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PostHeaderIcon Travel

PostHeaderIcon Last Chapter: Pony Express Bike Ride

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It's time again for the next, and last, chapter of the Pony Express bicycle adventure. I'm not one to shout out like this but many have expressed an interest in my goofy journey and some have even enjoyed the travel blog. Who knew? So, here it is again.

In case you missed it...during the past 2 summers I've spent 15 days and 1480 miles following the historic Pony Express trail alone on my bike. It's a bit roundabout and not at all direct as it runs 2000 miles from Sacramento, Calif. to St. Joseph, Missouri. After 2 weeks of pedaling I've reached Scottsbluff, Nebraska...just across the Wyoming border. Most of those days spent riding through the endless mountain passes and valleys of California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

The last week of riding, Phase 3 as it's called, takes me across Nebraska and Kansas, America's Central Plains, to finish in St. Joseph, Missouri, the terminus of the old 1860s route and home to the Pony Express Museum.

The plan is to cycle the 630 miles from Scottsbluff to St. Jo' in 6 days with overnight stops in small towns along the way. The Platte River will be my guide, as it was for the real Pony Express riders, for the first 3 days. Beyond that various other river valleys will eventually lead to the Missouri River and St. Joseph.

Six days on a bicycle crossing Tornado Alley at the height of tornado season sounds dubious, but I have a strategy: I'll begin riding each day at sunrise to finish by early afternoon and, with some luck, before the severe weather gets cranked up.

This adventure is solo and unsupported and has already offered its share of difficult challenges and fantastic triumphs. Turns out riding across the country alone on a bicycle is a wonderful way to take it all in. My view is a different one. I am not “seeing” the country from 37,000' nor from an air conditioned car driving down the interstate, Unstead I am experiencing it all from back country roads at 15-20 mph where the scenes, sounds, scents, weather, creatures and the occasional local make every mile memorable. I now look forward to seeing what Nebraska and Kansas have to offer.

I will dust off the blog and add some more daily highlights. If you're interested you can follow along through June 8 at http://bensponyexpress.blogspot.com. -BC


Last Updated (Thursday, 05 June 2014 22:33)


PostHeaderIcon The Pony Express Rides Again

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Forty-two hours and 668 miles on a bicycle doesn't sound like much of a vacation now that I think about it. It was, however, a worthy and rewarding effort and a week full of more cycling challenges, scenery, and great memories.


One thing I learned about Wyoming while out on the open road on my bike is that Wyoming has done a fantastic job at marking the roads with historic signs documenting the state's history and other useful information. I stopped to read them all and learned a lot of fascinating history along my way. Each nugget was a real highlight to my day. For some strange reason, seeing the signs became very important to me, and I would even double-back to check out a historic marker on the other side of the road. I think I felt a bit like a pioneer, in my own way.

Scheduling the ride for the first week of July was necessary for me to work around the other important things in my life and, as expected, it was a hot week. Dry, but hot.

Thankfully, the high elevation, most of the week was spent at between 6000-8000 feet, kept the temperature below 100F.  Hydration was critical and I went through many gallons of water, stopping to re-fill at every opportunity. But when the temperature outside is 95F so is the drinking water. Refreshing? No, but it got the job done.

As with last year's Phase I ride from Sacramento to Salt Lake City, this year's Phase 2 ride from Salt Lake City to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, was a great success. All the careful planning paid off. But there was a last-minute hitch. After discovering a crack in my bike frame before the start of the ride I was forced to reluctantly use a borrowed bike to make the ride.  However, except for some rear wheel trouble the bike ran very well.  In order to make it to Scottsbluff in a week I had to plan to ride about 100 miles per day.

In the wide-open and remote part of the country there are only a few towns for overnight stops, so on 2 days I rode about 120 miles each day. Combine that with high elevation and hot weather those 2 days turned out to be more difficult than I expected.  I completed those long days, but not without a bit of a struggle the last couple of hours.

The week was full of memorable moments.

My favorite?  Crossing the Continental Divide at about half way through the ride. This crest in the mountains, while very subtle, was symbolic to me and a real milestone. I finally felt like I was truly “crossing the country."

Least favorite? Broken spokes in my rear wheel and the distraction and worry it caused me on days 2, and 3.

Did you know there only 2 bike shops between Salt Lake City and Nebraska?  I actually had included this information in my pre-ride planning, but nothing I could do about a broken bike if it breaks 150 miles from the next shop. So, I limped along very carefully, kept my fingers crossed and kept the positive thinking. It all worked out fine in the end and I left Lander on day 4 with a good wheel and a renewed attitude. I chose to ride alone as I enjoy the solitude, and it's also handy when adjustments need to be made to the schedule.

