Turning Abandoned Gold Mines Into Wheelchair Paths

How a motley alliance of hippies and hillbillies transformed a California mining town.

Stephanie Sauer June 28, 2018

Ananda Village helped bring the counterculture to California's San Juan Ridge. (Photo courtesy of Ananda Village, Nevada City, Calif.)

My par­ents liked to tell me that I rolled along the Unit­ed States’ first wheel­chair-acces­si­ble wilder­ness trail before I was born, my father’s thin legs sup­port­ing my preg­nant moth­er on his lap. I spent the rest of my child­hood walk­ing that trail, often at my father’s side, and it became a favorite gath­er­ing place for the dis­abil­i­ty rights advo­cates who pop­u­lat­ed my ear­ly life.

Libertarians and far-left radicals share their blackberry harvests and work together to keep their rivers clean.

Inde­pen­dence Trail was built in the ear­ly 1980s using aban­doned min­ing flumes, wood­en chan­nels that car­ried debris away from the hydraulic mine at Malakoff Dig­gins. The trail’s con­struc­tion speaks to more than savvy repur­pos­ing. The tra­jec­to­ry of the region from a site of envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion to a bea­con of stew­ard­ship — in 2019, Malakoff Dig­gins State His­toric Park will become California’s first solar-pow­ered state park — is tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of the slow, face­to-face inter­change of ideas. As Rebec­ca Sol­nit reminds us in Hope in the Dark, Pol­i­tics aris­es out of the spread of ideas and the shap­ing of imaginations.” 

Since the 1960s back-to-the-land move­ment came to the San Juan Ridge, inter­ac­tions between the estab­lished hill­bil­ly enclaves, like where I grew up, and coun­ter­cul­tur­al new­com­ers have altered lives, pol­i­tics and imaginations. 

In the late 1800s, in pur­suit of gold, the North Bloom­field Grav­el Min­ing Com­pa­ny used high-pres­sure water can­nons to blast away entire hill­sides in the West­ern Sier­ra Nevadas. The com­pa­ny used more than 100 miles of canals to car­ry away the tox­ic debris, mov­ing a total of 41 mil­lion cubic yards of earth and help­ing to flood entire cities and clog water­ways as far south as San Fran­cis­co Bay. 

In 1884, in response to the mine’s dev­as­tat­ing runoff, the U.S. Ninth Cir­cuit Court effec­tive­ly pro­hib­it­ed hydraulic min­ing. It was the first time the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ed busi­ness on envi­ron­men­tal grounds. Oper­a­tions at Malakoff Dig­gins con­tin­ued ille­gal­ly for years, until two injunc­tions final­ly forced the mine out of business.

The land at Malakoff remained its own plan­et, a haunt­ed after­birth of geno­cide and greed. Hill­sides once cov­ered in ever­greens stood bare for near­ly a cen­tu­ry. Near­by min­ing towns were aban­doned until the Great Depres­sion, when pen­ni­less squat­ters occu­pied the dilap­i­dat­ed struc­tures. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the hills were home to con­ser­v­a­tive farm­ing fam­i­lies, moun­tain men, log­gers and those of the Nise­nan tribe who sur­vived the Gold Rush’s state-sanc­tioned call to exter­mi­nate them.”

In 1969, fol­low­ers of the Indi­an yogi Parama­hansa Yoganan­da migrat­ed to the region and found­ed the world broth­er­hood colony” Anan­da Vil­lage. News of the vil­lage reached Joan Did­ion, who wrote in her 1967 essay, Slouch­ing Toward Beth­le­hem,” We drink some more green tea and talk about going up to Malakoff Dig­gings [sic] in Neva­da Coun­ty because some peo­ple are start­ing a com­mune there and Max thinks it would be a groove to take acid in the diggings.”

Tak­ing acid in the Dig­gins is, in fact, a groove. Or so I was told by a friend’s hip­pie par­ents in the 1990s as we wan­dered among iron-stained silt­stone and pur­ple-limbed shrubs. 

My par­ents were not like those par­ents. They were hill kids turned cab­i­net mak­ers, the off­spring of log­gers and min­now farm­ers. My father’s grand­par­ents arrived on the San Juan Ridge dur­ing the Dust Bowl with oth­er poor farm­ers who set­tled in aban­doned min­ing towns with names like Hum­bug and Rough & Ready and Jack­ass Flats. To be from the Ridge became syn­ony­mous with being Okie, not a good thing in the 1930s. 

Some Ridge kids went to war and came back armed with the G.I. Bill, bought hous­es in town and began their pur­suit of the Amer­i­can Dream. My par­ents were giv­en a plot of fam­i­ly land when they mar­ried in 1980, built a house on it, vot­ed Repub­li­can, sold Amway prod­ucts. They all dis­par­aged the arrival of the long­hairs. Until, that is, my father met Sam Dardick.

