I - Over The Sierras And Through The Snow Sheds


Little more than three miles constituted the first day's travel of my journey across the American continent. It is just three miles from the corner of Market and Kearney streets, San Francisco, to the boat that steams to Vallejo, California, and, leaving the corner formed by those streets at 2:30 o'clock on the bright afternoon of May 16, less than two hours later I had passed through the Golden Gate and was in Vallejo and aboard the "Ark," or houseboat of my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Brerton, which was anchored there. I slept aboard the "Ark" that night.   

At 7:20 o'clock the next morning I said goodbye to my hospitable hosts and to the Pacific, and turned my face toward the ocean that laps the further shore of America. I at once began to go up in the world. I knew I would go higher; also I knew my mount. I was traveling familiar ground. During the previous summer I had made the journey on a California motor bicycle to Reno, Nevada, and knew that crossing the Sierras, even when helped by a motor, was not exactly a path of roses. But it was that tour, nevertheless, that fired me with desire to attempt this longer journey - to become the first motorcyclist to ride from ocean to ocean.

For thirteen miles out of Vallejo the road was a succession of land waves; one steep hill succeeded by another, but the motor was working like clockwork and covered the distance in but a few moments over the hour, and in the face of a wind the force of which was constantly increasing. The further I went the harder blew the wind. Finally it actually blew the motor to a standstill.  I promptly dismounted and broke off the muffler. The added power proved equal to the emergency, and the wind ceased to worry.  My next dismount was rather sudden. While going well and with no thought of the road I ran full tilt into a patch of sand. I landed ungracefully, but unharmed, ten feet away. The fall, however broke my cyclometer and also cracked the glass of the oil cup in the motor - damage which the plentiful use of tire tape at least temporarily repaired. 


Entering the splendid farming country of the Sacramento Valley, it is easy to imagine this the garden spot of the world. Magnificent farms, well-kept vineyards and a profusion of peach, pear, and almond orchards line the road; and that scene so common to Californians' eyes and so odd to visitors' - great gangs of pigtailed Chinese at work with the rake and hoe - is everywhere observable.

At Davisville, 59 miles from Vallejo, those always genial and well meaning prevaricators, the natives, informed me that the road to Sacramento, which point I had set as the day's destination, was in good shape; and though I knew that in many places the Sacramento River, swollen by the melting snow of the Sierras, had, as is the case each year, overflowed its banks. I trustingly believed them. Alas! for human faith. Eight miles from Davisville the road lost itself in the overflowing river. The water was too deep to navigate on a motor bicycle or any other bicycle, so I faced about and retraced the road for four miles, or until I reached the railroad tracks.

The river and its tributaries, and for several miles the lowlands, are spanned by trestlework, on which the rails are laid. The crossties of the roadbed proper are not laid with punctilious exactitude, nor are the intervaling spaces leveled or smoothed. They make uncomfortable and wearying walking: they make bicycle riding of any sort dangerous when it is not absolutely impossible. On the trestles themselves the ties are laid sufficiently close together to make them ride-able – rather "choppy" riding, it is true, but much faster and less tiresome than trundling. I walked the road-bed; I "bumped it" across the trestles and that night, the 17th, I slept in Sacramento, a day's journey of 82 miles and slept soundly.

It was late when I awoke, and almost noon when I left the beautiful capital of the Golden State. The Sierras and a desolate country were ahead, and I made preparations accordingly. Sacramento's but 15 feet above sea level; the summit of the range is 7,015 feet. 


Three and a half miles east of Sacramento the high trestle bridge spanning the main stream of the American River has to be crossed, and from this bridge is obtained a magnificent view of the snow-capped Sierras, "the great barrier that separates the fertile valleys and glorious climate of California from the bleak and barren sagebrush plains, rugged mountains, and forbidding wastes of sand and alkali that, from the summit of the Sierras, stretch away to the eastward for over a thousand miles."  The view from the American River bridge is imposing, encompassing the whole foothill country, which "rolls in broken, irregular billows of forest crowned hill and charming vale, upward and onward to the east, gradually growing more rugged, rocky, and immense, the hills changing to mountains, the vales to canyons until they terminate in bald, hoary peaks whose white, rugged pinnacles seem to penetrate the sky, and stand out in ghostly, shadowy outline against the azure depths of space beyond."

A few miles from Sacramento is the land of sheep. The country for miles around is a country of splendid sheep ranches, and the woolly animals and the sombreroed ranchmen are everywhere. Speeding around a bend in the road I came almost precipitately upon an immense drove which was being driven to Nevada. While the herders swore, the sheep scurried in every direction, fairly piling on top of each other in their eagerness to get out of my path. The timid, bleating creatures even wedged solidly in places. As they were headed in the same direction I was going, it took some time to worry through the drove.

