When I was a kid, I remember my father taking my brother and I to see one of the big tourist sites of the Sierra Nevada town of Truckee: the famed Rocking Stone. If you visit Truckee’s Rocking Stone today, you are most likely to have the stone to yourself (sharing it with the local pigeons). The Rocking Stone was a much bigger attraction when it actually rocked. The once perfectly balanced rock stopped rocking, according to the E Clampus Vitus plaque: “The perfectly balanced stone, until recently would rock at the touch of a finger.” The plaque was dedicated on July 15, 1967! It’s hard to tell when “recently” really was.
The 17 ton Rocking Stone sits atop a much larger stone is believed to be a glacial erratic. Once the glacier retreated, the stone was left perfectly balanced, until recently.
I have always loved such historical roadside oddities; Especially when they are often times so underwhelming. The Rocking Stone proclaims that something once, very amazing, happened here. (Please use your imagination).
An early entrepreneur, C.F. McGlashan, built a tower around the rock in 1865. Also displayed with the stone were some artifacts from the Donner Party, and McGlashan’s own butterfly collection. Oh to have a time machine! This is site was also an overnight stop for the Olympic Torch during the winter games in 1960.
McGlashan’s nearby house and 1895 pavilion have since burned down.
On Thursday morning, about 10:30 AM, I found myself on the platform of Roseville. I was waiting for the eastbound California Zephyr number 6. I planned to chase her all the way over Donner Pass down into Truckee, the last Zephyr stop in California. The journey was roughly 84 miles.
In this stretch, the California Zephyr stops at three locations: Roseville, Colfax, and Truckee. All three of these towns were created by the Transcontinental Railroad and they because important servicing sections for the Central Pacific and later Southern Pacific Railroads. Roseville is still an important division point where Union Pacific (the current owners) keep the snow removal fleet, including the rotary plowers, to keep Donner Pass open during periods of snowfall.
It shouldn’t be to hard to keep up with the Zephyr, because it’s average speed is 55 mph and it rarely reaches that as she climbs the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The speed limit on Highway 80, the interstate that parallels much of the railroad, has a speed limit of 65 mph.
The eastbound number 6 pulled into Roseville on time. The train started it’s journey at 9:10 AM at Emeryville. I was excited to see that on point was an old “friend”, the General Electric P42DC locomotive, number 74. This was the locomotive that brought me from Denver, Colorado to Colfax, California, a few weeks ago. I had gotten to know her when I sketched her profile during a “fresh-air” smoking stop in Reno, Nevada. Her road number was also the year that my younger brother was born, 1974.
The number 6 filled the long platform at Roseville and I did a quick sketch of the eight car consist (featured sketch). The Zephyr was stopped at Roseville for about six minutes, which was enough time to capture the scene. With a quick retort from 74’s horn, the Zephyr started out of Roseville to slowly begin her assent of the Sierra Nevadas. I headed off to my car. The chase was on!
I made it to the Zephyr’s next scheduled stop, Colfax, with time to spare. I had time to have a quick bite to eat. I wanted to photograph the train from a different angle so I chose the bridge that takes Highway 174 over the two mainline tracks, just north of the historic Colfax passenger depot.
From the bridge I could see the “downtown” and look south down the mainline. Just north of the platform is a grade crossing where I detrained, two weeks before and my mother hugged me tight in the middle of Grass Valley Street, the Zephyr blocking off auto traffic.
My next encounter with Number 74 was at Yuba Pass, just off Highway 80. At this point I am really up in the Sierras. While the sky was clear I had to don a jacket as I waited for the California Zephyr to catch up to my location at Yuba Pass.
To the south of my location, the rails curved around a bend and to my north, the line disappears into tunnel number 35, the location of the stranding of the City of San Francisco in January 1952. Now was the time of the waiting game, I had no way to gauge when the Zephyr would pass by.
I then heard a far off locomotive horn. It was difficult to locate and place the location of the train. Less than two minutes later I could hear the rumble of a diesel locomotive, climbing up the line. The Zephyr was approaching.
What appeared around the curve was not the Zephyr but a Union Pacific freight train with a consist of hopper cars. The train was headed up by three GE locomotives.
Freight trains now rule the rails in the United States with AMTRAK passenger service following in their wake. Freight certainly pays the bills and moving commerce across the the county has the right of rail, meaning that passenger service such as the California Zephyr are frequently behind schedule. On my journey on train number 6, we where two hours late when we finally arrived at Denver’s Union Station. The cause, we were behind Union Pacific freight trains in Nevada and Utah.
