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Vivid shades of the Sierra's pioneer past
With the turn of every season, the mail seems to bring an inviting brochure from Sorensen's, a rustic resort 20 miles south of Lake Tahoe in California's Alpine County. It shows log cabins in the woods, wildflowers and golden-leaved trees, a hammock strung between aspen trunks.
Something in this summer's mailing caught my eye: a series of Emigrant Trail hikes, guided walking-and-driving history tours offered on five Mondays in summer and fall. My sister, Eileen, is a fifth-grade teacher with an avid interest in America's pioneer history, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Lured by the promise of emigrant lore and the Sierra's autumnal scenery, I booked a three-day weekend at the resort and signed us up for the hike.
We flew to Sacramento one Saturday morning (Reno is closer, but the airfare was more expensive), rented a car and picked up U.S. 50 heading east for a leisurely two-hour drive to Sorensen's. Feeling peckish as we approached the Gold Country town of Placerville, we turned off the highway and settled on A Main Street Café, a family-run place with eight tables. The menu recounted the history of the 1857 brick building and pointed out the original horsehair plaster still covering part of one wall.
The offerings were simple — sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts — but everything was appealing and homemade. Our egg salad sandwiches — one on pesto pine nut bread, the other on sunflower honey wheat — were plump and tasty, the potato salad tangy, the huge lemon bars fabulous.
The trip resumed, U.S. 50 rising into the Sierra and paralleling the pretty South Fork of the American River for much of the way. Then came a short stretch on a secondary road, altitude 7,000 feet, and suddenly there was Sorensen's, its 20-odd buildings scattered along the road and backing into the woods. The impression was pleasing: cottages and log cabins amid evergreens and aspens (here and there turning brilliant yellow), connected by paths interspersed with beds of blooming yarrow. Our little bungalow, called Foxtail ($120 plus tax per night), was just big enough for its tiny kitchen and bathroom, queen bed and table with two chairs. The mattress was piled high with a blanket and comforters, whose importance we wouldn't appreciate until nighttime.
We had time to explore a bit before dinner, checking out the different building styles, the children's catch-and- release fishing pond, the wood-fired sauna (no sign of a fire this early in the season) and the nestled-in-the-woods gazebo (site of an afternoon wedding whose boisterous outdoor reception was, to our chagrin, going strong). After a dinner of soup, salad and an enormous mixed berry cobbler à la mode — Sorensen's signature dessert — we strolled back to our cabin to mull over the next day's activities. We're not much for fishing or horseback riding, both of which were readily accessible, but we were looking forward to a mountain hike.
Every cabin is furnished with a copy of "Alpine Trailblazer," a book of Alpine County hikes. "The Sierra today has the world's longest system of interconnected mountain trails," write authors Jerry and Janine Sprout, and their dozens of choices were daunting. We settled on the trail the authors call Carson Pass South, which heads south from a visitor center at 8,573-foot-high Carson Pass.
Icy alpine pools
The next morning was sunny and brilliantly clear, as only a day in the mountains can be. It also was plenty brisk. As we walked to the restaurant for breakfast I thought, it must be in the 50s, maybe even 40s. The office provided the overnight low: 27 degrees.
A 12-mile drive southwest on Highway 88 brought us to the Carson Pass trail head. Two dozen vehicles were in the parking lot, but many belonged to wilderness campers who had ventured well into the forest. We limited our hike to a couple of miles round trip — just far enough to reach little Frog Lake, the first of four lakes along the five-mile path, a gem of an icy alpine pool in which hikers' dogs splashed happily. The woods were silent and fragrant and, even given the trail's popularity, wonderfully pristine.
The altitude had us panting for breath, so having made it to at least one lake, we returned to the car. We drove west for more sightseeing in Alpine County (population 1,200), passing other lakes and taking a detour through Kirkwood, a ski resort in the middle of a construction boom. Then we headed back to Sorensen's for an early dinner, because at 8 p.m. Frank Tortorich, the leader of the next day's Emigrant Trail hike, would be giving a slide show.
Frank and his wife, Mary Ann, were staying in another cabin, Rock Creek, bigger and more ruggedly handsome than ours. There they welcomed us and the half-dozen others joining the hike. (Group hike dates for 2004 have not been set, but Frank also conducts private tours for groups of six or more.)
It was quickly apparent that Frank, a fifth-generation Californian, is a living encyclopedia of America's westward migration. To introduce the tour, he screened a sampling of the 800 slides he has assembled on his passion, the pioneer settlement of California. Mary Ann punctuated the presentation with short readings from settlers' journals.
I was surprised to learn that the Carson River Route, whose traces we would explore, was blazed by Mormons who were heading not west but east. As members of the Mormon Battalion, which had been mustered to fight in the Mexican War, they had marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in mid-1846, arriving in San Diego in January 1847 by a much more southerly route. They were discharged in July, but Mormon leader Brigham Young instructed them to work in California for a year, then bring supplies back to his fledgling settlement in Utah's Salt Lake Valley.
They began the arduous eastward journey in July 1848. Determined to avoid the notorious Truckee River Route, scene of the Donner Party debacle less than two years before, the Mormons found a new way over the Sierra Nevada. Their Carson River Route became the most popular Gold Rush trail into California, carrying 20,000 people in 1849, 100,000-plus more by 1852. In 1859 it would see a second wave when silver was discovered in Virginia City, Nev., bringing fortune-seeking Californians.After breakfast Monday morning, our tour group carpooled to some of the sites Frank had previewed. Most were sections of the Carson River trail just off Highway 88 but hidden in the forest; it was almost unbelievable that the emigrants' ox-drawn wagons could have negotiated these steep, rocky paths. We saw boulders rutted, polished and rust-stained by thousands of wagon wheels; a tree bearing scars from the rope winches used to steady the wagons on a particularly precipitous slope; pioneer graffiti written with axle grease; an arrangement of rocks that is probably an anonymous emigrant's gravesite; and, in wide-open Hope Valley, the swale, or depression, left by processions of animals, wagons and people.
By tour's end, in the late afternoon of what had turned out to be a warm day, we and our car mates were starting to wilt. I could only imagine how our pioneer forebears would have felt.
It was awesome, humbling. I kept thinking maybe "the greatest generation" was, after all, the intrepid families who trod these paths, all their possessions in their wagons, to start life anew in California.
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Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Three days $51.99
Two nights, with tax $264.00
A Main Street Café $15.82
Emigrant Trail hike
Including lunch $90.00
Carson Pass day-use fee $3.00
Final tab $764.02
Sorensen's Resort, 14255 Highway 88, Hope Valley, CA 96120; (800) 423-9949 or (530) 694-2203, http://www.sorensensresort.com .
Frank and Mary Ann Tortorich, 12544 Eldel Road, Pine Grove, CA 95665; (209) 296-7242, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oregon-California Trails Assn., http://www.octa-trails.org .