The downside?  A companion would be nice during those very long days. When I catch myself talking to the bike I realize I need a companion. Next year, Phase 3, will finish my Pony Express ride and end in St. Joseph, Missouri at the Pony Express museum.  It's another 600 miles to St. Joe, but through the flat plains of Nebraska and Kansas. I will start the planning after the New Year and thinking of making the trip in late May or early June of 2014.  For one reason or another the weather is always a consideration and those months may not be the best time to be exposed in Nebraska or Kansas due to tornado season. The adventure continues--next summer. --BC

A little background on the Pony Express Route:

The Pony Express was established in 1860 as the first reliable means to send messages across the vast American West. The Civil War was looming and timely news and communication between California and the East was crucial. The Pony Express was, essentially, a relay. A specially designed horse saddle could carry important correspondence in leather pockets.

A rider would leave St. Joseph, Missouri, where the railroad and telegraph lines from the East came to an end, and ride his horse westbound at full gallop. Ten to 15 miles later at an established relay station, rider and saddle would change to a fresh horse and continue. After a series of horses and 100 or so miles the rider would stop to rest and pass the saddle on to the next rider and so it went. About 150 relay stations and 10 days later the saddle and its important contents would arrive in Sacramento. During the journey riders were subjected to extreme weather, high elevation, darkness, and particularly in Nevada, serious trouble with Indians.--Eds.


Last Updated (Thursday, 25 July 2013 17:22)


PostHeaderIcon Get Away: To A Lighthouse in the SF Bay

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It may have been a well-kept secret that quite a small island located just 30 minutes from downtown San Francisco in the Richmond Bay is home to a unique dinner, bed and breakfast inn.  However, East Brother Light Station, built in 1873, has been operating as an active lighthouse for 133 years, first and foremost as an adjunct to the navigation of mariners in the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays.  Two islands on the east of the San Pablo Strait are named The Brothers.  Two similar islands on the west are referred to as The Sisters.  A long and colorful history of use extends since the lighting of the civilian manually-operated beacon of East Brother Light Station in 1874.

After WWII, Coast Guard personnel replaced civilian light keepers, tending the station around the clock, providing for all forms of maintenance and ferrying supplies from shore to the island.  The conversion to automation of the beacon’s operation in 1969 and the subsequent placement of EBLS on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, brought with it a new and brighter focus.  The lighthouse had survived storm waves, earthquakes, gales, collisions by ships and a major fire over its lifetime.

By 1979, a 20 year renewable license, issued to restore and occupy the station and operate a Bed and Breakfast Inn sparked the interest and efforts of over 300 volunteers to begin restoration of this pillar of light. Saving the lighthouse from destruction, enthusiasm and overwhelming community support brought their efforts to fruition in less than 1 year, as supplies and personnel were ferried across from Richmond in private boats.
Now in full swing for over 30 years is a California historical Victorian lighthouse B&B, where dinner is served the evening of arrival via a guest ferry service of 10 minutes time across the bay.  Adventure begins in the open boat, captained by host, Richard Foregger, a Coast Guard commercially licensed operator.  Once docked upon the island, guests are greeted by partner and hostess, Jude Haukom, who conveys a sense of serenity in sharing this special landmark with visitors and guests.

With new-found experience as inn keepers since June 2012, the couple both have backgrounds in television entertainment, Richard as a director/producer and Jude as an actress.  Haukom remarks “We’re able to meet people we never would have met otherwise, and they always seem to leave happy.”  Foregger expresses his fascination with the foghorn, “It’s a mind blowing experience.”

The dinner, bed and breakfast inn is available for bookings Thursday through Sunday of each week, with a choice of 5 queen bed accommodation options.   Two rooms have private baths, two rooms share a bath and another choice is in an intimate separate building, farthest from the foghorn.  All have different views and one is equipped with a wood-burning fireplace.  The modern amenities of propane fueling and solar panels for water-heating provide comfort to this unique retreat, where gourmet food, nostalgia, charm and expansive views of San Francisco skyline, Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin coastline etch a landmark memory  for visiting  guests.  

Rates include harbor parking, the boat ride to and from with pick up at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor at  4 pm and return by 11 am next day, evening hors d’oeuvres and complimentary champagne, a tour of the lighthouse with history and demonstration of the diaphone fog horns, a 4 course dinner with complimentary wines, topped off with a full gourmet breakfast in the morning.  For reservations and virtual tour of the rooms, go to:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call:  510 233-2385.

Consideration should be given to the requirement for physical stamina and strength to climb from a bobbing boat up a vertical ladder.  No pets are allowed and the minimum age requirement for the stay is 18 years old.  Fishing is allowed with a license, and for groups of up to 12, luncheons and parties may be arranged.  During summer months, day use on Saturdays at a $20 charge includes the boat transportation and a guided tour of the island.

