Rio Vista is a little town in the Sacramento River Delta. Midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, halfway between I-80 and I-5, it's a place you'd come across only if you were exploring the secondary roads in this inland delta area. Rarely, the town makes the news when a wayward humpback whale happens to stray miles from the sea, upriver. Rescuers gather there to guide the whale back to safety. There's a monument to Humphrey down by the river's edge.
Rio Vista has another strange little attraction however - one not as readily noticed. On Main Street downtown is a little storefront saloon - its facade of glass bricks only about 20' across. Inside, the bar stretches the length of the long narrow room with high ceiling - room only for a row of bar stools and space to walk behind them. At the back, the room widens out a bit into a small dining room. But it's not the dark, claustrophobic room that has us standing, transfixed, open-mouthed, when we enter. It's the decor.
Bill Frates started out as a bootlegger in San Francisco. In 1931, after Prohibition ended, he moved to Rio Vista, changed his last name to Foster, bought a bar and cafe, and went into the legitimate liquor business. Running the bar provided enough money for him to pursue an expensive hobby. Bill Foster was a trophy hunter.
We take a seat at the bar, and order a round of drinks - a fair enough "price of admission" allowing us plenty of time to gawk at his collection on display. Up high behind us is a row of taxidermied heads of the world's ungulates - deer, elk, sheep, antelope. Underneath those are closely arranged framed black and white photographs encircling the windows - the hunter posing with various carcasses, a slip of white paper with typewritten caption accompanying each picture.
My sister and I check out the dining room in the back. The sights there are even more amazing, or maybe appalling would be a better word in today's sensibilities. We trade off photographing each other. At 5'6", I'm dwarfed standing under the head of an African elephant, mounted with ears and trunk fully extended. Even more fascinating, to me, is a wall plaque bearing the head of a giraffe on the other side. Still open-mouthed, below, my sister stands with her back to the bar area.
Back on my seat at the bar, I strike up a conversation with a local gentleman sitting next to me. He tells me his favorite thing in the place is the photo hung where the bar curves to meet the wall in the front of the room. I get up to check it out, leaning in to read the caption and studying the photo. I can't help thinking about The Thornbirds.
In the novel by Colleen McCullough, there is a gripping scene that always stuck with me. After a wildfire burns through the family ranch and the father, caught out in it, doesn't return, his sons set out to find him. One son, after finding his father's body, startles a wild boar in the brush. He gets off a shot as the animal charges, killing it, but in its momentum it falls on the son, killing him as well. In the photo before me (left, center, here. Check out the video link too, but first read to the end of my post), on the left side are the remains of a hunter - only a skeleton, leather boots, and his gun are left. At his head, on the right side, are the bones and rack of a bull moose. A hunter's nightmare, only this time, it wasn't fiction.
As I finish my drink, I gaze at the animals mounted in realistic poses behind the bar. A rather strange one, above the cash register, catches my eye. A small, burrowing-type owl peers out from what looks like a hollow of a tree. But I've never seen tree bark that looks like that - it looks like the gray, wrinkled skin of an elephant. Oh, no - he didn't! Did he? I've seen the carnage left after a skunk killed some of our ducks, then feasted on the tenderest parts. Could this really be a true-to-life depiction of an opportunistic little scavenging carnivore? The gentleman next to me confirms my suspicions, earnestly telling me it's something the management doesn't really advertise.
Ok, I've been a bartender. I've heard my regular customers telling tall tales to gullible tourists. It's a very common barroom occurrence. But I believe him. If you're ever in the area, check the place out (or click on through to the video on the Foster's Bighorn website, linked to above. Stop the video at 1:21 to see what I'm talking about, there, just left of center frame). Tell me what you think. Tree, gray mud, or is it elephant?