Copyright (c) 1998 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 57 - September 13 to October 8, 1998 Sisters, Or. to Lone Pine, CA 23,617 miles (38,092 km) cumulative
Sisters is one of those quaint tourist towns that seem to be scattered throughout the western mountains. They're pretty, neatly maintained, loaded with shops, restaurants and inns. Each village tries to pick some sort of theme be it German, Swiss, Norwegian, Bavarian, Wild western or old gold mining town. Winthrop in Washington selected Western, Leavenworth picked German, Solvang in California is Swedish, Virginia City in Nevada is old gold mine town, and Sisters seemed to pick up on the western theme. Unfortunately after you've seen several of these places they all start to look about the same. Their primary theme is echoed in the architecture, perhaps some of the shops, and maybe in some of the cuisine in the restaurants. But for the most part the things sold in the stores is nearly identical in all of them. Jewelry shops sell earrings, necklaces, bracelets, glassware, and other things that could just as easily be found in a store in any shopping mall anywhere. Let's! face it an ice cream cone tastes the same in Winthrop, Solvang, or San Diego. The same goes for the card shops, book shops, and other tourist trinket shops. The only stores that seem to sell something unique, unique that is to that particular town's theme, are those with either imported goods from the subject country or crafts fitting with the theme, such as leather saddle goods for a western theme town. Since we're not doing much shopping these days we find little to interest us in these places except perhaps the sizable grocery stores many have. We just wander around, look at the architecture, and wonder with absolute amazement why anyone in their right mind would go all this distance to buy something they can get a whole lot cheaper closer to home. But, a lot of people are shoppers, especially women, and can't bear to go home without picking up something. Why go on a vacation to bring back nothing?
>From Sisters we headed out on the super quiet forest service route 16 past the three sisters peaks, three more of the huge volcano peaks that are dotted all along the northern Cascade mountain range. The road began paved as it climbed up about 3500 ft. After some 15 miles it turned to dirt and we headed out onto one of the roughest dirt roads we've ever encountered. It was constant ups and downs, super steep climbs, rocks and boulders or soft sand the entire way. Often we got off the bikes and had to grunt and shove them up some especially steep, rocky section. Feet slipping on the loose sand or pebbles made the pushing especially difficult. Or get off and walk down some slippery sandy part. It was highly intensive physical labor the entire way. The effort was well worth it, however, as we spent the day amid shady pine forests, passed an occasional babbling brook, and the mountain meadows at the top were stunning still filled with yellow flowers now supplemented with r! ed dead leaves showing signs of fall. I guess that's what you can expect from off road travel, the effort will often far exceed anything you'll experience on paved roads but the scenery will be your reward. It was fairly late in the day when we finally slipped into the Elk Lake campground thoroughly depleted of all energy. We were quite thankful our next dirt road wouldn't be for another day as I don't think I could have done that kind of pushing and shoving 2 days in a row.
It was on this next section of dirt road when we met up with another couple of cycle tourists, Bill and Bob. It was quite a surprise as we truly had not expected to find any other bike tourists riding the dirt back roads of Oregon much less meeting at the top of a hill right at what was our 8th Pacific Crest Trail crossing. Bill was pulling one very unusual looking trailer. Called a Wheelie, it's a single wheeled trailer that attaches to the seat post. What's so unusual is it's composed of just one straight bar going between the seat post and his wheel. A big canvass bag is suspended underneath the bar. It has some advantages as it's really lightweight, only 7 lbs. and Bill says it works really well on even some of the roughest dirt roads. Disadvantages are it can handle only 35 lbs. capacity which means only your lightest stuff goes in and the seat post attachment doesn't seem to be the most efficient way to attach it. He's had it for 4 years now riding over some real! rough stuff and he claims to have had no problems whatsoever. Hmmm. we'll have to look into that.
It was from Bill and Bob that we first heard about an enormous group of riders we were about to encounter. This was the week the Cycle Oregon group made their annual trek around the state of Oregon. This is an annual sagged (everything carried for you in a van) tour where absolutely everything is provided except your camping gear, clothing, and bike. They carry your gear in a van, provide ambulance and police escorts, have port-a-potty stops that include water faucets or also sodas if you desire, all meals, evening entertainment. absolutely everything. Even a mobil bank of telephones follows them around from campground to campground. You don't even have to carry a map as they have bright pink signs and arrows showing you the way. As one of the cyclists we met said, "It's like a cruise on bicycle." Cost is $500 per person for the one week which is more than twice what we spend in the same week. They do give a substantial amount of money to charities. That same biker men! tioned something like $500,000 having already been raised and given to various places during the many years the biking event has been held. So unlike companies like Backroads, Crossroads, and all the other commercial tour providers this event is at least not for profit.