About 25 minutes later, train number 6 followed the UP freight heading east toward Donner Pass. I got and horn toot and a wave from the engineer!
I headed back to my car and returned to Highway 80 as both train and car climbed up towards Donner Pass. In about 20 minutes I pulled off the Highway at Historic Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road). On this road I passed the South Bay Ski Club’s lodge, where my parents met. I stopped at the grade crossing at Soda Springs. In front of me was the Soda Springs ski resort and further to the southeast is the resort Sugar Bowl, one of my favorite ski mountains in the Tahoe area. Both resorts where closed for the season.
Stopped before the grade crossing was the freight train with the hopper consist waiting on mainline track 1. UP Number 8095 sounded her horn, triggering the crossing arms to lower. Any motorist wanting to cross the tracks would now have to wait a while for the freight to pass.
About 20 minutes later the Zephyr passed through the grade crossing, I got another wave from the engineer. At this point I think he was starting to recognize this Zephyr stalker!
I headed back to Highway 80 and climbed up and over Donner Summit and started my decent to Truckee. I looked over across Donner Lake to the far mountainside and I could see I was level with the UP freight. If I could beat it to Truckee I would be able to see both trains pass through Truckee. One would pass through Truckee while the other would stop to drop off and pick up passengers.
I had time to find a parking spot on Truckee’s main street, Donner Pass Road, pay for parking, and cross the three sets of tracks to position myself for the best light for photos. About 15 minutes after my wait, the Union Pacific freight blazed through Truckee.
Next the California Zephyr arrived. It stopped for a few minutes and with a short blast from the horn, the engineer released the brakes and throttled up the locomotive. With a last wave and a thumbs-up from the engineer, the Zephyr headed out of Truckee and California.
My return journey was a beautiful but a somber one.
I spent much of my time in my roomette with short trips to the dining and observation car.
Taking the train back gave me the chance to reflect on the almost 47 years of my brother’s life. I lost myself in the landscapes and continued to sketch during our brief “Sketch Breaks”. Sketching provided the focus and “in the moment” experience my soul needed. Sketcher therapy I suppose.
One other activity that kept my mind busy was train birding. I created a list of all the birds seen from the train, without binoculars. I tallied 43 species as well as six mammals including elk and bighorn sheep. A highlight was having an adult bald eagle keeping pace with the Zephyr while we followed the Colorado River in Utah.
In Reno, the Zephyr pauses for a little longer than most stops because there is a crew change. This is when the engineer is replaced by a fresh one. During this time I sketched the profile of the locomotive on point, a General Electric P42DC, built in April of 1997. In an uncanny instance of coincidence, the locomotive number is 74, my brother was born in 1974. This seems to be the perfect locomotive to lead me back home to my mother.
In Truckee, I called my mom to let her know that California Zephyr Number 5 was running on time. This was going to be the first time I had seen my mom since learning if my brother’s passing. I suppose that I could have booked a last minute fight from the Mile High City to be there much sooner but the pace, the landscape, and the rocking lullaby of the Zephyr seemed to be the right choice for taking me back to California.
At this point I was on the route of the first Transcontinental Railroad. And I would need the strength of those who built it to face the reality, once I stepped off the Zephyr at one of the Central Pacific’s rail camps that was later renamed Colfax.
The anticipation mounted as we ascended down the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, each mile bringing me closer to my mother.
In past train journeys, one of my favorites scenes is when a train pulls into a station and looking out the window, I see someone alight from the train, search the platform for that familiar face, and then the embrace. I don’t always know the relationship contained in that embrace but it is a story on that reunion of love, in the the stage of the train depot.
What would the observer on the second story of the Superlunar have thought of the man departing the train and embracing someone, clearly his mother, in the middle of the street in Colfax?
In Truckee, near the Pioneer Monument on the east shore of Donner Lake, is a series of ponds that are a hidden birding gem of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
It was such a hidden gem that it took a few attempts just to find access to the ponds. In the end we parked in a Taco Bell parking lot and bushwhacked, forded two creeks (Donner and Cold Creeks), and scrambled up a rocky dyke to finally reach the first pond. A pond I named Beaver Pond because there were many beaver-felled trees on the shore.
We headed up between Beaver Pond and Middle Pond (again these are my own names). The top bird on our wishlist for this birding hotspot was North America’s smallest breeding bird: calliope hummingbird. This can be a tricky bird because of it’s size and fleeting flight.
On Middle Pond, there was a female common merganser and her cadre of ducklings. Their breeding season at elevation is later from the sea level mergansers of the San Lorenzo River.
