Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ely, NV

We are headed for Ely, where there is yet another RR museum, the theme of this trip so far. Our route, 50, is known as the loneliest road in the US, going nearly 300 miles and passing through only one or two tiny towns.

Many parched lifeless flat areas, where the kids have put their names out in black stones on the white salt: who they love, signs and symbols. We see this in other places too, as thought the flat white surface demands something be written there. And strangest of all, a huge cottonwood tree covered with shoes! Further investigation reveals similar trees around the country, ( We really didn’t stop there for that, it was a good pull over for a potty break. Very strange fruit.

This is the Great Basin desert that stretches across central Nevada and Utah. It includes the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt lake, and numerous other low places that now are just sagebrush flats surrounded by ribs of 11,000 foot mountain ranges running north and south. We are running east, so we go up and over each range, sometimes at quite a grade, down the other side, and then a long flat area between. As we leave the Reno area, there is more grass and we see a few cattle, but this is really out there. And beautiful.

The Continental Divide shows on the map as a single dotted line, from there the water goes east or west. The Great Basin is a huge area where the water, what there is of it, goes nowhere, either seeps into the ground or runs out onto the flats and evaporates on white salty flats. Alkali flats, salt pans. I imagine a wagon of emigrants crossing this, especially the Bonneville Salt Flats. They must have thought they had died and gone to hell. The Great Basin is a place where the continental divide line on the map swells out and leaves a whole big hole, and all the salt that should go into the ocean eventually, ends up staying.

As we near Ely, the mountains of tailings from the Robinson area copper mine show blond against the gray sage, juniper and pinion pine hills. The largest, the Liberty pit, is one of the biggest in the US, and is the reason that Ely and the Nevada Northern RR existed.

We pull onto a side street, discussing on the CB which way to head, and a nice guy broke in and said to come see him at the Stardust and he will help us. Since we needed to pee and get out of the trucks, we did. Looked just like any old bar, with a few more paintings of naked boob and fannies than normal, but when I started to look for the ladies room, the guy stopped me and said “this is a brothel, so we only have a men’s room”. To which I replied, if it is a brothel, there must be somewhere for ladies to pee. He laughed and showed me to the back, which was clean and tidy like any suburban house, alas, and no ladies in sight. Don didn’t even realize it was a brothel. So that is a first for both of us !

After some discussion, we headed up the Cave Lake State Park, to a 12 star campsite over looking the valley with the snow covered mountains in the distance. Amazing place, with elk warning signs all over the place, but no elk that we could see. There is a sort of slot in the rock where the creek from the small lake above passes down, and the slope is all south. I imagine the elk all holed up in here for the winter, safe in their fort.

The next day, down to the RR museum. The Nevada Northern was a short line that moved ore to the concentrator in McGill, 20-30 miles to the north, and then 100 miles on to connect with the Union Pacific in Shaffer to go to the smelters in AZ or TX. It also brought passengers back and forth. In 1965,they just shut down and locked the doors. They left cars and engines, including steam and diesel, they left the tools in the numerous and huge workshops. They left the desks and old typewriters and all the company books and records. It is a time capsule, weathered, but the volunteers are keeping it all going.

The main depot is a big stone building with a rounded triple arch front and back, Mission Revival style. Here the offices and records sit up stairs, frozen in time. The yard is huge, the coaling tower and water tower looming over it and beyond it a wide endless valley that the wind whistles down. Off to the left, their excursion train, two cars, an open flatbed car and a yellow caboose, sits by its lonesome. Some old wooden ore cars and a few odd freight cars sit in various places, but the general sense is one of desolation, and abandonment. A ghost railway. They call their excursions train the Ghost train, so they must feel it too.

The cavernous shop buildings have walls of small paned windows and skylights up above, so you can see the mountains and the emptiness outside. Inside are two steam engines (both under repairs for cracked axles) several vintage diesels, a really old steam powered rotary plow, and some other cars. There are other huge glass paned shops that are locked, these have several huge cranes, and some very old passenger cars, but we don’t get to see them.

