As August wanes, many a Tuolumne County resident begins to hear the call of the Strawberry Music Festival. An institution since 1982, music might be the headliner of the festival, but community is the glue. Old friends gather at the same campsites year after year. Well, the same campsites until the Rim Fire crept right up to the edges of Camp Mather, the home of the festival for 30 years. After the fire, the Strawberry Music Festival had to relocate.
I wasn’t thinking about the Strawberry Music Festival as I drove down Evergreen Road earlier this month, but my blood and bones took in every curve and pothole and I was engulfed by a giant wave of nostalgia. I wrestled with the wistful longing, surprised by the intensity, until I realized that my history with Evergreen Road and Camp Mather stretched back to the 1950s.
Beginning in 1954, my family vacationed at Camp Mather, where I swam in Birch Lake and rode horses from the Mather Corral and Pack Station for the next eight years. I remember how my parents would get a sitter so they could go to Evergreen Lodge to dance on the outdoor dancefloor to a live band. They were disappointed when the owners put a jukebox in, but we kids, who had reached our preteens and were now allowed one early evening at the lodge, were delighted. When my dad built a cabin in Twain Harte in 1962, we quit going to Camp Mather.
But I wasn’t done with Evergreen Lodge. It was a stopping place for sodas and ice cream after trips to Hetch Hetchy, and once in the 1980s, I stayed in one of the newly built cabins that John Bargmann had added to the facility after he bought the lodge. I recall sitting at the bar, nursing a beer, when a fight broke out two stools down. We leaped off our stools and moved toward the door. The fight was over in a flash, but it was kind of cool to be able to say with exaggeration that I once witnessed a barroom brawl. By the 1990s, I was a regular at the Strawberry Music Festival, and my memory of the lodge was snaking past it in the long line of cars that took their places on Evergreen Road before dawn to await entry to the festival.
No wonder I was roiling with nostalgia as I pulled into the parking lot at Evergreen Lodge. As I strolled toward the old building housing the restaurant and tavern, I could see kids playing on a zip line beside a marvelous climbing structure artistically rendered in wood. Chipped bark lay around the play area and between the cabins. That’s when I realized that the whole facility sat in an oasis of pine and cedar practically untouched by the Rim Fire, whose vicious path was evident all along Evergreen Road. The deep sense of nostalgia shifted with an intake of relief that this historical place had been spared.
I climbed the stairs of the original lodge and sat on a bench that had surely been there when I was a child, so worn was the seat. The planks on the deck were also worn smooth by countless footsteps. Off to my right stood a general store where the concrete dancefloor had once stood. And in front of me was a kiosk with a line of bikes ready for rental.
I chatted briefly with two young women – Veda and Kiley – who’d come to the lodge on their afternoon off from work at Camp Mather. When I asked these city girls how they liked working at Mather, Veda said, “I love it. I get paid to live in the most beautiful place ever.”
Yep, I thought, she’s a city girl like I once was, discovering the wonders of the mountains.
After I took care of my business and caught a glimpse of my infamous bar, I stopped to watch the kids playing on the zip line. They told me they were from Chicago and had been to visit Hetch Hetchy earlier in the day.
“I got to pet a horse at the corral,” said a little blond of about 7. So, they’d also stopped at Camp Mather, I reasoned.
Evergreen Lodge has changed considerably since I was a kid, but here were happy children and young women, like Veda and Kiley, making memories that would certainly last as long as mine had.
As I drove away, I decided to make an unplanned stop at Rush Creek Lodge on Highway 120. In May, I’d received an invitation to the grand opening of the lodge, but I’d been out of state and unable to attend. I was suddenly curious about this brand new lodge built by the owners of Evergreen, and touted as the first new Yosemite resort in 25 years.
As I pulled into the driveway of the resort built on a hill, it was clear that many of the cabins that glowed in the late afternoon sun would have spectacular views of the Tuolumne River Canyon. I made my way to the reception area where guests were checking in. As in Yosemite, foreign languages were a musical cadence in the lovely appointed hall. Ansel Adams photographs adorned the walls, and there was plenty of glass to let in the alpine light. I stepped into the gift shop and spoke to a man who was buying sunscreen and bottled water. Chris Zimmerman was from Vermont, and his wife had selected Rush Creek Lodge from an online search. This was their second night at the lodge. “The amenities are fantastic,” he said.
I left the reception area and walked out on a veranda overlooking a swimming pool that glittered with sunlight. Guests were sunbathing, swimming, wading, and playing foosball, shuffleboard and table tennis. The joy of vacation filled the air.
I left the lodge in a thoughtful state. By the time I passed through Groveland and was descending Priest Grade, I’d digested the facts of change. Veda and Kiley would never know the dancefloor I had known at Evergreen Lodge, and the guests at the brand new Rush Creek Lodge would only see stark black snags left by the firestorm that ended the reign of the Strawberry Music Festival at Camp Mather.
But I can see that another wave of memories are in the making just outside of Yosemite, and on the other side of the canyon at the Strawberry Music Festival, now in its second fall at Westside in Tuolumne, a whole crate of Strawberry hearts are about to ripen.
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