Years ago, I worked for Ironstone Vineyards. The following story is one of my favorite memories of working in the Sierra Mountain region. It all happened in Calaveras County.
It was a two and a half year gig. I intuitively knew going into it that it would only last two years. It managed to squeak it out to two and a half years, with the last six months really squeaking along… except for that howling wolf night. Perhaps that’s why I had to stay for the last six months, to live and tell this memorable story.
I’d travel from Sonoma County to Murphys, California, a town that was 185 miles away. I’d stop in Lodi first, getting some work done in their Central Valley office, then keep going… arriving by late afternoon. It would take me six hours to finally get there (all miles completed of the 185 one way). I’d finish my day in Murphys, and then spend the next day in the Sierras, before driving back home. I was devoted to my job, even though I was from “away,” something that I learned about – being from “away,” while living in Maine… If you’re from away, you’re always going to be the square peg in the round hole. I was definitely a square in that Sierra setting… but, still, I always dreamed about being a cowgirl, giving it my best shot and living it, if only for the moment.
At Christmas, I was one of those kids who asked for a pony and dreamed of one day owning a cowgirl hat. (I did finally get the cowgirl hat, but gave it away during a later wine tour, from Fort Worth to Chicago on Creative Charter’s passenger train).
My most amazing cowgirl moment came one of those last nights in Murphys… Call it an omen of things soon to come, call it the magic of the full moon, call it anything you’d like… I call it a howling good memory.
[I was staying in the middle room of this picture, on the second floor. Image is from the Wikimedia Commons.]
After a day of driving, working, coming into Murphys (a cowgirl and cowboy town), I went to the winery to work even more. Once I got everything put into place at the winery, I checked into the Murphys Hotel… Just like always. I preferred the front room, at the end of the hallway, to the right. The room has French doors that open to the street below. It’s a street that’s still as narrow as it was in those Wild West days… It’s just wide enough for a couple of horses to be tied up to some post ~ standing tail to tail on opposite sides of the street from each other… like only 30 feet wide. The shops are still all relatively small, and I got to know people in most stores. It was very fun to explore, and I’ll always be thankful for that experience, because going back in time is such a hoot.
That front room could be a good thing or bad thing, and it mostly depended on mood. Sometimes I minded that a saloon was directly below me. Other times it didn’t bother me. I learned with this room that there’s a frenetic energy going on when you’re directly above that old saloon… in a cowboy town that’s not much changed since the Gold Rush. The Murphys Hotel was built in 1856.
I’d sit at the table between the glass doors and write things important to me at the time…
How many of us can say they’ve been there, done that? Well, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Lipton, JJ Astor, Samuel Pillsbury, William Randolph Hearst, Daniel Webster, J. Pierpont Morgan, John Crocker, Mark Twain, Black Bart, Susan B. Anthony, John Wayne, Sunny Ficus (if they could talk), and I can say it. Murphys Hotel’s history does tell it all.
Each night I’d head to the dining room for dinner. I had now been there long enough to know how to order my dinner. And, I had reduced it down to its least common denominator, proving I could be just like, if not worse, than Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally.” You know that part when she ordered her food. Here is what I’d mostly order, because this is what I’d come to love on their menu…
I’ll have your fried chicken dinner, but I only want two pieces of chicken instead of your usual four. I don’t want to waste any. And…. I’ll have only one scoop of the rice, because – again – I don’t want to waste half of it. Please hold the veggies, because the salad I’m having is taking care of my vegetables… (The salad came with the dinner, so one-way-or-the-other, my veggies were covered.)
And, a glass of wine, I’d say.
My dish affectionately became known as “Señor Chicken.” One night I got my bill and it read, “Senor Chicken.” I thought to myself, “Señor chicken? What an odd name for a dish to be called.” Then, it struck me…. senior chicken, as in a small portion for the elderly. I laughed all the way back to Sonoma County.
So, this one night after my Señor Chicken, when I was getting close to my last days there and had gone through the entire routine I’ve just given to you, I headed to my room. I never did hang out in the saloon, unless Ironstone was having a meeting – like during the national sales meeting. I’ve never needed to connect with anyone in a saloon. I did go down briefly on occasion to get a glass of mineral water… Lightweight in a saloon…
After dinner, I returned to my room… No TV, no clock, no phone at the time, and a washroom down the hall…. is what any of us got. It was a full moon night, warm enough to throw open my French doors. I read while the noise of the bar below grew to its nightly crescendo with people and a band, then slowly it faded away to the point of complete silence. I fell asleep in the middle of this night somewhere in the process.
Then, while the town was quiet enough to hear a pin drop onto the street below my balcony… I heard a howling off in the distance. It was far, far away; so far even that I felt the animal totem energy arrive before the actual sound… All the same, I heard it enough to awaken from a sound sleep.
Slowly and surely it became louder, the energy coming ever closer… howling at the moon, screaming at the tar beneath the pads of its feet, digging in with its claws to get better traction, coming ever closer. I was frozen… just frozen, now asking myself, “Why didn’t you get out of bed to see it?” But, I couldn’t move… my eyes were as wide as they could be. My heart was pounding, the sound passed right under my window. I was no more than 20 feet from it, and then it receded, much more quickly than it came… And I was just simply in awe of being that close to something that played itself out like that, and could now only be recreated in Hollywood… I’m thinking there’s got to be a Western with something similar to this story.
But, who can tell it now…
In days gone by, any of these people could have told stories about their night at the Murphys Hotel ~ Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Lipton, JJ Astor, Samuel Pillsbury, William Randolph Hearst, Daniel Webster, J. Pierpont Morgan, John Crocker, and Mark Twain. I’m sure orally, most of them did, if even in passing comments….
Now that I think back on The Murphys Hotel’s history, which had lots of historical pictures on the walls and rooms with the timely notable names of those above, all of these people, and I having stayed at this hotel, have been able to tell stories about it.
Me… I can tell it now and join the ranks of others who have talked about the Murphys Hotel…
“Nice company,” said she, and no glass of wine to nod off, did I have. This wasn’t a mirage.
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