The pastoral aspect of the sheep country gradually gave way to a more rugged landscape, huge boulders dotting the earth and suggesting the approach to the Sierras. At Rocklin the lower foothills are encountered; the stone beneath the surface of the ground makes a firm roadbed and affords stretches of excellent goings. Beyond the foothills the country is rough and steep and stony and redolent of the days of '49. It was here and hereabouts that the gold finds were made and where the rush and "gold fever" were fiercest. Desolation now rules, and only heaps of gravel, water ditches, and abandoned shafts remain to give color to the marvelous narratives of the "oldest inhabitants" that remain. The steep grades also remain, and the little motor was compelled to work for its "mixture". It "chugged" like a panting being up the mountains, and from Auburn to Colfax - 60 miles from Sacramento - where I halted for the night, the help of the pedals was necessary.

When I left Colfax on the morning of May 19, the motor working grandly, and though the going was up, up, up it carried me along without any effort for nearly 10 miles. Then it overheated, and I had to "nurse" it with oil every three or four miles. It recovered itself during luncheon at Emigrants' Gap, and I prepared for the snow that had been in sight for hours and that the atmosphere told me was not now far ahead. But between the Gap and the snow there was six miles of the vilest road that mortal ever dignified by the term. Then I struck the snow, and as promptly I hurried for the shelter of the snow sheds, without which there would be no travel across continent by the northern route. The snow lies 10, 15, and 20-feet deep on the mountain sides, and ever and anon the deep boom or muffled thud of tremendous slides of "the beautiful" as it pitches into the dark deep canyons or falls with terrific force upon the sheds conveys the grimmest suggestions.

The sheds wind around the mountain sides, their roofs built aslant that the avalanches of snow and rock hurled from above may glide harmlessly into the chasm below. Stations, section houses, and all else pertaining to the railways are, of course, built in the dripping and gloomy, but friendly, shelter of these sheds, where daylight penetrates only at the short breaks where the railway tracks span a deep gulch or ravine.

To ride a motor bicycle through the sheds is impossible. I walked, of course, dragging my machine over the ties for 18 miles by cyclometer measurement. I was 7 hours in the sheds. It was 15 feet under the snow.  That night I slept at Summit, 7,015 feet above the sea, having ridden - or walked - 54 miles during the day. The next day, May 20, promised more pleasure, or, rather, I fancied that it did so, l knew that I could go no higher and with dark, damp, dismal snow sheds and the miles of wearying walking behind me, and a long downgrade before me, my fancy had painted a pleasant picture of, if not smooth, then easy sailing. When I sought my motor bicycle in the morning the picture received its first blur. My can of lubricating oil was missing. The magnificent view that the tip top the mountains afforded lost its charms. I had eyes not even for Donner Lake, the "gem of the Sierras," nestling like a great, lost diamond in its setting of fleecy snow and tall, gaunt pines.

Oil such as I required was not to be had on the snowbound summit nor in the untamed country ahead, and oil I must have - or walk, and walk far. I knew that my supply was in its place just after emerging from the snow sheds the night before, and I reckoned therefore that the now prized can had dropped off in the snow, and I was determined to hunt for it. I trudged back a mile and a half. Not an inch of ground or snow escaped search; and when at last a dark object met my gaze I fairly bounded toward it. It was my oil! I think I now know at least a thrill of the joy experienced by the traveler on the desert who discovers an unsuspected pool.

The oil, however was not of immediate aid. It did not help me get through the dark, damp, dismal tunnel, 1,700 feet long, that afforded the only means of egress from Summit. I walked through that, of course, and emerging, continued to walk, or rather, I tried to walk. Where the road should have been was a wide expanse of snow - deep snow. As there was nothing else to do, I plunged into it and floundered, waded, walked, slipped, and slid to the head of Donner Lake. It took me an hour to cover the short distance. At the Lake the road cleared and to Truckee, 10 miles down the canyon, was in excellent condition for this season of the year. The grade drops 2,400 feet in the 10 miles, and but for the intelligent Truckee citizens I would have bidden good-bye to the Golden State long before I finally did so.

The best and shortest road to Reno? The intelligent citizens, several of them agreed on the route, and I followed their directions. The result: Nearly two hours later and after riding 21 miles, I reached Bovo(sic), six miles by rail from Truckee. After that experience I asked no further information, but sought the crossties, and although they shook me up not a little, I made fair time to Verdi, 14 miles. Verdi is the first town in Nevada and about 40 miles from the summit of the Sierras. Looking backward the snow-covered peaks are plainly visible, but one is not many miles across the State line before he realizes that California and Nevada, though they adjoin, are as unlike as regards soil, topography, climate, and all else as two countries between which an ocean rolls.

Nevada is truly the "Sage Brush State." The scrubby plant marks its approach, and in front, behind, to the right, to the left, on the plains, the hills, everywhere, there is sage brush. It is almost the only evidence of vegetation, and as I left the crossties and traveled the main road, the dull green of the plant had grown monotonous long before I reached Reno, once the throbbing pivot of the gold-seeking hordes attracted by the wealth of the Comstock lodes, located in the mountains in the distance. That most of Reno's glory has departed did not affect my rest that night.


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