carton of apples
Image via Pamela Buchignani

There’s no crying in Old Hangtown

by Pamela Buchignani

The human mind is an amazing, beautiful thing. Until something goes wrong, and then it is shockingly cruel, unfair and relentless.

It wasn’t until I actually tried to do the math, that I realized it had been 10 years since my dad’s stroke — ten years since my brother gave up the life he knew in order to move north and take care of the Old Man, saving him from a frustrating, demoralizing nursing home existence.

One of the broken mind’s many tricks (but by no means the worst) is to mess with your taste buds. Everything the Old Man once loved now tastes too bitter or spicy. Coffee, onions, mustard, wine – all foods so favorited, they made the yearly Christmas list – now were on his shit list.

During a recent visit, I learned apple pie had recently joined the ranks – a shocking turn considering his obsession in his former life with apple turnovers, popovers and pie ala mode persisted even after his doctors begged him to lay off the sugar.

When I asked him why he no longer liked it, he explained that all the pies you could buy at the store were made with apple sauce instead of actual apples. The only place you could get a real apple pie was Apple Hill. What?!

For those of you who haven’t had loved ones plagued with brain-illnesses or injuries, I feel I must explain there is no use in trying to reason or unconvince someone in this unfortunate situation.

I knew it was a crazy notion, but nonetheless I was intrigued.

Apple Hill, as it turns out is also known as Placerville (or its historical name, Old Hangtown) just outside Sacramento. My brother and I guesstimated that he may have gone there as a kid, and that’s where his fond memory came from…

A more practical person may have just gone to Whole Foods — where they surely make their pies with actual apples — lied, and said the pie was from Apple Hill (over 300 miles round trip from where my dad lives now). Chances are, he wouldn’t know the difference. But the truth was that in his current state, there was very little anyone could get for him that he wanted, appreciated or could even utilize.

Of course there was a chance that the pie wouldn’t taste as amazing as it did to him in his memory. Over the last ten years, our dad had morphed into a long-demented, bed-bound shell of his former self – and there was no telling know how much longer he was going to last. It seemed only right he should have a decent piece of apple pie. Even if it was only his twisted-mind that was making it so.

It was a risk I was willing to take.

So there I was – bound for Old Hangtown.

It’s a small, quaint town teetering betwixt historical tourist spot and tweakerville, particularly in its off-season. The beauty of the area just outside town around the apple orchards was breathtaking, and reminded me so much of where I grew up, I wondered if my Old Man’s fond memories of this place were what made him buy a house there.

I loaded up the car with as many apple pies as I could balance and headed west. 150 miles later, I arrived just as my dad was waking up from his long afternoon nap. My brother announced, “Pam is here, and she brought apple pie from Apple Hill!” A few quiet moments pass, as he shakes off his dream state, and he finally says “…a la mode. Strawberry.” We gave him some pie and some ice cream, and he ate it.

I wondered what kind of reaction I was hoping for, exactly. At least he was willing to eat said apple pie. But what was the grand finale to this mini-adventure I had envisioned? What words could he have mumbled that would have satisfied me in that moment? The truth was, there were none.

Perhaps I just wanted him to understand that I was trying to do something nice for him, after years of feeling unable to… But when I thought more about what my brother has been doing for him for the last 10 years (unthanked), I felt horribly selfish and shallow.

Somewhere, the story-loving writer inside me was looking for the climactic finish in my tiny little quest. And the reality is, in real life, there usually isn’t one. There are just the little things (or not so little, like in my brother’s case) that we do because we know they are the right things.

The next day, a little more awake, the Old Man changed his ice cream request to vanilla. The day after that, he asked me if I had really driven all the way to Placerville to get him apple pie, and when I said yes, he said, “Wow. Thank you.”

If only he could say that to the man who has been taking care of him for the last decade. Since he can’t, I will say it for him:

W O W. T H A N K  Y O U.


Places to visit in Old Hangtown:

Boa Vista Orchards – you will never want to eat grocery store apples again! Try the Arkansas Black Apples if you can catch them in season, or the Bosc Pears. Also, they make their apple pies with real apples!

Powell’s Steamer Co and Pub – try the locally brewed Old Hangtown Beer Works stout, it’s delicious and made in some awesome guy’s garage!

The Gold Trail Motor Lodge – fantastic little dive motel (my favorite) that won’t break the bank. And it’s got one of the best neon signs.

To see photos of my trek to Old Hangtown, click here.

Pamela Buchignani

About Pamela Buchignani

Pamela Buchignani is a writer, photographer, banjo enthusiast and Director of Original Content, Live Events for Fuse TV. Follow her on Twitter @MsPamelaB.

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