When a Mountain Range Imprints Itself
This will come as a shock to no one, but for the past month or so, I’ve been searching my mind for comforting memories. For the first time in my life, I (we) have been confronted with true uncertainty. Though I’ve found countless things to worry about in the past, at least then I felt like I had some control over how to get myself out of a difficult situation. I felt like I had agency. I don’t feel that now with the coronavirus raging across the planet. This is something much larger than anything else I’ve experienced. As a result, my mind has sought the happy places. One thing I’ve noticed about these mental forays, however, is that I don’t simply go to the happy memories, but also the memories where I feel a sense of safety. Time and again, I come to my first memory of riding the Tahoe Flume Trail.
For those of you who don’t know, the Tahoe Flume Trail, or simply the Flume, is a trail that stretches about 5-7 miles along the western flank of the Carson Range, a thousand feet above Lake Tahoe. The Flume Trail encompasses far more than just this short stretch, however, this being merely the most spectacular portion, one that draws mountain bikers the world over. It truly is a world class trail. Indeed, when I was a young man in the army stationed in Germany, I remember seeing a picture of the Flume in a magazine at the post bookstore.
The Flume Trail is relatively horizontal and comprised of hard packed dirt and gravel. It wasn’t always so. It began in the late 1800s as a path over which the logging industry built a flume to float timber to Carson City. This timber would ultimately be shipped up to Virginia City to shore up the ever-expanding silver mines, deep under Mount Davidson. After the silver boom went bust, the logging industry declined in Lake Tahoe, and the flume fell into disrepair. But in the early 1980s, local residents began to wonder about the recreational potential for the old flume. That decade, these individuals began to clear the trail of debris and started to ride their bikes along it. Since then, it has become one of the most famous and highly trafficked mountain bike trails in the world.
Now, I’ve always been into bikes. Throughout childhood, I was always riding my bike. Either up and down the street, to the store for candy bars, to friends’ houses, or out in the desert to ride trails and do jumps. My bike was an ever-present accompaniment to my early years. I got my first mountain bike in high school, and quickly began riding fire roads in and around Carson City. I bought my first “real” mountain bike (a bright Orange GT Pantera) as a senior in high school and had the brilliant notion of riding from my house in Carson City (4,500 feet elevation), over the Carson Range (7,200 feet elevation) to Sand Harbor. This was the first of many overestimations of my own ability, and underestimations of distance. Since it took only about 25 minutes to drive to Sand Harbor, how hard could it be to bike there? Well, it was beyond anything I’d ever attempted. Despite the suffering, the trip didn’t blunt my appetite for more riding. I kept at it. Shortly after this ride, I joined the army and left for Germany. It was very flat there, but I still wanted a bike. I bought one, a cool Cannondale M800, one that I still wish I had. I rode all over the place on that bike. Along the Rhine River, through Mannheim and Heidelberg, into dark forests, and even through, yes, through, sidewalk cafes (I still remember the look on the German waiter’s face, dressed in a suit, no less, whirling to his left, tray full of drinks in hand, cursing at me for literally riding through his restaurant). For some damn reason, I decided to sell this bike when I left the army, to my everlasting regret.
I was a bit lost after I got out of the army. It was a difficult time for me and my family. My parents had decided to get a divorce when I was away, and it made my reentry into civilian life a bit more challenging. There isn’t a veteran alive who would describe becoming a civilian once again as an easy process. I landed a great job with the Nevada Legislature in 1995 (courtesy of Steve Watson—thanks Steve!) This was the perfect job for a guy just trying to find his way in the world again. The job helped, but I quickly realized I was without a bike and felt incomplete. At the time, I was making $8.20 an hour at the legislature, which was big money back then. As a result, I was able to afford my second “real” bike, a GT Zaskar. Purple, with grip shifts, spd pedals, and a Rock Shox Mag 21 fork. The Onza bar-ends really completed the look though. God, I loved that bike.
It was on this bike that I made my first circuit of the Flume Trail. I’d recently made friends with a guy named Robb at WNCC (WNC now that it’s getting high class), who also liked bikes. Robb took it to another level. He was REALLY into cycling at the time. He was the type of guy who would interrupt your ride and force you to wait while he timed his pulse. It wasn’t long after we met that he suggested we ride the Flume together. I had only ever heard of the Flume at this point, the trail occupying a mystical place in my mental geography. I had seen that one picture of it in Germany, but that was it. I honestly did not know what to expect. I remember that we decided to drive my pickup truck up from Carson to Spooner Summit, a low point on the crest of the Carson Range, where the Flume Trail began. The plan was to ride the Flume from there back down to Carson, where we would then get into Robb’s car and drive back up to retrieve my vehicle.
