"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.
Motorcycle & Gear
South Tahoe is the business end of the Lake, but soon - after passing its auto repair shops, strip malls and fast food restaurants and entering the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest - I'm rolling by tall trees alongside a frothing creek. As I turn onto California 4, a huge sign proclaims dire warnings of narrow pavement, tight turns and steep grades - all of which are true, I quickly discover. But the surface is excellent, and it's a delightful romp, with the main hazards being pickups springing out from around blind corners in the middle of the single-track road. There's serene Lake Alpine at the 8,730-foot summit to contemplate before 4 winds down through the Stanislaus National Forest. Inside the park all is peace and tranquility, but as soon as I hit the first town, the road widens and I'm squeezed in heavy traffic.
The big evergreens behind me, I'm soon rambling through rolling brown hills interspersed with rows of dark green vines and deciduous trees. I could be in the Napa or Sonoma Valleys. Even the Stanislaus River resembles Lake Sonoma as I cross over on a smart modern bridge. There's a sign for Jamestown, my destination, and I follow it on a rock 'n' roll ride over hills and around tight twisties until hitting Highway 49 a few miles north of Jamestown. It was here that Benjamin F. Woods staked the first claim in Tuolumne County, in June 1848. I'm booked into the National Hotel, a period charmer that dates back to those good old gold rush days and… Aha! I just realized why the road is numbered 49… Duh.
My plush room, decorated with elegant antique furnishings, has the modern necessities too, including air conditioning. However, the sign on the door informs me that California is under a "Stage 2 emergency" for electricity, so "please use the a/c sparingly." In the National's restaurant, my fettuccini Alfredo (washed down with a glass of California Zinfandel) is delicious: rich and tangy, and it requires an after-dinner stroll along Jamestown's narrow, historic Main Street before I head to my two plump pillows and cozy comforter.
Riding the Forty-nine
The next morning, back on Hwy 4 in the town of Murphys (which earned the accolade "Queen of the Sierras" for the richness of its gold diggings) 20 miles north of Jamestown, I take a left onto Sheep Ranch Road. The broken, heaved, potholed and patched single lane road gives the Multistrada's suspension a real workout and I have to proceed carefully. The route, though, is really quite intriguing as it scrambles over rough hills and rounds tight hairpins, passing old gnarled trees set in golden fields. There are tantalizing stretches - never more than a few hundred feet long - where the road has been resurfaced, although by the time the town of Sheep Ranch appears, I'm on two narrow twisty lanes of fresh tarmac, which allow me to give the Multistrada its head.