We started to meet up with them the next day as we left the pretty Diamond Lake and the gigantic forest service campground that lines the entire 6 mile long east side. We continued to pass cyclist after cyclist all the way up the 2500 ft climb to the rim of Crater Lake, around the rim drive, at the rim lodge, and finally left them when we headed off the side road toward Mazama Village Campground. Their scheduled ride for that day was to leave Diamond Lake campground ride up to and around the rim and then return to Diamond Lake. We were thankful for that as we were fearful we'd have trouble finding camping should they all descend upon the Mazama campground the same night we wanted to stay there. There were quite literally over 2,000 cyclists on the road and in over 3 years of touring we've never had an encounter quite like it. We have found ourselves in the midst of a couple of bike races, once in New Mexico and again in France, and we've also encountered large cycling grou! ps. But never, ever have we gone on for an entire day passing such a huge string of bikers. It happened we passed so many because they were told to go clockwise around Crater Lake and we were going counterclockwise. All day long we'd hear the sudden *gasp* or "Wow" as someone saw what a load we were trudging up the hill. We got comments of encouragement such as "Way to go", "Go for it", "All right" or comments along the lines of "I couldn't carry all that stuff up here.", "Cycling up that hill is hard enough without a load.", or "You make us feel like whimps." Mostly there were lots and lots of waves, smiles, and thumbs up. It was really fun having a huge group of company on the road for change. But what was best was the fact that for once the cars really had to slow down and be cautious and could not honk their horns. Bikes ruled the road for a change. What a treat.
Crater lake was created when a huge 12,000 ft volcanic mountain erupted and then collapsed in on itself. The mountain, today known as Mt. Mazama, was just one of the many volcanic cones that are sprinkled along the northwest mountain ranges. Its height was equivalent to such giants as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt Washington, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Rainier, and the famous Mt. St. Helens. Like many of these volcanoes it had a large pool of magma lying underneath the massive mountain it had built up over half a million years of lava flows. Back about 7,700 years ago an eruption began in which the pumice blocking the vent was spewed forth. This was sort of like releasing the cork on a champagne bottle. Once the pumice was released the hot magma underneath had nothing holding it back. It all poured forth. With the magma pool now empty or certainly much smaller there was nothing left to hold up the weight of the mountain. The entire thing collapsed into itself ! in just a matter of minutes. Sort of like Mt. St. Helens exploded half it's mass away in just a matter of minutes. Left behind after the collapse was this huge caldera where once stood a mountain. The altitude at the rim is just around 7,000 ft which means the mountain lost around 5,000 ft in just minutes. This did not create the lake, however. The lake bottom was filled with volcanic rubble, the remains of the mountain, and it was too porous to hold water. However, the volcano was not yet dead. Small vents opened in the bottom of the caldera allowing small magma vents to form. Up from these vents came lava that created a couple small cones and also spilled over the bottom of the caldera essentially filling the cracks making a watertight bowl. As the activity of these small cones ceased and the caldera cooled, water from rains and snows began to collect. There are no streams flowing into the lake so all the water has to come from the sky. Scientists estimate it took! some 900 years for the amount of water entering the lake and the amount lost due to evaporation to equalize. The collapse of the mountain would have occurred after early man had made his crossing of the Bering Straits. So could have there been tribes around to witness it? Perhaps they did as the natives believed it to have bad karma. Shamans forbade their followers to view the lake which is why pioneers and trappers never encountered it during the first 50 years of exploration. The first white man to see the lake was John Wesley Hillman in 1853. He was searching for the Lost Cabin Gold Mine when his mule came to an abrupt stop. He was standing right on the rim of the lake. This natural wonder became our 6th National Park in 1902.
Climbing up the gradual, and actually not too difficult, 2500 ft climb to the rim of Crater Lake gives absolutely no indication of the amazing spectacle that is about to unfold. Coming from the north you first ride through the typical pine forests of this region, lots of lodgepole pines with little if any undergrowth. These are forests that have not seen the cleansing effects of fire in quite some time. Soon you reach a large plateau that is filled with this pea to walnut sized pumice rock. The colors in the rocks range from yellow to orange and red making for a very orangish colored field. There are no trees, no bushes, just a few small almost Alpine looking plants. When Mt. Mazama collapsed a lot of the pumice that was thrown up filled what had been a valley to the north. It takes tens of thousands of years for nature to break down the rocks and mix in good nutrients which explains the lack of trees. You continue on up the slope through more pumice filled fields brok! en by pine forests until you reach the rim. Here you find a nearly perfect circular shaped caldera with almost vertical walls and the most beautiful blue lake imaginable. Pictures and words just don't do it justice. Since there are no rivers running into the lake, only a few fish which are leftovers from a time when we used to stock the lake, and little plant life there is no silt, sediments, or other floating debris to dirty the water. Consequently it's this crystal clear incredible blue color. To one side of the lake is a perfect cone shaped island, called Wizard Island for it's semblance to a wizard's cap and on top of this little cone is a small volcanic crater. This is the crater which gave the lake its name. I had thought the lake got its name because it sits in a crater. There is only one safe trail down to water's edge as the rest of the surrounding cliffs are very loose and unstable. Unfortunately for us this was the year they decided to rehabilitate the trai! l and, consequently, it was closed for the year. So we just spent our time riding around about 1/3 of the lake, stopping at the overlooks along the way, and visiting the rim village lodge, another of those grand old lodges before we turned our wheels downhill toward camp.
