Dec 26, 2007


Merlin at Donner SummitWheels rolling, noon. The red Merlin Mobile is packed for three independent weeks, with full chauffeur visibility in all directions. Merlin’s entire back seat is padded with dog bed and towels. Drinks and food bowls are secured and convenient, both rear passenger windows are accessible for cow and sheep spotting. As we drive away, squirrels scamper into our yard, gleeful that Merlin is off duty. We’re only a day and a half behind our projected schedule. Should be no problem. Our tech prep is revamped for blogging.

From San Rafael we skirt the southern end of California’s Wine Country and cross the new Vallejo skyway bypass, sniffing for tigers at the park formerly known as Marine World. We join I-80 East towards the state capitol, Sacramento. We’ll stay on this great across-North-America ribbon of highway until the far side of Chicago. Merlin surveys the familiar landscape around Vacaville. Yes, that is Spanish/French for Cow Village. We have our usual UC Davis refueling stretch and sniff stop, and pass our customary South Lake Tahoe turnoff to continue east towards Reno. Road Trip Merlin inspires frequent breaks. As driver-navigator, I pledge to stop at all rest stops and any other remotely interesting pull-offs. Our first official highway traveler stop is Gold Run Rest Area near Dutch Flat. Merlin at Gold Run Rest AreaMerlin lopes amongst the Pines, happy in the crisp mountain air. Several fellow travelers approach us and ask to say hello to Merlin. He graciously accepts his role as Doggie Ambassador for dog-less travelers. He once agreed to pose with 20 visitors from India for a photo overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Back on the road, we climb into the Sierra mountains and, hey, it’s snowing! Mid-October seems a bit early for California snow but then the weather has been squirrelly everywhere. We take the first exit for a little romp in the flurries and recognize the Kingvale gas station, fondly. A few summers back we explored the old Emigrant Gap/ Donner Pass backroad. The driver, obviously not me, allowed the gas tank to fall below half, then a quarter, then almost empty before admitting it was time to look for a gas station. In the wilderness back country. Where the ill-fated Donner Party pioneers died of starvation. The old wagon trail road had to return to the freeway eventually, right? And every freeway exit has a gas station, right? So I pretended to enjoy the magnificent mountain wilderness, while calculating how much camera gear and dog water I could carry if I had to walk out. Would Merlin enjoy a ride in a State Park Land Rover, if one ever found us? And, are you supposed to stay with your out-of-gas vehicle, or walk along the road towards civilization? With the empty gas tank warning light blazing, we regained the freeway. After several gas station-less exits (surprised?) we coasted into Kingvale on fumes, and jubilantly filled the tank. To avoid such avoidable anxiety, whenever I’m driving the vehicle gas tank is always at least half full, especially when traveling on my own, especially thousands of miles.

Donner Summit Snow Shake Meanwhile Merlin, blissfully ignorant of the fuel requirements for his adventure, runs pass the gas pumps and leaps into the nearest snowbank. He races around, nipping the snow, before throwing himself on his back to make rolly poly doggie snow angels. I excavate the Michigan snow gloves and throw some snowballs, which Merlin chomps in mid-air. Back in the car, we blast the heat and continue towards the summit. Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission, has live traffic cameras, including I-80 near Truckee. This stretch looks very familiar; it’s where the TV camera crews interview drivers stopped in Sunday evening five hour traffic jams during ski season. My standing policy is to avoid driving when snow chains are required, preferring to travel clear roads, relying on the Merlin Mobile’s 4-wheel all-weather capabilities for any weather surprises. Thick fluffy flurries greet us at the Donner Summit Rest Area. We park between people leaping out of their cars in shorts and sandals to throw snowballs. Merlin romps and barks in the fresh new snow.
I always have a snack at Donner Summit. It seems an eternally hungry place, almost as if the landscape itself remembers the harrowing story of the Donner Party emigrants caught in the early snow of 1846, succumbing to cold, starvation, despair, and cannibalism. Their story soured the Westward Ho wagon train fever, until gold launched the 1849-er California rush. One hundred and fifty years later, playing with my dog in the snow, near our car full of food and water, insulated clothing and sleeping bags, I wonder at the travelers who walked west into a hostile wilderness from the settled East. Stranded for six months in 20 foot snow drifts is beyond my comprehension, and, hopefully, remains outside of my personal experience. I vow to always carry my charged cell phone on my person.

Donner SummitThe freeway signs are coated with wet snow, but the way east is obvious. By the time we approach Reno, the sudden snow has disappeared and the sun shines cheerfully. Our Road Trip prep included consulting the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator and cross referencing local resources for interesting roadside attractions along our route. Merlin at Brodhead Park LabyrinthThere are two promising labyrinths in Reno and I type their addresses into GPS Tom-Tom. The first is on a riverside bike-path, under a bridge, in what turns out to be a rather rough looking part of town. The sun slides under the overpass to light the river stone pathway, but the homeless people pushing shopping carts and overhead road clanking makes Merlin uneasy, so we don't stay long. The second labyrinth is a Lea Goode-Harris Santa Rosa design May Arboretum Labyrinth in the Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. We follow bold signs to the Labyrinth Garden in May Arboretum and enjoy a spectacular sunset walk in the pleasant surroundings.

After a quick picnic, we rig for night driving and leave bright town for dark desert. Cars become scarce and three-trailer trucks common, fishtailing in the crosswinds. Merlin in May Arboretum Labyrinth

Merlin has been to Reno before- it’s his End of the Known World. He looks out into the dark, watching for whatever is Beyond Reno.

Day One: Home to somewhere in Nevada. 310 miles.

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