September 22, 2009

Support Your Local River

London blogger, Captain JP, has encouraged us to celebrate World Rivers Day, which is on September 27th this year. As it turns out, I live just a few blocks from one of our country's great rivers - the American - and it's one that should be celebrated.

One of my favorite morning walks is across an old bridge, now closed to car traffic, that leads from the river's tranquility to my local coffee shop. I could make coffee at home, but this is really just an excuse to walk across the high bridge and stare down into the river's hypnotic waters.

It's those tranquil, innocent-looking waters that were responsible for one of the biggest upheavals in American history. They kicked off one of the greatest human migrations ever - for better or worse.

For not 30 miles upstream of my favorite bridge, and only about 160 years ago, an observant fellow looking down into those same hypnotic waters noticed some bright yellow metallic specks. Things around here just haven't been the same ever since.

Something the ensuing years have taught us is that if you're trying to preserve the natural state and ecosystems of one of the world's most spectacularly beautiful rivers, it's best not to conduct hydraulic mining on a massive scale for a hundred years, dump thousands of tons of mercury and other toxic chemicals therein, and build dozens of hydroelectric dams thereon.

Ah, but this is America, land of opportunity.

Despite all of that, though, much of the river has recovered almost miraculously, and remains one of the world's premier destinations for rafters and kayakers.



Photo by James Rogers

This river has also managed to wend its way into my own life. By joining forces with the larger Sacramento River, it has contrived to carve out a rather pleasant little bay down by San Francisco for me to sail my boat in.

And that spot where it joins the Sacramento River became a convenient place for them to build a town large enough to support a newspaper, so I have someplace to work where I can earn the money that lovely boat always seems to be extorting from me.

But what the river is really famous for is the single most significant invention in the history of mankind:

Blue jeans.

What? This river gave us blue jeans? Well, yes, sort of.

The network of rivers and oceans that made it possible to reach this place by water brought a river of commerce through San Francisco. They didn't call it the gold rush for nothing. And since San Franciscans are naturally smarter than average people, some of them figured out that there might be an easier way to get rich from this gold rush thing other than digging with a pick and shovel in 100-degree heat all day.

If thousands of people from New York and New Jersey and Rhode Island wanted to do that, those San Franciscans thought, maybe there was some money to be made in the pick and shovel business. And of course, you can't be out there swinging a pick and shovel in 100-degree heat all naked - you would need some sturdy clothes that were up to the task - things like workshirts and hats and boots and, well, trousers. Good, beefy trousers that didn't fall apart at the seams.

And who do you suppose was the most resourceful San Francisco trouser salesman of all? No, no, not Calvin Klein. It was a dry goods merchant named Levi Strauss.

They still sell his trousers here today, up and down the river.



  1. Nice. Boy, still remember visiting the Malakoff Diggings when my dad was stationed in Mare Island.

  2. Bonnie, my inlaws live next to malakoff state park. Beautiful country up there.

  3. Just as many New Yorkers have never been to the top of the Empire State Building, I must confess, there are some historic sites along the river I haven't been to, including Malakoff.

    Strange, but since we got the boat, we explore less close to home and spend more time in the Bay.

  4. Haha, I've been on that bridge

  5. One of the secrets of a good post is to get three or so subjects that would be ok-ish on their own and find the connection that makes them a story and hence interesting - and yup, you've done just that.

    Maybe you should consider a career in a newspaper or something?

    The downside of doing this is that you use up three possible ideas in one post...aahhh!!

    (the word verification here is shicketi which if it isn't a word *should* be)

  6. JP, I think you have a great idea for a TV series. We could trot around the globe, finding seemingly unrelated oddities and then stitch them together to show the connections. But we'd have to find some chap with a dry sense of a humor and a British accent to narrate it. Hmm...

  7. Seemingly unrelated oddities? You mean like a 1950's TV program for kids, Tom DeLay, wildflower gardening and back pain?

    Nah, nobody could find connections between things like that.

  8. There used to be a show like that called Connections, that I totally loved. If I remember correctly, the dry-humoured Brit narrating it was James Burke.

    Yeah, my car got totaled two years ago because the Earth is spherical. (No, I haven't traced out the whole chain of causal factors online yet, but maybe I should.)

    Meanwhile, those blue jeans ... Levi Strauss' real genius was responding to the needs of a customer who had trouble with the pockets always ripping off. He went to a nearby blacksmith to get rivets put into the jeans to hold the pockets on, and voila, an American icon.

  9. And then Sarah Palin's almost-son-in-law's father named his son after his favorite jeans and the rest is history.

  10. I think what's making history are his genes.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I think what's making history is what he didn't keep in his jeans.

    Anyway you will be pleased to know that Levi is continuing the Johnston family tradition of naming their kids with a view to future sponsorship deals. The Johnston/ Palin baby's middle name is Easton, in honor of Levi's favorite hockey-equipment company.

    9/25/09 8:14 AM