California: Along Hwy 49

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

"In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mineDwelt a miner forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine.Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling, Clementine, You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine."

Rambling around the western shoreline of Lake Tahoe, I'm reminded how readily the quality of light changes the appearance of things. Yesterday, under clear skies, the lake was a dappled turquoise blue, its waves stippled with sparkling crests, and the brightly painted homes positively glowed in the yellow light. Today's overcast renders a dishwater-dull view of the water and uniformly shades the houses in gray. Heading south, I've left the lakeside resort of King's Beach to explore the Sierra Nevada foothills, where the "forty-niners" of Percy Montrose's famous folk ballad staked their claims, and the rolling countryside of California Highway 49.

The California Gold Rush attracted more than 300,000 prospectors, their wives and children to the region between 1848 and 1855, extracting gold worth billions in today's dollars. Many communities were established and incorporated, with San Francisco quickly becoming the major center of financial and commercial enterprise in the region; and by 1850, the state of California was admitted into the Union.

Down to the Valley

The road winds past rustic cottages hidden amid dense evergreens on one side, and on the lakefront, large but unpretentious mansions line the shore. Also, having escaped the callous treatment of a developer's wrecking ball, there are older cabins still standing on some waterfront lots. Obviously overdevelopment has become a losing proposition at the ballot box in these Tahoe communities, where an atmosphere that's more up-country than uptown prevails.

It's surprising to see how much water accumulates here too, with the parched salt deserts of Nevada just tens of miles away. That's the power of the Sierra Nevada though, pushing the air up and wringing out its moisture, leaving Nevada to thirst in its rain shadow. The terrain is precipitous. California 89 clings to the steep lakeside, and the highway is peppered with avalanche warning signs. At one point I'm riding along a narrow isthmus with sheer drops on either side, which I find quite unsettling.

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