Narratives about motorcycling on Northern California's back roads; Reflections on the history and geography of the North State; Memoirs and early recollections of youthful visits to towns and forests and mountaintops.
Also middle-of-the-road takes on current issues in politics and education. Middle of the road? Isn't that dangerous?
Sunday, September 21, 2014
ALONG THE ORIGINAL CENTRAL PACIFIC ROUTE
…from the Pre- to Recent History tour of Central Nevada and Utah
I like trains.Always have.Perhaps it’s the boy in me.There’s something graceful and honest about a “Big Boy”
pulling a mile of boxcars across a summit, steam chuffing out of pistons, air
horn blast kicking off the canyon walls.From about nine years of age on, the wanderlust on my shoulder whispered
that I should hop on one of those box cars and see where I might end up after a
week or so.Never did it.But perhaps this thought was the
earliest vestige of the Church of the Open Road.
My favorite pastime on my first motorbike – a 1970 Honda CT
90 – was to ride the frontage roads that paralleled the Southern Pacific tracks
running north out of Chico.The
road was slick and muddy.The
great fun was enhanced by the chance to wave at the engineer or fireman in the
cab of a rumbling GP-40 and have the fellow wave back.After two hours and about six miles,
I’d return home completely satisfied, but eager to find another section.
I learned about the Central Pacific’s
herculean effort to cross the Sierra Nevada and rocket over the basin and range
while reading Oscar Lewis’s The Big Four, the first hardcover grown-up
book I ever purchased.I was
ten.Since before the popularization
of the term “bucket list,” traveling that route has been something I’ve wanted
We arrived at Promontory Point and the Golden Spike National Historic
Site where the National Park Service had rolled out replicas of the Central
Pacific’s “Jupiter” – the original housed in Sacramento…
…and the Union Pacific’s 119.This is where they met 145 years ago.
Stories are told of the frenetic race to grade rights-of-way sometimes
parallel to one another…
…in an effort to garner rich government paydays and of Irish
and Chinese gangs sabotaging the work of the others at the behest of their crew
The government stepped in declaring that the two lines
should meet at Promontory Point.
Our task this day was to follow the
old, abandoned CP route across the northern reach of the Great Salt Lake.Rails mostly removed except for the
immediate area of the historic site, the National Park Service and the BLM have
preserved a portion of this as a Scenic Byway so that 60-year-old kids such as
myself could live out long-held fantasies.
“The recent monsoon may have caused some old spikes to
surface,” we’d been warned.“Take
two spares and a can of air.”
We figured one spare would have to do.
150 years ago, the most prevalent
technology was simply muscle.Lots
of it.With that muscle, the
roadbed west of Promontory is, in parts, raised above the Salt Lake’s playa…
…and, in parts, cut through the ancient, melting ridges that
form the lake’s boundary.
Timbered bridges still span arroyos that, seasonally, would
threaten to wash out the rails.
The road slips down slope from the right-of-way. Around a
gentle bend and through the sage and mustard the sign appears.“Stop the car,” I nearly shout
This is the place where, on a bet, the Central Pacific crew
eclipsed the 8.7-mile track laying record of the rival Union Pacific set only
weeks before.(The original sign
is in the museum back at Ogden.)
I get out, wade through the brush and walk a section. On
this still morning in mid-September, one can hear the echoes of dynamite
blasts, pinging sledges and grunting laborers.
It would be two hours before we
would again find paved road.Each
minute, each mile rang with the epic effort expended to complete the
transcontinental railroad across these vast and desolate ranges and the equally
monumental result for the country.