After an early afternoon of checking out the quant little shops and then having dinner at a small restaurant in town, we got to bed early knowing that tomorrow would be very demanding. We packed our food and our water for the many thousands of feet of climbing ahead.
The cool of morning came too fast, Nor did we waste any time getting out and into it. By 5 AM we were off and did some easy climbing for the next 15 miles into Pollock Pines. At which point we started going down. Probably a thousand feet in all, we dropped to Jenkinson Lake where the biggest challenge we had faced to date began. A full day’s worth of non stop climbing without water or other services stood before us.
Called Silver Lake Road and known by legend as the Mormon Emigrant Trail, it was a way to get over the Sierras without taking the car road, Hwy 50, that had long ago bypassed it. A stretch of high country that remains nearly as remote as when Kit Carson and John C. Fremont first traversed this part of the Sierras in 1844, less than a dozen cars would pass us while we were on it. There was little except the raw might of nature to distract us from the next 30 miles of steady uphill grinding. Closed during the winter, and sometimes till as late as June, the road, surprisingly smooth, rose, with a generous shoulder at a five to six per cent grade to 8000 feet.
The only noise was the wind whistling through the needles of the pine forests that thinned as we climbed higher and higher. This as it was their smell that we took in with every breath. Where the road allowed it, we looked out on an ocean filled with trees, lightly dotted with grey granite rock formations. The snow that freckled the edge of the road contrasted with the heat that grew more and more intense as we ascended. The fact that our water was being drained to dangerously low levels paled in comparison to the difficulties faced by the original travelers who built this road.
It was the Mormons who had first made it passable for wheels, those of the vehicle of the day, the wagon train. Why it was Mormons who built this road is fascinating. In the fall of 1846, a battalion of Mormons had originally come West to help the US Army fight Mexico for possession of California. But by January of 1847 when 363 of them arrived in San Diego from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, they arrived to a war that had ended. While most of them migrated back to Salt Lake City, nearly a hundred of them reenlisted. When soon their tour of duty was complete, they went to Northern California to hole up during the winter taking work building saw and flour mills, including the now famous Sutter’s Mill.
When it was time for them to return east that next spring, and a year before gold was discovered, they resolved to find an alternative to the only way known over the Sierras, the foreboding Donner Pass which was also fraught with an increasing number of attacks by Indians. And as such, the road we were on was the result. In fact, in 1848, the Mormon Emigrant Trail became the first mountain passage into Northern California to accommodate wagons. And for the next 16 years, tens of thousands of Gold Rush pioneers as well as Mormons heading west in search of religious freedom all passed over this important road.
Once we reached Hwy 88, we knew we were still ten miles from the 8,575 foot summit that separated us from the next state, Nevada. And yet all of that would have to wait for tomorrow. This was so because for the next five miles we would be descending for 1,000 feet.
The reward that awaited made up for it. Called Silver Lake, soon its shimmering blue waters looked like they had been air brushed into the post card like setting that spread out before us. It was there that we would revel in the joys of water before we would camp, tired and content to let our conquest of the Sierra Mountain Range wait until tomorrow.
The next day found us still a full day’s worth of riding from Reno. After climbing Carson Pass we finally got some downhill Lots of it. Fun for everyone else, for me it was work. I couldn’t let my bike just take off and go. Being a fixed gear with the pedals affixed to the same wheel I was pedaling meant that if I took my feet off, both the pedals and the wheel would spin without any help from me. And yet on a fast downhill this could easily force the bike into a high speed wobble I would not be able to control. The only way to keep this from happening was for me to keep the drag brake, a little lever that pressed against the top of the tire and not the rim, on as I also kept backward pressure on the pedals. In fact getting down a a really steep descent, was often as much work as getting up one.
The gravity aided journey to the Carson Valley ended with headwinds for the next 50 or so miles to Reno. From the Nevada side, the Sierras we had just passed through looked foreboding indeed. Instead of the trees that covered them as we looked east from California, the skyline that now flanked us was made up of hard and jagged rock formations. We were however treated to a sunburst of color as we had come at time of year when tiny alpine flowers with their short growing season covered a lot of the lands through which we pedaled.
Muscling through the headwind that pushed against us, we finally reached the clump of buildings that had grown taller and higher from the desert floor as we rode. This as cars, intersections, stop lights and other buildings began to compete for our attention. But we made it!