of 100,000 downstream residents.
The times attending the old time fiddle and flat picking contest on the bank of the Feather River are fondly remembered, but not my only connection to the area. Not only was scenic Highway 70 down the deep cut Feather River Canyon a favorite weekend drive the years my family and I lived at Red Bluff in the upper Sacramento Valley, the mountainous areas to the north and to the east of Oroville were within my range as a career logger. Some of the outlying way back villages had names as Forbes Town, Brownsville, Berryville, Con Cow and Clipper Mills, old mining and logging towns long abandoned by their industries, places best visited during the light of day not the type of hangouts a stranger might want to frequent during the wee hours of night.
Upstream from Lake Oroville, French Creek, tributary to Feather River flows into the Feathers north fork. My fellow loggers and I spent the better part of two seasons harvesting timber in this rugged area of the Sierra range during the 1970s. From our homebase at Red Bluff 60 miles north of Oroville, to the job site was a two and one half hour commute, southward on 99 east to Highway 70 just north of Oroville, up river and across the lofty arc bridge at Con Cow, to the rivers east side at four Trees Road, climbing out of the canyon over a high eastward ridge and descending into the French Creek basin from the north.
A bone weary drive under the best of conditions, the last mountainous bit of it made especially bad in pre-spring when snow banks along the way leached water onto the roadway during the warmth of day with both the water and wet snow freezing to rock solid ice in the nighttime cold, a period that the road was negotiable only by four-wheel drive vehicles.
The site was also accessible from the south by road around Lake Oroville’s eastern shoreline but there was no bridge span at French Creek and the wet crossing was not fordable until later in the year after run-off from the winter snow pack diminished and water levels subsided. Time wise the commute was roughly the same, but just off the creeks south bank was an area that offered rough camping for sportsmen, loggers or for anyone that for any reason wanted to escape the buzz of civilization.
Figuring adequate sack-time and a 15 minutes drive across the shallow water ford and up to the job site of the mornings was a mite better than leaving town at 3 a.m., followed by a two-plus hour commute, soon as favorable conditions prevailed my co-worker and I set out from home on a late Sunday afternoon, camp trailer in tow, destination the camp site at French Creek.
Contour work on the mountainside above the lake’s upper end prevented plans for making evening camp. Instead, halted by ongoing construction, the night was spent parked in the middle of the highway listening to boulders crashing down onto the road, bouncing across and splashing into waters below.
A hodge podge of interests came in and out of camp, recreationists, Woodsmen from various enterprises, “hippies” and other ‘getaways’ seemingly at odds with civilization. From veteran campers already familiar with the site, we were advised to clean the camper of all valuables, food etc. and leave the door unlocked upon leaving for the weekend to prevent thievery and break-in damage to the abandoned unit. Apprised of these less than favorable prospects my partner and I stayed the week, packed our belongings, pulled the camper home and swallowed the long tiring commute for the remainder of the harvest.
Oroville proved not to be the outer edge of our southward range, that dubious distinction can be seen from I-40 looking southward to the narrow ridgeline above Donner Lake on the climb up from Truckee, Calif., to Donner Summit, an area too remote and difficult even for bohemian cultures that live off the hard work of their neighbors.
I last visited California the middle of last March, driving from Kingman, Ariz., up and over a snowy Donner Summit in late day, down the westward slope and into the upper Sacramento Valley, the only glimpse of Oroville a shimmer of lights as I passed by the town in darkness of night. The old time fiddlers and picking contest was scheduled for a couple of days after my arrival but times had moved along; I opted instead for a private St. Patrick Day picking party midst an olive orchard at nearby Corning, Calif., reunited with a gathering of old bluegrass picking friends.
The recent flooding at Oroville reminded that there have long been apocalyptic predictions concerning the great state of California: that it might slough off into the ocean during some gigantic earthquake, that catastrophic forest fires would incinerate its vast forest lands, laying waste to industries, torching towns and villages, and more recently, that its spreading agricultural lands were in danger of desertification because of climate change. (For a truly dramatic projection of Armageddon now, feature a concerned U.S. president walking ankle deep in dust through withered fields where even insects are dying of thirst.)
But despite political claims that the recent California drought which apparently ended with flood waters coming perilously close to washing out the 700-foot tall Oroville Dam and displacing hundreds of thousands in the fertile farmland below, has been one of biblical proportion, it is not all that unusual according to climate scientists whose research indicate that California’s past is marked by soul-crushing droughts that last 30 years or longer and have brought complex societies to their knees.
Meanwhile, major flooding is also a periodic occurrence: The Oroville area endured major flooding in 1955, three years after my arrival in the state. One local reported driving a boat over the top of his submerged house and in the flood of 1986, one old gentleman living down stream was heard saying, “well I ain’t got a boat, can’t swim, so I’m moving back to Minnesota, may freeze to death but at least I won’t drown.” The great ‘64 flood of North California cut every artery except air into Eureka blocking my family’s return home from Christmas vacation. A man and dog, seen stranded on flood debris at the mouth of the Eel River was washed out to sea, there was multiple loss of life and two hover-craft, a civilian and a military, were lost during rescue operations.
Today, I look back in amazement over a 55 years long trail laid down by my footsteps across a state that was surely the salvation of a poverty bound kid from the back woods of Arkansas. The young “green horns” first venture into the timbering industry was (aptly) in the Green Horn Mountains off the Kern River north of Bakersfield. And from there, a winding trail.
I do appreciate the state offering me opportunity for a comfortable life but now the question presented by an old song; where have all the flowers gone? Can you imagine that they’re gone because California was in debt $5 billion under Grey Davis, the state’s last real governor ere chaos overtook? Public outrage got the people the fiasco of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which led to whatever it is we have now, and a debt approaching $1 trillion. They, as they say, are welcome to the chase, I opt for less dusty trails.
It all comes full circle here in Arkansas with only an occasional melancholy drift back into the comforts of old memories, of family, and friends that were my trail buddies along the way.
My own “Westward Ho The Wagons” began at the Greyhound bus depot at Fort Smith in 1952 at age 19, a Gibson guitar in a leather case and the clothes on my back. Who can say where the final leg of the trip will lead or what adventures may yet lay along the trail.