We weaved through the ponds of Blackbirds Ponds, adding more birds to our checklist. We wandered into a flowery meadow between two ponds. This seemed the best habitat for our main target bird, calliope hummingbird. Three calliopes had been reported a few days before. The meadow was full of low flying swallows, but no sign of North America’s smallest bird.
We chased a calling Cassin’s vireo in the willows when Grasshopper spotted on of North America’s largest flying birds: American white pelican. This pelican has a wingspan that is slightly smaller than our largest flying bird, the California Condor.
The pelican came in to land on Pipe Pond. We observed this beautiful bird and it’s mirrored twin and then headed back towards the Taco Bell parking lot.
One the way back, we passed some locals who where taking a walk with their pooch. They told us about a path that led to some other ponds to the south that we had not seen yet where, according to the locals, a few more white pelicans spent the summer.
We thanked them and headed south, toward the main line that climbed up towards Donner Pass. That’s when Grasshopper spotted a hummingbird on a snag! When I turned to look, the bird was gone. We waited and the bird returned to the perch. After some great looks and a few photos, we had checked off the smallest hummingbird in the United States, the calliope hummingbird.
The Donner Party is associated with the lake that now bears the name of the doomed pioneer group: Donner Lake. Family groups from the Donner Party camped for the winter on the eastern shore of what was then called Truckee Lake.
The Donner family broke an axle and George Donner injured his hand while trying to make repairs on the family wagon and were forced to camp six miles away from Truckee Lake at Alder Creek.
No family suffered more than the Donner family. Out of the 16 members of the families of brothers George and Jacob Donner, only eight survived. Their family name is now immortalized in a lake (Donner Lake), a pass (Donner Pass), a state Park (the Donner Memorial State Park) and perhaps most ironically, their former campsite at Alder Creek is now named the Donner Camp Picnic Area.
If the Donner Party are hosting a picnic, I’ll take a raincheck!
This picnic area, by the side of Highway 89, was our first birding destination; a place for Grasshopper Sparrow to pick up some Sierra Nevadian lifers.
We arrived at 6:15 AM, the early birders gets the birds. We were the only ones in the parking lot and at this time in the morning, birds are the most vocal.
We started out on the trail with a wishlist of birds for this site: Cassin’s finch, white-headed woodpecker, calliope hummingbird, Brewer’s, chipping, and Vesper’s sparrow, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain bluebird, Wilson’s snipe, house wren, and green-tailed towhee.
Within the first hundred yards of the walk we heard a singing bird from a pine about 30 feet up. Grasshopper identified it as one of our target birds, the dapper green-tailed towhee!
After getting stunning looks at the towhee in great morning light, we headed down the trail and 20 yards later we checked another bird off the wishlist: a very vocal house wren.
Near the campsite of the Donner family, who camped about 15 feet above the meadow because of the heavy snowfall in the late fall of 1846, we saw other singing green-tailed towhees. The calls of mountain chickadee and western wood-pewee seemed to be the soundtrack of this site.
Further along the trail we had one of the highlights of the day, a stunning male mountain bluebird. We headed back towards the parking lot and we crossed a boardwalk over Alder Creek and we flushed a Wilson’s snipe. Another bird checked off our wishlist!
We headed north on Highway 89 and I wanted to find a very iconic mountain stream bird, the American Dipper and I knew that if we stopped at any stream running under the highway, we might have a chance to get dipper, with a little leg work of course. The first stream course that we crossed was Prosser Creek.
We parked in the pullout and headed to the creek. This looked like good habitat for American dipper. We scanned the rocks and water both upstream and down, no dipper. After we crossed under the Highway 89 bridge we encountered two very vocal spotted sandpipers. They came within five feet of our feet and acted as out “tour guides”. I suspect we were very near their nest, which is built on the ground in a depression, and were leading us away from their precious eggs.
What they really did was lead us upstream to an American dipper that was bobbing on the shore. Grasshopper got some good looks and then the dipper flew upstream.
Well we weren’t satisfied with just one look at a dipper so we headed north along Highway 89 and our next stop was the bridge over the Little Truckee River. We climbing under the bridge and on the other side was a cliff swallow nesting colony. The swallows exploded into the air!
Downstream was a massive osprey nest with a osprey perched above. There may be young in the nest but it was hard to tell from our far away vantage point.
We continued to the end of Highway 89 at its junction with historic Highway 49 at the small town of Sierraville. We turned right and headed a short distance down Highway 49, where on a fence post, we had an incredible view of a bird we had only got a fleeting glimpse of before: Wilson’s snipe.