But we weren’t there to cry in our beers, so after snacking on some crispy mountain oysters (fried calf testicles, which were cheap, plentiful and fried-food tasty), we informed our servers of our ghostly mission. “Every time I have to go upstairs alone, I say ‘Jesus loves me,’” responded our bartender immediately, piquing our interest with tales of slamming doors and cold gusts of air when no windows are open. The manager, Barbara Abernethy — who’s the niece of Clarence Minetti and has worked at the restaurant since 1974 — relayed stories of noses being touched and ankles being grabbed, admitting that some “professional” ghost hunters had repeatedly investigated the establishment, finding the ghosts of children and a peg-leg man as well as “negative energy” near the upstairs bathroom. When they showed Abernethy their audio and video recordings, which revealed voices and orbs and other unexplained oddities, “It scared the crap out of me,” she said. “I get the chills now thinking about it.”
Minutes later, my friend was circling the upstairs with his ghost meter in hand, suddenly stumbling upon a spot above a table near the middle of the room where the device began beeping steadily. I snagged the dowsing rods and the metal sticks reacted as they were supposed to upon finding an anomalous energy field, swinging slightly open. There’s a significant amount of user error possible with the rods, so when I followed the instructions on communicating with the ghosts — they swing inward for yes, and outward for no, the lore goes, but you can’t ask about love, money or the future — I did so with a healthy degree of skepticism. But as the rods swang to and fro, something about the situation felt curiously authentic, as if we’d tapped into another world for a brief second. Or maybe the beer was finally starting to get to me.
The second-longest operating bar in all of California is in San Miguel, a tiny town north of Paso Robles of under 2,000 people that popped up following the 1797 founding of Mission San Miguel, where the vineyard-tending padres kicked off the region’s now dominant winemaking industry. Located on the one main drag of Mission Street, the Elkhorn Bar, established during the gold rush year of 1853, is both the predecessor and sole remnant of a once freewheeling strip, where — according to owner Gary Brown — “14 bars and 13 brothels” served the soldiers of the nearby Camp Roberts during the run-up to World War II. “For some of those guys, this was one of the last places they ever were,” said Brown, who bought the bar about five years ago and has set about reminding everyone of its history.
That goes back to even before the days of Jesse James, who came to hide out with his gentlemanly uncle Drury James and soak his robbery-related wounds in the nearby hot springs, and extends through Prohibition, when the Elkhorn’s front was a barbershop and patrons would toss their hooch through the still existing trapdoor into the cellar when the cops arrived. Today, there are antique guns on the walls, framed newspaper clippings from World War II across from the bar, modern day moonshines for sale, and constant ghost tales to entertain ale drinkers between sips.
One patron, without prompting, explained that he’d seen wine glasses fly across the room and crash into the corner, then the bartender relayed a story about a woman who went down into the cellar to find a table full of Old West apparitions playing poker, and then Brown — who showed us the said cellar — explained that many folks had seen a man in olden dress wander across the back room, where the stage is now. And then there were the multiple occasions of phantom grabs of posteriors, as various people have reported being touched down low. “There are always guys pinching ass around here,” said Brown with a laugh, “but those times, there was no one around.” Fittingly freaked out, we fled the otherwise welcoming Elkhorn to our final destination for the evening, and the genesis for this entire trip, the Pine Street Saloon, just off the main square of downtown Paso Robles.
Owner Ron French has been vexed by the “supercharged dust particles” (his words) that his night vision security cameras had been picking up. “To me, I’m not a ghost believer,” he said early on in our correspondence, “but I have no explanation for this.”
First opened by Ron’s mother, Pat French, in 1971, the Pine Street Saloon ditched its old location in 2002 to move into the circa 1865 building next door. That was just in time to avoid the massive Paso Robles earthquake of 2003, which knocked down their old brick building but only tilted their new wooden structure. French, it turns out, might just be the most hospitable saloonkeeper on the planet, having refurbished the upstairs brothel rooms into a boardinghouse of sorts to accommodate overly inebriated guests and purchasing a limousine to drive such patrons home for free, so long as they’re within Paso Robles’ city limits.
After some early experiments with candles and cameras led by French, our crew wasn’t super convinced that there was anything too supernatural going on upstairs at the former brothel, so we explored Paso Robles on foot, eventually taking in pizza and some rounds of bowling before returning to the Pine Street around midnight. The next morning, I managed to yank out the dowsing rods, but we were in a hurry to hit the last three destinations on our tour, so skipped town before finding any answers to Ron’s supercharged dust problem.
Take the Long Way Home