Wednesday, June 20, 2012
ON THE TRAIL OF THE PONY EXPRESS
History is an amazing great thing.
If you don’t know a specific detail, you can always just make something up.
- Carl Rove did not say this, however...
Hiking buddy Joe once told me that State Route 88 from Jackson to the Nevada State line was one of the prettiest roads anywhere. It had been some time, so a revisit to the area was in order. After breakfast at Mel and Faye’s in Jackson, I rolled east on 88. The BMW seemed eager to climb the gradual ascent through oak studded hills, into the mixed pine belt, then Ponderosa pine, then lodgepole, and up into the glazed and beautiful granite county. This would be one of those days the late Robert Goulet crooned about. Thirty miles on, I recalled that my goal was a leisurely ride, stopping here and there for photographs.
East of the Mormon Emigrant Trail intersect, Shot Rock rest area offers stunning, panoramic views of the Sierra. A quarter mile trail leads to a rock barricade perfect for rest and reflection. The sky is deep blue and the air sweet enough to drink. Down from the vantage point, glacial polish tells of the power of ice to scour clean the ancient topsoil of the region. Huge granite boulders rest on broad flat plains where they were deposited once that ice melted away. Erratics, they are called – and they are not named after those who drive on Interstate 80 in the Sacramento area.
The power of ice is further on display as one passes a huge specimen of granite that appears to have been cleaved in half. Only ages of water gathering, freezing, expanding, melting and repeating could have produced this split. And only in the last few moments of its existence, a bit of what appears to be pine mat Manzanita has gained foothold.
Up 88 a few ticks, the road courses past Silver Lake and Caples Lake, two early day examples of man harnessing the river by inundating a meadow. Now the shallow water washes over the lake’s decomposing granite floor. Tiny tempests kick the surface into a minor flurry. Back in the day, you’da probably sipped this water in its raw form. No more. Still, camping seems glorious here. A kayak or a canoe on a moonlit night would be perfect.
Secluded off the highway rests the Woods Lake Recreation Area. I’ve camped here several times. If on a multi-day trip, this spot might command two nights.
Woods Lake is an alpine body surrounded by peaks soaring a thousand or more feet above. Snow still clings to their protected flanks and the water feeding the pond is cold enough to shatter teeth.
A marvelous hike loops south, east and then north past Winnemucca and Round Top Lakes. Each is a delightful pool – a few thousand years short of becoming a meadow – positioned on the higher ground. Early July is only early spring in these parts and a carnival of wildflowers frolic in the afternoon breeze alongside the trail. A bonus on this hike is passing an up-until-quite-recently-active hard rock mine. Look for the Model A engine with a flat belt pulley fashioned on its drive shaft and pointed toward a hole in the ground.
State Route 88 gracefully climbs over Kit Carson Pass. Here, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses. There is parking and a manned informational kiosk.
Like a seven minute waltz that only lasts three, the descent into Hope Valley doesn’t last quite long enough. Unlike the gradual rise from Jackson to the summit, the trip down is abrupt and the road is painstakingly engineered into pinkish rock variants that no longer seem like granite. As the route begins to level out, one of the most photographed, sketched and/or water colored cabins on the planet comes into view on the left. Built decades ago, it appears rustic and romantic prompting thoughts of wouldn’t that be a great place to have. Maybe with Maureen O’Hara.
Although now, nearly completely screened by willows I stop for my perfunctory picture and discover that the forty acres upon which it sits in on the market. Immediately I call my wife on the cell phone, which amazingly has coverage here. She just laughs. It is then that I realize I don’t have Maureen O’Hara’s number on my speed dial.
Hope Valley is a year round Mecca for hikers, mountain bikers, fisher people enjoying the Carson River, and XC enthusiasts. Sorenson’s is the hub. North from here is the crush of South Lake Tahoe. South finds us in Markleeville, the state’s smallest county seat. East takes us to Woodfords, my final stop on this crossing.
Back to making up history: That’s what I must have been doing when, back in the late 70s and early 80s, I taught my fourth graders about the perils the Pony Express endured while crossing the Sierra near Donner Pass. So, when I took a break yesterday at the Woodfords Store, I was surprised to find (or had forgotten) that the frontage road is called “Old Pony Express Trail.”
Just outside the outpost, an ancient apple tree hangs over a pair of picnic tables where I would enjoy a Payday bar and a bottle of Calistoga water. Across the road rests a plaque correcting my story. As I spat out some candy wrapper that had stuck to the caramel, I wondered how many other facts I’d told my delicate nine-year-olds that were forty miles south of the truth.
Shot of the Day: Industrious red beetles work over a piece of thistle or meadow cabbage of some sort in Hope Valley. Click on the photo to enlarge.
Today’s Route: From CA 49 in Jackson, head east on CA 88 over Carson Pass and into Nevada.
Church of the Open Road Press