Off the Beaten Path: Exploration of the Artsy & Historic in California & Nevada

Come explore artistic flair and interesting history in this latest batch of towns—all stumbled upon during my stint as a Lyft driver!

Marysville, CA (Yuba County)

Back in 1857, Marysville was a prospering city—one of the largest in California, due to its proximity to so many gold-mining sites. Though it was slated to become the “New York City of the west,” flooding from the nearby Feather and Yuba Rivers stagnated it, as the city was forced to build a levee system that made additional city growth impossible.

As I walk through it, Marysville indeed seems frozen in time: a still-shot of the city it was meant to, but never did, become. Downtown felt ghostly— buildings intact and well-maintained, but also weirdly empty. Hauntingly quiet. In my stroll around town, I encounter a lake (where white ducks rocking feather afros gather in groups under the shade). I pass by 1920s style cars parked in graveled driveways. I walk past numerous brick buildings, all of which seem emptied of any inhabitants.


Virginia City, NV (Storey County)

“This town was once home to the highest-paid miners in the world—but also the highest fatality rate,” the blond-haired middle-aged tour guide exclaims in his southern drawl, as he leads us up the creaky stairs. “So a lot of them didn’t live long enough to spend their money!”

I’m on a ghost tour in Virginia City, a town with a population of 779 located 40 miles east of Reno. Though peaceful, antiquated, and sparsely populated now, apparently in the 1800s Virginia City had more residents than Los Angeles ( ).

People on the tour drink from beer bottles as we walk through creaky rooms that smell like dust and cigarettes and wood. One person sips a “Buttery Nipple” (Butterscotch Schnapps with Irish cream).

“I’m kind of glad we didn’t do this at night,” a girl whispers to her friend, before we step foot into the funhouse room. According to the tour guide, the floors in here are “more crooked than our politicians.”

Towards the end of the tour, I do get scared—not by a ghost, but by a sign that says “this building is constructed using unreinforced masonry.” Like California, the Reno area is due for a massive earthquake, so this warning makes the ghost house feel indeed like a death trap. 

The rest of Virginia City:

Trump signs pollute front lawns on residential roads, deserty hills loom to the right of the main drag, and a man holds the reigns of a wearied looking donkey (maybe weariness is just inherent to a donkey’s general aura though?).

Inside a large hall, slot machines line the wall and popcorn kernels litter the hardwood floor. Folk musicians perform while patrons (predominantly of the retired age) dressed in opulent Victorian outfits socialize beneath ornate glass chandeliers.

Worth a trip if you’re ever in the Reno area.


Bolinas, CA (Marin County)

Before setting out for Bolinas, an uinincorporated town in Marin County 6.2 miles from Stinson Beach, I make sure to take a heavy jacket. I’d been told the coastal community, popular for its oysters and artsy surfer town vibe, gets windy even in the summertime.

I also prepare for a serpentine drive, having read that Bolinas is only accessible via unmarked roads (in part due to the wishes of its reclusive residents).

According to Wikipedia, “Any road sign along State Route 1 that points the way into town has been torn down by local residents to the point where county officials offered a ballot measure to which the voters responded by stating a preference for no more signs.:

Pulled over by the beach, I watch as people clad in surf suits glide by carrying their boards. Speckling the ocean are an incredible amount of birds—seagulls, storks, and geese among others—more at once than I’ve ever seen before, gathered into one place. Boats are tied to the harbor. Waves break against the shore, slapping tempestuously against a concrete wall covered with a mural of a rooster that seems like it’s there specifically to contain them.

One thing I notice: drivers don’t really drive here. They crawl, or maybe it’s more accurate to say “languidly reposition themselves.” On the main road, vehicle operators slow periodically to talk to pedestrians through their rolled-down windows. Everyone in this town of 1,620 seems familiar with one another; there’s a lot of hello how are you how was your nephew’s baseball game, see you later (which probably means the next day or a few days from now).


Los Gatos, CA (Santa Clara County)

“I’d like it softly mooing.” A lady at the Cats Saloon has just responded to the waitress’ “How would you like your meat?” question with this. At the table to my right, a couple speaking another language splits a baked potato mountain topped with sour cream and chopped green onions. I listen as the waitress tells them that Cats used to be a notorious speakeasy and whorehouse in the 1920s. At the bar to my left, horse saddles are slung over the bar seats. 

Enticed by a Yelp review that touted their food and Wild West atmosphere (“If the wind is blowing right, you can smell the hickory and apple wood smoke from the smokers behind the restaurant wafting onto Highway 17”), I’d made my way over here earlier. Two stone cats welcomed me outside.  

Aside from Cats, the rest of Los Gatos has a vibe that’s simultaneously rustic and artsy. Incorporated in 1887, the town “remained an important place for the logging industry in the Santa Cruz Mountains through the end of the 19th century” (Wikipedia). In the early 20th century it became a flourishing agricultural town with apricots, grapes, and prunes grown throughout the area.

By the 1920s, many painters, musicians,writers, actors, and other Bohemians moved to the Los Gatos area, giving it a local reputation as an arts colony. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath there, and Beat hero Neal Cassady lived there in the 1950s.

I note this as I walk down the main street peering into art galleries after closing time.

Inside one of them, four pigs stand in proud, empowered stances, all pivoted into slightly branched-off directions. Brass cats hold wine bottles upright. A plush white wrap-around couch beckons, while lights wrapped around wire trees create a gorgeous light-show. 


Venice, CA (Los Angeles County)

Though the rich tobacco producer who founded Venice in 1905 initially meant for it to be a beach resort town, Venice now asserts itself as an artsy, funky, and idiosyncratic place, brought to life and kept alive by street art, canals, skateboarders, tattoo artists and crafts vendors along the water.

I walk down the beach boardwalk, where a woman sells ceramic Day of the Dead skulls. Having just seen the movie Coco, I feel compelled to buy one. Her face is kind as she hands me my purchase, carefully wrapped in pink tissue paper. Behind her, skaters do 180s on the concrete halfpipe. When I take a closer look, I see one of them has a tattoo of a witch on his tanned leg. Behind them, waves break gently against the sand. 

 Veering away from the trendy main commercial street of Abbot Kinney, I turn onto the side alleys, where art vivivifies the small homes’ exteriors. The pudgy face of an orange cat covers the entirety of one, tongue extending from mouth and continuing down onto the concrete ground. 

In another, two green birds frame the beautifully menacing face of a jaguar. It’s unclear whether he means the birds any harm, or if they are all peacefully coexisting. Maybe their peaceful coexistence is precarious, capable of rupture or dissolution at any moment.

One passenger, a middle-aged Latino man, brings a bag of soccer balls with him into the car (he decorates and sells them at Venice Beach). Every time we brake or turn, the balls in the big net bag shift position. The sound of them hitting against each other takes me back to the years my dad coached my soccer teams as a kid.

Another passenger has made a living designing cabinets for the past five years, makes art on the side, and has been writing R&B songs since he was six years old. 


Felton, CA (Santa Cruz County)

In the backyard of a bar:

Smoky air, country music, cool breeze picks up speed, then slows, dies down. Big brown eyes belonging to dog, head on crossed paws, forest-green cushions on porch swing feet away from fire pit, girl slowly swinging, coals on dirt ground, backyard garden (ish), bird twitters, swoops down from sky, startled (?), scared (?), astonished (?), / merely announcing its presence / just wanting to say hi(?) / probably none of these things, “projected onto by a human writing on the lawn chair before them” might be the most accurate descriptor.

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Photo credits


Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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