Sierra Cascades – Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border

More photos here.

Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine lake in North America, so vast that it has lighthouses on its shores to guide its traffic. It is 22 miles across at its widest and deep and blue, sitting below a ring of cliffs and steep, forrested hillsides. The California-Nevada border splits in down the middle. 

Down by the water stands Vikingsholm, a stately home built in the 1930s by Mrs. Lora Knight, who had taken to the Viking Castles she had visited in Scandinavia on her travels around the world. Vikingsholm is modelled on such and is filled with antiques shipped from Norway and Sweden, along with reproductions crafted from sketches that her architect drew over there. The place is now open to the public and the musty smell inside brings me back to a thousand childhood National Trust visits.

Onwards along the West shore of the lake then along a bike path following Truckee River. A bike path! What a novelty. College kids wedged in rubber rings drink beer as they drift on the current and the sun sets over the trees. It is quite lovely. 

At Truckee I check into a campsite and the girl behind the counter refuses to charge me, saying that people on my sort of journey should be encouraged. I won’t complain! I share a hiker/biker area with a young couple and their dog hiking the PCT. They are hiking ultralight with a mixture of well worn but bleeding edge equipment and sleep under a home-sewn tarpaulin of a fabric I have never even heard of; sil-poly. It is just as large as mine but stuffs small enough to fit into a pocket. Usually, however, they just “cowboy camp” under the stars on a sheet of Tyvek. Fellow souls! He wears a Hawaiian shirt and thrift store cap with the lid ripped off to create a visor; it seems that he is even further beyond care of appearance than me. A real maestro. The two of them met on the Appalachian Trail two years ago, since when ‘Handsome’ (as he introduces himself) has been cultivating his sterling mountain-man beard. Their attitude is upbeat but like the couple from Devon they seem very worn down. Cycling this route has been tough but I take my hat off to the hikers. 

I wake late and while rooting inside my bag discover a spider at the bottom. He darts away when I try to capture and remove him so I leave him be. I wonder what else lives inside? Not too much, I hope.

A bottle of olive oil has been left in the bear bin by a previous camper and I remember my brother telling me that hardcore trekkers will drink the stuff straight for it’s intense concentration of energy. Sure enough, the label tells that there are 120 calories in a single tablespoon. This ought to help me reach 5000+ calories in the daily battle with my appetite. 

The olive oil will later trickle onto my bag from where I have lashed the bottle down, reminding me of a passage from John Muir where he describes the trousers of the shepherd he is travelling with through the Sierras:

Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny. His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust and indeed bits of all plants, animals and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely embedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh, too, by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are pressed. Man is a microcosm, as least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.

The next stretch of my route is relatively flat and I zoom across the map. I will be mostly on Highway 89 for the next few days, notorious on the Adventure Cycling message boards for its logging traffic. The truck drivers carry enormous loads but are paid by the run so gun down highway, barely slowing for the winding turns. Carrying as much weight as they do, I don’t think they would be able to move out for cyclists even if the drivers were so inclined. Even so, they are far between and not so bad – on this stretch at least.

Through river gorges, forest and golden prarie I travel. Herds of cattle and sheep pass me by. I track the railroad that first connected California to the East. My thermometer peaks at 45°C and I take a sponge bath under a sprinkler outside a seemingly abandoned service station. The ground is waterlogged – how long has it been running? Despite the drought there don’t seem to be any restrictions in place.

After Lake Alamor I reach the bottom of a real climb – up to Lassen Volcanic Park. 

The area became a national park after the 1914 erruption of Lassen peak was captured by local Bejamin Loomis on his Rochester box camera and the photograph printed in newspapers all over the country. The erruption sent a plume of smoke 30,000 feet into the atmosphere, burried swathes of forest under landslide and hurled rock for miles. I passed one 300-ton boulder by the road 5 miles from the blast site.

It was insignificant, however, compared to the erruption of Mount Tehama one hundred millennia ago, when the entire southwestern part of the park exploded and redistributed itself in a colossal effort of landscaping. I have arrived at the ‘Ring of Fire’, the circle of volcanoes the stretches from here to Alaska and under the Pacific to Indonesia. 