It is the buildings and the yard that are the best of this museum. They are not polished up at all, the tour is right through the shop area with holes and dirt and things to fall over and into. There are hardly any interpretive displays, but the shop areas are clearly in use and they have taken the wheels and axles off one steam engine. It looks as though someone makes sure the tools are put away, too ! They are conserving both the physical treasures and the skills that RR work requires, and that may disappear in time. Our museum in Campo has a much bigger collection of rolling stock, but the structures here are wonderful.

The museum is worth a long drive, and the town of Ely has wonderful murals painted on every blank wall. The Great Basin National Park is up the road, and I would have liked to see the mines in Ruth. There are 6 stone round beehive shaped charcoal kilns, looking like something from Italy, the charcoal was used in the early refining process. Ely isn’t a boom town anymore, but the price of copper and now gold has kept it going, and it has a lot of energy and appeal. There is talk that the Nevada Northern line might be resurrected, now that using trucks is getting expensive. I think all RR buffs have that dream today, and for Ely the talk of possible gold found in the mines still gets everyone stirred up.

The valleys stretch on for miles into the distance, carved smooth by glaciers, with the peaks still stiff and snowy. Bierstadt and others who I thought had romanticized the west, were just painting what they saw. Even the quality of the light on these mountains looks a little forced if you see the canvas in Boston, but when you are right here, then you really know what they saw and captured. .

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Nevada (Snowy)

The area around Placerville and Auburn CA is cut by huge, deep valleys, with steep sides. We took route 49 to Auburn on our way to tour Sacramento, and it was a narrow winding 10% grade down to the confluence of the north and south forks of the American River, and then just as steep and twisty back up again. A wild ride just in the truck, especially with double trailer gravel trucks roaring up and down. This road is known as the Auburn Grade, and it was first used to supply the gold miners in the Placerville area, where the excitement all started. It passes through the town of Cool, named for Aaron Cool an intinerant preacher, not some 60’s commune, and their huge limestone deposits and caves are the reason for the gravel trucks. The locals drive these roads with brio, and so does Don.

On our way to Nevada, we avoid this wild road, and go around to pick up I 80 over Donner Pass. Lunch anyone? I have a hunch there were many emigrant parties that came to the same desperate straits, the press just got a hold of this one. It is a long, long pull, but not particularly steep, 7,000’ at the top where we stop for lunch. Snow still lies in the shady areas, and the trees and the dirt look sort of exhausted and squashed after being under huge drifts of snow. The snowplows up here must be monsters driven by demons. I can see scrapes on the paving and light poles pushed over.

We are following the Central Pacific’s route to Promontory Point, and high on the side hill are the snow sheds, miles of wooden tunnel to protect the tracks from avalanches and 20 foot drifts. Just building the rail line was another feat of engineering madness, and making the sheds seems almost too much work, but necessary up here.

The California side of the pass is green, and lush, above the line for deciduous trees, the pines are magnificent. Beautiful Donner lake with chalets all round, and several ski areas. On the eastern side, we follow the Truckee River down to Reno NV. This is one of the few places where crossing the state line does have an immediate visual change. The Sierra Nevada (Snowcovered peaks) catch all the rain that comes in from the Pacific, so from lush forest, it goes to just rock, with a little sagebrush, in a hurry. The rocks are a dangerous looking rainbow of colors, copper greens, black silver ore, sulphurous yellows, and red lava. It looks so toxic with minerals that even with rain, I doubt much would grow.

And of course, since Nevada is all about separating you from your money and your virginity, there are huge flashy billboards and casinos everywhere. We fly through Reno, flashy and noisy, and out into the rowdy naked hills. There is mining every where, and processing plants. Limestone trucked down to a huge cement plant, Diomite, for filters and abrasives. A hundred ways to strike it rich in hard rock mining, and in the Casinos. We see some small ranches right along the Truckee River, but the rest of the land is only good for digging up.


We carefully came down from our way high up campsite at Laguna Seca, and roared off down the road. Well, not really roared except on the steep grades, we drive even slower now that diesel is running us $4.45 a gallon. It’s putting a dent in the bank accounts, but we aren’t going to just stop. Time enough for that when we have no choice.

