Day 1: Zephyr Cove, Nevada, to Meyers, California
miles. 22 minutes by car; 6 hours by wagon
The road I traveled was lined with the bodies of dead pioneers. Among the 300,000 mostly luckless treasure seekers, they were the most unlucky, casualties of their own dreams. In 1849 they’d lit out for California, the great prize of the Mexican-American war, after President James K. Polk confirmed that gold was plentiful. His State of the Union speech launched thousands of wagons, the greatest mass migration in American history, and for one week in early summer, I followed their path—at three miles per hour.
The assignment was as exceptional, fanciful, and unsound as my final destination: San Francisco. My beloved city has always attracted risk takers, misfits, dreamers, and entrepreneurs, but the gears in Northern California’s boom-and-bust culture have stalled. Diversity-minded countercultures working toward meaningful change have literally lost ground to a capital-driven tech industry and its outrageous claims about saving the world.
I don’t know what it’s like to see San Francisco as a city making good on the promise of the New World, but I was desperate to find out. Playing at this, like William Faulkner and Shelby Foote’s rumored battlefield visits at Shiloh (fueled by “walking whiskey”), wouldn’t be enough. I could not proceed as a detached or bemused observer. I had to shed my thoroughly cultivated adult cynicism and throw myself into this masquerade with the sincerity of a child. I needed to believe in the dream.
I’m not the only one. This was the sixty-sixth time the Highway 50 Association had led a train of Conestoga wagons, stagecoaches, and horseback riders down “Roaring Road,” one of the major land routes to Gold Country—from Zephyr Cove, Nevada, to Placerville, California—retracing the treasure seekers’ route.
“They took my grandma,” Barbara Keehn Cook exclaimed. Now in her seventies, she recalled traveling this very road as a child with her grandparents before Highway 50 was paved over. Back then, during a staged attack, men with painted faces surrounded their wagon on horseback, spiriting women away.
Barbara’s story was Wild West mythmaking in action, kept alive from one generation to the next. Before the Gold Rush began in earnest, relations between California’s Native American tribes and migrants, though tense, were rarely violent. The goal was trade, but stories of economic transactions, many of which included ill-prepared pioneers desperate for food, paled in comparison to tall tales of barbarism, guerrilla warfare, wretched captivity, and wicked death. At the time, this lore fueled knee-jerk reactions from pioneers, making them far more dangerous to Native Americans than the other way around. Death was a fact of life on the road to riches, but accidents, starvation, infections, and diseases like cholera, smallpox, dysentery, and pneumonia were usually the culprits.
Barbara and I were facing each other, shifting uncomfortably on the wooden benches that ran the length of the wagon. She put on a one-woman show as we crept past hotels, resorts, and vacation homes along Lake Tahoe.
Over the next week, I would get to know the hundred or so members of this motley crew, some of whom were day riders, but my trip would be defined by about a dozen pioneers. On that first day, the Keehns took to calling me their “surprise little sister.” They treated me like family, as did the unofficial organizer, Tracie Bettencourt, as well as Merle Rouleau, who gave me a small pouch filled with pebbles she spray-painted gold. I started out in the lead hitch with the rakish Jeff Shinn, but Tracie soon moved me to Jerry Myers’s smaller wagon. I spent two days with Davey “Doc” Wiser, a retired train conductor of local fame, and another two with David Cantrell, who bore a striking resemblance to our nineteenth president, Rutherford B. Hayes. Our twelve wagons, each flanked by at least two riders on horses and mules, traveled under the protection of three California Highway Patrol cars. Drivers pulled over for a better view. People emerged from businesses and homes for halloos, their faces blocked by smartphones pointed in our direction. One man howled, “I hope you make it!”
