September 14, 2006

The Personable Town of Murphys

By M.L. Hilton

(MURPHYS, CA) -- I tend to hang out in tourist haunts. I did it even before I was paid to. I like the tourist trade. While it comes with incumbent hassles (more traffic, lots of people) typically it protects a very exceptional environment.

Each tourist area has it owns unique local color and personality. In some places, the locals are very convivial; striking up conversations, taking their time helping, sightseeing you as much as you are sightseeing them. Other places are on auto pilot, the locals are waiting for all the tourists to leave so that they can have back their corner of God’s green earth. My youthful experiences on Catalina Island were like that. Sometimes the paid help would “helpfully” guide people to the bridge to the mainland – that didn’t exist.

My recent trip to Murphys, deep in California Gold Country, was not like that. The uniqueness of the town and its offerings certainly stands on it own. I would have been fine dallying by myself amongst the wine tasting rooms, cafes, and other amusements. I don’t expect to be entertained or even engaged in a serious manner.

But everywhere I went, people offered conversation, interruption, and instructions without my asking first. As I was petting the town donkey in her corral, a women in a car who was driving by stopped and shouted out her name. “That’s Clarissa.”

Ironstone was having a big concert that night and retail clerks and café service staff all wanted to know if I was attending. Each had their own recommendation, and each was also attending. If you get general admission tickets, the local advice is to arrive at 4:30 pm to get just the right piece of grass to enjoy the entertainment (that night Heart).

By far the funniest, was dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Open less than four days, the brisk dinner business was easily as much local as it was tourist. I introduced myself to one of the owners who was also the town’s undertaker and County Coroner. In one ear he was telling me the history of the restaurant – his partner was from Italy and recently divorced from his wife, who kept as part of the divorce settlement their restaurant and its name – which was coincidentally the name of the partner.

In my other ear, when the coroner walked out of earshot, I heard the dirt on the divorce, scandalous claims, and got the giggles about the ex-husband opening his new restaurant almost exactly across the street from the ex-wife’s. I was also regaled with stories about dead men and missing crosses.

It is rare to walk into a town that folds you in so completely. A place that is as happy to see you, as you are to see it. I am sure that as the pressures of growth become more difficult to balance, that maybe some of that small town congeniality will be lost.

But for now, if you want to feel like a part of a different place and a different time make sure you visit Murphys and give yourself time to get to know the locals.

If you would like to read more about Murphys, I have posted these stories:
An overview of the area.
The historic town.
A look at Ironstone Vineyards.
Their big October event, the Grape Stomp.

December 13, 2005

A Toast for Yosemite's Vintner Holidays

By M.L. Hilton

(YOSEMITE, CA) -- There are times when only a few hours separates you from the mundane daily work-a-day life, and journeys so delightful they seem worlds apart. Some trips are gifts in and of themselves; others take on dimensions so ethereal that there will never be a similar confluence.

Bright Autumn weather, spectacular ocean views and rollicking wine events tickled my senses (my sensibilities were otherwise engaged) in beautiful Monterey during the Great Wine Escape in early November.

A couple of days later and a couple of hours by road, the incomparable Yosemite Valley was my destination. I enjoyed an exquisite three days at The Ahwahnee. The trip was like a prism in bright sunshine, there was something delightful at every turn.

If you have an occasion to stay at The Ahwahnee, you must take it. My occasion was a session of the Vintner’s Holiday 2005 series. Moderator Gilles De Chambure, M.S. presided over wine tastings with Chris Benziger, Steven Canter (Davis Bynum Winery), Phil Bilodeau (Grgich Hills) and Bill and Dawnine Dyer of Dyer Vineyards (and other fame). The series included a Vintner’s Reception held in the stone splendor of The Ahwanhee’s grand common area complete with massive fireplaces, crackling fires, enormous windows, and generous pours of the hosts’ wines. Even more fun was the Gala Vintner’s Dinner in The Ahwahnee Dining Room. As unreal in its enormous space as Hogwarts dining hall in the Harry Potter stories, the food presented by Chef Percy Whatley was as excellent as you would find in any culinary mecca.

The weather held amazingly, unseasonably, and old man moon waxed full. It was Yosemite’s magical lantern providing silver light on a deep fall landscape.

Opportunities to visit majesty are usually hampered by daily chores, beautiful weather is a blessing any time, but takes on significance when it is out of season, and romance . . . well, that is provided in books and movies, because there is too little available in most mortal realms.

When you have wine, and food, and weather, and place, what is there left but someone to share it with?

In Yosemite, ardor cloaks itself in many impalpable forms -- in the fragrant smoke of the fireplace that stokes the heart of intimacy. As night’s platinum glow illuminates tall granite towers. And during quiet walks among grandeur when eyes speak more than words.

Yosemite is for falling in love. Sometimes it is under a full moon with the tender heart of a companion; and sometimes it is again with Mother Nature where in her bosom you are reminded of the deep connection between man and his world.