It’s cooler up here than it was down in the meadows, and I suspect I will have the air conditioning well before the final foothills of the Sierras give way to the valley somewhere around Citrus Heights. Summer is releasing her hold on the mountains without haste, but the weather is glorious.
The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway about 100 meters from where I sit, and the trees behind me mask the trail’s meander upwards from this saddle towards Castle Peak. The moment reminds me that I want to spend some time on the PCT with my son, maybe just a few of the “easier” segments, and that I have a lot of training ahead before I can enjoy the pleasure of the trail as much as I enjoy that of the road or the iron rail.
Stopped atop Donner Summit on my way from a meeting in Reno to a meeting in San Jose, I could not help thinking about the engineering that went into piercing this steepest of North American mountain ranges with a transportation artery that links the nation with coastal California.
The story of the construction of the transcontinental railroad is a treasured piece of American lore, and the project’s great historians tell us that effort to cross the Sierras with iron rails was the most arduous part of that undertaking. Building the Lincoln Highway through the Sierras, and later Interstate 80, have been almost ignored. What of the engineering, of the careful balance between the needs of the automobile and the need to care for the land, of the value unleashed by eliminating the need to veer northwards to the Columbia River or southwards to Tehachapi?
The pioneers would have not dared to conceive of traveling from Truckee Meadows to the San Francisco Bay in a week, much less in an afternoon. And yet, here I am, and with time enough to stop in Dixon for lunch.
My historian’s nose tells me there is more to be learned and a bigger story to be told, and I file it away for future thought. Sitting back down in my car, I say a silent “thank you” to the trailblazers who found this pass, to the surveyors who chose the path, to the engineers who designed it, and to the legions of men who hewed it out of the granite.
I pulled off of Interstate 5 at Grapevine looking to see if I could find history. To my delight, I found it, almost hidden, all but forgotten, and ignored by tens of thousands who drive past it each day.
This, from the mouth of the Grapevine Canyon in the San Joaquin Valley, is a forgotten vestige of what was once the main highway between northern California and southern California: a two-lane road winding up Grapevine Canyon to Lebec, then over and along a series of ridges until dropped into Castaic north of Los Angeles in a tangle of descending hairpins.
Perilous in the best of times, any kind of seasonal weather made the road treacherous if not vicious. During the Depression, there were sections of the road that had a “passing lane” that could be used by cars coming from either direction, with what in hindsight were predictable results. As a little girl, my mom had a friend whose father was a California Highway Patrolman. He used to enthrall their group of friends with horror stories about the accidents he saw along what was then called The Ridge Route.
The evolution of America as a nation over the past three centuries has been enabled by transportation links, from the Baltimore Pike, the Cumberland Gap, and the Erie Canal to the Oregon Trail, the Transcontinental Railroad, Route 66, the Interstates, and, what was arguably World War II’s greatest legacy, the most extensive civil aviation infrastructure on the planet.
Too many of those stories are on the verge of obscurity. This is unfair. They deserve to be told, and heard, by a generation that takes such links for granted, if for no other reason than to better understand the nature of the sinews that hold our naturally centrifugal country together.