March 10 2009 by Sam Lowe
Having reached that age when any reference to "the good old days" takes on added meaning because I was there for a lot of them, I was quite taken with Columbia, an old mining town that's also a historical state park, located in California's Tuolomne County near Yosemite National Park.
This is an ideal place for senior travelers for a couple of reasons:
First, it's easily walkable and reminiscent of the small villages where so many of us grew up. The main street is only two blocks long, it's flat and there are no cobblestones to stumble over. And, as a bonus, they don't allow cars or loud music on the main drag.
Second, Columbia takes its job of being an historical state park very seriously. Every morning, the shopkeepers put on their period costumes and crank open the huge steel doors that guard the stores against fire. Then the women bustle onto the sidewalks, clad in long skirts and whisking homemade brooms to maneuver the previous day's dust off the wooden sidewalks and back onto the dirt road that bisects the town.
A man dressed as a peddler wheels his cart up to the schoolhouse as the stagecoach rumbles into town. Another man, wearing a raggedy old hat that matches the color of his beard, hoists himself onto a stool and begins his morning serenade by coaxing music from an aged fiddle. Then he surrenders his spot to a cowboy balladeer or another bearded man armed with a flute, and the music goes on all day, as long as the tourists stop and reflect on how they don't write music like that anymore.
I quietly hummed along as the cowboy yodeled his version of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," then wandered into a blacksmith shop and watched a young woman hammer fiery red steel into horseshoes, bracelets and earrings. Across the street, two stores sell black licorice sticks that look and taste authentic even though they weren't called "swizzles" like they were back in the good old days.
The merchants who are also the actors in this make-believe scenario claim it's the best preserved Gold Rush town in California. The beer lunges out of the tap with a curse and the rooms in the hotels are spartan and small, just like they were way back in those glorious days when bread was a nickel, a shot of whiskey was only two bits and nobody had a cell phone.