Culture  /  First Person

I Retraced the Gold Rush Trail to Find the American Dream

A disenchanted San Franciscan rides west with a motley crew of pioneers.
"What I saw in California; being the journal of a tour," E. Bryant/Wikimedia Commons

Day 1: Zephyr Cove, Nevada, to Meyers, California 
Distance: 13 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.