We had considered staying in Crater Lake NP for an extra night just to take a rest day. But it's a small park with not a lot of hiking options, our food supply was getting low and since it was the end of the season the small park store was not well stocked. We were at high altitude and with one nasty cold front due in we concluded it'd be a good idea to head down the mountain to lower and warmer altitudes where we could find some reasonably sized grocery store. So we didn't get to take our day off until we hit the state line community of Ashland, Or. Ashland is a small, tourist oriented town with population in the 10,000 range bearing your typical mountain townish look. It'd be nearly unremarkable if it weren't for the efforts of one late professor of the local college. It's a liberal arts college and one of their main course subjects is theater. Many years ago this prof had the idea of starting an annual Shakespeare festival. Starting out as a small deal, it's gradual! ly grown to be quite a big event that lasts almost all year. The small town now boasts over 5 theaters that present not only pieces from the Bard but from other national and local artists. From the month of February clear into November you can always find several theater options each night to select from. Unfortunately with ticket prices starting at $18 and going on up we decided to forgo a play for now. Instead we finally had the opportunity to partake of a nice hotel and good restaurant dinner in a belated celebration of our anniversary. Perhaps next time through we'll try the theater.
Entering California from the north through the mountains is quite different than entering on the coast. Prior to Ashland we were riding through relatively lush, green pine filled mountains. No sooner do you enter California than the hills seem to dry out, the grasses turn brown, the undergrowth disappear. It's as if they drew the Oregon/California state line with the idea that Oregon should be wet and California dry. It's also where you suddenly go from great country roads with wide, wide paved shoulders to bumpy, rough, well worn roads with virtually no shoulder whatsoever. It's hard for us to believe that the state of California which taxes absolutely everything at some of the highest rates in the country will not put the money into making good rural roads. Drivers in Oregon and Washington are courteous and respectful to bikers. Drivers in California are always in a hurry. Some of the log and chip truck drivers are the worst. They barrel past you at 65 mph or more, ! not slowing down a hair, barely moving over. You can feel the woosh of air whistle past your ear as they rush on by. They could care less that you're there and, in fact, almost seem to think you have no right to ride the road. They're in a hurry, have to make a certain number of runs per day, and whatever they encounter along the way had just better get out of the way. We experienced this kind of driver along the coastal route and had hoped this mountain route would be different. Unfortunately it's not.
Our first road in California was the apex of high traffic, I5. We could have taken a much quieter route through the mountains, but it would have entailed a 5,000 ft climb right out of Ashland over dirt road and an additional 100 miles distance with little or no services or water. Since we had just experienced our second cold front and we expected fronts to start coming in much more frequently we figured it'd be wise to take the short cut which included 15 miles riding on the interstate. If there's one thing I absolutely hate it's riding on interstates. In 3 years we've managed to keep our interstate riding to perhaps 200 miles at most, a feat we're most happy about. We got off I5 for a few miles to ride through the small town of Hornbrook, described in our book as a hippy like town it now looks nearly deserted. I suppose the hippies have moved onto greener pastures. Then we were back on I5 for our final 2 miles where we got off to ride along the old main road through th! e town with the strange name of Yreka (pronounced Why-ree-kah). There's not much to see or do in Yreka so we continued along some additional quiet side roads to the touristy town of Mt. Shasta. This is the tourist support town for outdoor enthusiasts headed for the high altitudes of Mt. Shasta whose snow covered craggy slopes loom over the town just a bit to the east. Mt. Shasta is the second most southerly major peak of all those Cascade peaks we'd been seeing since Anacortes.
In Mt. Shasta we steeled our nerves in preparation for 2 days of some of the most difficult riding we'd seen since leaving Silver City. There was climbing, 3000 ft each day, but that's not what made the riding so hard and tiring. After asking several people we concluded, as did the book's author, there is no other logical route from Mt. Shasta to Lassen Volcanic National Park than Rt. 89. Rt. 89 is nothing more than a 2 lane country road with no shoulders and lots of logging and RV traffic. It's a major route through several national forests as well as one of the routes to the gambling Mecca, Reno Nevada. We spent 2 entire days watching our fronts, watching our mirrors, diving for the roadside, getting back on and starting off again just to have to dive for the shoulder once again a bit later in addition to climbing up and down steep rolling hills. You wouldn't think stopping and restarting the bikes would be so tiring, but it really does take an enormous amount of energ! y to impart that momentum into fully loaded bikes. Then to have to waste that momentum by braking to stop is infuriating. We were so happy and relieved to finally see that sign for the turn off to the park.
