Years ago Lee and I traveled the equivalent of driving between the west and east coasts about 19 times to verify locations (adding GPS for remote sites) of more than 3,300 historical plaques in California for a guidebook. We encountered wildfires, earthquakes, wild critters, unusual accommodations and roads, a few of which I detailed previously. Some human confrontations appeared more frightening than those of natural disasters or wild animals.
A friend who grew up during the 1940s in Compton, California, warned us five decades later not to stop at red lights in Compton at risk of being robbed. We planned to drive through questionable neighborhoods between eight and ten in the morning because it seemed unlikely undesirables would be active that early.
In another Los Angeles community, we parked behind a city bus stop in front of a cemetery. Lee was in the process of dismantling his camera after shooting a photo. A black woman tapped on my passenger window and pointed to her bent arm. I immediately pressed the button to lock all doors. A black man stood at Lee’s window.
“Let’s go!” I said.
“Wait until I put this lens away.”
“No! Let’s go now! I’ll explain later.”
Groups of men knelt in circles playing games on street corners in Watts. We were forced to stop for a freight train crossing. Later, we narrowly avoided being boxed in at a dead-end alley.
Many historical plaques are in seedy sections of older cities. Parking is limited. Lee dropped me off to search for a plaque while he drove around the block to pick me up later. I felt uneasy when he was out of sight. I sensed black men wondering what that skinny, old white woman is doin’ in our neighborhood. I learned to walk confidently carrying a clipboard and to look like I knew where I was going even if I didn’t. Strangers avoided me because the clipboard gave the impression I was an official investigator of some kind. When Lee, with a camera strapped around his neck, accompanied me, we were mistaken for newspeople and given a wide berth by those who chose to avoid publicity.
No plaque was visible in front of a former mountain stage stop, now a bikers’ bar because of the 50 or more motorcycles parked outside. I gathered courage and my clipboard and entered the noisy saloon. As soon as I stepped inside, the room fell silent. All eyes looked at me.
Oh, oh. Now what did I get myself into?
The bartender ignored me until I shoved my clipboard in front of him and said, “I’m looking for this historical plaque that’s supposed to be on the front of your building.”
Relieved that I was not checking on permits or code violations, he showed me where the plaque hung before moving it to storage for building remodeling.
Noise and customers returned to normal.
Sunday morning we drove through a northern California Historic District Neighborhood of attractive Victorian homes. Red and orange autumn leaves fell from the trees lining the street.
Lee parked at the curb and I crossed the empty street to check the historical sign. A car stopped two car lengths behind Lee and honked the horn. I turned to see if it honked at Lee. A man dashed out of the house to the car as if his ride arrived. Three additional cars, one after another, stopped and honked.
I thought a lot of people in that house are waiting for rides.
When I returned to the car, Lee said, “I hope you’re finished because we’re getting out of here now.”
Another car stopped behind us and honked. Lee drove away before I fastened my seat belt.
“What’s your rush?” I asked.
“They’re dealing drugs behind us, exchanging little white envelopes and currency.”
In central California, we stopped at a roadside rest beside the San Joaquin River. Two men watering the grass chatted with each other and stared at us, the only visitors. When they turned, we saw “Prisoner” printed on the backs of their shirts. They entered the women’s restroom.
We drove to the other end of the park where a dozen men (also prisoners) leaned on their rakes and shovels and stared at us. Only one sheriff’s officer was visibly in charge. He also closely watched us. Time for us to find another picnic spot.
We left the main highway to search for a plaque and drove six miles on a dirt road that turned to a soft, sandy trail in the desert. Lee was ready to turn back when I saw a few trees ahead.
“Wait. That must be it!”
It was. It was also the campsite of two long-haired, bearded, unfriendly-looking men whose rifles were within easy reach. A large, black dog ran out barking at us.
Lee drove slowly by the monument while I tried to verify it.
The brass plaque was riddled with bullet holes as if it were used for target practice. At least it remained. Plaques in the gold country are pried off and turned in as scrap metal.
One human behavior that continues to haunt me was that of pioneer Robert Semple, president of California’s First Constitutional Convention in Monterey in1849. He arrived in California with the L.W. Hastings Party in 1845, was a member of the Bear Flag Party in 1846 and established the first newspaper published in California, The Californian, in Monterey. His marriage to Frances Cooper was the first wedding in Benicia, which he helped found in 1847, and in 1848 he established the first ferry across Carquinez Straits. In 1854 he was presumed dead at age 48 after a fall while horseback riding on his ranch in Colusa County where he was buried. When his coffin was removed from the ranch for re-burial in Williams Cemetery, it was discovered that his 6’8” body had turned halfway and there were scratch marks inside the coffin lid.