In August, Los Angeles was in the middle of a late-summer heat wave, and it was 104 degrees, and humid, in Sacramento. Which made the clear, cool mountain air at Meadow Lake seem like more than relief. It seemed like heaven.
Situated at something around 8,000 feet, Meadow Lake, north of Truckee, California, is home to the annual Sierra Trek, an event put on every year by California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs. And as hot as it is in the valleys, there is often still snow in the shade and rushing water filling the streams of the high Sierra in mid-August, when Sierra Trek happens.
"Happens" is the perfect word for this occasion, an event in which a small city appears and disappears in the space of a week. While there is normally summer camping going on in the Meadow Lake area, Cal 4-Wheel mobilizes more than 350 volunteers to haul in food and firewood, to cook, serve, and construct. Big-rig vehicles appear from all over the region-and that was just the club members. Along with them, a well-stocked row of sponsors and vendors springs up, bringing the latest gear along. Sponsors like BFGoodrich brought in a tire truck, fixing and mounting tires and being on hand in case replacements are needed; 4 Wheel Parts Wholesalers brought along a big rig loaded with parts and gear; and other vendors-Detroit Locker, Edelbrock, Olympic 4x4, Tuffy Security, and others-converted the area into one of the best 4x4 supply zones in the country. Other sponsors included ARB, Advance Adapters, Currie Enterprises, Warn, West Coast Differentials, Premier Power Welder, Rcon 4x4, Tom Wood's Custom Drive Shafts, 4West, J. E. Reel Driveline, and Papola Offroad, to name a few. Taking into account all the shops, manufacturers, and suppliers, the collective engineering expertise on hand was boggling.
In a typical year, somewhere between 700 and 1,000 four-wheelers arrive with their rigs and families, taking advantage of numerous runs and activities.
The area has seen population booms before. In the 1850s, a water company built the 42-foot-high dam that formed Meadow Lake. Later, a trapper noticed gold in the area, and by 1865, there was an orderly city with 80-foot-wide streets and a population of 4,000 in what became known as Summit City. There was a newspaper, stores, a barbershop, a pawnshop, hurdy-gurdy establishments, and more. In winters, the snow was so deep that tunnels were dug between buildings. Eventually the gold was either mined out or became too hard to reach, and the city disappeared. Aside from the occasional square nail, scattered mining equipment, and a large hole in the ground near the end of Fordyce Trail, the area has returned to nature, and there is little sign that humans ever occupied the area in any numbers.
Fordyce Trail is one of the most challenging in the nation-a mix of slippery-wet late-summer runoff and steep, dusty rocky climbs. The club positions experienced spotter teams on the most difficult spots, known collectively as winch hills. Participants get two tries to negotiate any of the five winch hills on their own. After that, they are assisted-by winch if necessary-in order to keep the trail open and flowing. Because of the severity of the trail, rollbars, functioning emergency brakes, tow straps, first-aid kits, and fire extinguishers, along with five good tires, are required. For the short-wheelbase runs, lockers are strongly recommended. All participants are encouraged to respect the trail and National Forest lands, to stay on the trail, haul out litter, and avoid creating fire hazards or damage to vegetation.
Perhaps because of the club stewardship, the Fordyce Trail remains in remarkably good condition. We found the area conducive to exploring and casual four-wheeling, and there are also guided runs for SUVs and long-wheelbase vehicles. The night run known as "Star Trek" is another trademark event for veteran participants, but only those who know the trail well enough to handle it in the dark, generally by moonlight only.
The scene in camp is always busy. There is a large stage area and a concrete slab big enough for a good basketball shoot-around. There are private hot showers, built by the Sierra Treasure Hunters, available mornings and evenings, a snack shop, a bank, an unusually well-stocked bar, and a huge fire pit. Most of the activity revolves around three meals served each day, dealt out on time and featuring remarkably good food ... and lots of it. Kids' activities, an RTI ramp, Dunk Tank, Horseshoes, and a Texas Hold'em poker tournament are among the attractions for those not actually out on the trail.
One of the highlights of the weekend is Saturday night's raffle. Sounds mundane, but the list of prizes is remarkable, probably exceeding $40,000 in total, including paintball guns, RC vehicles, wheels and tires, axles and lockers, an off-road camper/trailer, and a well-built, well-equipped Jeep TJ ready to take on the trail.
Next year's Sierra Trek will be the 40th annual running of the event, and the organizers already have some special things in mind. Because of the anniversary, participants would be wise to sign up well before the June 30, 2006, deadline. To find out more, visit www.cal4wheel.com.