We waved and smiled in period dress. Teamsters, who spent their days on ranches, preferred Western wear, but there was little uniformity. Barbara’s waist was cinched by a red bustier, and her legs were draped in matching pantaloons. Charlene Keehn, her youngest sister, wore a brown suede skirt and cowboy boots, the reenactment footwear of choice. Chris Wissenback, the middle sister, was sheathed in an impressive blue-flowered calico dress, checkered apron, and matching hat, sewn by her daughter. Their only brother, Michael Keehn, was a retired fire inspector dressed as an 1840s fireman. His wife, Tess, wore her grandmother’s old square-dancing dress. I did my best How the West Was Won impression in a long, gray prairie skirt and yellow-checked blouse, which, I was told by a stranger in a public restroom, made me look like a Mormon.
When Horace Greeley, the editor of the New-York Tribune, famously said, “Go west, young man!” he wasn’t talking to a woman traveling alone in her early thirties. Men had outnumbered women 50 to 1 in San Francisco. When part of a lady’s hat was discovered in a mineral region that would become Auburn, someone placed it atop a five-foot-tall stick around which a flannel blanket was molded into a female-ish form. Hundreds of men danced around it for two days.
I understood what Luzena Stanley Wilson, a Gold Rush pioneer, meant when she wrote that men stared at her “as a strange creature.” By the time we arrived at Amacker Ranch—which wasn’t a campground, as I’d been expecting, but rather a horse farm that allowed the wagon train to camp on the property—I’d acquired my own peanut gallery. Three men, ranging in age from 60 to 80, sat in folding chairs, drinking beers and supplying commentary about a city gal who claimed she didn’t need help pitching her tent. When I finished to applause, I smugly offered to help them, which was when I learned I would be the only one camping.
I was starting to suspect that my interpretation of reenacting wasn’t shared by the group. They seemed indifferent to the circumstances they were immersing themselves in, as if it would only escalate the arduous journey. Instead, they slept in horse trailers, trucks, and campers they owned or rented for the occasion, and ostensibly bypassed historical research.
My audience predicted a midnight retreat to my car, but I had been led to believe I didn’t need to bring one. When the wind threatened to blow my tent in every direction, a sweet dog tied to a tree outside pressed her nose against the nylon entry. I fell asleep spooning her, but an hour later, she wanted out. I spent the rest of the night awake and shivering.
Day 2: Amacker Ranch to Tamarack Pines Cutoff
Distance: 10 miles. 13 minutes by car; 7 hours by wagon
Decades ago, Merle’s mother didn’t want to talk about it, but today at breakfast, Merle, now in her eighties, chatted openly. As a young girl, her mother had been mercilessly teased at school about her dark features, an indicator of her Cherokee blood, but fair-skinned Merle was proud of it. For her birthday, her husband sent a DNA sample to a lab. “When the results came back, I was everything but Cherokee,” she said, a small woman in a pressed calico dress with a head full of tightly curled gray hair. “I was so disappointed.”
In Confederates in the Attic, historian Tony Horwitz meets many reenactors—or “living historians,” as they prefer to be called—with personal ties to the Civil War, whether it be a familial connection or a perverse passion for one of the most dreadful episodes in American history. I’d expected to find a kind of Wild West version of that, and I was decidedly wrong. Here on the Gold Rush wagon train, it isn’t about ancestry or stepping back in time. That’s about as Californian as the Civil War is Southern. We aren’t rooted to the land or tradition in the same way, and so it’s fitting our reenactors aren’t rooted to it, either.
Jeff, the tall, strong cowboy who drove eight horses toward the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School today, often says it’s “for the children.” His daughter Riley was the child he’d been specifically doing it for, just as his mother, whom he described as a “wild woman,” once did it for him. The Shinn family seems to have made themselves into pioneer ancestors for future generations, and that means Riley gets to skip a week of school and spend most days napping on a wagon, cuddling with her father, and eating licorice out of a Costco-sized plastic container. She was one of his three daughters, and, by all appearances, this man with a handlebar mustache was pursuing a fourth. Today, he began an unrelenting public courtship consisting solely of catcalling. I was the dismissive target.
When we arrived at the school, we saw children from kindergartners to fifth graders fidgeting in a large, wide circle. We were given no script to recite or handouts to offer the classes as they passed. We did what we’d been doing all day, what we’d do every day. We waved. We smiled. We went to and from the ramshackle but sanitary “potty wagon” we traveled with. And then we pushed forward, very, very slowly.