Prior to the eruption of Mt. St Helens in the 1980s Mt. Lassen was the last volcano to erupt in the lower 48 states. It last began eruption in June of 1914, continued major eruptions through 1917 and smaller activity until 1921. It's been silent ever since. It was declared a National Park in 1916 when it was till actively entertaining local visitors. I suppose the idea for the park was that it was so cool to actually see an active volcano. It's value today is more as a giant research study to see how landscape recovers from violent volcano eruptions. It's importance has been heightened by the more recent Mt. St. Helens eruptions as both contained very similar features. At just over 10,400 ft. Mt. Lassen is considered to be the largest of what's called a plug dome volcano. Plug dome means that it has a really thick pasty lava and at this point the lava at the top of the vent has cooled creating a plug. When it erupted enormous pressures blew off the plug creating an ex! plosion type of eruption, sort of like Mt. St. Helens. Steam, ash, and rocks were expelled from the top, pyroclastic flows of mud, rock, and lava flowed down hill creating what is still called the devastated zone, and red hot lava flowed down the side. Volcanic ash was deposited as far east as Reno, NV. Again, all this sounds very similar to Mt. St. Helens. Fortunately local population was quite sparce so there was no major threat to towns. Not so today at Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Rainier.
There are three other types of volcanoes, all determined by the type of lava they contain. Shield volcanoes have thin runny lava that tends to flow out smoothly for great distances all around. Quite often they'll have extra vents along their flanks that become cinder cones. Prospect Peak in Lassen Park is an example of a shield volcano. Composite volcanoes, as their name suggests, have layers of thin and pyroclastic materials (fragmented lava called Tephra). They're usually some of the longest lived volcanoes, some of the largest, and have that classic Mt. Fuji appearance. Mt. Shasta is a composite volcano. The final is a cinder cone. These just have pyroclastic material. They often appear on the flanks of other volcanoes, are only about 1,000 ft tall, a simple single cone, and short lived. They usually erupt only once but that may be for days or even years in length. Lassen park has a perfect example of a cinder cone given the imaginative name of Cinder Cone. Star! ting from Mt. Lassen extending along the coast of northern California, Oregon, Washington and on into BC, and Alaska there are numerous examples of all 4 types of volcanoes lying along the "ring of fire" interface between the North American and Juan de Fuca plates. But Lassen Park is one of the few places in the world where you can see examples of all 4 so closely spaced and you can hike up to, on and around most. So if you're really into volcanoes this is the place to go.
Riding up over the 8500 ft summit in Lassen Park in a dense fog and freezing rain was not a lot of fun. Even the short lunch stop inside a 1926 ranger's cabin that's still used as a summer ranger residence didn't quite make the cold day seem any better. Neat log cabin, though. We spent our lunch in the lean-to kitchen that apart from the new stove, fridge, and hot water heater looked and was furnished much as I imagine it was back in 1926. The living room boasted an enormous stone fireplace that now was filled with a more efficient wood burning heater. It was the ranger's last day on duty for the summer. The handyman was there to board up the windows and let us in for a few minutes out of the rain. As they chatted about end of season tasks and party we munched on cold sandwiches, packed up our belongings and continued on up hill. One of the most difficult features about climbing mountain passes in cold weather is as you climb the exercise and slow speed keep you nice a! nd toasty and sweaty. But, the moment you reach the peak, stop pedaling, and start coasting down that very same sweat makes for one chilly downhill ride. We flew past one hiking trail to a small thermal pool area known as Bumpass Hell. Too cold to stop. We paused only very briefly at the second thermal spot called Sulfur Pool. Finally we pulled into the parking lot of the small gift/snack shop on the southern side of the park, went inside, and stayed put right in front of the heater until our clothes were somewhat drier and the store was ready to close. It was a cold ride and the fog so thick we didn't see any of the scenery. I suppose we'll just have to go back sometime when the weather is better.
The weather continued to refuse to improve. For 6 days straight we either dodged rain or actually got soaking wet in an all day downpour. Our first day leaving the park we rode 74 miles to the town of Quincy. Most of the route was downhill. Most of the ride was in a constant drenching drizzle. We were thoroughly soaked by the time we arrived in town. With nighttime temperatures approaching freezing we decided it'd be a good night to use some of that hotel budget we'd been jealously hoarding all summer. The next day started out partially sunny as we made our way toward the Lake Tahoe region. But it quickly deteriorated and once again we found ourselves in rainy, overcast skies by sundown. And the final day of riding to Lake Tahoe was just as bad if not worse. The morning, when the skies were somewhat clear, we spent dealing with the heavy log truck traffic of Rt. 89 a road we'd learned to absolutely despise over the previous week or so. As the afternoon approached so! did the cloudy skies. By the time we reached Truckee we were in the midst of on and off showers and we barely managed to not get soaked by waiting under trees and building eaves. But this caused significant delays and by the time we reached Tahoe City the sun was rapidly approaching the western horizon. "No problem" we thought as we waited out yet another storm under the awning in front of the grocery store, "There's plenty of campgrounds along the lake." Ha! There may be plenty of State, County, and National Forest campgrounds but they all closed about a week earlier. As the light rapidly faded we passed one locked gate after another. It was completely dark by the time we finally rolled into the one and only open campground on the west shore of the lake. It's always so much fun setting up in the dark and even more so when the campsite is filled with mud and water.
