Bliss in a Gold Rush town

A little bit of China meets the mountains in California town

Destination: The West

August 29, 2004|By John Flinn | John Flinn,San Francisco Chronicle

In 1941, James Hilton, the British author of Lost Horizon, was on a lecture tour of the United States. Inevitably, a reporter asked him: In all your wanderings, what's the closest you've found to a real-life Shangri-La? (He was referring to the hidden paradise at the center of the story, where the inhabitants lived very long lives.)

"A little town in northern California," the writer responded, presumably with a wistful, far-away look in his eye. "A little town called Weaverville."

I thought the comparison was pushing it a bit, but I started to wonder as I drove into this pretty alpine hamlet, which is cradled by snow-tipped peaks, and found a weathered string of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flapping along the main street. Then a pair of saffron-robed Buddhist monks came strolling out of a natural-food store.

Maybe Hilton was on to something after all.

For most visitors, though, Weaverville's chief lures are that it's a wonderfully preserved Gold Rush town and gateway to the exquisite Trinity Alps, a miniature Sierra Nevada between Redding, Calif., to the east and Eureka to the west.

Its Old West downtown has changed hardly at all since Hilton's visit, although a new conglomeration of strip malls and fast-food outlets is metastasizing a mile to the east along Highway 299.

In the red-brick downtown, the swinging doors of saloons still open onto wood-plank sidewalks, locust trees still line Main Street and white metal staircases still spiral upward to wrought-iron balconies.

Weaverville Drugs claims to be the oldest pharmacy in California, in operation at the same site since 1853, just five years after Maj. Pierson B. Reading discovered gold nearby in the Trinity River.

Amid the usual knickknack shops and mining museums, there's a smattering of New Age businesses. The shop I saw the monks coming out of, Mountain Marketplace, sells "chakra healing chants" on CD and a snack called a Hemp Bliss Bar, which I summoned the willpower to resist.

Downtown's most intriguing feature -- and something that contributes to the Shangri-La aura -- is the Taoist Joss House, said to be the oldest Chinese temple in continuous use in California. It was originally built in the 1850s, when Weaverville had a sizable Chinese population from Guangdong Province, with their own stores, barbershops, theaters and gambling houses. The temple was rebuilt in 1874 after a fire and hasn't changed much in appearance since then. It's now a state park.

Beneath its fanciful, hand-carved gables and cornices, Chinese characters on the door proclaim it "The Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds." Inside, amid the sweet smell of burning incense, are "spirit screens" meant to keep out evil spirits, silk processional banners imported from China and a large collection of ceremonial urns and statues.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, a Chinese-American man from Eureka entered, lit a stick of incense, prayed silently and left.

"There are no formal services, but it's open to anyone who wants to come in and worship," said Judie Moore, a state park ranger. "We don't get a lot of people, but we get a few from time to time."

Rising straight above town are the Trinity Alps, a compact and inviting mountain range filled with soaring pine forests, frothing streams, turquoise lakes and castlelike granite peaks, some sporting tiny glaciers. The summits aren't nearly as lofty as the Sierra Nevada range to the south -- the highest, Thompson Peak, tops out at a mere 9,002 feet -- but because of the range's northerly latitude, its timberline high country begins at an easy-to-breathe al- titude of 6,000 feet.

The Trinities are a renowned fly-fishing venue, and popular backpacking trails such as Canyon Creek get a lot of traffic on summer weekends, but it doesn't take much effort to carve out a little piece for yourself.

At the edge of town, I turned onto a dirt road that switch-backed up the side of a mountain for nine somewhat jouncy miles -- it was fine in an all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback, and I'm told that, with a little care, normal passenger cars can make it -- to a fire lookout with 360-degree, king-of-the-world views.

From a nearby turnout, I set out with my dog Tucker on a hiking trail that angled up to a little notch on a ridge and then descended sharply to a rocky amphitheater containing East Weaver Lake.

Ringed with wildflowers and craggy buttresses, it was an unbeatable spot for a leisurely picnic, a long swim (Tucker) and a siesta on a sun-warmed granite slab (me). At an alpine lake this easy to reach in the Sierra Nevada, I would have had to elbow my way through a mob of hikers just to reach the shore. In the Trinity Alps, Tucker and I had it all to ourselves.

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