At lunch, I moved to Jerry’s wagon. Jerry’s not doing it for the children. He’s here for the money, paid to drive, as well as loan several horses. This is just one of the treks he makes every year, including a Pony Express run.
“This here is an educated woman,” he called out to Jeff, who found my reassignment unjust. “You wouldn’t know what to do with her!”
Jerry does. For the next three hours, our conversation flowed over the sound of battering hooves and groaning wheels on pavement while his wife, Terry, rode around us. Her sweet mule, Rosie, was devoted to Jerry’s horses and spent most of the day trying to get her short, thick head as close to them as possible. And yet she responded with speedy reverence to Terry’s directions, even when they led her away from her darlings. I could have watched Rosie grapple with this impassioned struggle all day.
Jerry won his wife in a town auction, he told me loud enough for Terry to hear as she rode around our wagon, smiling mischievously under a large hat. They acted like newlyweds, but they’re around five years into marriage, and now retired. In one breath, he told me his daughter manages a pet store and had a baby, and Terry’s daughter is a lesbian who adopted a baby with her partner. “You probably see a lot of that kind of thing in San Francisco,” he said to me. It doesn’t sit well with him. “I’m trying,” he said, and I believe him. He was madly in love with Terry, and just about anything connected to her.
Our destination, on the other hand, was thoroughly unlovable. What they called a campsite appeared to be no more than an extremely long driveway on the edge of an unincorporated, sparsely populated community 6,913 feet up a mountain. A soufflé of dark clouds hung above, and a foreboding chill swept the ground. Rain was imminent, and there was no shelter. Everyone else would be under cover in 30 minutes. That’s how long it would take most of them to get to Amacker Ranch by shuttle and drive their cars back to Tamarack Pines. I waited with Merle, who watched for her husband’s SUV, a pop-up camper in tow.
When it started to rain, Merle’s eyes welled up. I’ve slept in a flooded tent before, I assured her, and it could be worse. I wasn’t snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas, trying to decide whether to hold out for another day or eat her. I’d been promised salmon for dinner.
Still, word spread quickly. I was offered the back of horse trailers, foldout beds and couches in campers, and the interior beds of trucks. I eventually settled on the front seat of Tracie’s massive truck, seconds before a torrential downpour, and spent the night contorting myself in a series of extremely uncomfortable positions. It was more than fine. There was a fleeting, but restless charm to it that reminded me of Tove Jansson’s Travelling Light, a short- story collection about journey and isolation: “Maybe my passion is nothing special, but at least it’s mine.”
Day 3: Tamarack Pines Cutoff to Kyburz
Distance: 13 miles. 17 minutes by car; 5 hours by wagon
After a fortifying breakfast of scrambled eggs and potatoes, I reported to Doc Wiser’s two-person carriage. My task for the day was to keep a steady supply of pamphlets about the wagon train rolled and secured with rubber bands, ready for Doc to throw to onlookers. “You don’t want to see him mad,” Denise Sloan Smart, his regular passenger, warned me before heading off to a funeral.
Every part of my short-lived reenactment career had been practice for today. I did my best Emily Dickinson in a burgundy calico dress and white shawl, care of Doc himself, and met the pamphlet challenge, but I didn’t look nearly as good riding next to him. Denise was a professional. She’d sewn herself an entire wardrobe full of brocaded dresses made of silk, cotton, and linen to wear at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, where gold was first discovered at Sutter’s Mill.
It’s also the site of one of the greatest personal tragedies in California’s history of easy money. The mill’s foreman tasked his employees with discretion while he made the half-day journey to deliver the good news to his partner, John Sutter, but his men demonstrated about as much self-control as Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Word quickly spread throughout the nation—and then the world—and the federal government discarded its proposed boundary line. The newly acquired state would be drawn to include as much of the Sierra Mountains as possible. California was shaped in part by gilded lust.
