Road Trip 2017 #26 – Calistoga

It is not often that, when travelling as a family of six, there are opportunities to be spontaneous with the itinerary where accommodation is concerned.  However, for a variety of reasons, we decided to stay north of San Francisco for an additional night.  We had to change rooms within the hotel we were staying at but otherwise our plan came together.  This change of plan meant that we didn’t have to rush around on the fifteenth day of our vacation and nor did we have to factor in a long journey to the next destination.  Instead – after the very long drive the previous day – it meant we could stay local and undertake short journeys only.

We were staying in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga so decided to go and explore Calistoga.  Mr Pict and I had been there before as part of a route through Sonoma wine country and redwood forests.  I had eaten the single most scrumptious cake of my life – a chocolate mousse cake – in a redwood forest back in 2000 and hoped we might stumble across the store where I had bought it.  Alas, I did not find the store so could not repeat my edible experience.  Something we could repeat, however, was a trip to the Old Faithful geyser.

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The geyser had certainly built up as a tourist attraction in the intervening seventeen years.  It was very basic back then – just the geyser and a paddock of fainting goats – but now it had been turned into a lovely spot to relax in.  It was even possible to bring a bottle of wine and enjoy a luxury picnic there.  That was not something we did, of course, but I could imagine it being a splendid spot for just such an afternoon of nibbling and quaffing.  Old Faithful is a geothermal geyser that was apparently released into activity by some chap drilling for a well in the late 19th Century.  It earned its name because it reliably erupts every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the season.  When we were there, it was going off every 20 minutes and each blast lasted about 8 minutes, the water shooting tens of feet into the air and creating rainbows in the sunlight.  Our kids had never seen a geyser before so it was really cool to have them experience one that erupted so frequently.

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The boys also loved that there were friendly animals they could interact with and feed.  There were llamas – one of which flopped onto the ground just like our three-legged cat does – and Jacob’s sheep with four prominent horns, and the famous fainting goats.  Tennessee Fainting Goats are a breed that goes rigid when in a state of panic and often fall over as a result.  Really they should be called Toppling Goats since they don’t really faint.  Last time I visited, I remember thinking it was a bit mean to have a small herd of these goats right next to a geyser.  If startled every time it erupted, the poor wee beasties would be going stiff and falling a few times every hour.  This visit, however, we learned that they quickly become used to their environment so were no longer phased by the geyser at all.  While this meant that we didn’t get to see them do the thing they are renowned for, we felt happy for the goats that this was the case.  With their bug eyes and diminutive frames, the goats are pretty adorable anyway, even without the collapsing antics.

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We decided to chill in those surroundings for a while since we had declared we were having a lazy (or lazier) day.  We borrowed some bocce balls from the ticket desk and had a few games.  Bocce is essentially the same game as boules or petanque so we all knew what we were doing and – none of us having much skill – could play as equals.  We played as teams and got quite competitive.  It was great fun.  There were also games of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe) set up on shaded tables, and we just enjoyed chilling out in the shade on comfy seats, watching the geyer and the goats.

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to poke around in cemeteries.  It is one of my favourite things to do.  Having not had any other opportunities to do so, therefore, I decided we should visit the Pioneer Cemetery in Calistoga.  We used the Google Maps app to find the way and were led into a state park.  We parked the car and wandered through woods until we emerged into a clearing.  The clearing was where a church had once stood and where some graves remained.  Unfortunately, I quickly realised that we were in the wrong cemetery.  How could that be?  It turns out that Calistoga has two Pioneer Cemeteries.  We had chosen the wrong one when we used the sat nav app.  Still, it was not an entirely wasted trip since the youngest Pictling found some great climbing trees and the 10 year old finally found some lizards he had been hoping to see for the entire trip.

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Back in the car we hopped and along to the correct Pioneer Cemetery.  By that juncture, however, I had lost the interest and reached the tolerance threshold of two thirds of the group so only the 10 year old and I got out for an explore.  The cemetery was built on a steep slope so the graves were arranged in terraces, almost like tiered paddy fields.  This way of organising things was handy as it meant that it was easy to map out different sections of the cemetery.  There was a useful map at the entrance that labelled each section and an alphabetical list of all those interred with a number corresponding to the relationship between their grave plot and the map sections.  If only all cemeteries were this organised!  We knew who we wanted to find so we studied the map and headed off.  Two of the survivors of the Donner Party are buried in the cemetery, sisters Lovina Graves Cyrus and Eleanor Graves McDonnell.  They were among a group of settlers who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by snow in 1846 and who famously resorted to cannibalism to survive.  The sisters had been 12 and 14 at the time of the tragedy.  Their father was among those who perished when they set off to fetch help and their mother was one of those who was eaten*.  We found Lovina with ease but could not find her sister, despite the fact she should have been in the same small square of cemetery.  We found another nearby grave marked with the surname McDonnell so assumed that Eleanor perhaps had no grave marker.  Not to far away, we found the grave of Eli Philpott.  He was a stagecoach driver killed in the course of a robbery not far from Tombstone, Arizona.  A posse headed by the famous Earp brothers went out in search of the murderers and apparently this whole event was one of the catalysts that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral.  We were going to have a pootle around some of the many Civil War graves in the cemetery but we were conscious that everyone else was waiting for us so instead we had a quick stroll, encountered more lizards, got our legs badly scratched by thorny vines, and headed back to the car in order to head off for the next location for the day.

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  • If you are interested in the story of the Donner Party, I recommend reading ‘Ordeal by Hunger‘ by George R Stewart.
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