For a town that has an Old West ambiance caught in Gold Rush times, Sonora reinvents itself on a remarkably consistent basis. Whether it’s a Celtic festival at the local fairgrounds, various music events, or even a parade, Sonora offers an amazing range of fun activities and attractions.
Most people think of Sonora as a funky Gold Rush town, if they think of it at all. Most people rush past it on the way to Yosemite or over Sonora pass. Once, the highway ran through the old storefronts of the downtown, but in recent years, a bypass was built, allowing the through traffic to bypass Sonora entirely. Which is too bad, because Sonora is an amazing place.
The bypass, while it relieves the traffic that used to back up with nightmarish regularity on summer days, at the T-intersection in the heart of the Historic downtown, also means many people don’t discover this 19th century gem.
Years ago, I stumbled on Sonora as most people do, on the way to somewhere else. My friends and I ate lunch in a “Mom and Pop” Japanese restaurant in the upstairs of a vintage building, where we ate trout sushi with donburi rice bowls for lunch. Back then, we were amazed that a restaurant of that kind existed in the Sierra Foothills, in the era before shopping malls and ethnic chain restaurants. But Sonora has always been an original.
Sonora isn’t most people’s first thought when music comes to mind, but the town has been the heart of the Sierra foothills music scene since the 1980s. It was thus a pleasant surprise, on stopping for dinner, to discover Magic of the Night, a special summer music event.
Held on the Friday night before the Sonora Blues Festival, Magic of the Night is in its 13th year, and seems to attract locals and tourists alike. Everyone in town was out and about, was greeting neighbors, chatting with visitors, and generally enjoying a summer evening on the town. This free summer festival is a great lead-in for both the music at the fairgrounds, and as a terrific event in its own right! Unaware of Magic of the Night, I got stopped by a traffic backup at that old, infamous intersection in the downtown, then heard music in the air. We turned left, following the sound, and noticed a crowd gathered around a small sunken park, down some stairs from the sidewalk. There were people everywhere, and the sidewalks were crowded not just with tourists, but locals who had set up booths selling everything from batik clothing to baked goods. It seemed like every park or side street had a different band set up, and you could wander from place to place, checking out the different music venues.
The one thing I will mention is that parking can be challenging, even with several free lots along the block back of the main street. Many of streets have no parking, or parking only on one side, dating from the era of horses and buggies. Your best bet is to take one of the streets paralleling the main street and head toward the southern end of the downtown. After finding parking on the back street, you can wander down to the main drag and check out the shops as you head toward the music.
As we walked along the street, we were stopped in our tracks by The Sportsman Bar, whose weathered sign proclaimed “Cold Beer, Knives, Guns, Ammo, Hunting, Fishing, Supplies, Gifts, Sodas.” Yes, this was the Gold Country, all right!
Up in the main park, across the street from the Veteran’s Memorial building, “Chains Required,” an 11-piece rhythm and blues band based in Sonora, was performing a range of 1960s to contemporary music. Around them, about a dozen amazing antique autos were parked. They ranged from 1930s pickup trucks to an antique Rolls Royce! We stopped to talk briefly with a man who had a 1931 Ford touring sedan, who explained about how the plate in the engine compartment identified the body type of the car, although not the year of its manufacture.
It was hard to decide where to eat, with so many interesting local restaurants offering amazing menus! After sandwiches at the Heart Rock Café, across the street from the park, we ventured back to the park to watch belly dancing. But what really caught our attention was Mountain Mischief, as flames suddenly started swirling and leaping in the center of the now-darkened park. Swirls and intricate patterns of flame danced in the air, and bathed the darkness with flickering patterns of light, to a hypnotic drum beat. It was an irresistible lure.
Polynesian flame dancers have nothing on Mountain Mischief! A sudden wall of people crowded in to get a better look, as this duo of flame-masters juggled incendiary objects with engaging casualness. Mountain Mischief, jugglers Kevin Axtell and Brandi Slater, slung flaming bowls in patterns, juggled blazing torches. Kevin casually showed a ball the size of a baseball, then ignited it, making a literal ball of flame, that was then juggled, rolled, and balanced along his arm with nary a sign that juggling a ball engulfed in blue flames was anything out of the normal.
By the time the fire jugglers were through, the shops were starting to pull their wares back inside, and the antique car crowd was packing up with much roaring of engines. We poked our heads into The Sportsman , which seemed to be doing a brisk business in beer, at least, and possibly sporting goods. Behind the bar, a row of taxidermied animal heads watched over a crowd of customers, and the wall on the opposite side was full of fishing gear. At the far rear, I could see a glass case full of rifles. Its unique combination of merchandise warranted a trip back under less hectic conditions.
The next day, we checked a few antique shops in Sonora, then stopped by The Sportsman again. It’s a true original, established in 1947 and unchanged from its original unique business model. The building was originally a butcher shop, and the meat cabinets behind the bar are original to it. It was a bar after that. But the current incarnation was opened by the current owner’s grandfather, and it’s been in the family, pretty much unchanged, ever since. Apparently, it was featured in Esquire, as one of the top bars in America, a few years back. It has the flavor of an old-time newsstand crossed with a saloon, crossed with a rural sporting goods store. I don’t know if I’d class it as a top bar, but it has a down-home charm that’s hard to describe, And like many things in Sonora, The Sportsman is a true original!
One thing to note is that there is simply too much to see and do at Magic of the Night to do all at one event. We skimmed a couple of bands, never found the line dancing, and missed the performance of the Raks Arabika bellydance troupe at the Opera House. However, that’s why we have to come back next year!
You can check out what may well be California’s most unique bar and sporting goods store at:
90 South Washington St
Sonora, CA 95370