It's Mother's Day weekend and everybody in Nevada City seems to be pregnant. One radiant, round-bellied woman after another parades past the window of Ike's Quarter Cafe, a crunchy New Orleans-style diner where I'm nibbling on organic cornbread and gingered kale, and trying to figure out what to make of this place.
"Half the town grows weed, and the other half votes Republican," my waiter tells me, as a woman wearing a bikini top struts by, nursing a newborn so casually I feel like a prude for even noticing.
A pocket-size Gold Rush town in the Sierra foothills, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from San Francisco, Nevada City is a place of paradoxes and surprises, a dipped-in-amber historic district where graying hippies and young moms live in apparent harmony in an area where the pot cultivation is exceeded only by Humboldt's and the state senator supported Proposition 8. Good thing Nevada City's vibe is decidedly laid-way-back, because there's no other way an explosive mix like this stays mellow.
One issue all parties seem to have gotten behind is the importance of preserving the postcard charm of their 19th-century mining town. Fast-food restaurants and chain stores have been banished from the city center, leaving Nevada City looking much like it must have in its heyday, when it briefly enjoyed a moment as the third-most populous city in California and hosted luminaries from Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde. (The state of Nevada took its name from the town.)
After lunch, I make my way through the old Chinese Quarter, past brick buildings whose corrugated tin roofs and striped awnings once concealed opium dens, laundries, temples, brothels, and saloons. These days, they house cafés, art galleries, tchotchke shops, wine-tasting rooms, a few patchouli-scented relics selling incense and crystals, and an increasing number of stylish new spots that give Nevada City all the hallmarks of a hipster nesting ground. There's the chalkboard menu at Matteo's Public, advertising wild-caught fish tacos and IPAs from local craft breweries, and the organic cotton onesies at Wink, a new mommy-and-me boutique full of cutesy "put a bird on it" accessories. There's the line of thousand-dollar strollers parked outside tiny artisanal ice-cream parlor Treats, whose gluten-free cones make the whole block smell like waffles.
I'm staying down at the end of the main drag, Broad Street, at the National Hotel, which claims to be the oldest continually operating hotel west of the Rockies, with 42 clean but shabby rooms. There are nicer places to stay in town, but I dig the National's old-timey feel. I like the yellowing wallpaper and the 103-year-old grandfather clock, the half-dozen antique pianos scattered randomly about and the dark, wood-paneled lobby bar, where miners used to pay for drinks with gold dust. The bar is named after President Herbert Hoover, who stayed at the hotel and even worked as a mucker in the nearby Empire Mine back in 1895.
"Ooh, there's a lot of good ghosts there," says Eva Tobie, a raw food chef and Nevada City local who meets me for dinner that night with her husband, Jason, a retired airline pilot. They're friends of some friends of my parents' — tan and fit with bright eyes and unlined faces, the picture of NorCal-retiree health. They've booked us a table at New Moon Café, another locavore spot with a great rare-beer list where Michael Moore is rumored to eat when he's in town. As I work my way through a plate of duck confit ravioli in brown-butter citrus sauce and a bomber of Stone Vertical Epic 09.09.09, Eva and Jason let me in on another surprise about Nevada City: Despite its tiny size (population: around 3,000) and middle-of-nowhere location (30 miles off I-80 between Sacramento and Reno), it's quite the unlikely cultural hub, boasting two live theaters, a pair of annual film festivals and loads of live music. (Joanna Newsom's a native; acts like Yo La Tengo and Father John Misty come through nearby Grass Valley on tour.)
"A lot of the retired creative people will quietly come and buy a house and hang out here," Eva tells me. "They'll walk into a bar, pick up a guitar, and you'll be like, 'Oh my God, he played with Jimi Hendrix!'"
Jason, an avid outdoorsman, insists I make time for some hiking in one of the nearby state parks or swimming in the Yuba River. "You take off your clothes and you lay on the rocks and you smoke doobies," he says of one clothing-optional swimming hole. "People burn their butts."
The next afternoon I drive a few miles down Highway 49 to Empire Mine State Historic Park for a little exercise and a proper history lesson. In addition to a few easy wooded hiking trails, the grounds consist of a complex of buildings surrounded by the ruins of massive wood-and-iron stamp mills that were used to crush lumps of ore into sand for refining. There's also a machine shop, live blacksmithing demonstrations, and the well-preserved estate of the mine's erstwhile owner, William Bourn Jr., whose fortune later built Filoli in Woodside. Constructed in 1897, the home is surrounded by 13 acres of immaculate gardens; inside, costumed docents play the parts of Mr. Bourn and Katie the housekeeper, who shows off the Bourns' heavy, ornate kitchen stove and a newfangled contraption called a telephone.
"Call me!" shouts "Mr. Bourn" as I make my way out of the house. "My phone number is 57!"
The centerpiece of the park compound is, of course, the mine itself. In operation from 1850 to 1956, it's the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in the area. A ruggedly handsome sixtysomething man wearing a mining helmet leads a group of us down a dimly lit narrow staircase until we're peering into the main shaft, the start of 367 miles of underground tunnels and railways that go down nearly a vertical mile into the earth. Turns out our tour guide worked in this very mine, landing his first job as a mucker at age 15, joining thousands of other men and mules who once descended into the mine on narrow railcars at a clip of 600 feet per minute, extracting 5.8 million ounces of gold over the course of a century. Were it not for this mine and others like it, there might never have been a Nevada City at all.
When the sun gets low, it's time to hit the road for home. I don't wind up making it to the river. Doobie-smoking and butt-burning with the natives will have to wait till next time.
For more information to plan your own trip, contact the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce at (530) 265-2692 or (800) 655- 6569, or www.nevadacitychamber.com.