Rattle, rattle, rattle, clunk.....rattle, rattle, rattle, clunk, clunk, clunk, CRASH ...... bang, bang, bang, crinkle, rustle, crunch. We'd just set up and were groping our way around to the light of our little Petzl head lamps trying to make dinner. I had made one delivery to the large dumpster and returned to our campsite when these noises started coming from that very same dumpster I had just visited. The question, was it a bear or a raccoon? Turned out to be a young black bear and with hardly any effort he had managed to get himself into that dumpster, into all that good leftover scraps. He stayed for hours, crawling into the dumpster, dragging up something more to chew on, and sitting on top to enjoy his find. Our campground neighbors would shine a strong flashlight on it and it would just stare back for a minute or two before returning to whatever it was chewing on. Of course we had to have pitched our tent in one of the closest campsites. So here we were, very l! ate in the evening, after a long day riding with the logging trucks and then dodging rain storms and then passing one closed campground after another and now we had to figure out what to do with our food. We spent a good hour going from tree to tree looking for one with a suitable branch, but these are second growth pines with not much more than tiny twig branches. One after the other broke as we tried to pull up our food bag. Then the raccoons came. As we wandered around looking for trees the coons came looking for our tortilla chips, which had Brian chasing off into the woods trying to get it back. Raccoons and bears, what next. We finally gave up and just put food, pots, pans, soaps into the bathroom and crossed our fingers that neither the bear nor potential thieves would take them. We got to bed at close to 1AM.
Just about 5 miles north of Truckee and north of Lake Tahoe is a small shady glen with a peaceful picnic area and small hiking trail that passes among the trees, shrubs, and grasses. It's pleasant, warm, and green now. Nothing to indicate the tragedy that occurred in this very spot 152 years ago. The year was 1846. Gold had as yet to be discovered at Sutter's Mill in California. Westward migration along the California and Oregon trails was just barely a trickle and was still considered to be quite dangerous. Two families, George and Tamisen Donner with their many children and Elisabeth Donner, her husband (I forget his name), and their many children made the decision to head west. They placed ads in a paper looking for teamster drivers and other families to accompany them. In all they gathered a group of about 60 or so men, women, and children all anxious and eager to seek out the free lands and riches waiting for the taking out west. They began their trek in April of! 1846, hooked up with a group of over a hundred wagons somewhere around Missouri, and actually made very good time up until somewhere around Nebraska. There they made a fatal mistake. It was July at this time and the Donners, under the captainship of George, along with about 60 people and 20 or so wagons decided to head off on a "short cut". On a map this short cut would look shorter. But, what was not mentioned or else totally ignored was the fact that this particular route would take them through the middle of the Great Basin desert of Nevada and then over some of the toughest, highest, and steepest of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They were in Nevada in August. Five people died just trying to make it across the desert. On October 23rd they had made their way only as far as this glen. An axle broke and 20 people and 4 wagons stayed behind as the rest of the group went ahead. The second group made it only another 6 miles. Then it snowed, and snowed, and snowed, and s! nowed. They were completely snowed in.
Hastily they cut some trees and assembled a makeshift Teepee style shelter around the base of a tree, covered it with the cloth from the tops of the wagons, and they settled in hoping to make more permanent huts later. They never got the chance. The snow continued to mount up to levels of over 12 feet as the two families struggled to survive. Hunting opportunities were rare, food very scarce, firewood cut from trees throughout the glen. They stayed put, living off whatever they could hunt as well as their own stock, for nearly 4 months. It wasn't until February that rescue parties could be sent from Sacramento. The third and final rescue party made it to this small group whose numbers by this time had been drastically reduced. Elizabeth, three of her sons, and her husband died. George was dying and had to stay behind. Tamisen stayed with him and was never seen again, alive or dead. George's body was found later in the spring. Of the 20 people who became stranded in ! this glen only 11 survived and most were the young children. The oldest survivor was only 20 years old. Following their rescue they merged easily into 1840s California life. Some told their stories, some did not and today many contradictions remain. Did they resort to cannibalism? Some said yes, some said no. Would you if it was your only chance of survival? If you knew you weren't going to survive would you tell your children to cannibalize you after you're gone to ensure they survive. The plight of the Donner party quickly became the horror story that haunted every westward headed wagon train along the Oregon trail up until the very last wagon traveled west in 1912. Even today it's a poignant and frightening tale.