We ran up the Salinas Valley of veggies and fruit, bought artichokes and strawberries. California strawberries were always looked down on back in MA, as pithy and lacking in flavor. We had been looking for strawberries to buy, as they are madly in season, but they were all expensive. And besides, buying strawberries inevitably leads to strawberry shortcake, a dangerous tendency. The strawberries we finally did get were amazing. Perfect red cones, perfectly red all round, and sweet and red all the way through. Yum. They were so good we managed to avoid the shortcake trap. The artichokes were terrific too and we cooked chicken over the fire. Camping is great!

We climbed up into the Livermore Hills, golden with dried grasses, with the same noble oak trees, and down the other side into the San Joaquin Valley, miles of grapes headed for life as raisins, not wine. Through Stockton and Sacramento, highway highway, zoom zoom.

Then we climbed up again into the foot hills of the Sierra Nevada, to the banks of the America River. Our campsite is right on the river, which rushes by with lots of standing waves and occasional rafters. Above is a ripply golden hill, made even more golden by the late sun. Yet another scene in the commercial for perfect RVing.

There are a number of Canada Geese on the river, one pair with 7 babies, and various others all engaged in the usual arguing and complaining. The sun sets on a grassy hill, turning even more golden, and 4 horses doze in the last light. Must be a hydro-electric up stream as the river level rises and falls. I saw one goose family shoot the rapids with the babies. I’ll bet they are clamoring to do it again.

Down the hill to Sacramento and the CA State RR Museum.

First surprise, ships tied up on the river bank! I confess I never looked very hard at the map to see that Sacramento is connected by water to the Pacific, not even any locks. Today, there are three stern wheelers tied up, and the railway is right there next to the dock. Tomorrow we go see the place where gold was found, that started Sacramento on its way to being a city, and eventually the state capital. And from here, 4 barons of commerce, Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker got fired up by a mad engineer named T.D. Judah to take the Central Pacific over the Sierra Nevada and meet the Union Pacific at Promontory point in Utah. This really made California a power, and so it is fitting that the state has a magnificent RR museum here.

Interstate 80 runs close to the river, and in between is old town, the old buildings were a nest of bars and flop houses in the 1950’s, many of the first floors abandoned after endless floods. In the 1960’s, this area was the first federally funded urban renewal project, and it is now a splendid restored train and waterfront village, lots of nifty 1870+ architecture, board sidewalks, and thriving tourist attractions. The RR museum is the northern end of this, and pretty humbling compared to our museum in Campo.

They have a working round table, and a huge indoor, air-conditioned area full of immaculate restorations. Steam engines galore, although none working right this minute, really old restored passenger and baggage cars, a great dining car and sleeper to go through. There are masses of interpretive exhibits about the people and the building of the Transcontinental RR, all spendidly top drawer, labeled, lit, with mannequins in place. And a real movie theater with a great film about the Transcontinental Railroad.

Sigh. They get huge funding from the state, and are located where any tourist can hardly miss them. However, the docents (maybe 10 or 15!) were a little bored, and it was all very slick and uptown. If they have a collection beyond what’s all polished and here, don’t know where it is. The museum lacked foam, and bubbles. At Campo, we are all a little mad for trains, and love playing with them and sharing them. We don’t have trains under glass, we have real trains, and real dirt. Any one of our cars or engines might someday be fixed up and run again, a big might, but the State Museum collection is not going anywhere, and seems stuffed, as in stuffed animals, not real ones. They do run an excursion train down along the river and back, but I suspect it has a theme park quality to it. They also have a whole play area devoted to Tommy the Tank Engine. This “star” of merchandising is a fake train that has to be pushed by an engine, no power of its own. We are averting our eyes.

I guess Old Sacramento is a fun thing to visit, but I prefer real life in Campo.


We are camped at the Laguna Seca RaceTrack, which is also a county park. It is up in the steep hills above Monterey with great view of the surrounding hills, and a distant slice of the sea. The road going in is a 16% grade ! Both trucks roared heartily and made it up. We can look down on the infield and part of the track on the other side. It is a Grand Prix auto track which means it loops and doubles back so the drivers have something more serious to do besides turn left all day, and it goes up and down too. I walked out to one nearly 90 degree corner that looks as if you would be quickly and seriously airborne if you missed it. It’s quiet now, but down on the infield guys are putting up huge tents and fussing over the track. It would be cool to be here for a race.