Three decades later, Sutter died in a Washington, D.C., hotel, hoping Congress would pass a bill awarding him a $50,000 restitution for the pillaging of his land. The man who kidnapped and enslaved Native Americans—who he sometimes paid in bits of tin that could only be redeemed in the store he owned—believed he’d been cheated.
Doc, now in his seventies, is a retired second-generation train conductor who lives out a Gold Rush dress rehearsal year-round in a tattered, three-piece suit. He shaved his scraggly beard once, for a girlfriend, and won’t make that mistake again. Doc is a local star in Placerville—known as Hangtown to the forty-niners—where he offers free wagon rides and supplements his pension with appearances. Everyone knows his name.
His horse, Beetle Bailey, is getting up there, too. On chilly mornings, Doc massages liniment gel onto his 31-year-old legs and then walks him in circles, hoping the combination will leave him warm. Horses evolved in Europe and Asia and have a relatively easy time in Northern California, but age and miles walked leave Beetle Bailey’s legs cold and stiff. He needs electrolytes too, a common practice on endurance rides, when horses sweat profusely for prolonged periods of time.
“You want to drive Beetle Bailey?” Doc asked after lunch. I did and I didn’t. I’d been feeling a bit like a spectator watching a sport I used to play—on occasion, I rode as a girl—eager to relive that glory. I also felt terrible. These horses were pulling heavy loads up steep hills in inclement weather. I found the sound of their hooves slamming against the pavement unsettling. The teamsters had all named desert and country rides that were preferable while assuring me the horses liked Highway 50. It didn’t always look that way to me, but I never pushed, knowing they wouldn’t let such a loaded observation stand. It suggested suffering, which is a word they associate with animal rights activists.
But I’m a pioneer. I do what needs to be done. “Give me the lines,” I said with swagger, excited to show off the very little knowledge I’ve acquired (they’re only called reins on horseback). Unencumbered, Doc tossed books, as he called the pamphlets, to everyone he saw. He hoarded them in the belief that hand-selling was vital to the wagon train’s future, whereas other members dropped off stacks in retail stores. “Join us next year!” he yelled to unsuspecting passersby. “There’s a party for us in Placerville on Saturday, and I want to see you there!”
In addition to his daytime evangelizing, Doc often asked for a moment during the nightly meeting. Usually, he spoke as an emeritus president of the organization, pointing out problems and past glory, but not tonight. Someone’s wife, a friend of the association, was an injured postal worker who needed our prayers. Hats came off. Heads dropped. We prayed.
And then we drank.
The building adjacent to the motel had long closed, but the owner opened up a makeshift bar for the wagon train every year. Drinks were free. Tips appreciated. Something cold and strong sounded like just the medicine for my body’s many aches and pains. Days spent bouncing up and down on unforgiving wooden benches were taking a toll, and I feared I had a cavity.
“We’re gonna have a date night,” Jeff called out to me. If this were an 1849 saloon, I’d charge him more than the going rate, an ounce of gold, to sit next to me at the bar, but I preferred to imagine him as a miner at a womanless ball, and it was his turn to play lady. I kept the image to myself and cast Jeff a baleful look, to everyone’s delight. As they made their way inside, I lingered by the motel sign: The top welcomes you to Kyburz. The bottom says you’re leaving it.
Day 4: Kyburz to Fresh Pond
Distance: 14 miles. 17 minutes by car; 6 hours by wagon
Protesters! So, at least, went the rumor along the wagon train. A rapid, low-stakes slandering of animal rights activists ensued, as if they’d been tipped off about a rival school’s prank. “Good!” one teamster announced to no one, staring straight ahead. “I haven’t had fun with them in a while!”
I sought distraction in the mountainous terrain, searching for sudden movements from embedded activists. Would they block the road like Greenpeace or, like PETA, create some gruesome tableau by replacing horses with people? I doubted any good would come out of a confrontation, but the prospect was electrifying.
