19 weeks out of Los Angeles and Amy, my wheaten terrier, and I got to hike over the Santa Cruz mountains on our journey north out of Santa Cruz itself towards San Jose. If this sounds manly (perhaps that should be dogly) and adventurous, it was not. For most of the route we walked alongside Highway 17, a concrete expressway which cuts through the redwood forests like a knife through beef dripping. I dare say that, had we wanted to, we could have found a more attractive passage, one which would have exposed us to chipmunks, raccoons, foxes, and bobcats instead of exhaust fumes. But as I told my travelling companion, there would be plenty of opportunity for raw nature at a later stage of our journey. Right now, Silicon Valley and San Francisco were calling me. Amy suggested that the rich and potent smell of foxes and chipmunks were calling her. However, I could pull on the lead slightly harder than she could, and so we stuck to the direct route.
On the second day out we crossed the County Line, leaving Santa Cruz County behind and entering Santa Clara County. Amy and I performed our now familiar ritual and re-tuned our radio to KSCU, the radio station operated by Santa Clara University and put in a subscription to the San Jose Mercury News. Despite the excitement of a new County – well, I thought it was exciting – Amy was getting pretty fed up with the diet of concrete freeways, exhaust fumes and redwood trees. I consulted the map and told her that there was a city close by and we could visit it without too much of a diversion. “Yes, Holy City looks a pretty neat place”, I said to her with what I thought might be a beatific smile on my face.
When at last we arrived at Holy City we found but two buildings remaining. On a good day there might have been two city residents and Amy claimed she could detect a couple of dogs, but that was it. Once we had pitched our tent in the meadow behind the Art Glass shop (the one functioning building left in the city) we caught up with the extraordinary history of the place. Holy City is just as much archetypal California as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hollywood sign.
The story starts at the end of the nineteenth century with an itinerant Californian snake-oil salesman and palm-reader called William E. Riker. Riker was a great believer in matrimony, to such an extent that he married two women at the same time. To escape bigamy charges he fled to Canada where he started his own religious cult, known as “The Perfect Christian Divine Way”. If you take a close look at the doctrine he preached, it was neither perfect, Christian or in any way divine and had a chilling streak of white supremacy running through it. Riker moved back to California, bought a parcel of land just off the old Santa Cruz Highway, and established Holy City. Proving once again that there is no shortage of gullible fools in the world, Riker soon gathered around him hundreds of devotees anxious to give their leader their money, their labour and – in some cases – their wives. During the 1930s, Holy City had more than 300 citizens, a weekly newspaper and its own radio station (which featured a popular half-hour show with a Swiss yodeller). Large signs on the old highway would advertise Riker as “the only man who could save California from going plum to hell”. Passers-by could pay their respects to the great spiritual leader by buying petrol from his service station, snacks from his restaurant or looking at the moon through his telescope (“just 10c a look”). Riker made several attempts to become governor of California – an office which has consistently attracted men of a somewhat bizarre nature – and was eventually arrested in 1943 for his open support for Adolph Hitler. At his trial, his lawyer argued that he was nothing more than a harmless crackpot and got him off the charges. Riker was so annoyed that he tried to sue his lawyer for defamation. Riker continued to live in the now deserted Holy City until the 1960s and towards the end of his life he converted to Catholicism. Somehow, the story says a lot about old California and it is worth reading the full story of William Riker and Holy City which can be found in an article by Andrea Perkins which is available on the CoastNews website.
If Riker and Holy City are old California, what is happening just a few miles down the road towards Los Gatos is new California. The normally peaceful forests that surround the impressive Lexington Reservoir are seething with discontent.
The problem is a plan which has been put forward by the San Jose Water Company to cut down the redwood and Douglas Fir trees on some 1,000 acres of land it owns around Lexington Reservoir. The company claims that the logging will help prevent forest fires. This is a claim which is denied by the local action group “Neighbours Against Irresponsible Logging” (NAIL). The group also contend that the plans will spoil water quality, compromise local wildlife and even further tip the balance of climate change. NAIL seems to be the kind of well organised, twenty-first century local action group one would expect of an area which forms the dormitory for Silicon Valley. They have managed to get the support of former Vice-President and campaigner against climate change, Al Gore. They have also made full use of the weapons of the modern era : visit their website and you can take a virtual Google Earth fly-over of the area under threat. This is a very impressive piece of campaigning and you can almost feel the temptation to go out and pick up a banner as you watch the red areas which identify the logging site fly by. It also shows how useful it is to have a Google Earth developer as part of your protest group. As we left the reservoir behind and headed into Los Gatos, Amy and I gave the protest group our full virtual support.
Los Gatos is like so many towns the world over that live in close proximity to large cities (in the case of Los Gatos the large city is San Jose) When no ribbon of wilderness divides such towns from their more populous neighbours, a kind of geographical osmosis drains them of part of their individuality, part of their soul. Even if you just visit the websites of the Town Council or the Chamber of Commerce, you get the impression that you pass through Los Gatos on the way somewhere else. There is nothing wrong with the place, it is a perfectly splendid little community – or it would be if it was set amongst the hills somewhere else.
With such feelings in our minds, Amy and I found it difficult to work up too much enthusiasm. There were restaurants. But there would be bigger and better restaurants to come. There were shops, but nothing like the shops that awaited us around the next corner. However, there was a park and in the park there was a railway.
The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad which runs through Oak Meadow and Vasona parks has been in operation on this site for over thirty-five years. Before that it was set-up on the Los Gatos ranch of the said Billy Jones, a lifelong railway engineer and enthusiast. On his death the narrow-gauge railway was bought by non-profit corporation funded by local businessmen and moved to the parks. I could find no prohibition of dogs riding on the train, but to be on the safe side, Amy once more took refuge inside one of my bulky pullovers.