Lake Tahoe - North California's playground Sun, Ski and err... Cinema?

Today we would split. Tim was going to Stateline, the casino town, as it says, just on the state line between California and Nevada - providing the shortest possible distance to travel for the desperate and gambling starved citizens of the Bay Area, just like Primm (Day 1) served those in LA. And although I hadn't planned it, I would go skiing.

After picking up some gear at a hire shop, I was dropped off at the Heavenly ski resort and by midday I was up on the slopes, looking out over Lake Tahoe on a glorious cloudless day. Part of the fun of skiing, as anyone will tell you, is not just the thrill of speeding down a mountain, but exploring and trekking, seeking out routes around the mountains and absorbing new views in the clear mountain air. Tahoe had a unique view on offer. The Lake surface hovers at around 6000 ft, whereas just a ridge and four or five miles away lie the plains around Carson City, a couple of thousand feet lower, and from the top Free Peak at 10,000 ft, it is a weird sight seeing the lake trapped in by rock and suspended far above the plains to one side. And the skiing was good too!

Poseur... somebody shoot him please!So while I was carving powder on the slopes, Tim had his "fun" in Stateline (neither of us are gamblers - so he went to see a film. Sounds like a sad thing to do on holiday, but impoverished Europeans like us get our films at least a decade after the Yanks, so it's still a novelty). And so by late afternoon, we were ready to head off to Sacramento.

Das Kapital

We hadn't planned to stay in the Californian state capital, as nobody, including various rough guides, had much to say about it. Rather, it was a convenient stopover prior to our big journey up to Oregon the next day. So we took the hour-long journey down U.S. Highway 50, an interesting journey that is a continual downhill, out of the Sierra Nevada and onto the large central plain of California. I wondered if you could coast it all the way without using any gas, but as it was getting dark, I decided not to chance it, particularly in view of the switch-back nature of the mountain roads.

Motel Life Part 1, Quality Inn SacramentoOur introduction to Sacramento was during a dark and suffocatingly humid evening so at odds with the crisp mountain air we had gotten used to over the last 24 hours. Even the dry heat of Las Vegas and Death Valley was better than this languid swamp-like air. Booking in at the Quality Inn on J Street, we had a very inglamorous evening in which a brief tour of the exceedingly dull and ordinary modern part of the city was attempted, in a vain attempt to find a decent restaurant. In the end, after touring a mediocre mall, we settled for just about the worst Indian meal, in the worst Indian restaurant I'd ever visited. Perhaps this city would be quite acceptable in Mid-West America, but by Californian standards this really was Dullsville. Such an irony considering that it was the State Capital, where you would expect all the history and character to be. I mean, even the street names were lacking. Streets running north-south were 1st, 2nd, 3rd street etc., an accepted system in American cities, all of which are based on a grid system. But the streets running perpendicular to these, where town-planners have the opportunity to commerate founding fathers, explorers, or perhaps chiefs of once local Indian tribes, were imaginatively named after the letters of the alphabet! Clearly the city's early settlers were mainly engineers (or primary school teachers), and not artists.

Old Town Sacramento, amputated from its modern counterpart by a thoughtful InterstateSo as we retired for the night, I was keen to get the hell out of this hole at the first light of dawn tomorrow. But, next morning, as we made our way downtown toward Interstate 5 that would take us north, the city seemed a little more forgiving, the State Capitol building looked like an attractive miniature of its more politically muscular brother in Washington, and then, under pressure from Tim, decided to pay a quick visit to the Old Town, that we'd heard might not be so bad. But then trying to get to it proved a little more of a challenge than first imagined. Pardon me, but I feel a rant coming on...

The reason we had trouble getting to the Old Town was that post-war state and civic planners, in their reckless wisdom that progress is all and heritage is merely an inconvenience, decided that Interstate 5, a two lane elevated highway carrying the principal flow of traffic from Southern California and Mexico through to Northern California, the North-West states and Canada would run straight through the centre of the city! An entire line of city blocks was demolished between 3rd and 4th Streets and the concrete and tarmac erected, separating the Old Town from the new, save for a single cross road which was a devil to find. So in this way, the Old Town was now merely a tourist curiosity and not really a living part of the city. Amazed as much as I was appalled, the heavy traffic of the Interstate thrummed past at 50mph just yards from the top storeys of some of the oldest buildings in California, dating right back to the 1850s. That's ancient by Californian standards, but this seemed bizarrely irrelevant to the "forward thinking" planners who decided that it would be sensible for a truck going from LA to Seattle should pass within yards of Old Sacramento.

The loco that built the West, an American 4-4-0Steamboat Timmy. He's not as simple as he looks.(Wipes foam from mouth) So anyway, the Old Town was a real surprise. A pleasant morning was spent walking over the old elevated wooden sidewalks that ran along the shop fronts of the old city blocks (before tarmac it was only means of not being knee deep in mud/shite during winter). We took in the Sacramento River, upon which the Old Town abutted (and it's a huge river, certainly by the standards of Old Blighty), and popped in to the California State Railroad Museum, which was nicely laid out, with plenty of locos of all ages, and it provided a real eye-opener into how the west was "won" through the building of the railroads.