The Aquarium here is world class, so off we went to see it. It is part of a spiffed up, wharf area known as Cannery Row. Once full of fishing boats and fish canning factories (and chronicled by John Steinbeck, local hero) it is now full of gift shoppes with a salty theme, like the Fanuel Hall Market area of Boston.

In the Aquarium are the usual eye level tanks of some invisible creature, and a lot of information for us about saving the ocean and the world from ourselves, and several belt level tide pool petting zoos. I get to meet my first abalone, with a black fringe of short tentacles all around. They have two huge two-story tanks, one of a kelp forest, one of open bay, where a lively assortment of fish go round and round.

The kelp forest really is a forest, the stems of these vertical vines can be as tall as 60 feet and can grow a foot a day, straight up towards the light. California redwoods in the sea. The “canopy” of this forest is the home of sea otters, three of which have their own tank and are twice as big but just as charming as their fresh water relatives. Grooming themselves while afloat with multiple summersaults, zooming around in the water with ease and speed, and a familiar dog like, whiskery face.

There is a wave machine that sends a big breaker crashing over you as you stand under plastic, and at your knees nearby starfish and small fry put up with the excitement. Very cool, especially with the sun shining through.

Most spectacular, a jelly fish area. Here the jellyfish are in tanks with a deep blue back ground, and some current, and they are lit up with orange light. This is not aquarium, this is ART. We can see every detail of them, and there are many different kinds, large to small, umbrella-ing their way along, trailing lines and ribbons and tentacles in a mesmerizing frame. We are not bombarded with their life stories or dinners, or niche, just left to wonder at them, slack jawed in the dark as they swim forever on stage.

Two other exhibits of sardines and anchovies put us in the midst of an ever-swimming silvery cloud, best of all in a dome over our heads, lit up so that they shimmer like stars in the night sky.

It’s a wow. And so was lunch with the waves crashing under us, looking right down into a real tide pool and watching cormorants and seals.

El Camino Real

Along the highway are the bells on a sort of shepherd’s crook post, the sign for the King’s Road. I wondered at first if we were supposed to ring them as we wandered on our pilgrimage, but they are too high. We are also following the trail of De Anza, one of the first conquistadors to come through here.

We spend the next night at Pismo Beach, where cars and trucks and even RV’s can drive on the flat packed sand. We didn’t take our RVs out there, duh, but toyed briefly with the idea of taking Darth Vader out. Instead, we just walked and walked. The mountains pull back right here and then the next day, bam there they were trying to fall into the ocean again. The road goes up inland to San Luis Opisbo, up a steep grade and them out on the top of more lovely rolling grassy hills, with big trees and cattle fat and sleek. Very lush, the morning fogs off the ocean dampen everything.

A beautiful drive, with the ocean breakers, and soon some rocks poking out of the surf and the tops of the hills. In Morro Bay, a great huge rock that looks like a turban. We are in some promotional movie for buying an RV. At this point, CA route 1 becomes two lanes and turns into one of the most beautiful blue roads in the world. We have come to San Simeon to see William Randolph Hearst’s Castle.

George Hearst came to CA in the Gold Rush days, and found silver instead. He went on to be the richest hard rock miner in history, owning the Comestock Lode and the Anaconda Mine, among others.He bought up thousands of acres of ranchos, including the one at San Simeon. His son William Randolph went on the Grand Tour with his mother, and was determined to bring it all home and put it up on the top of the mountains here, with the great grassy sweep down to the sea. The location is superb, but the pile is pretty over the top. Too many different periods and countries, too many patterns, too many colors, just too much stuff. He was here for 3 or 4 months total out of the year and invited scads of the beautiful to come and enjoy it. Interesting from a logistics and engineering standpoint, and a symbol of the excesses of the period ( think Spanish cathedral Newport RI “Cottage”), but rather needy and insecure. Julia Morgan, his architect, was the first woman to be admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Artes in Paris. She certainly knew her chops, both engineering and decorative, but it looked more like she was enabling his ego and ever changing vision than a consistent design. Still, a fabulous playhouse, two pools, tennis courts, private zoo, vine trellis covered 2 mile riding path, naked marble and antiquities everywhere. Some is good, more is better.

We stayed at San Simeon State Park, way up on our own hill, and had two nights of no hookups, sitting by the campfire, watching the sun go down over the ocean. Another RVing ad come to life, and now our sweaters smell like wood smoke.

