Finally we crested the trail. The descent was worth every calorie of climbing: The grippy dirt held our tires through leaning turns, planes of sunlight diving through the trees. On the fast sections, the surrounding forest was a blur. The last slice of trail brought us around an exposed rocky shoulder with dry dirt more characteristic of a desert than a lush mountain, before funneling back into the canopy. When the trail finally spat us out at the top of town, we rolled, spent and dusty, to the Riverview Pizzeria for lunch under a blue sky.
Afterward, we followed the Yuba River a mile upstream to our cabin at the Lure Resort. Our A-frame sat upriver from all the others, affording an unobstructed view from our deck of the water and the steep hills beyond. Later, as dusk settled in, we cracked a couple of pale ales and listened to the concert of river, crickets and cicadas. I could have dozed right there on the deck, but then I remembered I'd seen a saloon adjacent to the bike shop. Ducking into the St. Charles Place, we found all the trappings you'd expect in a western bar: cold beer, stuffed mammal heads, twangy music and cantankerous locals.
The next morning, seeking more bodily abuse, I joined 10 other mountain bikers for the renowned Downieville Downhill, a 17-mile descent attained via van shuttle from town. We were dropped amid snowbanks at 7,100 feet (4,300 feet above Downieville). Most of my fellow cyclists were hard-bodied guys in their twenties and thirties, and a few of the younger ones were downhill specialists with motorcycle-style helmets, well-padded body suits and very serious looks. They sat low in their saddles -- a more stable position for keeping control at insane speeds -- and, immediately after leaving the van, vanished down the ridge to the trail head.
The route was stop-and-go through intermittent snow for a couple of miles, then dropped into a warmer zone. Launching over one knoll, I landed on the edge of a shallow creek and squeezed my brakes a little too urgently, earning me a free bath and a few minor raspberries on my legs. True to the marketing, the trail went down, down and down, leaving my hands sore from braking and my face sore from laughing out loud. After two hours of speed-freaking, I limped into town.
Fly-Fishing in McCloud
We had come to Downieville from McCloud, Calif., a tiny historic town in the shadow of Mount Shasta, a dormant 14,162-foot volcano and the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range. McCloud has a few things going for it -- a quaint main street with a handful of shops and inns, friendly residents and proximity to Shasta and the surrounding wilderness -- but extended operating hours is not the town's strong point.
We arrived at 9 p.m., well after every restaurant had blinked out. So instead of "May I take your order?" the clerk at Reginato's Mini Mart said, "They been sittin' there all day, so if you want 'em I won't even charge you," as she liberated two leathery chicken patties and fries from the heat lamp. One of us (ahem) had misjudged the driving time from Mendocino to McCloud. Someone had told me four hours; somehow it took us eight -- which was okay, since the drive through the hills of Shasta-Trinity National Forest was spectacular.
We awoke in the charming Victorian confines of the McCloud River Inn, the converted headquarters of the McCloud River Lumber Co., which dominated this town, 60 miles from the Oregon border, in the early 1900s. Our room's pine-slat ceiling still had a wooden frame from which company executives would pull down maps the firm used to track its operations.
The aroma of egg casserole led us to an airy second-floor dining room with a long table and high-back chairs. The guests fitted the region: Two of the three couples worked in forestry for various organizations (they weren't the most lively conversationalists, but I was comforted to know that people are protecting our public land) and one older man and his young date in town -- like us -- to fly-fish the McCloud River.
Local fishing guide Wayne Eng set high expectations: "If you want scenic beauty, you're coming to the best river in the country." Stepping through the brush after a 30-minute drive from town, I conceded that he might have a case. The river ran 50 feet across, the water rolling over a freestone bottom between banks of auburn fir, pine and alder trees that lifted gently into the surrounding hills.
Eng, a thin, mellow, 54-year-old Chinese American with a black ponytail, wore his reverence for the local environment proudly: He repeatedly referred to the nearby Sacramento River as "my river" and said he hadn't kept a fish in 20 years. "Oh, I'll go out to catch lunch for me and Myrna Rae [his partner of 21 years] and I'll get a nice trout, but think, 'Okay, I'll keep the next one.' Five or six fish later, I'm saying the same thing and it's time to go home."