When it comes to travel there are really only two forces that drive us to the destinations we visit.
Either we hear about them from somewhere else, or we stumble upon those we know nothing about.
In the case of the Nicaraguan rodeo, that was a stumble. For nearly anywhere else, however, either we have read about it in a book, learned about in school, watched a documentary about it on television, see it featured in a magazine, or heard from a friend that this place is amazing and you should go visit if you ever get a chance.
In the case of Placerville, California, however, I learned of it through somewhat of a unique channel … eavesdropping.
While working as crew on a sailboat in Hawaii, I once overheard the conversation of a visiting couple about their recent day spent in a place called Placerville.
“I don’t know about that place,” the rotund, slightly graying woman mentioned to her neighbor on the catamaran. “There was something eerie about it. It’s just so far removed from everything, and if I were a mass murderer on the run from the law that’s definitely where I would go. Placerville.”
For reasons unbeknownst to me, this conversation – which I wasn’t even a part of – stuck with me for the better part of a decade. I would see the name “Placerville” on a map and would immediately picture outlaws. Someone would mention the name Placerville and I would feel compelled to ask if they had seen any mass murderers.
Given this strange fascination, I was recently taken aback when my wife asked me if I wanted to go wine tasting and apple picking for the day.
“Sure”, I agreed. “Where are we going?”
%Gallery-171913%Now don’t get me wrong, the wine tasting in Placerville is a great reason to visit, but for some reason I was expecting to hang out in a town full of whiskey and gold as opposed to wine and apples. Something about the image of train robbers and prospectors sitting around a campfire sharing thinly sliced Fuji and decanting their zinfandel just doesn’t seem quite right.
Nevertheless, after driving an hour east from Sacramento into the brisk, autumn air of the Sierra Nevada foothills, something caught my eye that suggested a bit of lawlessness still permeated the town.
Right there on Main Street – an historic thoroughfare, which does indeed look like a Wild West throwback – was an effigy of some poor chap hanging from a noose for all the town to see. As I would come to find out, when gold was discovered in nearby Coloma in 1848, the area around Placerville would become ground zero for the California Gold Rush, and everyone from entrepreneurs to ne’er do wells set out West in the hope of striking it rich. For a short period of time, Placerville would actually become the third largest city in all of California.
None of which, however, explains why there is a dead man hanging from a noose smack in the middle of downtown.
As history has indicated, the West in the mid 1800s was somewhat of a lawless arena. Saloons and brothels were built upon the nugget-filled Earth and rough and tumble mountain-folk engaged in Darwinian survival. Despite the degree of lawlessness, however, occasionally criminals were still brought to justice.
And as it just so happens, the place where outlaws would meet their maker was right here in these foothills in an outpost known as Hangtown, their criminal corpses swinging from a tree, which once stood in the same place I find myself standing right now.
Turns out, from 1849-1854 the town of Placerville was officially known as “Hangtown,” due in large part to the copious amount of public hangings, which would take place right along Main Street. One Placerville legend speaks of some thieves who were tried in an impromptu, 30-minute trial and were hung within the hour.
Standing there across from the historic Cary House – a classic brick hotel built in 1857 where the elevator was purchased with a gold nugget found in the basement – I realized that this wasn’t just a place where outlaws went to hide, but this was also a place where outlaws went to die.
That was then, however, and this is now, and seeing as California did away with hanging in 1937, the town’s outlaw nature, it would seem, is something of the past.
While the gold rush history of Placerville is apparent (the hardware store is still proudly an authorized dealer of metal detectors), the main draw, I would find out, is exactly what we came here for in the first place: apples and wine.
Within a short driving distance from the historic downtown there are over 50 vineyards belonging to the El Dorado wine country, as well as over 55 ranchers who make up the Apple Hill Growers Association. The result of all the agricultural abundance is a day trip where you can spend hours meandering the simple backroads, casually sip on zinfandel and syrah, and shop through markets, which teem with fresh produce.
It’s about the most wholesome, least outlaw-laden environment imaginable.
So after half a decade of picturing a town overrun by Unabombers in hiding, I instead found a welcoming gold mining outpost with affable viticulturists and farmers. Granted, there is a hanging puppet swinging in the downtown corridor, but there is also a group of children in a pumpkin patch laughing as they climb a hay bale.
This, I suppose, is precisely the reason we travel; to either confirm the notions we hold of somewhere or dispel what myths we might have believed.
In the case of Placerville, I came to find hermits on the run from the law, and I left with a car full hot apple pies.
[Photo Credits: Kyle Ellison]