Looking at this glen, at the picnic tables, at the paved highway going along edge of the park it's very, very difficult to imagine how difficult it would have been for these wagon train emigrants, especially those early ones. We have to remember that in 1846 there were very few wagons who had actually made the trek. The forts and way stations that would be set up by the 1860s did not yet exist. Native Indian tribes had not been corralled by the army and were still wandering around throughout the western plains. Occasionally, although not at all as often as Hollywood would have you believe, they would harass some of the wagon trains. Most often the Indians actually assisted and traded with the emigrants. Even so once the emigrants left the last vestiges of civilization in Nebraska they were pretty much on their own. There were some, but not many, published books or manuals giving instructions and routes for making the trek, you might say the Let's Go California or Orego! n Trail on $10 a Day book of the 1840s.. Unfortunately, many of the books contained misleading or completely erroneous information. Word of mouth information coming east from people who actually made it to California was quite limited. So, people basically traveled along this trail, following faint wheel treads at first and later deep wheel ruts, often not having the foggiest idea of where they were or where they were going. They had a few basic landmarks to watch out for and that was about it.
In preparation for departure people loaded their wagons with all sorts of absolutely essential stuff, belongings they just could not leave behind. The first part of the journey actually was quite easy. The route was fairly well established and there really was only the one logical option to follow. Through Nebraska it followed along the North and South forks of the Platte river which yielded plenty of water and grass for their livestock. In fact, one of the primary factors in a successful crossing was the time you departed from the east. Leave too early and the grasses in the plaines wouldn't be ready for the cattle. Leave too late and you'll be stuck in the mountains in winter. Ok, so you left at the right time, made it across the major plain states arrived at Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in Nebraska. From here you continue through Wyoming and the Rocky mountains, which believe it or not was actually a very easy crossing. In the west of Wyoming, south of Yellowston! e is the lowest pass through the Rockies. It's called South Pass. Going through it today you hardly even realize you're passing through the huge Rocky Mountain range.
Beyond South Pass life just started getting difficult for here was the start of the huge desert expanse known as the Great Basin. It's sheltered from the west by those enormous coastal mountains and what little water does flow into it stays. It has no where to go. There are almost no rivers, almost no lakes, almost no forests. Just mile after mile after mile of desert sage brush. Even today with all our modern conveniences, roadways, and amenities this still makes for one long expanse of desert to get across. The emigrants would start out across this enormous expanse following about 100 miles along the one river flowing through this region. Not much more than a muddy trickle of water it was their only lifeline. Keep in mind they normally reached this point in about July or August and anyone spending much time out in the desert knows full well how miserably hot it can get. Once they got to the end of this muddy creek they still had a full 40 miles distance to cover whe! re there was absolutely no water. They would have to complete this section in 2 or 3 days max as that's the most amount of water they could carry. The people were hungry, tired, thirsty, completely drained of any energy they might have had by the time they reached the end. Many died along this stretch. The Donner party lost 5 people not to mention the number of livestock that died. It was said that the trail was just a littered line of one animal carcass after another, one hastily dug grave after another.
If you were lucky enough to survive the desert you now came face to face with what from the desert appears to be nothing less than a vertical wall of mountains with no inlets, the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Despite not being as high as the Rockies, these mountains were far, far more difficult to cross at least in the early years. Passes were difficult to locate and some of the easier ones were not discovered until there were sufficient people of European descent roaming around to find them, perhaps the 1850s or so. Those first daring continent crossers had to endure some of the worst and most difficult passes. If you headed south toward the low passes near Los Angeles, passes that now sport ribbons of super highways, you wound up having many hundred more miles desert travel to endure. If you were already weakened from weeks of desert travel these additional miles were sure to be your last. But if you decided to take the "shorter" route directly across the mountains you wo! uld have some horrendous climbing and work ahead. Some of the passes were so tough you couldn't even drive the wagon. You literally had to disassemble the wagon, pull it up cliffs and over boulders on rope, and put it back together on the other side. There really were only a few passes you could actually drive the wagon in tact over. Wagon trains were criss crossing the the last few hundred miles of the westward trek in all sorts of directions, each following their own book of routes or rumors of good paths, some following good routes others on ones that look quite foolish today. One route started at the end of Nevada, went way up north and then reversed direction to go south adding hundreds of miles on an already long journey. It would cross another, more direct and easier route on the way. Wagon trains meeting at the crossing would go their planned way, each convinced they were on the easier and shorter route.
Imagine finally arriving at your destination in California or Oregon. You may have started with a wagon load of all those absolutely essential items. But you very likely wound up at the end of the journey with not much more than what you wore on your back and could carry. You've left friends and relatives back east and the only people you'll know in California are those people you traveled with. So you arrive with practically nothing. What happened to most of these people? Most started their new lives working in the mines. They needed to earn enough cash to essentially start all over. Of course, dreams of riches from the gold fields only happened to a very few. Some eventually turned to farming, black smithing, lumbering, and all those other trades that supported the burgeoning mining communities. But no matter what they did or where they finally ended up they all shared a common experience that today we could never repeat nor fully comprehend.
