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GoF West 2009

June 22-26, 2009, Squaw Valley, California

Page Three of Six

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Day Five

Since GoF West was in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we were really looking forward to the rally.  This year’s event was not terribly long but it traveled up Donner Pass, a place of splendid natural beauty.  It also has a rich history ranging from Native American use to early explorers, wagon trails, early automobiles and trains.  The pass is named after the Donner Party who became stranded in a Winter storm and lost half of their numbers in a gruesome tale that I won’t bother telling here.

Driving along and searching for clues to answer the rally quiz, it was easy to become distracted by the views and history.  We eventually got through it all but it had been far too short a day so we decided to do a little exploring.  If you’ve read my past trip reports then you probably know what that means.  The rally officially ended at a scenic overlook on what used to be US Highway 40.  It is now called Donner Pass Road, as Interstate 80 to the north has taken over as the primary route of travel.

Sitting at the overlook, we noticed some strange-looking tunnels running along the side of the mountains to the south.  Then we spotted some tiny things moving along a trail leading to it, and realized it was people walking.  Then we saw what appeared to be a utility truck near the summit.  Ok, this is far too enticing and a closer look is needed!  With a bit of research, I discovered that the tunnels were part of the original Trans-Sierra Railway which had since been abandoned for a new route.  Abandoned railroad tunnels in the high Sierra?  Accessible to a maintenance truck?  Here we go!

Our first problem was locating the tunnels.  No one we spoke to knew anything about them, so we drove up and over the summit of Donner Pass, looking for anything that might give us a clue about how to find them.  We peered down dirt paths, read every historical marker, lurked around every building, but we found nothing. At this point we decided to take a break and continue exploring the west side of the pass.  Eventually we found a side road that took us to a small lake, well hidden from the main road.  We drove for miles, exploring the little side roads and enjoying the views until deciding to move on.

Heading back up the pass, we once again found no sign of the old railway so we drove over the mountain and back to the overlook where we first saw it, planning to give up.  To no surprise, we couldn’t take the mystery anymore and decided to continue our search.  Back and forth we went over the pass three more times and still we were empty-handed.  Finally, we met a maintenance engineer at a ski lift who knew what we were looking for, and claimed to know how to get there.  His directions were pretty vague and complex but it was the best information we had so far.

We followed what we thought was the correct dirt road, only to find ourselves faced with a very rough path and a steep drop-off.  We could easily get down the hill, and the path ahead looked promising but even our above-average sense of adventure (also read stupidity) didn’t encourage us to try it.  Once down, there would be no getting back up again.  We turned around to seek another route, and it’s a good thing we did.  That was not the right way.  After searching by both car and foot, we finally stumbled across the right path and found the first tunnel!  It was hidden by the overpass of a side road but once we came around the corner it was beautiful!

We passed through the summit tunnel, which was full of gravel and pools of water, and were rewarded with a grand view of the surrounding mountains, Donner Lake and old highway 40.  It was then we discovered that there was more history under our feet, literally, than we realized.  Not only were we parked atop the China Wall (search China Wall of the Sierra), but just below us was the old Lincoln Highway.  This was the original route used by westward-bound American settlers.  First used in 1844, it was gradually improved for horse-drawn wagon use and in 1913 it was incorporated into the Lincoln Highway which was the first transcontinental automobile route in the United States.  It was abandoned in 1926 when Route 40 was constructed nearby, but the old Lincoln Highway is still in amazing condition with its rock supporting walls and dirt track.  In places where the mountain was solid rock, cars and wagons would drive over and along the huge slabs of granite until finding another dirt section.  Talk about primitive!  In the 1920’s, a hotel owner down the mountain rode up here and painted a huge advertisement for his hotel on one of these slabs.  It is still partly visible to this day.

The next tunnel appeared to be at least a mile long.  We considered turning around here but that thought was short-lived.  Back into the TC and onward!  It was very dark, and the sound of the engine reverberated through the tunnel like some sort of mythical beast.

This tunnel was a mixture of natural rock, blasted away with nothing but black powder, and concrete snow shed.  You could still see evidence of the blasting if you looked carefully with a flashlight.  It was slow going as we navigated rocks, pools of water of unknown depth and water coming in from the roof and walls, occasionally hitting us on our heads.  Every now and then we would pass an air vent in the side of the tunnel which would light a small section of the tunnel for us and give an amazing view.

Once out the other side, it was open travel for a while on the old railroad bed.  It was really rocky at times, and occasionally the car felt like it was going to vibrate apart!  I tried to find a speed that would minimize the vibration but there wasn’t one.

We entered yet another tunnel with a strange, unworldly feeling.  The walls and ceiling were lined in old concrete, stained and leaking water, and had a partial octagon shape.  I referred to it as “Moria”, which will only make sense if you’ve seen the movie.  Outside again and well over half an hour of driving in first gear, vibrating to pieces, we decided we would continue on for as long as it took to find where the old tracks met the new ones.  We were miles from anything resembling civilization and there was no phone service here.  No matter, we had a granola bar to survive on in case we had to walk out of the mountains!

Eventually we passed over a snow shed at the entrance of the new railway tunnel, and minutes later merged with the new tracks.  I wanted to wait for a train to come by for a photo but as always, we were running short on time to make it to the auction dinner.  Heading back up the canyon, I pushed it into second gear along most of the open sections and we eventually made it back out again.

The traditional auction dinner ended the night after much laughter and sly sales pitches.

On to Page Four…