Sonora Pass lies between Yosemite, to the south, and Lake Tahoe, to the north. It’s a less hospitable road than either of those, being more remote from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and much steeper: Its section of twenty-six percent grade is narrow, with hairpin turns beside granite drops with names like “Deadman’s Falls.” Before the gold rush, most routes over the Sierra Nevada were spare wagon trails. Sonora Pass wasn’t crossed by white emigrants until 1841, and its high, remote granite passages are marked by that history: Emigrant Basin Wilderness, Birth (now “Burst”) Rock, where a woman gave birth during a storm on a high ridge. The steep, rocky road over the pass was further developed when the gold rush hit in 1848 and more famously in 1849, and the towns of Jamestown, Columbia, and Sonora, all on the western slope of the mountains, were cobbled together.
By the 1870s, what had been the most remote mountain frontier had become a destination for adventurous travelers from the Bay Area. The outpost of Strawberry, California, 25 miles to the west of Sonora Pass, and uphill from the town of Sonora, was the last stop on the route to the pass from the coastal side of the range. By the turn of the century and perhaps as early as the 1890s, a small resort consisting of the Strawberry Hotel and a ring of tiny cabins had been built in a meadow next to the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. The one-room cabins were just outbuildings, really, and travelers could stay in them while they prepared for one more push to the pass, or explored the ponderosa and jeffrey pines and the nearby rivers. The area in and around Strawberry grew further as dams were built. Up the hill a couple of miles, the town of Pinecrest grew up around the lake created by the dam there. Some of the homes of the dam builders and their families lie to the east of the meadow now, and they dot the woods around Pinecrest, where wealthy Bay Area residents also built their summer homes.
Cabin no. 1, Estruth
Sometime in the 1940s, my mother’s Uncle Benny bought one of the cabins, designated by the riverside Strawberry resort as Cabin number 1. By the end of that decade, my mom and her brother were spending most of their summers in the meadow, learning to fish and riding horses at the nearby Aspen Meadow pack ranch. It was then that my Grandpa Tom, who worked on the railroad in San Jose, bought the fifty year-old cabin from Uncle Benny. A number of railroad men bought other cabins along the north edge of the meadow. They worked with one another to repair and rebuild the cabins, gradually hauling loads of lumber, paint, and iron stoves from the Bay Area. Over time, my Grandpa Tom’s ‘53 Chevrolet pickup carried up enough material to add a tiny bathroom (some of the cabins by that time had septic tanks) and a second, larger room to what had begun as a simple single-room building (The pickup still runs great, and is in the driveway back home). While the railroad men worked on their cabins, my Grandma Totchy cooked on a woodburning stove in the meadow, and when the work was done the men went fishing and drinking.
In the 1970s, the old Strawberry hotel was torn down, and now a single small, ramshackle building remains in the meadow, crumbling a little more each year.
Cabin no. 1 hasn’t changed much since Grandpa Tom and the other men from the railroad built the second room. The porch has been rebuilt and enlarged a couple of times and the old windows have been replaced. At some point, the cabin was hooked up to electrical service. The old woodstove in the second room, a remnant of a caboose from the rail yard, was replaced. Each year, when the cabin is opened up in the spring, usually by the time the snow has been cleared from the Pass, fresh woodpecker holes are covered with the bottoms of tin cans or old shingles and painted; we turn on the water and light the pilots on the stove and the water heater; we put cushions on Grandpa Tom’s wooden-and-wire hammock and old porch lounge; and finally we pull chairs and tables onto the porch, where we spend most of our time—reading, talking, rigging fly rods (big rainbow trout are still in the river, but they’re wary), and watching the meadow for the squirrels and birds who come to the feeders.
The landscape has changed: A new house is being built in the meadow, riverside, but mostly out of our view. Strawberry and Pinecrest are resort destinations again, and while they’re not as big as Tahoe and Yosemite, they still fill up on holidays and summer weekends, when the lake becomes packed with boaters and swimmers and the fishermen line the banks of the river. Old Strawberry Road is no longer the only way through the valley; Highway 108 winds past it and on toward the pass, which is still steeper than any road I’ve ever seen. The old railroad cabins, most of which look almost unchanged from the ca. 1940s and 1950s photos on the walls inside, still line Meadowview Lane.
Sitting on the small porch with a book, or walking by the river, it’s still easy to feel the distance from the city, remote from the highway that’s just a mile away, and it’s easy to get even farther away into the mountains, to those still-wilderness places high in the Sierra.
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