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Blooms Are Golden in These Hills : Some flowery praise for the Gold Rush country near Sacramento.

March 15, 1992|JUDITH MORGAN

Drytown was wet when I drove through, and Dry Creek was full and rising.

Gusts of rain splattered on Main Street, which is California Highway 49, a tribute to the rambunctious Forty-Niners who, a century and a half ago, found gold in these foothills to the east of Sacramento.

Drytown seemed deserted on that drizzly day, except for one woman who was frantically pulling blue overalls and bedsheets from her backyard clothesline. The storm deepened the yesteryear mood, casting an eerie sheen on tailing wheels, head frames and other faded relics of the mines.

Founded in 1848, Drytown is the oldest town on record in Amador County. In its heyday, there were 26 saloons. Now the place claims a population of 79 and is known for such oddments as the marble-floored Butcher Shop-Post Office, dating from 1851, and the Old Brick Store of the same era, where George Hearst, father of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, had a small press and mine office.

Three miles to the south is Amador City, a blatantly pretty town of 200 residents. Antique shops may be the major industry; artful lodging is found at the red-brick Mine House Inn, a bed and breakfast which, in the 1880s, was the headquarters of the nearby Keystone Consolidated Mine.

I had an evening flight from Sacramento, however, so I pressed on to Sutter Creek, a spiffy settlement of 2,000 people and a rich lode of Victorian houses, brick-front buildings with iron shutters that could have been assay offices, covered sidewalks topped with full wooden balconies and picket-fenced yards shaded by willows and gnarled oaks.

Set back from Main Street, and framed by tall pines, is the Sutter Creek Inn, a gleaming white hostelry with a pitched green roof. It began as a simple cottage back in the 1850s, but then it grew: Porches and wings were added as the family expanded.

Four guest rooms are in the main building. Surrounding quarters--from the cellar room to the wash house--have been converted into 15 handsome accommodations.

Innkeeper Jane Way is known for her family-style breakfasts, served in the kitchen, which are as bountiful as prospector's claims: heaps of pancakes, enormous bowls of berries with cream, and eggs any style, including huevos rancheros . Across the street, at the corner of Main and Randolph, I wanted to peek into The Palace restaurant and saloon--"where royalty meet--since 1884," according to a swinging sign. But The Palace was locked.

"Bankrupt," a local said, when I ducked into the Back Roads Coffee House. "It's supposed to reopen soon."

From the menu on the wall, I ordered a vegetarian sandwich, although the Gold Rush special would have been apropos: roast beef with melted Swiss chesse, ortega chiles, mustard and mayonnaise on sourdough bread.

Each morning at 7, Randy and Pam Aspinall have breakfast ready at this cafe-bakery-deli. "Today's coffees are Estate Java and double French roast," Pam said cheerily. "If you have your own mug, it's five cents off."

Back Roads is a relatively new gathering place in Sutter Creek. Racks hold newspapers and magazines. An old wood-burning stove is topped with pots of wildflowers and baskets of tea bags--herbal and otherwise.

Along the 300-mile strip of Gold Rush towns, Jackson is more of a regular place and thus less charming for dedicated escapists from the 20th Century. Its historic remnants have been joined by motels, lumberyards, a used-car lot and other signs of progress.

It is, after all, the Amador County seat.

I wandered into the peeling-adobe-walled National Hotel (1862) to use a telephone. The bar had no customers, and the air was smokier than I recalled. But the tiny reception desk was still there, beyond ersatz Tiffany lamps. Life-size cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable smiled from behind a piano. The blonde bartender was watching a television docudrama about George Washington on the Family Channel.

To complete my nostalgic loop, I wanted to see Volcano, a village where I had once spent Christmas at the St. George Hotel, and its neighbor, Daffodil Hill. The first I found empty on that rainy afternoon; the second I could not find at all.

Only after turning back toward Sacramento, my windshield wipers on high, did I realize what was wrong. I was too early.

For about four weeks each year, Daffodil Hill shimmers with half a million blooms--the noble King Alfred's, the haunty Mountain Hoods and hundreds of other varieties of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths.

But the owners of the four-acre hillside do not open their gates to the public until 25% of the flowers are in bloom.

Weather permitting, I have now been told, Daffodil Hill is scheduled to open this weekend and welcome visitors through the second weekend in April.

Wish I were there.

(For more information on Daffodil Hill, call the Amador County Chamber of Commerce at 800-649-4988 or 209-223-0350.)

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