I can still remember the start of that ride. While the Flume proper does provide unencumbered views of the Tahoe Basin, one really has to pay a significant toll in sweat and exhaled carbon monoxide to see it. The ride begins along an old fire road that stretches, rather, climbs drastically from Spooner Lake to Marlette Lake, the former dating to the 1920s to store irrigation water, and the latter to the 1870s to supply water and lumber to Virginia City. This five-mile stretch was beyond anything I’d ever experienced, and I was forced to walk my bike at several points. You come to the summit of the climb, not within sight of Tahoe, but above Marlette Lake (see photo at the beginning of this article). This artificial lake is without question one of the most beautiful sites in the world. A sliver of deep blue water contained within a narrow valley, two thousand feet above the Lake Tahoe Basin. I’d seen this lake when I was a very young boy, probably about 10 or so, when my dad, inexplicably forced his family on a death march up the same road. In fairness, I’ve been accused of this same thing by friends and family, so at least I know where I get it. All I can remember when cresting the summit on my bike ride was how truly amazing the sight was. Though I’d seen it as a child, my memories just didn’t carry forward the magnitude of the sight to my young adult mind.
Over the years, my memory of this particular ride has become a memory of the range itself. I remember climbing and descending a number of crests, reaching various lakes, being surrounded by pine trees and mountain tops. For the first time, I recognized how “of the mountains” I had become. This is a difficult concept for me to explain, so deeply tied is it to my emotional core. What I mean is that when you scale many mountains in Nevada, you feel as if you are simply on the side of an enormous hillside. One looks out and either sees the peak above, or the valley below. The Carson Range is something altogether more complex and mysterious than this. When you are a young man, still setting out in the world, life is full of possibilities. Couple this sense of wonder and possibility with the acquisition of a truly high-performance bike (for its day), the mobility this affords can have a profound effect on a young mind. This is what happened to me. All of a sudden I was able to cover more ground than I’d ever been able to, in a mountain setting, seeing multiple crests of a mountain range, and to be able to burrow myself into the center of this range. I could feel the proximity of the mountains, forest, and high country pressing in on me in a fashion that gave me the same comfort as wrapping myself in a warm quilt. I knew the Great Basin lie to my east, and the Tahoe Basin to my west. But I couldn’t see them from where I was in the mountains. I had ridges over 9,000 feet high on both sides of me. I was in a completely separate and insular environment. My own world. This is what I mean by feeling “of the mountains.” I do realize, however, this feeling I have might simply be impossible to properly convey in words. Though my ability to articulate my thoughts and emotions is not fully up to the task, I can state that this ride was the most intimate experience I’d yet had with the range, a distinction that remains to this day.
After reaching the highest elevation of the trail at Hobart Lake – yet another reservoir constructed for the silver rush – we descended back to Carson City along one of the steepest dirt roads I’ve ever traversed. Like most Great Basin mountain ranges, The Carson Range is remarkably steep. No gentle sloping ascent, such as that found along the west side of the Sierra Nevada. Before we hit the really steep section, I remember Robb falling face forward in a small stream on our way back to town. A little spill, occurring while traveling only 5 miles per hour or so, and therefore entirely deserving of our hearty laughter. While Robb wasn’t exactly thrilled, he did take it in stride and was glad to be able to sport a frontside completely covered in mud. I’ve been by this stream dozens of times since, and every time, I remember that little crash.
This was the ride that transformed my attitude toward the range. While I’d essentially grown up in it, going to beaches, taking hikes, and camping countless times, it was this Flume ride I did in 1995 that finally made this range my own. Before, it had been a place shared by the family and our friends. After the ride though, it became “my” range. It was this ride, in fact, that serves as the inspiration for my entire project of looking at the history of these mountains. For it was here that I became intimately acquainted with the range.
To know a place through labor.
Mountain biking is how I came to know the Carson Range. Pedaling a bike 30 miles up and down several thousand feet of combined elevation is a remarkably strenuous activity. Every sense, every aspect of motor activity and coordination is brought to bear to navigate this terrain. The pain and exertion a cyclist feels on a ride like this imprints a remarkably detailed account of the local geography and environment into the mind. Looking back, I can’t help but think about the level of exertion I expended on that ride, compared with the people who worked for a living in those same mountains in the century prior to my arrival there. The historian Richard White once wrote that people who worked in various outdoor settings know that environment intimately. White pointed out that recreationists who exert energy as they experience an environment are no more legitimate “owners” of that land than people like loggers, miners, ranchers, or farmers, who also know the land through labor. I wonder how the loggers who built the original flume would take to my assertions that this was “my” range. Disbelieving laughter, most likely.
My own ride through the Flume in ’95 is what gave me the notion that I “knew” the range. But I was simply the latest of many people who exerted themselves in those mountains, many of whom were attempting to earn a living from the resources available there. At some future point, I will look at some of these individuals and examine their exploits – how they contributed sweat and sometimes blood to the soil of the Carson Range, long before I was able to propel my aluminum bike with oil based tires and store bought food through the same space.