California Road Trip: Boonville

Greetings from… home!  Yep, I finally got in late Monday night after 6 or 7 hours of driving home from Big Sur.  I was absolutely exhausted, but so happy to be home.  It was a whirlwind of a trip – I had such an amazing time.  I’ll wrap up the rest of the trip in my next post, but for this entry I’m focusing on my hands down favorite day which was spent in Boonville, CA.

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I’m going to just write a normal post for this entry instead of highlights, because there is so much to tell about this place.  Eight weeks ago or so, I had never heard of Boonville.  My dear friend Ben knew I was going on a trip up the coast and sent me a link to this three-minute NPR story – after hearing it, I re-planned my entire trip around making it to Boonville.

In short, Boonville is a very small town (~2,500 people according to one local that I met) that has its own language.  Having been a language enthusiast all my life, I absolutely had to visit this place.  I learned a little bit about it beforehand but I had plans to just show up and track down someone who spoke the language, and hopefully listen to their stories.

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I left San Francisco on Wednesday morning and headed north.  Boonville is a little less than three hours north of San Fran, but the roads get very windy toward the end so it can take a little longer if you’ve never driven them before.  After I turned off the main freeway, I started to get deep into wine country and it was absolutely breathtaking.  Rolling, golden hills for miles, patches of dense green forest lining the road… the scenery was magical to say the least.  I also passed a number of logging yards which made me think of Twin Peaks – I just hoped the town itself wouldn’t turn out to be as creepy as a David Lynch film.

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Finally I approached my destination, The Boonville Hotel, which was essentially in the center of the town.  Spoiler alert:  the whole town is only one street long.  I hopped out of my air-conditioned car and into the 100 degree afternoon.  On any normal day 100 degrees would be way too much, but for some reason it added to the dream-like quality of the trip.  There was a strong, warm breeze blowing leaves around the quiet street and I breathed in deep as I walked up the stone steps to the lobby of the hotel.

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There was hardly anyone inside.  All was quiet except for a few voices back in what looked like a spacious kitchen.  Eventually someone noticed me and helped me check in.  Everyone seemed to be on mountain time, moving with noticeably less hurry than those in the city.  It sedated me immediately and I wanted to stay forever.  I was shown to my room and my mouth was constantly agape.  The design of the entire hotel was so simple, yet so elegant.  There were fresh flowers waiting to greet me on a side table, sitting next to wine glasses that promised an enjoyable evening.  The key to my room was an actual key; giant, antique-inspired and gold.

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The first thing I did was take a shower because it looked so inviting.  The warm breeze wafted in through the open window, carrying with it the intoxicating smell of pine trees and flowers.  I could have stayed in there for an hour but even on vacation one mustn’t forget that we’re in a severe drought.  I kept it to 10 minutes and then dried off in the warm, still air feeling incredibly refreshed.

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After the greatest shower ever, I put on a sun dress and went out to explore the grounds of the hotel.  Each sight was more mesmerizing than the last.  I discovered an entire vegetable garden, complete with burgeoning lettuce heads, tall stalks of fennel, flowering rhubarb, and tiny red and yellow tomatoes.  The entire place was covered in green grass and flowers, with many places to sit and chat, or read and drink.  It might as well have been a park.

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While exploring the grounds, I saw a sign advertising the night’s fixed price menu at the hotel’s on-site restaurant, Table 128.  I thought, ‘Why not?’ and signed myself up for a table for one at 6:30PM.  To kill the time in between, I explored the rest of the very small town.  There was an adorable ice cream shop, an antique store complete with books on Boontling, and (my favorite) a kitchen store with gorgeous handcrafted wood and ceramic bowls, cutting boards and utensils.  There was even a design-your-own linen apron station which tempted me, but I always forget to wear aprons anyway.

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I stopped by a bar across from the hotel and tried a local IPA.  A drunk man started telling me all about his childhood spent in Boonville, catching 100 fish in the creek up the road before they were all fished out.  There were many mentions of “the good old days”.  A younger guy came in and happened to work at both the local brewery as well as a local winery.  I asked him about what goes into making beer and wine, it was a fascinating conversation.  I told him that the reason I came to Boonville was to talk to someone who still spoke Boontling, and he told me to talk to Steve who runs the nightly trivia up the road.  I planned to go after dinner.

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The dinner was delicious beyond all imagining.  Most of the ingredients were picked from the garden just yards away from me. The flavors were perfectly understated, yet explosive.  The presentation was worthy of a very upscale restaurant, without the upscale restaurant prices.  I ordered an entire bottle of local cabernet sauvignon and took the rest to my room for later that night.

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Once the sun went down, the air was still warm but less harsh – absolutely dreamy.  I could have walked around the town for hours, exploring.  I visited Steve at the trivia hall who told me the person I was looking for was Wes Smoot, who often visits the drive-in cafe around 8AM most weekdays.  Everyone I asked about Boontling immediately asked me if I was a reporter. Apparently, ever since the NPR story, journalists have been regularly coming through town to do stories on this unique place and its language.  I told everyone I was simply fascinated by it, which is true, but also because I know everyone hates journalists.

I did visit the cafe the next morning right at 8 and asked the server if she knew a Wes Smoot.  She didn’t know what I was talking about, but two older women sitting near me overheard and chimed in.  “Are you a journalist?” one of them asked.  I explained that I was told to talk to Steve, who told me to track down Wes, who apparently spoke Boontling.  The woman confirmed, however Steve had given me the wrong time.  Wes comes into the cafe at 4PM in the afternoons.  I told her I’d probably have to leave before then unfortunately.  She offered to call Wes at his house and ask if I could come visit him there. I’m still wondering if I should have taken her up on it, but I declined.  Wes is 82 years old and probably trying to enjoy the rest of his life in peace.  I didn’t want to barge into his home and bother him.  And so, my quest to hear Boontling spoken live failed. However, I did learn quiet a bit about it from other locals that I spoke to.

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The language of Boontling was created in the late 1800s by Boonville residents.  At that time, many outsiders were interested in the fertile land of Boonville and the surrounding areas, so there were strangers frequently coming through town asking lots of questions.  The locals wanted nothing to do with it so they made up their own language to make non-locals feel left out or unwelcome.  The language is over 1,600 words long and was, at one point, taught in all Boonville schools.  In present day only a handful of people still speak it, and most of them are over 80.  There are still some younger locals who have taken an active interested in keeping Boontling alive.  Unfortunately, I think you could officially call it a dying language.

On my way out of town I visited Anderson Valley Brewing Company and had an incredible beer flight while reading the bar copy of the history of Boontling.  I made my way through most of the dictionary section and discovered that much of the language is extremely offensive toward women.  Not surprising really, considering the time period in which it was created.  Other parts of the language make so little sense that it’s actually endearing.  For instance, a “shoveltooth” is the Boontling word for a medical doctor.  Or, a “hobneelch” is a Saturday night dance.  Pretty specific for a language with only 1,600 words (for comparison purposes, English contains over 1 million words).

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All in all, I would highly recommend visiting Boontling some time in your life.  The scenery is worth it alone, and the hotel is perfect for a quiet getaway.  There are countless places to wine taste just miles away.  The thing I loved most about it though was the small town feel.  Every resident knew each other, but they were also welcoming of tourists.  All of the shops and little libraries contained books written by locals, so I got a sense that it is a very supportive community that’s fiercely proud of its history.  It was refreshing to visit a place that truly knows the meaning of community.

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