The Mother Lode offers many paths to health

A solitary hiker walks the trail from Peoria Mountain to Shell Road near Table Mountain on the south shore of New Melones Reservoir in Tuolumne County.

Photo by Dana M. Nichols

Health in the Mother Lode is one of those glass-half-full topics.

Those of us living in this region have high rates of certain problems compared to other California counties. Our death rate for all causes, even adjusted for the higher age of our population, is above the state average. Our death rate from cancer is above the state average for Calaveras, Amador and Tuolumne counties. Calaveras County’s death rate from heart disease is also above the state average. Calaveras County’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the state.

Yet we also have the outdoor spaces, home-grown food and tranquility that experts say can boost our health. And even though we are perched on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, we also have access to some valuable urban amenities such as three major hospital systems, gymnasiums and health classes.

This special section is your guide to these health-giving regional wonders. We named this section “Path to Health” in recognition of the recreational paths that our region boasts. Many residents here run, walk, ride and snowshoe on these paths year round. Some folks who end up living here first discover the Mother Lode by hiking or biking through.

My all-time favorite path nearby is probably the Pacific Crest Trail, to which we have devoted a separate story. It is a national treasure. Anyone can use it who can afford the gasoline to get to a trailhead where the trail crosses highways and major roads.

But there are many less-famous paths that offer healthy ways to not only condition your heart physically, but share special moments with loved ones. The Natural Bridges Trail off of Parrotts Ferry Road near Vallecito is one of these gems. The short, 0.7-mile trail loses about 320 feet in elevation as it drops down to where Coyote Creek emerges from a limestone cavern. On warm summer afternoons, families will splash in the pool at the cave entrance or picnic on nearby tables.

Natural Bridges is popular because it is only a short walk, the rewards are spectacular and even folks who are not in prime condition can muster the stamina to puff their way back up the hill. The biggest hazard is poison oak that grows right next to the trail.

Tuolumne County is blessed with a collection of several prime recreation trails that are particularly family friendly because they avoid the problem of steep climbs and drops. That’s because those trails follow the gentle grades of former railroad lines. Writer Charity Maness explores one of those railroad paths, the Sugar Pine Trail from Twain Harte to Lyons Reservoir.

Reporter Joe Klarer contributes a bit of his own exploration to this section. He’ll tell you about the China Gulch Trail in Amador County.

Klarer also reports on how he and many others here in the Mother Lode enjoy recreational sports such as basketball, tennis and golf as paths to both physical and social health. Maness adds an account of a somewhat less traditional sport – disc golf – that is growing in popularity in the region.

Of course no one will have the energy to throw discs or hike trails without wholesome food. So Michele Rugo, who is herself a Master Gardener, writes about the many ways that the University of California Cooperative Extension helps to train gardeners, cooks and young people.

Reporter Shasta Garcia gives an account of her recent discovery, thanks to a college class, that weight lifting can be a path to health. She shares how she overcame the intimidation she felt when she first worked out next to experienced body builders.

Garcia also considers a sometimes-overlooked feature of Mother Lode life that contributes to health: our faith communities. They are our first lines of defense as we combat suicide rates that are above the state average. Garcia consults with an expert on mental and spiritual health and gives some options for those who want to deepen their practices of prayer or meditation.

Sometimes, of course, there are even more difficult obstacles for us to overcome. Those of us who already have chronic health conditions may need more than a little recreation to improve out situation. Travis Taborek offers a story on the rehabilitative classes offered at the Mother Lode’s hospitals.

I hope you enjoy this special section. Be sure to stop and say hello if you seem me out on a trail!