Funds earned by the Inn, through its non-profit, corporation, pay for ongoing restoration and maintenance costs of the buildings and equipment on the island.  Yet, volunteers are needed, “Wickies”, named for those who spent time trimming the oil lamp wicks to keep the lighthouse lamp aflame.  All are welcome who may offer their skills or energy on 2nd Saturday each month.  By registering on the web site, you will receive the monthly e-vite to the work party.  The 9 a.m. to 4 p.m workday includes a short boat ride to the island.   Contact to Angelina Schwark at:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it for more info.  The adventure will be well worth it!  --KRB


Karen Balch is a retired nurse, avid traveler and freelance writer. Reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Last Updated (Wednesday, 02 January 2013 02:03)


PostHeaderIcon Danville Cyclist Rides the Pony Express

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It's been described as "The Loneliest Road in America". US Route 50 wanders across Nevada's Basin and Range geography for over 400 miles and is noted in one guide book as "...extremely dry with no shade except for three trees just east of Fallon. You will see occasional vehicles but towns, services and roads are spaced, sometimes, more than 100 miles apart".

June 4, 2012 I will begin a 2000-mile ride, alone on my Trek Madone road bike with just the water and food I can carry, a change of clothes, an Ipad, credit card and a healthy bit of enthusiasm. I will pedal along the Pony Express Route from Sacramento to St. Joseph, MO. I don't know how many others have done this before me, certainly some, but clearly it's not a popular idea even by car.

The first segment of the ride will take me from Sacramento and across Nevada to Salt Lake City. 8 days of riding. I'm always intrigued by the idea of riding the bike in any random direction for any random number of days solely for the experience and adventure but the story of the Pony Express, a uniquely American West bit of history, intrigued me enough to give the ride a bit of purpose; to follow the Pony Express route on my bicycle.

Pony Express 101: The Pony Express was established in 1860 as the first reliable means to send messages across the vast American West. The Civil War was looming and timely news and communication between California and the East was crucial. The Pony Express was, essentially, a relay. A specially designed horse saddle could carry important correspondence in leather pockets. The rider would leave St. Joseph, Missouri, where the railroad and telegraph lines from the East came to an end, and ride his horse westbound at full gallop.

Ten-15 miles later at an established relay station rider and saddle would change to a fresh horse and continue. After a series of horses and 100 or so miles the rider would stop to rest and pass the saddle on the next rider and so it went. 150 relay stations and 10 days later the saddle and its important contents would arrive in Sacramento. During the journey riders were subjected to extreme weather, high elevation, darkness, and particularly in Nevada, serious trouble with Indians.

Of course the Express ran in reverse direction at the same time for returning correspondence. If a series of horses with riders could manage the journey certainly a middle-aged father of two with plenty of energy drink and ambition could manage it? I've enjoyed, for many years, solo long-distance bicycle rides and the experiences, challenges and memories they provide me. To the left, you can see me on one such adventure with the Girls Gone Wild bus and the bike.

It comes with a great sense of accomplishment. This ride won't be my first multi-day solo bike adventure but one week will be, by far, the longest time spent in the bike saddle. I've enjoyed multi-day rides throughout California, Hawaii, Italy and along the Mississippi River. All very unique and equally awesome.

A Pony Express delivery would take about 10 days to complete the 2000 mile horseback journey. At 100 miles per day a strong bike rider should, ideally, be able to complete the same route in about 3 weeks. However enthusiastic my family and the guys at work might seem about this I expect the enthusiasm will fade after being gone for a week, therefore, I will break the ride into 3 phases each about one week long. Phase 1 begins June 4, Sacramento to Salt Lake City to return by train. Phase 2 commences in SLC one year later and Phase 3 in 2014 to eventually end in St. Joseph all along following, as closely as possible on paved roads, the Pony Express route.

With the planning and follow-up story telling this should keep me amused for over 2 years. I'll be 50 then. Perhaps this can be my mid-life crisis. I'm drawn to this sort of thing for many reasons. I like the solitude of the great outdoors best appreciated from the bike. The wind, rain, sun, geology, geography, flora and fauna are all around all the time. I like that.

I believe life is a risk and reward tradeoff. I'm not a risk taker and, as a commercial pilot, my long-time profession has conditioned me to minimize risk in everything I do. Having said that I expect any reward in this case will far outweigh the risk and I'm OK with that.

Most of the Pony Express route and associated structures are long gone. With a few exceptions only a few monuments and museums remain but the desert has a funny way of preserving things so I'm hopeful I will discover a reward or two along the way. It's all part of the adventure. To follow Ben on the road go to: http://bensponyexpress.blogspot.com/ --KB

Last Updated (Wednesday, 30 May 2012 01:12)


PostHeaderIcon Rafting the Tuolumne River

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As we headed towards a raging Clavey Falls, I took a deep breath and gripped my paddle with white knuckles. During the biggest runoff in a decade on the Tuolumne, the steepest drop on the state’s wildest river looked like the watery end of the world. But it was definitely too late to go back.

