Biking the California Trail
July 1, 2010
The tall, blonde cocktail waitress in high heels, mini skirt and push-up bra sang a siren song for the ailing casinos of Reno. Her smile was as contrived as the gaudy interior of the gilt gambling palace where resplendent charms, faux and feminine, furthered the myth of getting something for nothing.
Just when Circus Circus had become too tawdry to bear, a $90 jackpot rang up on my slot machine. I cashed out and strolled to the Amtrak station with jingle in my pockets, an unusual end to a bicycle tour through the deserts and mountains of the great American West.
Trip planning began in April, poring over maps with my touring buddy Graeme, gazing at the faint red lines of dirt roads, spreading like capillaries across the rugged topography of northwest Nevada and northeast California. Our attention was drawn to a blank spot on the map, a remote point of reference known as the Black Rock Playa.
On an icy cold morning in mid-May, we set out from our homes on the Rio Grande Trail and rode to the Amtrak station in Glenwood Springs. We packed our bikes in boxes and basked in the Colorado sunshine as the California Zephyr rumbled into the station. “All aboard!” called the conductor, and we headed into the sunset. Early the next morning, we stepped off the train at Reno. It happened to be National Railroad Day and we were met by a high school jazz band serenading us with a blaring medley of swing.
We hired a taxi to whisk us 40 miles north of Reno, to where the pavement ends, and set out from Pyramid Lake, one of the deepest freshwater lakes in the U.S. It took us two days to cross the Smoke Creek Desert and roll into the hamlet of Gerlach (Ger-lack). Here we encountered the unlikely town patriarch, who was out for a stroll on a blustery afternoon.
Clad in a floppy brimmed hat and work clothes, Bruno strode up as we rested at the town park. “Bicycles!” he exulted with a wave of his arms, examining our fully loaded mountain bikes. “I race-a da bicycles in Italy!” he enthused with a strong accent. “I win-a big-a race. Oh, I was young then … very young!”
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Bruno fell into a swoon over his rich memories. “Come!” he commanded, and led the way to the only eatery in town, the celebrated “Bruno’s Country Club.” Our gregarious host ushered us inside the dimly lit barroom and ordered “Cold beer!” As we gulped Fat Tires, Bruno described his youth in Tuscany. He said he became a strong cyclist by delivering meat through his hilly village. He was chosen for the race team and, to his everlasting glory, won on a memorable day in 1939.
For emphasis, Bruno raised his arms, his hands clenched into fists – the cyclist’s victory sign – and his eyes misted over with nostalgia. Wiping away tears, Bruno insisted on buying us lunch. We were his guests of honor, and the pretty young waitress curtsied when Bruno had her take our orders.
Bidding Bruno good-bye, we caught a strong tailwind that pushed us onto The Playa (Spanish for “beach”), the enormous, dry Pleistocene Lake Lahontan, where we became mere specks on the vast hardpan. The Playa is the home of the Burning Man festival, of the world land speed record, of amateur rocket launches, and of UFO sightings. We had been warned not to camp there without erecting a lighted pole because people drive a hundred-miles-an-hour across the lake in pitch darkness.
The further we rode, the darker the clouds became until deep black billows boxed us in on all sides. Lightning flashed, thunder boomed and rain threatened to mire us in gumbo muck. Pushed by the weather, we steered for Black Rock, a Gothic feature jutting like a shard of obsidian from the floor of the Playa. Black Rock was a landmark of the Lassen/Applegate spur of the California Trail, which we were following. This route became an alternate after the horrors of cannibalism on Donner Pass in 1846, so emigrant parties crossed this desert under other privations.
In one grisly account, a party of pioneers dug out shallow seeps to gather scant spring water, all with desperate futility because there was no forage for their oxen. They were forced to abandon their wagons and teams and set off on foot. The confused oxen gravitated to the springs and attempted to drink, but fell in headfirst and drowned, only to be followed by other oxen, which plugged the muddy pits with their bloated corpses. This grim spectacle was recorded by the next thirsty emigrants who came upon these befouled springs, the only water within many miles.
Graeme and I outraced the storms and arrived at Black Rock to find a most inviting hot spring, with nary a bloated ox. We eased our tired bodies into the hot, soothing water and watched the storms flash across the Playa. Other hot springs in the area were not so welcoming, like a pair of caldrons that simmer at 175 degrees. Pioneers did their wash and cooked their beans in this geothermal boil.
From Black Rock, we struck north on the faint wagon tracks of the pioneers. That night, we camped on a sagebrush flat and endured snow, hail and rain. The next morning, wearing everything we had against a stiff, icy gale, we rode to Soldier Meadow Ranch, the site of a military garrison from 1865, where a few scraggly cottonwoods whipped back and forth in the chill gusts.
The ranch was staffed by a South Korean cook, “Jimmy,” who sat us down with the ranch hands for a sumptuous lunch of his homemade vegetable beef soup. With us in Lycra, and they in Carhartts, we made for odd table mates, but our appreciation for the land and its history soon united us. Given our camp diet of oatmeal, ramen noodles and tortillas, Jimmy’s soup was a euphoric gustatory experience.
