A tale of Califonia's modern gold country and the continuing need to build and maintain community in an ever more globalized world.
Belonging is a must-read for anyone interested in the people and places of the Sierra and its foothills.
The year is 1974 and friction between Downieville’s newcomers and natives is on the rise. But Sheriff Buck Thompson, because of his personal baggage with many of the natives, has to court newcomers to get re-elected. This seems laughable until a tragic drowning changes everything. Teacher and newcomer Greg Fulton sees right through Buck, or thinks he does, and Greg's wife Molly becomes so determined that Buck won't prevail, she doesn't care what else happens or who she offends. Unwittingly, though, each of them comes to appreciate the things they do share.
All the glorious elements of mountain living are in full display as the story unfolds: snow-capped vistas, wild rivers, trout fishing, verdant forests, gold mining, crusty characters and unique traditions of honoring the land.
Trudging into town in damp waders, Greg veered along the lane to the lum-ber-yard. He smelled fresh-cut wood on the night air and saw the outline of his van parked against the fence. Just beyond it, the Downie River gurgled invisibly. He leaned his fly rod against a side window, opened the hatch and sat on the tailgate to remove his boots.
"Well, young fella’, any luck?" came a man’s voice.
Startled, Greg bumped his head on the metal hatch. "Ouch."
"Didn’t mean to scare ya’. Mel Cresta here."
Greg looked, and sitting on the steps of an adjacent mobile home sat a guy in a straw hat whose lined face was illuminated by the glowing coal of the pipe he smoked. "Oh… You did scare me. But I had a good night. Got seven."
"That’s what we like to hear. Let’s see ’em." Mel flipped on a dim bulb outside his door.
"Only kept a small one…for my son’s breakfast. I put the others back."
Mel, using a walking stick, got up and came toward Greg. "Put ’em back? What are they, old friends?" He ran his hand up under the front of his hat and scratched his scalp. His glasses drooped down his nose, which he didn’t try to correct.
"Could be," Greg laughed. "I might’ve caught some of them last year too." He pulled Ned’s fish from his vest and proffered it at Mel.
"I’d eat it," Mel said. "Not sure I recall your name, but you’re a teacher, right?"
"Yeah…Greg Fulton." Greg put the fish away and stuck out his hand. "I know who you are, Mr. Cresta, but I get you mixed up with your brother."
"That’s Nick, Mr. Fulton. He’s away. I’m Mel." He and Greg shook, then Mel passed his fingers beneath his nose. "The one who smells like trout."
Greg laughed again. "Sorry about that."
"Don’t be. I can’t fish anymore ’cause of this gimpy leg, so a whiff is all I get."
"Well, believe it or not, I did catch seven."
"I’m convinced. Saw you hook and throw back a couple behind Starks’ place during my little walk tonight. Seen you do it before, too."
"That’s how I know they’ll be there next time."
"Not like years ago, when we could keep all we wanted and never miss ’em."
"Makes me jealous. Anyway, I caught a sixteen-incher on my last cast. Kind of amazing. A German brown. Never saw one in the Downie or knew they were around."
"One of Seth Holmes’s babies all grown up." Mel scratched under his hat a second time.
"What do you mean?" This wasn’t a context in which Greg would expect to hear Seth's name.
"Few years back, he and a bunch of the school kids planted browns up by Gold Bluff Mine. Kids hiked ’em upstream by yoke and bucket. Wildlife habitat project, they called it."
"I’ll be darned."
"Plan was to create a native strain in case the state was right about water quality going to hell. Far as I know, there’s still plenty of rainbows, but browns handle impurities better. They grow big, too."
"Gave me a rip-roaring fight."
"Too bad Holmes had to end up following his pecker down the highway. Wasn’t the first to ever do it, but he’s a real loss to the county. You know him?"
"We were good friends."
"Oh…yeah…I recall. And you’re the one who coaches girls’ basketball. Best keep a leash on your own pecker. Save you a lot of trouble. Where’s Holmes now?"
"Chico. Trying to land a teaching job." Greg felt his cheeks and ears redden, but somehow this was a guy you couldn’t be angry at.
"Nice enough town. He’ll find a job, Holmes will, and in his spare time get elected mayor. They won’t care if his girlfriend’s of an age to be his daughter. Downieville’s too small for that kind of thing."
Greg had stowed his fishing gear and was stepping into a pair of unlaced sneakers. He also wanted—strongly wanted—to change the subject. "Hope you don’t mind where I’m parked."
"Not a bit. I enjoy the company. Nobody fishes this stretch anymore, and most people aren’t out and about of an evening the way they used to be."
"Really? What’s different?"
"The antenna tower on Oxford Ridge, mainly. The utility district ran TV cable into town, hooked everybody up, and all folks do now is stay home and watch. Hell, the movie theater closed down, the book clubs evaporated, the music groups fell apart, and the idea that you’d visit to play checkers or pinochle went out the window."
"A good bit of that still goes on among my friends."
"You newcomers are throwbacks. And I don’t mean all the social stuff is gone. There’s some, just not a quarter of what it was. Any dumb thing Tommy Smothers might say is supposed to be more important than what you’d hear from your neighbor just because Smothers is in front of a camera."
"The TV angle I’d never thought of," Greg said. "And you’re right. Most newcomers were expecting an old-fashioned idea of community we weren’t getting where we came from."
"Well, community’s something you make. Doesn’t just happen…and doesn’t come free."
"There must have been plenty of other changes, too."
Mel sucked on his pipe. "Big changes for me and my brother. We’re retired and the yard here has a new owner."
"Are either of you on speaking terms with Jerry Vargas these days? I hear he was pretty steamed when you sold to Feather/Yuba instead of him."
"Of course. No feud lasting less than two years really counts. You’ve always got your friends, your temporary enemies, your real enemies and your don’t-give-a-hoots." Mel let out a puff of smoke.
Greg smiled in the dark but didn’t know if Mel could see him.
"How’s the water out there?" Mel continued. "Clean?"
"Yeah, real good."
"All the fuss the state makes about pollution," Mel said, "you’d never realize it was a lot worse when the mines were running. I’m talking arsenic from the crushed ore. Sometimes you’d see rainbows like the one you kept that’d be deformed.”
"What the state worries about now is sewage," Greg said. "Because of all the septic tanks, I mean."
"Doesn’t trouble me a bit."
"Well, it’s not like it’s from folks we don’t know," Mel replied genially.