“Forward, forward, forward!” screamed our guide over the water’s roar. We pulled our paddles furiously even though obeying the order ruled out hanging onto the raft for dear life. Hearts pounding, we dropped off the edge.  The boat rocked about madly and one paddler nearly swam before the crew pulled him back from the brink.
Terror turned to triumph moments later as we reached the safety of a calm eddy, the roughest rapid of the trip behind us. “All right, woo-hoo, huzzah!” cried my shipmates. I shared the sentiment but was too winded to join in.

Though far from an expert, I’ve enjoyed rafting perhaps a dozen runs on Sierra Nevada rivers over the years. My trips along the Tuolumne always took a different form, though. I had climbed atop Yosemite’s Lyell Glacier where the river originates and hiked beside the Tuolumne for dozens of miles. Yet I always knew I’d have to raft “The T” someday.
That occasion finally arrived when friends and I joined Sierra Mac River Rafting Trips for a two-day, 18-mile run on the main segment of the Tuolumne, from Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry. The outing began with multiple Class 4 (challenging) rapids including Rock Garden, Nemesis, Sunderland’s Chute and Hackamack Hole.

Like many rafters, we spent a night camping beside a sandy beach near Clavey Falls. Those who go with a guided group may enjoy a decadent meal of steak, salmon, potatoes, hot green veggies, beer and wine, as we did. We rafted rough water but hardly roughed it. The river sang us to sleep.
After an equally hearty breakfast, the main event awaited. Clavey Falls, the run’s only Class 5 (experts only) rapid, tends to lodge in boaters’ memories and not just because of the adrenaline rush it produces. The confluence of the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers embody nature’s power which shaped this beautiful canyon. It’s also a special setting to Marty McDonnell, Sierra Mac’s owner and Tuolumne rafting pioneer.

“The Clavey River/Tuolumne River confluence for me is my place to worship, play, call home and enjoy a display of nature’s Michaelangelo’s stone carvings,” McDonnell said. “Rock, gravity and water create one of the world’s greatest navigable rapids… Each visit changes your life forever.”

The second half of the journey features Class 3 (moderate) and more Class 4 rapids like Gray’s Grindstone and Hell’s Kitchen, providing boaters with thrills and also a chance to take in the canyon’s scenery and wildlife. Cedars, alders, willows, oaks, pines and plenty of manzanita make for pleasant viewing. Black bears, coyote, hawks and even mountain lions show themselves occasionally.

Everyone was sorry to reach the take out at Ward’s Ferry Bridge. “If you liked the Main T, you’ll love the Upper T,” another rafter commented. Just like that, I knew I had to go back, and a month later I did.
With nine miles of continuous Class 4 and Class 5 rapids, the Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne route is the most challenging rafted run in the United States. Wetsuits and life vests are mandatory, as are swimming tests across the icy, fast flowing river and back. The exercise will kick-start your heart for the workout that awaits downstream.

The Guillotine, Jawbone, Unknown Soldier and Coffin Rock rapids bear fearful names but the more innocuous-sounding Mushroom, Flat Rock Falls and Lewis’ Leap are actually more hazardous. Many parties disembark and walk to avoid these and especially Lumsden Falls, a Class 6 rapid (potentially deadly even for experts) and the river’s most dangerous spot.
Still, that leaves plenty of whitewater and this run felt like a non-stop thrill ride with more exciting rapids than all my previous rafting trips combined.

The Upper T averages an amazing 100-foot drop per mile but a middle section known as the Miracle Mile drops a phenomenal 200 feet. By this point, guide Jeff Hall had our two-man, two-woman crew working well in sync, thankfully. Only a miracle could get a raft with less-than-expert guidance through this mile, a slalom course of raging rapids and countless rocky obstacles.

The memorable outing ended with a well-deserved lunch and a congratulatory champagne toast the rafters and guides shared. I was surprised to learn that guides who’ve completed this challenge hundreds of times still consider every run a special occasion.

“Cherry Creek is tops: steep, absurdly difficult and relentless,” said Adam Crom, a guide since 1982. “It’s simply the best guided whitewater trip I’ve ever seen. This run demands your best every minute of every day. If you are inattentive or unfocused, bad things will happen, and soon! It is a rare thing to work in a place that demands so much and rewards you so beautifully if you do it right.”

As a frequent Yosemite visitor, I drove beside the Tuolumne on Highway 120 for nearly 20 years before finally rafting this gem. I’m not going to wait nearly so long to take the plunge again. --MJ

Matt Johanson writes about travel, sports, the outdoors, education and politics for California newspapers and magazines. He also teaches social studies and journalism at Castro Valley High School. Check out his site at http://mattjohanson.com. Thanks to Sierra Mac River Rafting Trips for the photos.

Last Updated (Saturday, 28 April 2012 02:26)

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