Down To Downieville
by Denis Rouse, September 11, 2013
My machine had been idle too long during a busy summer occupied by matters far less important than riding. I’d look at the Beemer now and then in the shop IV’d to the battery tender thinking life’s too short for this nonsense so I said to the woman, Gwen is her name, but her father called her Cookie and it stuck and I like it, “Let’s blow out of here on an overnighter to Downieville”. She said ok with tempered enthusiasm because she had an early unfavorable motorcycle experience with an ex-husband that resulted in a serious case of road rash. So I had been breaking her in slowly. Our previous ride was last spring, fifty miles to breakfast at the Station Café in Montgomery Creek on the western slope of Hatchet Mountain. I could tell she was a bit nervous behind me but then so am I whenever I ride one of her horses she’s so nuts about she calls “my boys”. Yeah, twelve hundred pound “boys” that can be a little feisty at times, the equine version of a high speed wobble you don’t want.
We’re fortunate to live here in a place called Big Valley in the northeast corner of California on the Lassen/Modoc County line that has so far managed to avoid overpopulation and overdevelopment and the resultant hyper lifestyle that gives sad valid relevance to the contemporary epithet Californicated. It’s Tuesday morning, late August, only days away from the Labor Day weekend as we depart, yet the entire thirty mile forested corridor of Highway 89 along which Hat Creek flows has very light traffic and the streamside campgrounds are mostly vacant. The upcoming weekend will obviously change that but for now, Ruby Tuesday, “still I’m gonna miss you”. We can see 10,457 ft. Lassen Peak from our kitchen window fifty miles distant but the more up close and personal view of it looming up huge in a robin’s egg sky north of Old Station never fails to remind of dramatic volcanic legacy, that it’s one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world and that it erupted in 1914, mere milliseconds ago on the geologic time clock. Riding through Lassen Volcanic National Park (one of the least visited by the way) on a motorcycle lends emphasis to the unthinkable power that lies beneath because you can feel it at every turn, you slide by lava bombs the size of dump trucks, you can even smell it as you pass the bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles of Bumpass Hell, the largest of Lassen’s hydrothermal areas where I once tried humor on a park ranger by asking him if there was a fumarole nearby where we could go swimming. His facial expression never changed from neutral and dutiful. He simply said “No sir”. That’s what I call professional equanimity.
Down the west shore of Lake Almanor we go, a clean beautiful lake in which we’ve swam and waterskied, and into which we’ve plunged during previous mid-summer motorcycle journeys when the sun felt like a blast furnace and leather and helmets came off and the cool water felt like the embrace of a lover; great memories with best riding friends. And the distant view of Lassen Peak framed by towering pines, from the south shore of Almanor, is another of many scenes on this route that require pause. Then we cruise south on Highway 89 deeper into the glorious green majesty that is the floor of The Sierras, pausing in Indian Valley in the small country town of Greenville (pop 000) for lunch at a natural food store and café right on Main Street where we park the machine and eat at an outside table, where we feel like the train has stopped in Rod Serling’s Willoughby from the great “Twilight Zone” episode wherein escape from the clamor and craziness of contemporary life seemed to be a possible dream. The lady who owns the place tells us she was born and raised here and nothing has changed, that Mall Land is far away and there are many mountains in between. As a historical note our county’s namesake Peter Lassen had a trading post here in 1851 before he moved to Honey Lake where he resided as a farmer and miner until he was killed from ambush in 1859. There’s one downside that requires mention when riding a road like this where thickly forested wilderness stretches on both sides of it for all practical purposes forever and that’s of course the ever present danger of deer crossings. Sometimes highway signs warn where it’s particularly likely but not always, best to keep speed down and all senses on red alert when roadside trees and brush are peripherally dense. We had two incidents with Bambi on this ride, not the bite-a-washer-out-of-the-seat kind, but definitely wake-up calls to stay vigilant.
Just south of the resort town of Greagle on Highway 89 we make a right turn at Gold Lake Forest Highway, hardly a “highway” but rather a two-lane mountain road upon which we ride a 25-mile stretch on a roof of this region aptly called The Lost Sierra because the extremely rugged terrain hasn’t been amenable to population growth and development, the whole of Sierra County has less than 3000 residents. Just before Gold Lake Forest Highway converges with Highway 49 at Bassetts Station there’s a viewpoint that seems definitive when we pause to gaze westward at the stunning 8600-ft splendorous panoramic curtain of volcanic pinnacles and cliffs known as the Sierra Buttes. It’s getting late in the day as we turn right on Highway 49 at Bassetts Station to negotiate the final twenty miles or so to our destination in Downieville, and a fetching twenty miles it is as the road traces the curvaceous elegance of the Yuba River. Trouble is I’m not nearly as young and smooth as I used to be in the corners and so Cookie at this point felt constrained to try to help me steer the motorcycle from behind with her knees. I told her how much I appreciated her kind intentions but that if she didn’t stifle her activity in this regard immediately and forever that she was probably going to get the both of us killed.
In Downieville we ride across the bridge over the river and pull up to my favorite place of lodging, The Downieville River Inn where I know from priors one lies in bed being lulled to sleep by the sonorous riffles of the river, and where my two favorite venues in town, the St. Charles Place, a classic old western bar with an antique firearm collection artfully displayed, and The Grubstake or Downieville Steak House as its also known, are a short walk away across said bridge. An existential question requires answer here: Do we ride to eat or do we eat to ride? I know not what course others take but with us it’s definitely the former and again, I know from priors, there is no better place to eat in America than the steak house here in this jewel of a historic 19th Century gold mining town that is so lost on what might as well be the moon in the isolated empty northernmost wilderness gorge of the Mother Lode. Cookie orders and consumes an entire 24-ounce rib eye, rare, gristle and all, and dumb me, thinking it’s the healthier option, I order the calamari steak swaddled in garlic butter breading, and of course the garlic lovers’ mashed potatoes and a creamy broccoli soup and a chunky blue cheese salad with little sweet tomatoes I am positive were just picked out of a local garden.
As it usually does, morning comes. We re-trace our route homeward except, refreshed by awesome vittles and a fine sleep, we follow fetchingly circuitous Highway 49 east all the way over 6708-ft Yuba Pass to re-connect with Highway 89 at Calpine in Sierra Valley, one of the largest alpine valleys in the world, where the aerial view of it from the summit is to recall Steinbeck’s title, The Pastures of Heaven, where ranches date back to the early 19th Century and chances are good that pioneer family relatives are still running them. Then north on Highway 89 all the way back to the north shore of Lake Almanor where we proceed east on Highway 36 to Lassen County seat Susanville for our final leg back to Big Valley on Highway 139 for seventy miles through the high country of old Lassen County where hoof prints continue to outnumber foot prints a thousand to one.