Time traveler

How fast do you have to be to outrun a grizzly bear?

Only faster than the person behind you!

That corny campers’ joke was a survival truism at John Sutter’s New Helvetia, now known as Sutter’s Fort State Park, that white-painted structure by the duck pond on L Street that attracts bonnet-wearing school children by the wagonload. Our city mallards might not have faired so well in the 1840s, when Sutter’s outpost was in full swing and grizzlies prowled the woods. It was known, through unfortunate experience, that they could outrun even the most athletic pioneer.

“Score one for modern-day Midtown,” I thought as I stood inside the fort’s towering wooden gate, eavesdropping on a couple of 19th century ladies discussing the bear problem.

By purchasing admission to the park’s Women of the Fort Living History Day, I’d agreed to not only switch centuries, but also countries. The year was 1846 and the land was Mexico’s Alta California—hence the green, white and red flag flying above me on a wooden pole. I glanced around, hopeful for a margarita or some taquitos, but to no avail.

During the park’s living history days, no one working inside the fort is supposed to acknowledge the passage of time outside it—which was too bad for the tourist trying to chat up a volunteer wearing a pretty prairie-style dress and bonnet. “I used to do Civil War re-enactments, you know,” he said, hoping to spark a conversation.

She looked at him blankly. “What is the Civil War?”

He seemed taken aback for a moment before he started laughing. “Oh, riiight. I get it.”

I felt guilty bringing a cell phone, a laptop and an iPod on the premises. My anachronistic technology might warp the space-time continuum, or just ruin the illusion with a funky ringtone. I need not have worried; several people paced through the quad talking loudly on their phones, and a sign at the ticket booth announced that the fort itself is a Wi-Fi hot spot. Pretty impressive for a place whose security system is two cannons pointed out the front windows.

I walked around the fort’s inside perimeter, peering into small windowless rooms used for weaving, cooking, metalworking, carpentry and other crafts. Grizzly threat aside, I envied the pioneer ladies who talked with one another over their baking, knitting and sewing. Those staff-of-life skills are hobbies I can barely find time for. I’d love to spend the afternoon sitting under a tree, conversing with a friend and making a sweater.

Well, at least until the gun drills started. A costumed Captain Sutter began ringing a bell in the middle of the square and folks, living history and simply living, gathered to see the commotion. He strutted back and forth in a smart black cap barking orders as a line of eight men stuffed gunpowder into firearms.

I noticed all of the children around me held their ears in anticipation of the noise. One even hid behind me as her mother tried unsuccessfully to draw her back out. I kind of wanted to plug my ears, too, but I tried to be brave. “One round!” Sutter yelled, as the men took aim at a blank wall. “Fire!”

Blam! A boy in front of me ran off screaming, “Daddy! They are shooting guns!” Others cried, or clapped with excitement.

The shooting drill continued, shattering my reveries of peaceful blanket-weaving with the womenfolk. It sounded like a war zone. “Score two for modern-day Midtown,” I thought.

I sat on a wooden bench near a fire pit and tried to imagine a forest all the way out to the Sacramento River. I attempted to conjure the pioneer spirit of the wild frontier, of staking everything on the possibility of a new home. Alas, the hospital buildings and TV antennas peeking over the fort’s sightlines made this relatively impossible. Sirens wailed, people crowed into their phones, a child begged to go to McDonalds. Somewhere outside, through all that noise, a duck quacked. The mallards might be all we have left of wilderness, in a land where grizzlies only roam on our flag.