I’d spent much of the day watching the ground shimmer through a haze of heat, certain my journal entry would match the forty-niners’ many two-line entries on the bleak monotony of wagon life. I’d written a summary in my head: Doc napped while I drove Beetle Bailey, which was exciting for about a second. Yesterday’s ride had rubbed my palms raw, and the sun had baked the tops of my hands red. I never want to look at another white or yellow cheese sandwich again.
To my disappointment, we arrived at Fresh Pond without incident, where I encountered yet another layer of pathos. We were planning to spend two nights alongside a gas station, or rather, those of us who weren’t in the know or didn’t live nearby were. The rest promised to return in time for an afternoon of “BBQ, wagon rides, storytelling.”
I turned my back on the parking lot and headed into the woods, determined to find a better place to pitch my tent. The dismal campsites weren’t the problem but rather a symptom of what vexed me. We were a spiritless procession swathed in period dress or, more often than not, Western wear, because at some point early in the wagon train’s 66-year history, it had morphed into a party train, and when that ended, it became a reunion powered by nostalgia. Today, new pioneers walk around confused while old-timers and their descendants wax rhapsodic about the wild days of yore and bemoan dwindling numbers. They’re not really trying to reenact the Gold Rush. They’re reenacting past reenactments.
Clearly in need of something sweet, I patronized the gas station. We’d been instructed to do so out of appreciation for the owner’s hospitality, but my aching tooth took the popsicle as a war cry.
Without a car, there was nothing to be done about it. When Roaring Road was lined with wagons, 2,000 dentists, physicians, and pharmacists with varying credentials served more than 60,000 pioneers in San Francisco. A physician at the time estimated that one out of five died within six months of arrival. “Imagine yourself seated on an old soup box, in what is termed a doctor’s office, here in the mountains,” William H. Brown wrote of such an experience, “and the dentist so called, a very raw-boned Pike countryman with both hands full of the old-fashioned instruments and singing out at the same time, open your mouth as wide as you can, then comes the tug-of-war.”
Like an angel, Tess, Michael’s wife, materialized, and asked if I needed a ride to the train station. A call to my big-city dentist sealed the deal. The Keehns would drop me off at the Amtrak station in Sacramento, where I’d catch the southbound Capitol Corridor for San Francisco.
Day 5: San Francisco to Fresh Pond
Distance: 145 miles. 2 hours by car; 48 hours by wagon
Despite a long shower, steaming latte, and the wonders of modern dentistry, I preferred playing hopeful pioneer to disillusioned San Franciscan. The city has become Silicon Valley’s bedroom community, and now their tech offices are following. That means the city’s income disparity will only grow, its housing will remain the least affordable in the nation, and its inhabitants will continue to look like a monoculture driven by the newly moneyed.
Through the lens of escapism, the wagon train makes sense. Whether we claim to be doing it for the children, tradition, vacation, or pay, we pioneers all share a kind of low-grade discontentment with life. The reenactment isn’t a political statement any more than it’s a history lesson, and that attracts private ambition—just like the actual migration. Most of us grew up studying this era of individualism, heroic feats, and unprecedented opportunity in California classrooms, and it clearly left an indelible mark on our collective memory.
I suspect that’s what motivates Jeff, the catcalling cowboy I found sitting atop the lead hitch when I returned, offering rides to the very few children who’d shown up that day. He looked genuinely surprised when I climbed up on the wagon next to him. Onward, I ordered, and Jeff, in his cowboy getup, drove toward the edge of the gas station’s large parking lot, making as big a loop as possible, the two little girls in back left grinning ear to ear. There was no one waiting for the next ride.
Shortly before dinner, it began to rain. Crowded under the awning, we ate BBQ chicken provided by the gas station’s owners or, in my case, vegetarian lasagna the chefs cooked just for me. The after-dinner meeting, usually rife with passive-aggressive comments and high-level horse talk, was full of appreciation. Various honors were handed out to deserving pioneers, and I was asked to pick a ticket out of an empty licorice container, revealing the new owner of a beautiful quilt. But the night belonged to a blushing Merle. She was named the 2015 Wagon Queen.