Our destination that night was High Rock Canyon, and we pedaled and pushed over rough terrain where emigrant wagons broke trail 150 years ago. This wild canyon cuts through treeless hills, a wilderness grazed by bighorn sheep and wild horse herds. The stars on that clear, cold night were flecks of diamonds across the black vault of space.
The next day, we rode out of the narrow gorge onto high plains, where a range cabin at an artesian spring harbored us for lunch from the cold, persistent wind. “Stevens Camp” had been a stopover for John C. Fremont in the 1840s. The present cabin was built in the 1950s by the late Tennessee Ernie Ford, famous for “Sixteen Tons,” which Graeme and I belted out to the cringing prairie dogs.
Our route then shifted west to Cedarville, Calif., a small farming town in the Surprise Valley, where we bivouacked that night in the town park. Riding up a long pass the next morning, my rear tire ruptured in a bad blowout. As we mulled over a tricky repair, a man and his wife came by in a pickup. Dave introduced himself as a backyard bike builder who sells his recycled cycles at Burning Man. He took us to his home and, with tin snips, duct tape and an aluminum beer can, I fashioned a tire patch that held for the next 150 miles.
From the top of the pass later that day, we got a startling view of Mt. Shasta, which appeared cloud-like, white with snow, and impossibly high. We coasted down looping switchbacks into the town of Alturas, from where we headed south across another huge desert.
Where Nevada’s dirt roads had made riding slow but peaceful, California’s highways were fast and furious. Riding a narrow shoulder where trucks passed at 70 mph changed the tenor of our tour from a serene backcountry odyssey to a heads-down grind. We pumped out the miles through open desert with clenched jaws and tucked-in elbows.
That night, we camped on Sage Hen Pass, where a cacophony of sirens rushed past in the middle of the night. The woman at the Madeline Cafe told us the next morning that an escaped convict was on the loose. We pumped out 80 miles that day in a body-wracking marathon, arriving at Susanville just before dark and totally hammered.
Susanville’s entrance is framed by a huge strip mall that has siphoned business away from the town’s quaint Main Street, now defined by boarded-up storefronts and shuttered buildings. Graeme and I dined at a pizza joint noisy with exuberant high school kids, who gaped at us beard-encrusted road warriors. They were impressed, however, as we gobbled down our large combo pizza like an appetizer and our mugs of beer disappeared as if by evaporation.
A campground with showers and laundry spared the patrons of the Susanville Cafe from our combined lethal vapors the next morning, as we consumed heaping platters of a mega-breakfast called “The Volcano.” Sated and resupplied with groceries, we set off on a warm, sunny afternoon following the Bizz Johnson Trail, a designated bike route on a former logging railroad following the course of the picturesque Susan River.
Riding from desert to forest, we reveled in towering Jeffrey pines bedecked with pineapple-sized cones and fragrant with woodland perfume. Tunnels, bridges, and canopied forest passages above the rush of the river enhanced the novelty of riding in total peace and quiet. This was our “rest day,” so we spun low gears on the long, steady grade until we reached … wait … no … it can’t be. Snow! By evening, we were pushing our bikes over the snowpack through a range of mountains where the northern Sierras meet the southern Cascades.
The next morning, we cruised along the shores of scenic, if overdeveloped, Lake Almanor, with snowy Mt. Lassen in the distance. We rolled through touring heaven on winding mountain roads following coursing rivers – the Indian and the Feather. Anna’s Cafe at Greenville was filled with lumberjacks in this mythical realm of Paul Bunyan. As usual, we ordered enormous platters of eggs, bacon, pancakes and potatoes, all of which we absorbed with steaming mugs of dark French Roast muddy with cream. We ambled from Anna’s only to straddle the saddle and skedaddle down the road.
Alas, heavenly touring morphed into a narrow highway busy with thundering Harleys and Cummins diesel pickups. I tried to hitchhike, which gained us nothing but humiliation, so we rode on, ending a 10-hour day with my collapse, supine, upon a picnic table beneath tall pines at a roadside turnout. The life force had been wrung from my core, which was as empty as our whiskey flask. “Feed me!” I pleaded, so we boiled up our last Ramen and fabricated dinner from bread crusts and a nub of cheese.
Our ride back to Reno the next morning was in the back of a taxi. Jim, a seasoned Reno cabbie, had started us out 10 days before and he retrieved us at a bistro in bucolic Blairsden, where an eggs Benedict gave vital sustenance to our emaciated bodies. We had covered 500 miles in 10 days, and I felt every mile of it.
Lunch in Reno at Circus Circus eased our glazed looks and got us aboard the California Zephyr in time for dinner service. We shared our table in the dining car with retirees who could not fathom our exploits other than to marvel at our insatiable craving for the brownies with ice cream dessert.