A walk on the beach here had us picking up rocks all rounded and polished by the sea. Agates, clear ones are the local moonstones, blue green jasper, jade in black and dark green, red cinnabar fillagreed with white sparkly quartz. They used to mine these stones and truck them to construction projects, I was reminded of Nikki St. Phalle’s mosaicked serpents, and the paving in the courtyards of the castle was made with these stones as aggregate.

California Highway 1 from here north is a roller coaster ride along the edges of the mountains, hanging over the sea. Tight corners, tricky switchbacks up canyons, narrow lanes, it was a drive of a lifetime. Every turn was more spectacular than the last, it took all my concentration to keep my eyes on the road instead of the scenery. The mountains are trying even harder here to get into the sea, and there are slides and repairs everywhere. In January and February the rains make everything slump down the steep places, and sometimes the road has to be closed for long periods to fix it all again. Where the mountains draw back, the grassy hills of cattle take hold, but only for a bit. At the end, the mountains are truly huge and rocky and towering over us.

Houses reappear, clinging to the cliffs below the road, and then the road turns up into the canyon of huge redwoods that is Big Sur, with coffee shops and galleries and Mercedes and Porches and BMWs. Back to civilization, alas, down the coast to Monterey.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

California Coast

We packed up and left Campo on Sunday, after a farewell dinner, we will miss this place and our RR friends.

Grand to be on the road again. As always, it took a little time to readjust my fear level about towing in city traffic, on California Freeways. (Actually, compared to Rte 128, they are not that fearsome, they drive better for one thing). Statistically, there is hardly a more dangerous thing to do than driving, but we all have to do it, so we learn to tolerate the danger.

The Pacific Ocean meets pretty soft rock and sand along much of the southern coast, so where the often spectacular mountains and steep hills meet the sea, it is a battle zone between the waves and gravity. We are taking the Pacific Coast Highway up and turning east to Sacramento, still only a smallish piece of the California coastline. This section runs more nearly east and west, so if we could see it, San Diego is in the distance to the south for much of our route.

This highway is often closed by mud slides, and the houses clinging to the hills above regularly get dumped off. They don’t get the hurricanes that the East Coast does, but a good winter storm will eat more of the road and more houses. I’m used to the more permanent granite that seems to be a match for the Atlantic, and here, with the mudslides and earthquakes I feel a little more at Nature’s mercy.

The ride along the coast is spectacular, the Pacific waves with surfers on them, and the rounded headlands, with the mountains on the right. We get glimpses of the valleys up in canyons, lush ranch lands, rounded soft mountains with grass and only mature live oaks for trees. It might be Tuscany, as there are vineyards, and many tall skinny cypress, just not enough people and buildings and no ancient, terraced olive groves.

Through Malibu, where you can’t see the sea for houses crammed along the shore, I guess it’s neat to have a beach house and have waves for breakfast, but from the road it is pretty dull. Most of the drive, between cities, is open, the waves too near and the hills too steep for building.

Anywhere the mountains leave a large flat place back from the sea, is covered in truck farming fields. Living in the dry mountains, I had forgotten how much of California is devoted to vegetables and flowers on enormous fields. The strawberry fields in Oxnard are full of workers picking as fast as they can, since they are paid by the box. There are so many people that it looks like flocks of giant birds have descended on the fields. I wonder what changes will happen here in these fields, now that the jet fuel to fly produce from far away is expensive, and now that the illegals are fewer. We have been so accustomed to cheap food, and I think it's about to get much more expensive.

First night at Mugu Rock State Park, where we squeeze into a small site, and can walk under a bridge to the ocean, so I get two terrific walks on the beach, waves crashing, seagulls, wind, and seals resting (maybe dead?) on the sand. Mugu Rock is really the small side of the mountain cut for the Pacific Coast highway, it makes a unique silhouette, the name is from the Chumash word for beach.

Train Rides

We were getting pretty blasé about riding the train, regularly going down on the Tecate run into Mexico for the day, and on the long, once a year trip nearly to Tijuana. Last weekend, we got the ride of a lifetime.

