In 1986, CBS created a mini-series that parodied the overwrought primetime soap-opera melodramas of the decade ("Dallas", "Dynasty", "Falcon Crest"). In this series, titled "Fresno", the California city was lampooned for its civic pride, especially its status as the 64th largest city in the US and the distinction of being the "Raisin Capital of the World."
As I roll along arrow-straight California 99's scorching tarmac, I'm wondering how much has changed since 1986. I'll find out while I'm here, for Fresno is the base from which I'm conducting my three-day circuit of the central Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park.
Fresno is Spanish for 'ash tree,' and sure enough, the ash's deciduous boughs shade me from the sweltering heat as I ride along broad, pleasant avenues to the Cal State University district and find the Piccadilly Inn. At every traffic signal, I'm steaming inside my Tourmaster suit, still fully lined against the morning chill of San Francisco Bay, where I collected my R 1200 GS from Dubbelju Rentals.
It's nearing graduation time at Cal State, and the hotel has a party vibe happening. But the celebrations are surprisingly civilized - when I emerge to load the bike the next morning, empty beer bottles are neatly stacked by the side entrance. Very Fresno.
My objective this first day is Jamestown, which will take me along Highways 41 and 49, the southern end of California's Gold Rush Trail. Negotiating Fresno's spaghetti-like freeway system, I eventually find the 41 north turnoff and head into a rolling rangeland of baked brown hills and parched fields.
Something I learned from RoadRUNNER's founder, Christian Neuhauser, was always to look for the "Old" roads. Just before Mariposa I spot an "Old Highway" sign, so I have to take it. The narrow tarmac quickly deteriorates to patched potholes, but the GS's supple suspension deals with it well. I'm soon following a highway crew throwing shovelfuls of tarmac in the vague direction of the potholes from the back of a pickup, and the GS ends up wearing much of it. The Old Highway takes me on a rambling course over and around a succession of hills until I emerge at an overlook with the San Joaquin Valley spreading away into the heat haze. It turns out I'm on what was once "Yosemite All-year Highway," now California 140, which the old road joins near Catheys Valley.
Like most of the towns along the Highway 49 corridor, Mariposa (Spanish for 'butterfly') grew rapidly after gold was discovered. Such was the wealth of Mariposa's claims that by 1850, Mariposa County covered one-fifth of California. The city boasts many original buildings from that era, including the courthouse, jail and St. Joseph's Catholic Church, as well as California's Mining and Mineral Museum.
My route so far has been relatively monotonous in riding terms, but north of Bear Valley the highway ricochets down a series of switchbacks into a steep valley where it crosses McLure Lake before swinging back into the brown hills to Coulterville. With "California's oldest operating saloon" in the 1851 hotel, and a Chinese laundry dating as far back, Coulterville's tiny Main Street has been designated a National Historic District.
Jamestown, my destination, is just off Highway 49, so the city center is pleasantly peaceful. Another mining town, its period affluence is expressed in many fine buildings which have been restored and repainted. Walking Jamestown's boardwalks is like stepping back 150 years - except for the parked cars, that is.
After settling into the National Hotel, I go looking for a meal, and I luck out with CC's Taqueria. Of course, Mexicans were here long before the "European" miners, and Mexican is California's default fast food, with all the variations in quality that implies. CC's pollo asado, however, is the best I've ever tasted outside of Mexico. It comes served in a spicy sauce with cilantro and lime, with piquant guacamole, a fresh salad, hot tangy salsa, and fragrant rice, home-cooked beans and corn tortillas. Total bill: $ 10.98.