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Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 4: Truckee, Donner, Highway 36


Sunday Oct. 9
Cedar Lodge
Chester CA

Kokanee salmon at a spawning area, Tallac Historic Site, South Lake Tahoe, CA.

Our first on-the-road day begins with breakfast again at Ernie’s before we drove up the west side of Lake Tahoe. We stopped at the bridge where we had seen the crowds of people, realizing it must be a salmon spawning site. Indeed it is, and there are hundreds of fish at this location. They climb up out of the lake, spawn somewhere above, die, and then the runoff from the mountains sends the young back into the lake next year. And we get to go up and over that incredible short spur once again south of Vikingsholm. It reminds us of that spur north of Escalante on Highway 12 in central Utah.

The southwest area of the lake is pretty undeveloped beyond Vikingsholm, but there are more residences and strips as we get farther north. From there it’s a short drive to Truckee. Kind of an interesting place, it’s just two miles east of where the Donner Party was trapped in 1849, it’s kind of like Ward with a tourist area that comprises a historic downtown district and an interstate highway dumped through the back end of downtown. Truckee is one of those places that was once famous but now is left for tourists to ponder its past while wandering three blocks of restaurants, souvenir shops, bookstores and clothing stores. There is an incredible adaptive reuse of a gas station that is now a clothing store that is really cool.

Clothing store, once a gas station, in Truckee, CA.

We walk the entire strip and around some other back streets before stopping in a place that advertises banana cream pie. It’s not our favorite, but not too bad. An Amtrak train pulls into the station about the time we get there. A few passengers get on and off, and it’s gone in five minutes. Busy place on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Then we climb to the Rocking Stone, which doesn’t rock anymore, but is famous for once teetering at the touch. Nice view of town and the valley and mountains beyond in Nevada from the Rocking Stone.

Truckee, CA from the Rocking Stone above town. To the right behind us, I-80 roars by.

The Donner site is perplexing. The museum is under construction, there are no historical artifacts, just a monument and the museum. This is one of those pieces of history that, today, has lost all its context and is impossible to imagine at this place at a point in time. Luxury homes dot the hillsides and forests, above bustling Interstate 80 less than a hundred yards away and Truckee two miles down the road. It makes me wonder about living in Truckee in the winter, however. Is it like Ward?

The drive north up to Chester was through a huge forest, though at times we dropped down into areas of pastureland and large cattle ranches. Near the north end, we drove through an area filled with deep canyons and heavy vegetation. We saw three small forest fires, one near a home that might have been controlled. Incredible that it’s this lush in October.

The Donner Memorial, Donner Pass, CA.

We drove back and forth along Chester’s main drag, past the airfield and strip malls, but we couldn’t find a motel except for a Super 8 at $89 a night. That’s too much, and we consider heading west, not knowing the next town with a motel would be Red Bluff, more than an hour away and far past Mt. Lassen National Park, which we want to drive through on Monday. We saw the huge dormant volcano sticking up a couple of times on the drive to Chester, and we’re pretty excited about seeing another recently blown volcanic area tomorrow.

But we find the Cedar Lodge at the far end of town west of the turn-off. The sign says No Vacancy, but I pull in anyway, and a nice woman at the office says she does have a room with a queen for fifty-five dollars. Paying her cash gives us five dollars off. She recommends La Casita, the local Mexican restaurant in town. Dinner was fine, but all the place served were wine margaritas, which tasted OK but packed no tequila punch whatsoever. Bummer.

We got back to the motel in time to watch the final episode of the fourth season of Breaking Bad. An extremely satisfying season ender. Don’t know where they’ll take it from here, but the finale had all of the great tension-and-release that we’ve come to expect from this intense program.

Monday October 10
Cedar Lodge
Rio Dell, CA

This is along state 36 west of Mt. Lassen, all volcanic. You can see the cloud cover we found all day.

We had caught a glimpse of Mt. Lassen Sunday afternoon as we were driving toward Chester. It was magnificent in the sunlight, with a snow-capped peak that looked like it had blown its top. Today we had planned on driving through the park on the thirty-mile highway that traverses it, but it was socked in this morning and raining pretty hard, and radar online showed no real break, so we decided to forego the drive and hope to catch it on the way back.

Instead we drove west on state 36 through an area created by old lava flows, now overgrown with shrubs, trees and flora, to Red Bluff, which is in the Sacramento Valley. We didn’t make the correct turn at some point in Red Bluff and wound up on Interstate 5 for a few miles before finding a crossroad that passed through a pleasant, ten-mile stretch of horse ranches before hooking up on 36 again.

The rest of the drive was wonderful. It wound up and down through a hundred and thirty miles of mountain rainforests, high passes and torturous, zigzagging canyon descents and construction zones. It took four hours to drive the one hundred and twenty miles. With almost no traffic, and even though it was overcast and foggy 99 percent of the way, the drive was almost ridiculously scenic. Talk about a snaky road; it seemed like we were going downhill for the last seventy miles.

Horse country, north of Red Bluff after we got lost. This was a great road to get unlost.

The Humboldt Gables Motel is the first one in view as we pull into Rio Dell, a small town just a few miles north of the north entrance to the Avenue of the Giants and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where we’ll spend the next couple of days, and a heavy-set guy sets us up for two nights for about sixty bucks a night. And again, paying cash saves almost five bucks a night since he doesn’t have to process the credit card. This saved us about fifty bucks this trip.

On the innkeeper’s suggestion, we pack out our bags and then drive out to Ferndale, a real oddity in this seaside area. We wind up on this wide plateau with huge Victorian ranch houses finally giving way to a Victorian village, a couple of blocks of which is on the historic record.

Nothing looks particularly promising for a place to eat, however. We find out the town and the mansions on the ranchland, called Butterfat mansions, were built around the ranchers. So we drive over to Fortuna, which offers, finally, Hunan Village. The food is great, and we get to-go boxes that will give us another meal along the way. We are very excited about tomorrow.

Next: Avenue of the Giants, Dyersville Giant, Humboldt Redwood State Park.

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