Nestled among 10,000 ft pine tree covered mountains at a startling altitude of 6,500 ft is the largest fresh water natural lake in California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe. It's a 27 mile long, 5 mile wide, 1636 ft deep brilliant blue gem ringed with campgrounds, resorts, touristy towns, and several of the famous Nevada casino/hotel high rise buildings. Native Indians lived along the shores for thousands of years before the famous explorers George C. Fremont and Kit Carson found in in the early 1800s. Fremont descried the lake as being so ringed with mountains he couldn't see any outlet stream. In fact, the outlet is just the quite small river we'd followed south from Truckee. It is so tucked within mountains that you practically have to be standing next to it to see it. Being such a remarkable blue color it has always attracted a significant tourist crowd. Since the road originally only went as far as the south shore, early tourist and other local traffic used boats. The spe! ctacular west shore road was finally built somewhere around the 1930s and immediately spelled the end to the old steam boat tourist trade. However, tourists being such fickle beings that we are, the return to nostalgic travel has meant the return of boat travel. This time the boats are modern replicas of the old stern wheelers whose stern wheel is more for looks than functionality. Bus loads of tourists are herded aboard ship for an hour or so float around the lake. We weren't interested in the boat tour itself, but the view of a couple of old fashioned paddle wheels cruising around the stunning Emerald bay is quite remarkable.
We made our way around the west side of the lake, riding up to the Emerald Bay overlook and then racing, very carefully, around the hairpin turns to the flat lands on the south shore. Smack in the middle of the town of South Lake Tahoe is a city run campground with the best view of the lake as well as easy access to restaurants, a grocery store, and the casinos. Nevada is an interesting state. It's a place where almost anything goes, short of violence and mayhem. It's a state that came into existence almost exclusively on a rough and tumble mining community economy and it never quite let that rough and tumble lifestyle go. When most states were making gambling illegal, old Bugsy was building a huge gambling Mecca right in the middle of the desert, Las Vegas. Prostitution is illegal everywhere except for a few places in Nevada. Holding an open alcoholic container while walking down the street is legal. And gambling is everywhere. Waiting for a movie to start at the thea! ter. No problem. There's a few slot machines nearby just ready to amuse you while you wait. Have some leftover change when leaving the grocery store. A few one armed bandits are ready to relieve you of it. So far we've been to Laughlin, Reno, Tahoe, and Las Vegas and of all the major gambling cities Tahoe is one of the most interesting. In part because of the location and also because there is so much more to do besides gambling.
Gambling is a bizarre form of entertainment. If you think of it as just that, entertainment, and go into a casino with the idea that the casino will always win in the end then and only then will you relax and have a good time. But, if you just have to win, forget it. You'll lose any way and wind up fretting about it. We're not big gamblers, at least not the casino type of gambling. You might say our investments in the stock market are the biggest type of gambling around. But there is a big difference. In the stock market the company is on your side. They want to win just as much as you do. In the casinos, it's the casino company's business to take your money, period. So when we go to a casino we set a limit, usually a very small one, head for the cheapest machines, and then try to make our small funds last as long as possible. It works well. I still recall the very first time I visited Las Vegas. Entering that very first casino out on the Strip, my senses suddenly! were overloaded with the sounds of bells ringing, coins dropping, music playing, slot machine arms turning and the sights of neon lights flickering, people sitting in front of machines and tables, cocktail waitresses dressed in nothing more than swimsuit sized clothing. I found the whole environment quite intimidating, frightening yet exciting. Now, it's just a lot of noise and lights. We spent a few hours for a couple of nights playing a nickel poker machine. That was more than enough and we were ready to leave.
Mountain weather in October can be unpredictable. One day can be warm, balmy and dry. The very next cold, wet and miserable. Our route was supposed to take us to higher and higher mountain passes. With Artic cold fronts passing through the state regularly, we were concerned that we'd find ourselves at high elevations in the midst of cold wet rain or even snow. We concluded a detour into the desert and a fast ride down Rt. 395 to points further south would be wise. So we rode up a fast 1,000 ft climb out of the Lake Tahoe valley and then had a rip roaring ride of 8 miles down some 3500 ft to the eastern valleys. But, it was far from warm as the first 2 nights we endured 20 deg temps and heavy frost. It wasn't until we approached the unusual desert lake called Mono, pronounced moh-noh not mah-noh, that we finally found some warmer nighttime temperatures. From there the temperatures got warmer and the air drier. We didn't really want to spend extra days riding through t! he dry brown desert, but we did enjoy the warm weather.
