James Corless is the northern California campaign manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project. STPP works to promote better transportation and land-use planning, walkable communities, public transportation, and citizen involvement in decision-making.

Sunday, 18 Jul 1999

TRUCKEE, Calif.

For countless immigrants, it’s been reinvented time and again as the ultimate promised land. One writer calls it “America squared … the place you go to find more America than you ever thought possible.” A travel guide from the turn of the century blessed it as “a sun drenched garden spot cooled by gentle zephyrs from the sea.” Half a century earlier, similar sentiments and rumors of wealth from the earth caused the Chinese to refer to this land at the other end of the ocean as “Golden Mountain.”

Call it what you will, California is a remarkable place, equally celebrated and misunderstood, with a reputation and mythology that continue to seduce waves of newcomers. And coming they are. The nation’s most populous state is expected to add an additional 30 million people — doubling its size — in the next 40 years. This fact alone seems to influence all thoughts, all discussion about what we’re doing and where we’re going. California appears to live in the future, something that may explain why history here so often seems like a footnote in four-point font.

I introduce my newly adopted state as background music for this week’s diary. For the next few days, I’ve decided to leave the tired, old trendiness of San Francisco behind, trading in the fog, cappuccino, and sideburns for the pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, the vastness of the Central Valley, the farm towns of the Inland Empire. Lucky for you, you’re not going to be subjected to the drudgery of my daily toils for the nonprofit group that employs me, an organization known as the Surface Transportation Policy Project. But you can still rest assured that, while I am leaving my legislative advocacy and media campaigns behind for the week, you’ll nonetheless be receiving your fair share of transportation and growth talk — that’s ’cause I’m pretty much obsessed with the topics. And there are indeed a few work-related people and places I’ll be visiting to fill you in on what I do as I navigate the backroads with my trusty pickup and my loyal companion, the dog I affectionately call “Charlie.” (Okay, alright, I’m in a Honda Civic and my allergies make pets an impossibility, besides the fact that it would defy every law of “road cool” to have a canine cooped up in a hatchback. Steinbeck would kill me.)

This opening salvo is coming to you from the laptop precariously perched on my hotel room bed in downtown Truckee. We’re in what they call the High Sierras, where the California Trail broke south from the Oregon Trail, and emigrants flooded through from the Great Basin in search of gold. There’s many a great travel story to tell about Truckee, a town that’s often associated with the tragedy that befell the Illinois Donner party just west of here as a shortcut suggested by one of the very first (and apparently overpriced) tourist guides to the region proved to be the ultimate wrong turn (I’ll bet it was Mr. Donner’s fault for refusing to ask for directions). The first transcontinental railroad blasted its way through here in 1860s with the help of several thousand Chinese laborers. This hotel still provides earplugs to block out the steady rumble of nocturnal freight trains and the occasional Amtrak rushing to make up lost time on its way to Chicago. By the 1930s, the town was characterized as “a railroad and stockraising supply center that lacks even a sprig of green.” This is part of the description in a fascinating guide published by the Works Progress Administration toward the end of the depression. Seems they employed out-of-work artists and writers to chronicle life in the Golden State, and what an account it is. Who said big government couldn’t get down with the people? Sixty years ago they promised that “Saturday nights the cheap saloons and gambling halls overflow with lumberjacks, cow-punchers, and shepherds.” Well, the vegetation’s grown back and the cowboys — unless you count the kids drinking Miller across the street in the back of their Chevy Suburban — have all but faded away.

The transportation mode du jour is of course the Interstate. Truckee’s thriving main street — once synonymous with the old U.S. 40 that truly linked every town between San Francisco and Baltimore — has now been relegated to an exit off Interstate 80 that one can take to join the 4×4’s crowding the shores of Lake Tahoe. I’m hearing this phenomenon in inverse, as Sunday afternoon slips into evening and the highway whines louder under the strain of a thousand weekenders rushing home to Sacramento and San Francisco. But not me. South tomorrow, on to Emerald Bay, Monitor Pass, Markleeville, Lee Vining, and Mono Lake. On to what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the good country … the land of our future.” Care to join?