Do people shape life in the mountains, or do mountains shape the people? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that the Sierra has a number of its own quirky inhabitants. Quite often they own or work for small-scale establishments.
Tosh and Chris Kuratomi and their mother Helen Otow, for instance, grow thousands of persimmons on the 20-acre (8-hectare) foothills farm their ancestors bought with meager savings in 1911. Every third day for a month in the fall they hand-massage the drying orange fruit to make a naturally sugarcoated Japanese delicacy called hoshigaki. Farther north, Gary Romano produces vegetables on his family’s century-old ranch located in a high-desert valley that few people would consider fertile. All summer long he sells his produce to eager shoppers at farmers markets.
Such local characters energize the Sierra’s human spirit. They run the century-old St. George Hotel in the town of Volcano and guide tours in the nearby Black Chasm cavern; in Placerville they operate the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi, where uneven floorboards bear the whacks of a million boot-soles — and where just outside the door a commemorative hangman’s galley swings in the wind. They raise grapes in old cattle ranchlands in the El Dorado County foothills, or host sophisticated Zinfandel wine tastings in Amador County. They guide horse rides into the Eastern Sierra or play the standup bass for guests at a family-owned dude ranch. Local characters give layers of meaning to a place. In the Sierra Nevada it’s easy to meet them; and it’s quite possible to make new friends.