Highway 49 – The Gold Route Road Journals: Day 2

Six dudes, five bikes, one van, five days, 400 miles, more than 160 years of history and a haunted hotel. These are The SAG Wagon Confessions.

by Don Stefanovich

DAY 2: Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

Just another day in the office. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Just another day in the office. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Folks act like they’ve never seen someone propped up in a folding chair with a MacBook beside a 15-passenger van on the side of a quiet country road.

My ‘office’ was currently alongside Highway 49, several miles south of Coloma, a quaint town that is home to the oldest operating post office in the state of California and a blacksmith that officially closed in 1903 but was now open and staffed by volunteers skilled in the forgotten trade. It also happens to be where James Marshall discovered the very nuggets that would spark the Gold Rush at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, making it a slightly pertinent pin on our map.

Oakley product manager Tony Zentil had flown into Sacramento the night before to join us.

Our day began plus one with a stop at Karma Coffee in Old Town Grass Valley along a stretch of the 49 en route to Auburn. Classic cars and primered pickups were replaced by hybrids and minivans; barns and saloons gave way to suburbs and strip malls. As the riders took a short detour along the less-traveled Auburn Road, I stayed the course along what was at this point nothing short of an expressway. But all this modernity meant plenty of opportunity to refill the gas tank and water jugs. We soon crossed paths again just in time for me to provide the floor pump for the first flat of the trip. From there it was a mostly flat burn through Auburn and under Interstate 80 before the day’s first screaming descent to an arched bridge spanning the American River. But what comes down, must go up — at least in this instance.

The biggest climb of the day waited just across the expanse, but we had once again left the modern world behind. Classic cars in showroom condition cruised beneath sifting rays of sun and golden leaves that fell like snow when the breeze whispered through the Aspen. Soon I stumbled upon Coloma and Merv the blacksmith. He insisted that his wagon wheels wouldn’t work on bikes and asserted that carbon fiber is for sissies, but was very proud of a puzzle he had made from two horse shoes, a solid ring and several links of chain — each piece molded by his own wood-handled hammer.

Volunteer blacksmith Merv Young says carbon fiber is for sissies. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Volunteer blacksmith Merv Young says carbon fiber is for sissies. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

With no cell signal in Coloma, I continued several miles beyond the historic hamlet and set up my ‘office’ atop a crest where my phone had reception and waited for the riders to catch up. Nearly the entire first day, service was unavailable, which meant I had to stay close. Pockets of connectivity today were a welcome respite.

A short time later we rolled into Placerville, a town that throughout history counted monikers such as ‘Hangtown’ and ‘Blood and Guts’ to its credit. The gallows still stand on Main Street. Adding to the intrigue, our hotel, the Historic Cary House, was supposedly haunted. Just up the street at dusk, Tony and I watched as hundreds of bats emerged from a crack in the mortar between two buildings and, screeching, disappeared into the fading twilight.

After dinner, we prowled the old Cary House in search of supernatural activity. A red, neon ‘HOTEL’ sign buzzed atop the hulking brick square. Its antique woodwork, musty furniture, oil paintings and a seemingly out-of-place planter lined with black dahlias below an eerie tapestry were a stark contrast to the austere Best Western the night before. Scott attempted to capture ‘orbs’ with the camera of his iPhone. We laughed, but exchanged glances, anxious at the prospect of trying to sleep.

To be continued…

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