Cycling California's Gold Rush Highway 49 - San Francisco Chronicle
Adventure Sports Journal
SEMI-TRUCKS THUNDER past; perspiration stings my neck; overheated thoughts spiral into chaos. What am I doing? Bicycling through California Gold Country – yes. Grinding over one of America’s tallest mountain ranges – yes. Suffering a mother lode of curses inside my helmet-shackled brain – like a drunken prospector, yes.
I am bone-tired and glum. “It’s time to stop this adventure and go home,” I whine to my sinking ambition. But right now I really have no other option than to keep cranking up the road.
Seizing a whim, I’d begun this solo bike tour five days earlier on the northern end of State Route 49, which is named for the waves of fortune seekers who swarmed into California during the 1848-1855 Gold Rush.
Like their journey west 160 years before me, this would be no breezy jaunt. The northern end of Highway 49 starts in the Sierra Valley at 5,000 feet, about 40 miles north of my home in Lake Tahoe. My plan was to ride a counter-clockwise route west over Yuba Pass, south through Gold Country, east up State Route 88 over 8,500-foot Carson Pass, down into Hope Valley and then north over Luther Pass to Lake Tahoe.
It would be about 220 miles and a lot of up and down, all in six days.
So far, with the trip about two-thirds complete, I’ve pedaled down densely forested mountainsides, across rolling oak-covered foothills, and through a half dozen canyons. Now I’m angling for home on a 40-mile, 6,000-foot undulating ascent up the Sierra’s west slope. I hope to reach my lodge at Silver Lake before nightfall, but I’ve been riding, resting, or eating — mostly riding — in heat for seven hours, and my will power is fading.
Another rattling truck leaves me choking on diesel fumes. I groan. From inside of me, something whispers back — a raspy male voice.
“Little lady,” it says, “you wanted this challenge. You need to face this down.”
It’s my inner gold miner telling me to buck up.
I’ve always wished I could have whacked about as a 19th century Gold Rush miner with a pick and shovel. I’d have liked, romantically speaking, to swill whisky, roast rattlesnake meat on a stick, and recollect stories by the campfire.
Though I couldn’t really be one of those hardy guys, I realized that I could test my grit against the Gold Country in another way.
I’d dreamed of doing multi-day bicycle rides in California. I figured doing a ride alone would push me to rely on my ownresources. Mapping my route, overcoming fatigue, fixing my own flats — I’d be 21st century tough.
Opportunity arrived when I had an unexpected gap in my schedule in September. I wasn’t in good enough shape, but the window was open. I could make excuses, or just go. What would a frontier miner do? He’d go.Highway 49 skirts the Sierra Nevada in a wavy hem from Sierra Valley to Oakhurst near Yosemite. It crosses many of the greatest rivers draining the Sierra; in the northern section, where I’d be riding, these would include forks of the Yuba, the American and the Cosumnes. Highway 49, of course, is also the rope that connects the Gold Country’s most colorful mining towns. Downieville, Nevada City, Auburn, and Placerville would be way posts on my path.
My plan was to sleep in hotels to keep my load light. Comfy beds aren’t exactly miner material, but it was a concession I made knowing I’d be a shriveled violet without good sleep.
It’s mid-September when I tie a rucksack to my Bianchi and pedal off.
In the 19th century, people plodded through the region on foot, mule, horse, and barrel-stave snowshoes. With the benefit of pavement, good wheels and fresh legs, I cruise over 6,700-foot Yuba pass in less than two hours.
Stopping in a Sierra City café for lunch, I take the last table among a pack of motorcyclists and gobble a chicken sandwich and fries. Next to bikers wearing black leather and big boots, I feel self- conscious in my favorite cycling shirt — a bright orange affair emblazoned with a giant yellow butterfly good for alerting motorists on mountain roads. My mint- green Bianchi next to their Harleys looks wimpish; but my muscle power isn’t at all milquetoast.
The ride to Downieville (elev. 2,925) is easy. I check in at the Carriage House Inn and jump into the Yuba River for a swim.
The next day’s route drops into three river canyons — the three forks of the Yuba — on the way to Nevada City and Auburn. This is sublime country, for sure. The terrain-cutting rivers roil below, and forested slopes stretch to the sky. Pickup drivers are insanely polite, shifting into oncoming lanes so as not to bump me off the road. The flies are not so. The hovering vermin bite at my neck and knees like obsessed miners who have just struck gold.
In North San Juan a motorcyclist on a beastly Harley toys with me. I’ve had my share of run-ins with bullies. Once a trucker chucked a beer bottle at me; another time a biker gunned his engine so loud that I careened off the road;and once a car passenger screeched, “Environmentalist!” Now there’s a dirty label.
“I saw what you ate yesterday,” the biker snarls. “I was wondering what you people eat.”
What kind of thug would fix his unsavory nature on a woman riding a 21-pound Bianchi? Huffing back, I gun my own engine and pedal away into the leaf-flecked countryside, seeking friendlier encounters.
The heat of late summer is bearing down. When I reach the South Fork of the Yuba River, I jump in and don’t want to get out.