In the 1960s, dis­il­lu­sioned with St. Louis sub­ur­ban life, Sam and his wife Gee­ta packed up their three chil­dren and Sam’s wheel­chair and set out on the Hip­pie Trail from Europe to South Asia. After sev­er­al years in India, they returned to the states, where Sam got a job as a plan­ner for Anan­da Vil­lage, liais­ing with the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty. He and Gee­ta decid­ed to build their own off­grid home, com­plete with rotat­ing crops that Sam could cul­ti­vate while seat­ed in his chair. 

Notic­ing that my father was one of the few folks who used a wheel­chair on the Ridge, Sam intro­duced him­self and extend­ed an invi­ta­tion to play ten­nis. They even­tu­al­ly formed the Neva­da Coun­ty Wheel­chair Sports Asso­ci­a­tion, and soon, Sam and Gee­ta were as close as kin.

Hip­pies like the Dard­icks brought their rev­o­lu­tion­ary think­ing into a deeply con­ser­v­a­tive back­woods, where clear-cut­ting and grav­el dump­ing were again threat­en­ing the land. Poet Gary Sny­der, who lived on the Ridge, urged a return to pub­lic com­mons and place-based liv­ing; he and oth­ers put these ideas to prac­tice. Hun­dreds of dropouts” erect­ed homes, lived off the land and orga­nized large fes­ti­vals to cel­e­brate each new sea­son. The South Yuba Riv­er Cit­i­zens’ League (SYR­CL) formed to pro­tect the local water­shed from dams. By empha­siz­ing a love for rur­al life and the riv­er, activists built coali­tions across polit­i­cal lines. 

Two of the new­com­ers, John and Sal­lie Olm­st­ed, estab­lished the con­ser­va­tion non­prof­it Sequoya Chal­lenge. John want­ed to build a wilder­ness path that his friends could access in their wheel­chairs, and thus was born the Inde­pen­dence Trail. Study­ing old maps to find a site, he noticed the aban­doned Excel­sior Canal. 

The Olm­st­eds and a group of oth­er local res­i­dents ini­ti­at­ed the con­struc­tion of sev­er­al wide, lev­el paths that con­nect­ed the old wood­en flumes on Excel­sior Canal togeth­er in more than 3.5 miles of acces­si­ble trail. My father joined the nonprofit’s board, his first expe­ri­ence work­ing on a social cause out­side his own fam­i­ly. It was here he began to learn to nav­i­gate gov­ern­ment poli­cies, raise funds and build effec­tive — if unlike­ly — coalitions. 

Soon, with Sam’s encour­age­ment, he left his cab­i­netry busi­ness to help man­age FREED, a dis­abil­i­ty advo­ca­cy group. Decades lat­er, he went on to direct the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Reha­bil­i­ta­tion, the largest depart­ment of its kind in the nation. 

That was the whole thing about the San Juan Ridge com­mu­ni­ty, they real­ly made an effort to blend ideals,” my father recalls. John was great about get­ting all these con­ser­v­a­tive stake­hold­ers to give him their time and resources.” John, per­sis­tent but respect­ful, even con­vinced my grand­fa­ther and oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive log­ging out­fits to donate tim­ber for the rebuild­ing of sev­er­al flumes. The trail was com­plet­ed in 1982.

Over the years, the Right rolled back many envi­ron­men­tal gains, win­ning bat­tles over dam removal and devel­op­ment. An anti-log­ging cam­paign to pro­tect the spot­ted owl cre­at­ed rifts where there were once bud­ding alliances. Yet most res­i­dents were uni­fied by a desire for their fam­i­ly and friends with dis­abil­i­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly Viet­nam vets, to live in an acces­si­ble community. 

Fac­tions on the moun­tain remain, to be sure. A white nation­al­ist com­mune has set up camp in the for­est, and alt-right Chris­t­ian megachurch­es abound. But ide­o­log­i­cal divides are not always clear. Lib­er­tar­i­ans and far-left rad­i­cals fight it out in local elec­tions, but they also share their black­ber­ry har­vests and work togeth­er to keep their rivers clean. My own moth­er hunts bear with a pink camo bow, then sports Birken­stocks and wax­es enthu­si­as­tic about pas­sive solar. Yes, the hip­pies clashed with hill­bil­lies, and the dis­putes were messy. Yet out of them grew mutu­al coop­er­a­tion for the greater pub­lic good. I can imag­ine the fate of the land around Malakoff Dig­gins with­out the influ­ence of the coun­ter­cul­ture, as vivid­ly as I can imag­ine my own. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Stephanie Sauer is a work­ing artist and the author of The Acci­den­tal Archives of the Roy­al Chi­cano Air Force.
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