Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Great Sierra's

Installment Six: The Mountains of Ansel Adams, John Muir, and Mark Twain

We start in the third State Capital of California: Sacramento. After short stints in Benicia and San Jose the Capital found a permanent home in Sacramento.     

Sacramento for me will always be special. My family roots here run back to the Gold Rush. My Grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up there. Losing her own father to the lure of the Klondike and Dawson gold fields. Seeing the thousands of Chinese rail workers and detecting the occasional smell of opium drifting in the air.  She loved the tree lined streets and remembered that awful day in 1906 when her own uncle left for San Francisco and never returned.

The Capital is always green and lush.  In a state with frequent water shortages this seems ironic.  But due to its strategic placement capturing the run off from the Sierra's snowpack, Sacramento has just never had to worry about water. For many years homes in Sacramento didn't have water meters.  This is where the California "Delta" originates and where California's rice farmers thrive. Until its huge floodways were built it was also a place with devastating floods.

If time permits take a tour of the State Capital, walk the streets of Old Sacramento, and if you come in the fall spend a day at the California State Fair at Cal Expo. Cal Expo will never really be the State Fair for me. I remember the old state fairgrounds with its lifesize pictures of all of the Miss California's lining its main walkway. This was where the County Pavilion's every year had giant tableaus composed of the grains and produce they grew.  

For me the best attraction in Sacramento is the California State Rail Museum. The completion of Leland Stanford's Southern Pacific Railway truly signaled the emergence of the Golden State as a power to be reckoned with. No longer was California dependent on the Pony Express for mail and the stages of the Well's Fargo lines for travel. Now the nation was efficiently unified all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific and was poised to effectively exploit California's climate, oil, timber, fishing, and agriculture. The natural resource based economy and two World War's ushered in a period of industrial growth for the likes of Howard Hughes and McDonnell Douglas in aviation and a whole host of heavy industry. The wealth of California seemed to be endless.

California in my youth was what everyone wanted to be. It was new, young, clean, and tan. It was movie stars, Bel Air, and Disneyland. It invested in freeways, bridges, aquaducts, dams, nuclear powerplants, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, and its public schools, and prestigous universities. California in the space of a century become the eighth largest economy in the world. That was California transformed from the Grapes of wrath to the melting pot, full of hope and prosperity.

I'll never understand what happened to California.  In my childhood when people heard I was from California, they would get all wispy and say "Oh, I'd love to live there".  

After leaving for about a decade I returned back to California in 1987 and it was obvious in the meantime California had committed fiscal hari kari.  By passing Proposition 13 nearly any Californian that owned a house prior to 1976 was now statistically destined to become a millionaire.  And their wealth came without any future burden of having to pay a fair share of taxes.  California now expected its newcomers to bear the lions share of its operating costs.

As a result few newcomers will ever own a home and California's rich get richer.  The state gets increasingly transient. 

What I found troubling when I returned was the feelings expressed by older residents. They felt entitled, expressing no remorse for stealing the future from the states newcomers and its children.  In a little more than a decade California's once envied public schools and community college system were in a state of obvious decline (and in some case shambles), Orange County was broke, and the once beautiful landscaping on the freeways was long since dead.  By leaving and then returning the effects of Prop. 13 were obvious and profound.

I noticed something else too. Now when I told people I was from California, they would say, "I don't think I could ever live in that crowded and dirty state!"  That cut to the quick.

OK, head the car onto Highway 50 because we are going to Lake Tahoe or as everyone in Northern California says; "Going up to The Lake".

If it is winter plan to ski and be sure you carry tire chains. If it is summer try not to make the trip on a Friday or on a 3 day holiday weekend when the road is filled with Bay Area residents hell bent to "get there". Still 2 lanes in a few stretches and one wreck on Highway 50 and you can find yourself backed up for hours.    

If time permits stop for lunch in Placerville.  This is the heart of gold rush country and piles of mine tailings are still plainly visible everywhere.  

When you reach Echo Summit nothing really prepares you for your first glimpses of Lake Tahoe. Aside from Crater Lake in Oregon, I can think of no lake in North America that can match Tahoe's azure blue color. Until a few years ago, it was also known for its extraordinary clarity.   The lake now supports so many residents it is losing clarity. 

At the lake enjoy a day of water or snow skiing, or golf, or a hike down to the Vikingsholm at beautiful Emerald Bay. Just get out there and do something.  At night take in a show at one of the South Shore's Casinos.  

If you get bored here, check your pulse, you might already be dead.

From Lake Tahoe our Golden State Tour actually leaves California for the Biggest Little City in The world: Reno. Reno still has much of the charm that Las Vegas lost twenty years ago. With very walkable casino center you go in and out of most of it's major casinos with ease to play those nickel slots. If its summer consider a side trip to Virginia City. In its day this was the biggest City between Denver and San Francisco. Mark Twain stopped here documenting his travel's in his classic "Roughing It". He stayed in Virginia City long enough to become editor of its newspaper.

From Reno drive south through Nevada's state capital Carson City. See if you can find a basque restaurant for dinner. Come hungry. After leaving Carson City head to Minden and join Highway 395. You will pass back into California and drive past the moonscape silly sand formations of Mono Lake.  

If it is winter we are going on south to Death Valley to end our California tour.  If it is summer turn west and cross Tioga Pass to experience the splendor of Yosemite.

Now Yosemite deserves a section of its own. In summer I personally like approaching it from the east (it is the road less travelled). A word of caution, Tioga Pass is always closed in winter (and much of the Spring and Fall).  So plan carefully.

When you reach Yosemite, plan to hike, watch the climbers on Half Dome, and relax. Yosemite is the closest place California has to heaven. A side note for those lucky enough to plan to come here from the West in winter. Winter is simply magical in Yosemite. The days are cold and mostly clear. Its snow carpeted meadows are a cross country skiers dream. The park is nearly empty in winter, yet the beautiful dining room in the Ahwahnee is open year round. In winter I personally love to stay in the little white cottages at Wawona.

Perhaps my fondness for the place comes from my mom's affection for it after working two summer's at Yosemite's Camp Curry. She was there at the time when the Firefall was signalled every evening by an indian maiden singing "Let the Fire Fall". It is also where my dad spent his gas rations in order to come and propose to her.

Now if Tioga Pass is closed just plan to continue south, there is still plenty to do. For example, if you pass it early enough in the day divert off for a side trip to the Ghost Town of Bodie. A California State Park, this is perhaps the best example of a ghost town in California. It is off the beaten path a little, but well worth the trip.

Then continue south past the sites of the Japanese internment camps and the Owens Valley (where Mulhollond quietly bought water rights until he could divert all the water from the once pastoral Owens Valley to LA). The new source of water "for LA" was actually diverted to allow the San Fernando Valley to be developed triggering a real estate land rush of epic proportions.

My final stop is Death Valley. In winter this is a spectacular destination.  Splurge on a night at the Furnace Creek Inn. Bring lots of film as this place is full of very photogenic geological wonders. Do not leave without a tour of Death Valley Scotty's amazing castle at the extreme north end of the park. The story of Scotty is the stuff of legends. A flim flam man who was true to his word.

This is the end of my suggestions for traveling in California. Now go and explore it yourself and tell me what you find!

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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