The White Mountain

So by midday, we finally got onto the highway that had so condemned Sacramento to a split existence, and we'd decided that the city wasn't so bad after all. Okay, so it didn't quite have the buzz of the other main cities of California, but one thing it did have was a heritage at least as old as San Francisco and far exceeding that of LA, the attitude toward heritage in the latter being "official denial".

Interstate 5 took us out of the state capital within a few minutes, onto the flat grassland of Central California, the flood basin of the mighty Sacramento River. The road ran pretty much dead-straight, passing through farms, pastures and enormous vineyards, that probably wouldn't win awards like their counterparts in the much smaller Napa Valley just to the west, but would certainly make up for it in plonk output. Miles beyond the flats of the Sacramento, mountains rose up on each side - the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coastal Range to the West, whilst far to the north, the ancient volcanoes of the Cascades still remained out of sight, at least for the moment.

After an eternity on the plain, the terrain began to undulate into pleasant rolling hills of grassland and broken woodland, and for a moment we thought we'd arrived back in England, only this was a surreal England in which no-one seemed to be around, so quiet and uninhabited it was. Anyone who's lived in one of the most crowded countries in the world will know how deeply strange that would feel.

Mount Shasta, frustratingly half-hiddenWe stopped at a service station for a very late Wendy's lunch in Redding, the only town of any significant size in Northern California, before continuing north once again. Suddenly the landscape got very interesting. The highway, in between struggles up the steep grades of deeply wooded passes, bridged its way over the beautiful Shasta Lake (amazingly, it was a reservoir!). And then as we cleared another pass, something on the horizon caught my eye. I thought it was some cloud or other - it had been a sunny day, but true to form to the weather of the North-West, there were clouds on the horizon ahead. Down into a valley, and then up again. Clearing this pass, that same cloud was there again, only a brighter white. I did a double take. It was a bloody mountain! Absolutely nothing else for miles around, and this hulking mammoth of snow-covered rock jutts out into the sky like a sentinel guarding the passes between California and Oregon. We saw all this and yet we were still perhaps over thirty miles away. But we were to be disappointed. As we passed Mount Shasta, the ancient volcano kept its features secret by a veil of cloud that had enveloped it during our approach. Standing proud at over 14000 feet, Shasta looks so impressive because there is literally nothing else around it approaching its height. It would sit happily next to Mount Whitney, the Continental US's highest peak in the Sierra Nevada, and be somewhat admired for rivalling its snow-capped brothers. But on its own, it was magnificent, or would have been, had it not half-shrouded itself in cloud. The prospect of seeing similar isolated peaks ahead, Mount Hood in Oregon, and Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier in Washington was suddenly all the more exciting with this taster, but due to the weather that followed, I was to be bitterly disappointed.

42nd Parallel

Just past Mount Shasta, we split from Interstate 5 at the small town of Weed, to take U.S. Highway 97. We pondered momentarily on that town's christening, suspecting that it had more than something to do with the mass cultivation of a particular variety of hemp that seemed to grow very well in this part of the world, before coming to the conclusion that such things would not be tolerated by a law enforcing State Government, and that, in fact the town had been founded by the explorer John Weed (nee Smith). Probably.

Volcanoes in Southern OregonAs we headed toward the border with Oregon, we entered a weird landscape of small and isolated peaks and domes. This was volcano country. This range of (mostly) extinct vulcanism, known as the Cascades, begins here, and extends through Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border. Dramatically different to the Sierra Nevada, which is basically a load of solid rocks pushed up out of the earth en masse. Here the peaks are individual and spaced out, some as giant as Mount Shasta, but most are much smaller.

Welcome, pardener!Route 97 was taking us inland, and the flat land between the peaks was a mix of pine forest and brown scrub, called "High Desert", since we were at altitude. Not exactly beautiful, but something new. As we cleared Dorris, a two-bit town in the middle of nowhere, we passed over the 42 parallel, the line of latitude which makes up the arbitrary border between California and Oregon. As we did so, it was remarkable to think that, apart from short forays into Nevada, everything we'd seen so far, and all the miles we had travelled, had been within a single state. California is the third largest state (after Alaska and Texas), and it felt it. But statistics aside, it was quite amazing how many different landscapes it possessed - scrub, desert, mountain, forest, plains, green hills and so on. And after we returned from our expedition to the north-west states, California would still pull a few more surprises.

Motel Life, Part 2 - Motel 6 in Klamath FallsCrossing the border, we didn't notice any change in the scenery - still the dry, cold mix of forest and scrub, and it was in this drab landscape that the town of Klamath Falls was situated. We reached there within an hour, and a few hours before sunset, but couldn't go on much further, as there wasn't another settlement for about 80 miles, well far north of our next featured sight - Crater Lake. There's not much to do in Klamath Falls. It's just an average rural town in the west. So we used the time sorting out shopping, doing laundry and catching a film. We got our first experience of what would become a dependable and cheap mode of accomodation - a Motel 6. The most notable thing about the place was, after Sacramento, how cold it was. We were about 4000 feet up, and in the interior, and technically it was still winter. But then the motel was warm, and an early night was appreciated, after that long drive north.