Mono lake is not only unusual from a physical stand point, it is also unusual from a political and historic stand point. It's on the eastern desert side of of the mountains lying within a basin shaped valley. Five streams flow into the lake and none flow out. As a result it's an alkaline lake. Upon viewing the lake, Mark Twain described it as being dead, completely lifeless. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Even though fish cannot live in the lake, it's salty waters support an enormous amount of algae, brine shrimp and flies. With billions of brine shrimp and flies the lake is a natural stopping point for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that depend on salt water lakes for food. Some, the earless grebes, use this is a major refueling stop on their way from Canada to way down in South America, a 5,000 mile journey each way. At certain times of the year the air around the lake can be filled with the swirling, fluttering clouds of flying birds. Anoth! er odd feature of the lake are the calcium carbonate towers called tufas. Carbon rich springs well up from the lake bottom. When mixed with the calcium rich lake water a calcium carbonate tower is formed. Many stand high and dry when the lake water level is low. Many are 10 or 20 feet tall , round, bulbous, and white. Quite strange.
But, Mono lake has had troubled times. In the 1930s the city of Los Angeles started to grow and grow and grow. As it's population continued to climb it's hunger for water also climbed. It reached out to all points north and east, building a spider network of pipes and aqueducts taking water from everywhere they could find. Rivers were redirected, entire lakes completely drained. In 1940 they set their sights on Mono lake. Court battles ensued, but the tiny towns of Mono City and Lee Vining could not beat the overwhelming power of the huge LA metropolis. Historic water rights of the local farmers were condemned and the city extended their greedy spider pipe work to 3 of the streams flowing into the lake. The lake level, which had been stable, started to drop fast. It wasn't enough. In the 1950s LA expanded their pipes to take water from all 5 streams. Streams dried, the plants died, the lake level fell as astronomical rates and the alkalinity level grew. This effect! ed the level of brine shrimp and flies that could grow which would impact the number of birds that the lake could support. The future of this major migratory bird stop was looking bleak indeed.
To the rescue came a man named David Gaines. An LA born child, he had spent much time hiking around the mountains just to the west of the lake. He became entranced with the lake's stark beauty and with it's key link in the bird migration path. He started an organization, called the Committee to save Mono Lake, and once again court battles ensued. With a more environmentally conscious population, this time the tiny towns prevailed. The courts determined that it was the state's responsibility to guarantee the continued health of all water systems for current and future generations. It wasn't easy for either LA or the lake residents, but an agreement has been reached whereby the lake level will be returned to a midway point, midway between its 1941 and 1970s level, and streams will be rehabilitated. So the future of this lake at least for now looks secure. Unfortunately it's far too late for the many other now dry lakes scattered throughout the high desert region. These ! became victims of the LA thirst long, long ago. But, LA has learned some lessons. Low flow shower heads, faucets, and toilets are a must in every new home and all old homes put up for sale. Dry landscaping is promoted, gray water recycled, and people sweep or blow their sidewalks and driveways instead of using water. It just goes to show that the Joe Q. Public can change their habits when pushed.
Appendix A - Route
Oregon >From Sisters to Willemette NF Rt. 16 to NF Rt. 370 to NF Rt. 46 to Rt. 58 to Crescent Lake, NF Rt. to Lemolo Lake to Rt. 138, Rt. 138 to Crater Lake Nat'l Park, Rt. 62 to Prospect, FS Road 821 and 37 and Dead Indian Memorial Rd. to Ashland , Old Rt 99 to California
California I5 to Hornbrook, side road to Hornbrook and then back on I5, Rt 96, Rt 263 to Yreka, Rt 3 to Montague, frontage road to Grenada across highway to Gazelle, Old stage road to Mt. Shasta Blvd, Rt 89 to Rt 44/89 to Rt 89 thru Lassen Volcanic NP to Quincy, Rt 70/89 to Graeagle, Rt 89 to Trukee and Tahoe City, Bike Path to Tahoma, Rt 89 to S. Lake Tahoe, Rt 50 to Nevada
Nevada Rt 50 to Rt 207 to Gardnerville, Rt 395 to Rt 208 to Rt 338 to California
California Rt. 395 to Lone Pine
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
Oregon Elk Lake Campground Deschutes NF, Crescent Lake Campground Deschutes NF, Diamond Lake Campground Umpqua Nat'l Forest, Mazama Village Campground Crater Lake Nat'l Park ($), Whiskey Springs Campground Rogue River NF ($), Gwenlyn RV Park in Ashland ($), Knights Inn in Ashland ($)
California Tree of Heaven Campground in Klamath NF ($), Mt. Shasta KOA ($), McArthur-Burney State Park ($), Manzanita Campground in Lassen Volcanic NP 3 nights ($), Southwest Campground in Lassen Volcanic NP ($), Ranchito motel in Quincy ($), Cottonwood campground in Tahoe NF ($), General Park Campground in Pine Spring Point State Park at Lake Tahoe ($), Campground by the lake in South Lake Tahoe 3 nights ($)
Nevada Holbrook Corner RV Park south of Gardenerville ($)
California Paradise Shores RV Park Bridgeport ($), Mono Vista RV Park Lee Vining ($), Browns Town RV Park in Bishop 2 nights ($), Diaz Lake County Park near Lone Pine ($)
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.