The next morning south of Auburn, torture takes a new form: traffic. Cargo vans nudge me off hairpin turns; tourists bleep their horns. To get away I peel off Highway 49 onto backroads to Placerville, where I flop into a musty bed at a cheap motel.
It’s time to leave this narrow road, I decide; the streaming traffic is a hammer to my spirit. The next day I chart backroads between Placerville and FairPlay. My journey begins in a cool tunnel of overhanging cedar on Cedar Ravine Road, and takes me into the winery and rancho estates of El Dorado County on Mt. Aukum Road.
The backroads deliver me to a good- as-gold lunch of black truffle fettuccini at Bocconato Trattoria in Fair Play (elev. 2,320) and a blissful all-afternoon wine tasting at Winery by the Creek. That night at the Barkley Homestead B&B, the proprietors serve me up some homemade fried chicken from their kitchen. We stay up late telling stories in the flickering beam of their big screen TV, sadly a 21st century replacement for the campfire.
The next day, my fifth, starts out great as I climb up the forested and lonely Omo Ranch Road to its juncture with Highway 88, where I find more sustenance worthy of a hungry miner: three flapjacks fried in butter at a greasy spoon inside Cook’s Station (elev. 5,000), an old roadside stop built in 1863.
This route over the Sierra connecting the Central Valley with Nevada’s Carson Valley was blazed in 1848 by Mormons traveling east to Salt Lake City. Despite admiring their pluck, I stick with prospector legends for my inspiration. The rasp of my inner gold miner has got me through one hurdle, after all.
An hour later though, I’m struggling with a stubborn flat, and my resolve is tested. The doldrums hit again. A trucker roars too close. “I’m over it!” I scream in fatigue and frustration. I consider thumbing a ride.
Suddenly, a roadside apparition appears, too unexpected to be even a hallucination. I cut off my whiney complaints the way a miner might use a shovel to sever a rattlesnake’s head.
At first it’s just a bright moving speck on the roadside. Then, I make it out to be a runner in shorts and a tank top … a man jogging along the highway … out here?
His name is Charlie Engle, age 45, who I would later learn is a well-known adventure runner who’s made two documentaries about long excursion runs.
He’s on another one now. In fact, he’s attempting a 3,000-mile run across America with ultra-marathoner Marshall Ulrich, who’s somewhere down the road still.
Sounds like slow torture to me; but he’s thrilled, if tired from today’s climb.
We begin to puff and pound together into the Sierra high country and have a real campfire-style chat, diving right to the heart of things.
Do we do these hard endeavors because they’re mostly fun? Easy answer, yes.
Because they make a difference to anybody else or the world? Not necessarily, but maybe.
Is there something else this effort is good for?
“To see what I can do, I guess,” I say. “To see if I’ve got it in me.”
“Got what?” he asks.
“I’ll tell you that when I’m done.”
“That’s just it,” he says, adding that you can’t always know what to expect when you start, but whatever comes your way, your body can adapt marvelously. It adapts and improves. So does your mind. That’s when you achieve things you never imagined you could.
Now I’m feeling like I’ve just discovered my guardian angel and spiritual guru.
The truth is, when I started this odyssey I wasn’t at all sure I could finish this Highway 88 leg. But here I am, churningaway, displaying way more physical and mental strength than I knew I had. It begs the question: If I can do this, what else can I do?
As I pedal away, I feel calmly focused. What kinds of reserves might I discover? If I give up now, I’ll never know what I have. Into my thoughts enters the phrase: quiet mind, quiet mind.
Up the road a ways I pass a support crew parked in the shade waiting for Engle.*
An hour later Silver Lake appears, cradled in granite. On the eastern end, I roll up to the rustic and elegant Kit Carson Lodge, a copacetic alpine oasis for a road-weary cyclist.
Below my cabin the lake glimmers in moonlight. Above me, a ghostly ridge elbows the sky. I scramble downhill and follow the shore to a cove. My legs buzz from the day’s effort. It’s the biggest, baddest ride I’ve ever done.
My Gold Rush-sized feat is no longer the stuff of unrealized dreams, but now a nugget of satisfaction.
The next day, rejuvenated, crossing the summit of Carson Pass feels relatively easy. The rest of the ride is froth on the brew — a breezy coast down the pass into the aspens and meadows of Hope Valley, a tiny grind up Luther Pass, and finally, a return to Lake Tahoe. I’m plumb tuckered out, yet stronger and wiser for making the journey.
*Author’s note: When I checked Engle’s blog, charlieengle.com, for this story, I was shocked to learn he is serving a 21-month sentence for mortgage fraud arising from an attempt to raise funds for a 4,300–mile run he did across the Sahara in 2007, chronicled in the documentary “Running the Sahara,” narrated by Matt Damon. Regardless, that doesn’t in any way diminish the impact his advice had during my ride, which came from experiences well earned — physically speaking — and had nothing to do with how he funded them. Indeed, for others, his words may have even more power from prison. Engle has titled his blog, “Running in Place: A Blog About Surviving Adversity.”
All Photos Copyright Laura Read