Monday, October 4, 2010


FROM A TINY GUARD STATION measuring about 16 by 16 feet, rangers stood watch over the wild and remote Tahoe Forest while assigned to Robinson Flat. I found this place fifteen years ago. It is where the pavement ends.

Since then, I’ve spent many pleasant afternoons “patrolling” the area with friends: hiking to Duncan Peak for the magnificent panoramic view from the active lookout; traipsing along the edge of a big burn that ran through not long ago; relaxing with a book and a bottle of wine at the edge of the meadow; pumping water from the ancient well and slaking a dusty trail thirst.

The pavement stretches back through Foresthill to Interstate 80. Beyond, the road is a question mark. An inviting sign says: “The Cedars – 17” and “Soda Springs – 25” and the invitation had gone unanswered for a decade and a half. No longer. Today, I would pretend I was stationed at the Flat and patrol the regions to the east, thinking: 25 miles? Piece of cake.

THE BMW GS ADVENTURE is built for anything any road can throw at it. My version has a button that when pushed, elevates and adjusts the suspension so that the bike more smoothly absorbs the bumps and shocks of primitive roads. I once paid less for a house than I did for this bike, so I do not wish to test the limits of the machine – especially in an area where the forest is so thick and the mountains so steep as to restrict helicopter rescue of my broken body. I am glad the road appears smooth.

It appears smooth because it has recently been watered down to limit dust from timber transport operations. It is smooth. Like cake frosting. A guy in a Peterbilt with a load of logs will have no problem. The rear wheel of the Beemer, however, begins a scary imitation of Peggy Fleming, the 1968 gold medalist in figure skating. I determine that I’ll go gingerly for a stint and not be afraid to turn back. In time, the road crosses into a less active logging area. The frosting is replaced by dust. Dust the consistency of cake flour. Smooth. Yes. The road is still smooth, but now it is surfaced in loess – windblown dust – that masks the hard ruts of a summer’s worth of heavy travel. The front wheel seeks a groove I cannot see and cannot steer out of. I drop my feet from the pegs and engage in very dangerous out-rigging.

At one point I stop to find both boots four inches deep in dust and the wheel rims of the great machine buried in the powder. I can’t muscle a turn around, so I plow forward. At an opportune wide spot and I pull over for a rest and a photo. It’s been four and a half miles and 35 minutes, but some on-foot reconnoitering shows the road ahead to be better.

And it is. Soon I find myself in second gear traveling between fifteen and twenty miles an hours. For maybe three hundred yards. Corkscrewing down into a creek drainage, the switchbacks turn wide, steep and gravelly. Counter-intuitively, I must remember to rely more heavily on the rear brake as I tiptoe down the hill. Moving from thick forest, toward the bottom, things level out as the woods have yielded to willows and dried meadow grasses. I crank up but just as quickly I throttle down. Ahead, the road drops twenty-five feet to ford a stream that has recently been crossed. The water is murky. I can’t see the bottom. I edge into it uncertainly, use my feet for outriggers once more and power up and out. The route on the other side looks as if someone bladed it with a bulldozer and called that simple action engineering. The road goes up the side of the stream bank but angles across the slope. Loose rock litters the course. Standing on the pegs, I power up knowing that if I let this thing die, there’ll be no good place to put a foot down and I’ll tumble. It’s about a two hundred yard dash. The suspension absorbs the primitive surface and I can feel rocks being spit from the back wheel. Achieving the top, I stop. Point of no return, I think and then I say aloud: “No way in hell I can go down that slope.”

THE FORMATION OF THE SIERRA is the result of a complex series of events starting as far east as the mid-Atlantic rift zone. As the North American continent is pushed westward, it collides with a static Pacific Plate. Faults and cracks form and through these, volcanic mud is squeezed up covering the surface and filling ancient riverbeds. As the pressure builds, the granitic core of the Sierra tilts as a huge block. Rising to fourteen thousand feet, with the coming of an ice age, glaciers form, chiseling and scrubbing the highest reaches.

For the past eon and a half or so, the relentless uplifting has been battled by relentless wind, rain and ice. Forming in the crevasses, meadows of silt washed down from on high. Ringing those meadows, peaks whose height yield no growing season. In between, forests of fir and pine top lodes of gold bearing quartz. Crossing it all, roads ranging from Interstate 80 to this one.

BEYOND THE CREEK, Foresthill Road scales a minor ridge. Still rough, it is frequented by this season’s deer hunters, thus better traveled and more passable. At the crest, a fine view of the Royal Gorge of the American to the east and Snow Mountain to the north. A quick descent takes me to “the Cedars,” a privately held section of rustic summer homes set about the edge of one of those mountain meadows. A large common building – perhaps a lodge held communally by summer residents invites a visit. But a “No Trespassing – Area Patrolled” sign voids the urge. Wonder whether such trespass was the purview of the ranger back at the Flat?

White cumulus clouds have gathered atop the ridge dividing the enclave of cabins from Soda Springs and I-80. Later in the day it will rain. I really want to miss the storm. I figure I’ll chug forward, but thankfully, the remaining eight miles are graded and the path fast.

THERE ARE TWO THINGS I have experienced in life that I hope never to experience again: knee surgery and divorce. Add to that: Foresthill Road from Robinson Flat to Soda Springs. Nasty, steep, dusty, rutty. But then again, spectacular and subtle. I may have to think this over.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. PA: That's what I said after childbirth the first time...but did it again :-).

  2. I will second the divorce and surgery issues....cant comment on childbirth but the greatest respect for any woman who tries.
    appreciate this page tremendously.......
    Having just bought a new GSA I know the feeling regarding the house payment analogy.

  3. Dear Anonymous:

    Thanks for your most-kind comment! Please feel free to pass the page forward. Let "the Church" know of any great rides you have had.

    Be careful out there. They can't see us!