Thursday, June 27, 2013

On the Bizz

An unpaved trail in the middle of a long unsupported ride.

It was in Alturas during dinner at El Agave Azul that I first heard this part of the plan. It sounded like folly. Who cares about avoiding Highway 36? It reminded me of a solo tour one November when, trying to stay off Highway 101 in Mendocino County, it turned into a massive project involving stream crossings, stray dogs, hills, slow progress, and no help of any kind for miles. When the dirt road finally dumped me back onto the highway I felt only relief.

Today, with heat reflecting off the pavement of Main Street in Susanville, cars and trucks filling the air with noise and exhaust, things are looking a bit different. A dirt alternate seems like the best idea anyone ever had.

It would be perfect, if we could just find the entrance to the trail....  Because there are two of us we divvy up tasks and keep on trying. Ask the locals (who are incredibly nice, by the way). Scan the landscape for an old railroad bed. Maybe, between North Railroad Ave. and South Railroad Ave? Use the 3G signal to bring up maps on smartphones.

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Oh it's just a gravel rail bed. Wow. Carefully we chunk over the metal rails still in place, using a wooden deck laid down for this purpose. My doubts come back. But the legs have momentum and keep spinning around. Until the mad fishtailing begins, I'm in.

The Bizz Johnson Trail follows the Susan River through a canyon. We've found the beautiful, cool part of Susanville! The surface is unpaved but graded and maintained. The gravel is packed and not deep. Very rideable.

Heading across several bridges we hear only rushing water and the happy squeals of bathers from below. It might be ten degrees cooler here. A reminder that heat radiates off asphalt and buildings but is absorbed by trees and soil. Even the modest amount of water in the river creates a buffer of cool air above it.

Better yet, a tunnel!


The year "1916" is stenciled into concrete at the top of the arch. Inside, the air is sweet and cool. You want to breathe, it feels that good. Bill stops and gets a flashlight out of his bag. He wants a closer look at the huge wooden beams that support the tunnel.

They're thick and dark, almost hard to see. All one piece. Definitely old growth. After all, the Fernley and Lassen railway hauled lumber out of the Sierras. In 1956 it stopped, probably when they ran out of trees to cut and haul. The right-of-way lay quiet until the trail was finished thirty years later.

These old railroad right-of-ways are hidden gems. Often they're the best route for through travelers like us. Is it because the railroads had their choice of routes? Or is it the gentle grade, lack of car traffic, close proximity of nature?

A sturdy red Department of Corrections truck with dark windows pulls out of a wide spot. Black, twisted metal cages protect the windows from breakage. Slowly and deliberately it trundles across a wooden bridge. It's a prison work crew, maintaining the trail.

Since the surface is less regular then pavement, my head is down most of the time, looking for obstacles and deeper patches of sand. Bill calls out for me to look around. The canyon reveals a beautiful lava formation, like a smaller version of Devil's Postpile. The rocks are rectangular chunks of dark basalt, some blasted away by the railroad crew.


After about 8 miles of feeling human we get back on Highway 36 to climb Fredonyer Pass. Our first Sierra pass. It's not the loveliest experience: hot, long, shared with semis. The right of way continues around the hill, 22 miles more, but that route is longer and we need to reach Quincy tonight. This morning Quincy seemed so close but it's not - it's another 75 miles of unknown terrain after Susanville.

It would have been the right thing to do, continue on the trail and turn ourselves into gluttons for a good thing. Maybe there will be a next time.



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