The RR that the museum runs on connects San Diego with the Union Pacific in El Centro. This rail line is known as the impossible railway as the terrain is difficult, to say the least. El Centro is actually below sea level, and San Diego is at sea level. In between are a lot of steep mountains and valleys, very little flat land, and all of it strewn with rocks, and lacking water. The path of the railway through this looks like over cooked spaghetti, squiggles and loops, there are 18 tunnels and 20 or so trestles, rising to 3660 feet and back down. The line had to go into Mexico on its western end to avoid the San Ysidro Mountains. I-8 crosses this territory with 23 miles of 6% grade.

The most spectacular part of the line goes through Carrizo Gorge, hugging the steep sides, passing through tunnels, over trestles including the Goat Canyon Trestle, the tallest wooden trestle in the US. Railroad buffs dream of going over this, but the whole eastern end of the line is not certified for passenger traffic, nor could we afford the insurance. We have many visitors asking wistfully when we will run a train there, and could probably fill a one time train at $500 a seat.

There is a small freight train company that runs over the whole line, usually only one or two trains a week, and a museum member drives for them on occasion. Don and I were invited to go along!! WOW. This is huge, and there are many members who would give their eye teeth to go through here, so we keep it quiet.

We drove east down in the desert to Coyote Wells to pick up the engine, and spent most of the day moving cars around, a time consuming and bewildering process. We sat in the cab of the diesel engine, with earplugs on and watched our friend and the other RR employees do their thing.

The first excitement is plaster dust on the rails where we pass US Gypsum’s drywall plant. The load is heavy, dry hopper cars, and the engine comes to a halt, slipping on the dust, sanders not working very well. So we go back and leave half of the cars, go up to a siding, and then back to get the second half.

After some more switching we head up for the gorge, throttle on Run 8, which means flat out, past an old water tank, climbing up through the desert hills and then turning into the gorge. With the engine roaring and throbbing with the effort, we are going about 10 miles an hour.

It is now late afternoon, and the mountains are pale blues and lavenders, the air is softly hazy, and we go out to stand on the very front of the engine. The sides of the gorge drop away blue on our right, we can see palm trees at a spring down below, and cactus and yucca and tough bushes on the sides. On our left, the rocks and cactus soar upward, lit up all yellow-orange by the last sunlight. It is all loose rock, decomposing granite, and the tracks weave along the edge, ducking onto tunnels, and shooting out on trestles. Building this rail line was pretty nearly madness, in many places you can’t take a step without climbing from rock to rock, summer daytime temperatures go well over 100, and it snows regularly up at this altitude. I worried that my fear of heights was going to send me scurrying back to the cab, there is a rail for only part of this bowsprit place and when the engine starts into a curve, it goes alarmingly straight for a little ways. But it is all too beautiful to be scary.

The next excitement is mud on the tracks in a tunnel, which make the wheels slip again. We have been obeying the speed limit, 5 mph, but we back up and take a run to get past the mud. I wondered if we would get stuck out here, no way to communicate, I never thought trains had trouble like this, I thought they just went on, saying I think I can I think I can.

And then, coming out of another really long tunnel, in the distance, there is the BIG trestle! It curves along the side of the gorge, made of massive redwood (steel can’t take the temperature extremes) a spider bridge spanning the canyon that enters the gorge. There is a lot of visual tension between the steep sides of the mountains all around and this thin rail line that tries to stay as level as it can. It’s almost like a reversed roller coaster: the ground is swooping up and down and we are trying to stay still, at least in the vertical plane.

Another two tunnels and we are going out on the big trestle. Oddly, it doesn’t seem all that high off the ground, and not scary compared to the abyss of the gorge. It is a gorgeous structure, a sculpture stretched across the canyon, and on a tight curve as well. We are whooping with the sight of it, and the thrill of the ride, and also that we are seeing something most folks will never see. A slightly insane engineering marvel.

Gradually we come up out of the gorge, up on the shoulder of the grade, and pull into the little town of Jacumba as the sun falls. The train guys have to stop here because they have been working for 12 hours, which is the legal limit. We are still, even after all that climbing, not at the 3660-foot top of the westbound grade.

I still get a buzz remembering those depths and heights with our train running along the shoulders, plunging inside the mountains and then flying over the trestles. We weren’t going very fast, but we surely were high up and it was just stunning.