That volcanic activity is still bubbling away underground today and it’s principal release valve is at Bumpass Hell (I know). Mud pots boil violently, fumaroles hiss with steam and steams trickle blue-grey with volcanic minerals. 

The area was named for K.V Bumpass who discovered the area. Acting as a guide once, his client later wrote:

Our guide, after cautioning us to be careful where we stepped, that the surface was treacherous, suddenly concluded that the “descent to hell was easy” for stepping upon a slight inequality in the ground he broke through the crust and plunged his leg into the boiling mud beneath, which clinging to his limb burned him severely. If he had been a profane man I believe he would have sweared a little; as it was, I think his silence was owing to his inability to do the subject justice…

I wish I had his stoicism. He lost the leg.

Despite all this I have to step over hard-packed snow while hiking. I was struggling through a 45° blaze yesterday, there is mud boiling at 130°C a hundred yards away and yet snow is stubbornly sitting here. I really don’t know. I first saw snow earlier in the day on a hike up to Ridge Lakes. At first I couldn’t understand what it was. It was too shiny and bright to be rock. A sheet of plastic or tarpaulin that had blown and settled here? I had to walk over and touch it. 

Aside from the blasted landscape of Bumpass Hell, Lassen is green and lush. The meadows are greener and wildflowers grow more thickly, especially around the numerous steams of snowmelt. Firs and spruces of a more familiar, christmas-y nature have replaced the towering, red pines. The road winds up the sides of those mountains left by Tehama’s blast, past alpine lakes and affords wide views of the forrest below and the peaks afar. 

Descending the leaving the park my route rejoins Highway 89. Long RVs towing cars join the logging trucks and the traffic worsens. The wide road carves through endless forrest with scant views of anything but trees to either side. It is straight but undulates frustratingly. My energy and patience wear thin; despite the ballooning of my quads and calves I feel like I am growing weaker once again. My front tire catches a flat and I try unsuccessfully to hitchhike. My mood is very bitter. I expect that days of solitude is a part of it. Lake Tahoe and Lassen were busy with tourists but to be alone in a crowd compounds the feeling, rather than lessening it. 

I feel better after bumping into Matt and Tara, an English/Australian couple riding the Sierra Cascades North to South. They recommended taking a break in Ashland, just over the border into Oregon, and trying the Warm Showers host who they stayed with there. 

Highway 89 takes me eventually out if the forrest and back into the desert. It is brutally hot, worse than ever. When I planned this trip I expected it to be hot near the Mexican border but did not realise that the desert and the heat would extend so far north. While resting in the shade beneath a lone tree a young duo pull over and hand me cold beer, wishing me luck. The air is so hot that the wind heats rather than cools me. My thermometer reaches the top of it’s scale at 50C/120F. I could be on an exercise bike in a dry sauna. At least I wouldn’t have the sun to deal with then. 

I seek refuge inside in a saloon. This area of Northern California is poor and the place looks like a real dive. I open a metal door on a windowless concrete wall and step inside. It is very dark inside and I am blind for a moment before my eyes adjust. After ordering at the bar and explaining my predicament and barmaid points to a lone man and says that he is driving up past Ashland; he could give me a lift. He looks sober and harmless enough. How can you tell? He doesn’t have any scars or tattoos on his face at least. I am not keen on cycling the final 25 miles into Ashland – I would have to get onto the freeway and go over some big hills – so I gratefully accept the lift (which he himself didn’t exactly offer, but seems happy to give). 
Walking outside I am blinded by the light. Throw the Brompton into the back of his car (where is the use of a folding bike I a country full of trucks..) and get in. He pulls a briefcase off the backseat and opens it up. It is stuffed with cannabis. He rolls a joint and explains that he grows the stuff. It is legal in Oregon now (though not in California). He boasts that he is involved with some less legal dealings too though, including shipping it to Europe. That’s alright, I think, as long as we make it to Ashland alive.