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A Guided Tour of California's Counties Offers a Gold Mine of Stories

January 01, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his foreword to "Hillinger's California" (Capra Press, 284 pages, $16.95), comedian Bob Hope says the author "has left no California stone unturned--save a few golf courses which are worthy of note."

But who needs golf when you've got the "moaning cave" of Calaveras County and a booming, shrieking, sighing, singing sand dune in San Bernardino County?

For 46 years, from 1946 to 1992, Charles Hillinger roamed the country as a reporter and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times. Last year, Capra Press published "Charles Hillinger's America, Stories From All 50 States." Now the author is offering his take--part tour guide, mostly human interest observations--on California, with a book subtitled "Stories From All 58 Counties."

The late vagabond journalist Charles Kuralt said Hillinger was one of his heroes. Hope writes of the surprises in the book. Here are a few:

* In Fresno County, Hillinger rides the Sierra Queen, a tiny ferry boat that shuttles backpackers from various High Sierra trails across Florence Lake to a store well-stocked with a coveted commodity: ice cream.

* Chaw'se Indian Grinding Rock State Park in Amador County near Sacramento is California's only state park devoted exclusively to Native American culture. On a limestone outcropping pitted with 1,185 holes, Hillinger visits with the curator of the park's cultural center, a Miwok who describes her visions of the rock as it was when women gathered there to gossip and grind acorns.

* Merced County's "Sweet Potato Joe" grows 7 million of said tubers a year, planting according to phases of the moon. "It's based on centuries of observation by Portuguese sweet-potato growers in the Azores," the 74-year-old farmer tells Hillinger.

* In Sacramento County, Hillinger visits Folsom State Prison, where the inmates working in the LPF--the license plate factory--show him their craft and plates personalized to read "Out Soon" and "I Hope."

* And who would have known, without Hillinger's tip, that in Tulare County, the world's largest living thing--a Sequoia redwood with a circumference of 105 feet--originally was owned and named by the communists who founded the Kaweah Cooperative Colony near its base? Now called the General Sherman Tree, the monster originally was named after Karl Marx.

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