Truckee: The Sierra’s Timbuktu

Published Cycle California, August 2019, vol. 25 #8

In 1845 George Donner, a wealthy farmer, twice widowed, decided to sell his property and take his current wife and daughters from his two most recent marriages to Mexico. At age 62, when most men were settled, he was venturing the wild Indian lands headed toward a foreign country, leaving behind contact with adult children from his first marriage plus numerous grandchildren. George’s father, George Sr., had died at age 92 the year before and perhaps George Jr., now the family patriarch, wanted to see his offspring raised in a better climate with more opportunity, the hopes of any emigrant. He convinced his younger brother, Jacob, also near 60, go as well, taking along his wife and seven children. In April 1846, they left their sold homes near Springfield, Illinois, where 37-year-old Abraham Lincoln, married and a father, had recently set up a law practice. A fortnight later, the United States, having annexed Texas, declared war on Mexico in a boundary dispute that didn’t yet involve California. Travelers west no doubt gossiped that it might.

In early July 1846, the American Navy sailed into Monterey Bay, claiming the Mexican state for the U.S. Meanwhile, devoid of such news, the Donners were still 1,000 miles east of the Sierra, still on the main trailed headed to Oregon. At the trail’s fork, George was elected captain of his group’s wagons intending for California.

In the fall of 1844, two years before the Donner Party, a wagon train had established the route that the Donners took. This wagon train was led by Elisha Stephens, future namesake of Cupertino’s Stevens Creek (with an alternative spelling), where his ranch was located. Also in the wagon party was Dennis Martin, who later established two sawmills on Dennis Martin Creek, which crosses under Old La Honda Road in Portola Valley. On the faint trail west, the Stephens Party came upon a Paiute village in what is now the middle of Nevada on the faint trail west. Truckee, the village’s chief, told the wagoneers of the best route across the desert and over the mountains.

Actually, Truckee’s granddaughter later clarified that “truckee” was Paiute for “okay,” which the agreeable Truckee frequently repeated to the wagoneers. The river he described wound through what became known as Truckee Meadows, today’s Reno. The Truckee drains out of Lake Tahoe but prior to the lake, a small creek flows out of a natural lake that Truckee had described. The Stephens Party had to break through seasonal snows but eventually got to Sutter’s Fort without any casualties.

Two years later snow was dumping as the main body of the party hunkered down in scattered shelters at the lake, awaiting a weather break while the impassible snow became twenty-feet deep. The lagging Donners were trapped a few miles away. Almost half of the 83-member Donner Party died. Survivors lived off the bodies of the dead. The tale is harrowing. As it was known to the Stephens Party, Truckee Lake would become Donner Lake. Stuck at Alder Creek, George Donner never saw the lake that would bear his last name. He, his brother and their wives plus three of Jacob’s sons died at their camp. All five of George’s daughters and step-daughters made it.

I journeyed from the Bay Area to Truckee to go mountain biking with a group of friends. The day before our group ride, Peter DeMarzo and myself drove up Donner Pass Road. We followed the three-mile-long shoreline along brilliant blue water busy with boats before turning onto Old Highway Drive meandering amongst the trees and cabins, seeking Donner Trail history.

With a vague map in hand, we found an old wagon road, created in the 1860s in order to provide men and equipment to build the transcontinental railroad. That enterprise was authorized by a bill signed into law by President Lincoln while the Civil War was well underway. In late 1867, after Lincoln’s assassination, tunneling through the granite slopes above Donner Lake, the tracks reached a stage stop saloon. Coburn Station serviced travelers plus the teamsters working for the railroad. However, the depot and corresponding town took Truckee’s name, becoming the Timbuktu of the Sierra—a crossroads, remote settlement in the wilderness, hard to reach and on the edge of a daunting passage. The edge of the Sahara defines the Mali outpost whereas the imposing Sierra crest touches Truckee. Even today, it still can be formidable in winter, despite the massive freeway I-80 constructed in the 1960s and since widened.

Hiking, Peter and I found that the old road from above had degenerated into a narrow track of rubble as we proceeded up to larger boulders and glacier-smoothed granitic slopes. This wagon route was first used by motor car in 1901. Autos initially had to cross over the rails by sliding open doors on either side of the snowshed and listening for approaching trains before zipping through. In 1914 an underpass, that’s still there, was built under the shedded tracks as part of the transcontinental Lincoln Highway. Elected to Congress in 1846, Lincoln from Springfield, Ill., had gone eastward to our nation’s capital whereas that same year Donner from Springfield had left the nation westward for another country.

The now abandoned railroad tunnels are dark and damp, also mined with surprise rocks and loaded with graffiti. Others in the group had previously biked and photographed them as well as parts of the old Lincoln Highway. The former roadway has had underground communication cables backfilled with rocks big and small, way out of my league. An alternative is adjacent Highway 40, built in 1928, now with little traffic.

Truckee offers lots of road biking, including two highways to Lake Tahoe. It’s 72 miles around the lake and best done as part of an organized event that can provide lane closures at Emerald Bay. Truckee’s not really a Tahoe community, though by far the largest residential development is called Tahoe Donner, not “Truckee Donner” as it should be. However, Tahoe conjures the image of the glorious lake, offsetting the smaller lake’s gruesome history.

But our group was here to mountain bike Truckee for which colorfully-named Sawtooth Ridge, Hole in the Ground, Yogi Bear, Jack Ass, are all mentioned on the internet and with trail-twisting YouTube videos. Our riders had second homes at Tahoe Donner and so were familiar with its own warren of trails, which we opted to ride instead of the Squaw Valley and Northstar mountain bike parks.

From inside Tahoe Donner, we proceeded to Northwood Boulevard where Wayne Dunlap led up the straight pole line jeep road that ribboned steeply in spots over loose gravel tire tracks, challenging, before curving even more sharply up. When you get winded at 7000 feet, you never get it back. We were joined by three others, who had started later and were waiting patiently as I arrived last and gasping. Continuing on a narrow single track along a southwest facing slope, we had a view of the entire Donner Trail summit across the gulf. From there, distant Donner Pass is reachable by a series of trails that Jonathan Berk in our group calls his favorite ride. But not today as we proceeded up even more to Hawk’s Peak at 7800 feet. The better bikers amongst our party could handle the embedded trail rocks, both up and down. I learned that, for me, Intermediate means Advanced, Advanced means Walking in Places (many places), and Expert means Are You Kidding Me?

There are easier trails, both paved and dirt-smooth all around Truckee. I’d done the Donner Lake Triathlon in 1990 with its road bike leg on old Highway 40—and I wasn’t young then--and had always wanted to explore the terrain of the nearby Donner Trail. On this trip I got a full sense of it, that is without the severe snow that the Donner Party faced.

Truckee is changing—the downtown is being upscaled, transforming from its Timbuktu image. The town appears thriving in its summer condition and I’m sure does well with the ski crowd in winter. A few miles away from the busy sidewalks and high priced restaurants, the memorial at Donner Lake remains a haunting reminder how vulnerable we are when left exposed to the harshness of nature. That specter lingers no matter how hard the surrounding mountain biking trails are.