When I heard California was adding rabbits to city police forces, I have to admit I was a bit flummoxed. What were they supposed to do, investigate the case of Peter Cottontail and the missing carrots? Unravel the mystery of how the Easter Bunny produces all those eggs every spring? But then I learned the animals were “wellness officers,” responsible for snuggling with fellow cops in need of a little emotional support and stress relief. And who couldn’t use more of that in their day?
In Yuba City, an old Gold Rush town just north of Sacramento, Officer Ashley Carson recently found a rabbit in the middle of the street. Instead of arresting him for obstructing traffic, she recruited him, and Percy has now joined the elite corps of California’s bunnies in blue. A little further south in Sonoma County’s Wine Country, the Healdsburg Police Department is already on its second rabbit. When Norman retired in 2017, the lop-eared Speedy volunteered to cover his beat, nurturing the hearts and minds of his human co-workers.
I was trying to imagine what the state’s original settlers would have thought about this warm, fuzzy approach to policing when I visited historic Hangtown last weekend. The name comes from the Gold Rush era, when prospectors, adventurers, and scallywags arrived in droves. One night townsfolk caught men trying to rob a Mexican gambler. There was no police force (human or rabbit) so when the neighbors learned three of the would-be thieves were wanted criminals, they dispensed with a trial and hung them the next morning from the old oak in the center of town.
The execution — or mob lynching, depending on your viewpoint — gave the town a badass reputation that seemed to delight its residents. Eventually cooler heads insisted on giving the town a name less harmful to its real estate values, and officially it’s now called Placerville. But the Hangtown legacy lingers on. As do the spirits of many who died there.
Just about every one of the old buildings lining Main Street has a tale of hauntings, apparitions, and odd paranormal pranks. Take the Placerville Hardware Store, the oldest continually operating hardware store west of the Mississippi. For the past sixty years it’s been run by the Fausel family, who have grown quite used to “the entities.” Ghostly women cleaners are said to leave feathers from their dusters around the store, and odd wisps of smoke are attributed to a fellow who died in a fire. And then there are the cold spots, like the one described by ghosthunter Linda Bottjer.
“Some might scoff, but I have felt it. During our Ho Ho Boo tour, Albert and Deanna [Fausel] graciously invited us on a guided tour of Placerville Hardware. While they spoke, I stood near it. It was strong enough to cut through two pairs of socks, tights, leggings and thick leather boots.” Bottjer then described the ghostly prankster. “He or she loves to untie employees’, especially women’s, shoelaces… As we left the store to continue the ghost tour, I realized my left boot was untied. Considering that its lace had been triple-tied, a sense of amazement and pride flooded me. I had been pranked by one of Placerville’s most mischievous entities.”
Of course, naysayers may suggest the mischievous entities pranking visitors are the residents themselves, many of whom delight in passing along tall tales they may not actually believe. As I moseyed along Main Street, I asked shopkeepers if they’d noticed anything supernatural; a few good-naturedly mentioned strange sensations but added, “Don't quote me on that.”
And then I stopped into Cary House. Built in 1848, the hotel’s guests have included Mark Twain, Elvis Presley, and Wells Fargo officers stockpiling gold and silver ore purchased from prospectors. One of the early desk clerks was the hard-drinking flirt Stan Levine; when he was killed, allegedly shot by a jealous husband, he wasn’t ready to leave the party. They say he continues to haunt the hotel and nearby bars, pinching the bottoms of attractive young women and men and fiddling with sound systems and lights. If someone mocks him, he supposedly causes the speaker’s wine glass to shatter. Lively stuff!
The first hotel staff member I asked barely refrained from rolling his eyes at my question. “Nope, never seen anything like that.” But the other desk clerk nodded, leaned forward, and said, “Yeah, people report all sorts of paranormal events.” She flagged down a young guest walking by. “This woman is asking about ghosts. Tell her what happened to you.”
The guest seemed reluctant at first, but after a little coaxing, said, “Well, I was asleep and felt myself pulled out of bed. When I landed on the floor, I thought ‘Oh my God,’ and climbed back into bed. It happened two more times. I kept finding myself on the floor. And then when I woke up the next morning, I found a bite mark on my upper arm.”
“A human bite mark?” I asked.
Yikes! So there you have it. Is Stan Levine still messing around with the living? Is the city really thronged with ectoplasm, invisible women wielding feather dusters, and spirits with a shoelace fetish? Is it all just foolish fantasy and cynical exploitation? Who can say? About 41% of Americans believe in ghosts; 20% claim they’ve seen one. People crave connection with those who have passed over to the Other Side.
And now modern technology offers a whole new way to achieve it. When her special someone died, Eugenia Kuyda, CEO of the San Francisco chatbot startup Luka, created a chatbot version of him using his text messages. Think that’s cringeworthy? It gets creepier. Kuyda found their digital conversations so comforting she went on to develop Replika, “the AI companion who cares.” The customizable bot, promoted as curing loneliness, had ads so racy it was clear you and this incorporeal entity could become intimate in ways you never imagined. I couldn't bring myself to post the x-rated stuff, but here's how it starts.
Soon users began reporting they were being sexually harassed by their chatbots. One human tweeted, “No I just wanted a friend nothing else and they try to date you [skull emoji].” The blowback grew so intense that in February, Replika adjusted the chatbot to be less sexually aggressive, leaving some users frustrated. “I’m still healing from all of this,” wrote one, “but knowing that my Replika is a shell of her former self hurts more than anything.”
Connecting with others — human, animal, machine, the living, or the dead — is a complicated business. Much is written about true love with a soul mate, but there’s a lot to be said for casual relationships, too. Researchers call them “peripheral ties” (as opposed to family and close friends); studies show our seemingly trivial interactions with people we meet, even a helpful (non-harassing) chatbot or cuddly rabbit, can boost our mood and help us thrive. “To get the full value of joy,” said Mark Twain, “you must have someone to divide it with.” Words to live by — now and in the afterlife. Amen.
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS WORLD TOUR SO FAR
IN PROGRESS: THE NUTTERS TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
For Nutters, There's No Place Like California
Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
RECENTLY COMPLETED: THE NUTTERS TOUR OF SPAIN
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
WANT TO STAY IN THE LOOP?
Subscribe to receive notices when I publish my weekly posts.
Just send me an email and I'll take it from there.
Enter any destination or topic in the search box below. If I've written about it, you'll find it.
And be sure to check out my best selling travel memoirs & guide books here.
This blog is a promotion-free zone.
As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things I find interesting and/or useful.
I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
My current project:
OUT TO LUNCH IN SEVILLE
Don't miss out!
SIGN UP HERE
to be notified when I publish new posts.
Planning a trip?
Use the search box below to find out about other places I've written about.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel