Knew my visit to Cali wouldn’t be complete unless I made a pilgrimage to Bear Valley, a town where Olmsted lived when he was a goldmine supervisor. But people tended to assume I was simply lost. I must mean Bear Valley, the popular ski resort.
No, I was looking for Bear Valley, near Yosemite. I tried programming the town name into my GPS, but it spit out directions for a place hundreds of miles away — the ski resort. Still, I was pretty sure this other Bear Valley – Olmsted’s Bear Valley — still existed. Finally, I found someone who could direct me to it. She told me to set out on Highway 49 toward Coulterville. “Keep an eye out,” she warned me. “Blink and you’ll miss it.” I figured if I reached Coulterville, I might also start to doubt that this other Bear Valley really existed anymore.
Fortunately, I found Bear Valley — Population 230, stoplights 0 — on the first pass. The place has sure changed since it was a mining boom town. Oso House, a fine hotel once owned by John Charles Fremont — burned down. The brothels — long gone for lack of interest. The mines themselves — shuttered years ago. But I came across one business that I recognized from Olmsted’s letters, Simpson & Trabucco.
It was a trading post when Olmsted lived here in the 1860s. And it was still open. I stopped in and met the new owner, Martin Taylor, a one-time painting contractor who recently bought the business and moved his family up here from Morro Bay. He told me he’s hoping for a quieter life. Of course, his name is neither Simpson nor Trabucco. He kept the name, he told me, because it has a lot of history.
And that was Bear Valley, pretty much. I bought a Coke, got back in my rental car, and continued on Highway 49 through one of the most stunning mountain passes I’ve ever seen. It made me really appreciate why Olmsted — and now Mr. Taylor late of Morro Bay — fell in love with this part of the country.