Day 6: Fresh Pond to High Hill Ranch
Distance: 11 miles. 13 minutes by car; 5 hours by wagon
By mid-morning, we were due at “Wagons in the Pines” for a pancake breakfast, music, dancing, crafts, and pony rides before heading to High Hill Ranch, where we’d spend our final night. For $25, the public could feast on the much-discussed New York steak, listen to the band Hickory Wind, and compete in a cowboy poetry contest.
It was getting harder and harder to watch such high hopes dashed by poor attendance. I was elated to see there were a little under a hundred people waving, holding signs and pitchers of lemonade as we inched toward Pollock Pines. The parking lot held about a dozen booths, including a table selling Highway 50 gear, where Merle bought me a shirt. Most people were far more interested in petting and taking pictures with our horses and mules than anything else. Suddenly Doc caught my eye. He was beaming brightly in front of a crowd.
High Hill Ranch was exactly the type of setting I’d imagined we’d be sleeping in the entire trip. The long driveway was flanked by a 70-year-old apple orchard on the left and large picnic grounds shaded by cedar trees on the right. There were signs pointing to an Apple Packing Line, Cider Mill, Pie House, and a fishing pond stocked with trout.
I didn’t get much time to explore before the deluge. It wasn’t heavy enough to make a dent in the state’s crippling drought, but it would effectively ruin the BBQ. I hovered near the Keehns. Most of them were headed to a local motel, and Chris, the middle sister, invited me to sleep in the extra bed in her hotel room. The band packed up, the raffle drawing had a crowd of six, and the cowboy poetry contest was canceled. I’d just finished winding a junior conductor pocket watch Doc had given me when Chris turned off the lights. It was 9:30 p.m.
Day 7: High Hill Ranch to Placerville
Distance: 6 miles. 9 minutes by car; 7 hours by wagon
Before the cry of “Everybody up” sounded, we gathered for a final meeting full of imperatives. We needed to be on time. We needed to smile. We needed to do it for the children.
“We’ve watched one tough little cracker become one of us this week,” Doc announced, using one of the many nicknames he’d given me. While cameras shuttered, I smiled shyly between Doc and Tracie, clutching a framed certificate recognizing my time driving Beetle Bailey. I was officially a teamster. I would hang it next to my graduate degree.
We rode along quietly that morning, staring into the great abundance of drought-tolerant green needle trees, the Douglas firs, Scotch pines, native incense cedars, and blue spruces. Boa Vista Orchards, one of the many apple growers, bakeries, wineries, and Christmas-tree farms along Highway 50, greeted us with lemonade. I bought myself a sliver of blackberry pie and two slices of apple for my wagon driver, David, a lumbering redhead, and his father, Danny Cantrell, who kept reminding me his son was single. Every pioneer was consuming some kind of sugar to revive the initial excitement, which now alternated between restlessness and exhaustion.
Hours later, we heard hundreds of people cheering before we could see them lining the downtown blocks of Placerville. Music blared over loudspeakers and adults clutched children in face paint. Everyone seemed to be holding something large and unhealthy, from hot dogs to cotton candy. Trotting on horseback from wagon to wagon, an announcer talked about the train’s importance. She extended her microphone to Doc, who played to the crowd as if it was the last he’d ever see. It was a real, respectable parade.
We rode on to a movie theater’s parking lot, where blocks of hay were set up in front of a pony ride and picnic tables stood between a country band and food trucks. The turnout there was far less impressive. After traveling long and hard, no one seemed eager to linger at a celebration that had lured so few. Without the resounding support of the public, we gave in to fatigue. Teamsters opened beers near their horse trailers, and everyone else seemed to disappear. I wanted to return the cowboy boots Tracie had lent me, but I couldn’t find her. Like the real treasure-seeking pioneers, we left disappointed.
Later, as I neared San Francisco by car, I considered the lessons of the Gold Rush, of the California dream. You can’t win if you don’t play. Winning is luck. Losing is quitting. As I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn’t see the city, hidden under a dense blanket of fog, but I could see the final lesson.
In the end, the dream betrays you.