The Histories We Traverse: Biking and Learning Across the Sierra Nevada

The trails we ride often have stories that long pre-date mountain biking. On a road trip from Los Angeles, to Mammoth, and finally Downieville, Eric Arce takes time to understand some of the troubled history behind these popular riding destinations in the Sierra Nevada.

Downieville: The Darkness of the Gold Rush to a Mountain Biking Destination

There are several versions of Josefa’s hanging, a Mexican woman who lived in Downieville, in 1851. But one thing is certain: Josefa was lynched by a mob for killing a Euro-American miner. Late into the evening on the Fourth of July, a miner named Fredrick Cannon and his friends were walking along Downieville’s main street. The group of intoxicated men stumbled through town when they came across the home where Josefa and her husband lived. She was there alone that night and Canon tried entering, ultimately breaking her door. Given the overwhelming male dominance in society combined with the color of Josefa’s skin, it’s not hard to imagine what was about to happen next. Canon tried to enter the house again the following day, supposably to apologize, but an argument ensued and Josefa stabbed him. After a “trial” for Canon’s killing was held at the hands of an angry mob, she was sentenced to death and they lynched her. They displayed her body on the bridge entering town. Her last words as she placed the noose over her own head were said to be, “I would do the same again if I was so provoked.”

Josefa’s story (often referred to as Juanita or the Spanish girl) and others like it reveal the powerful, often complex, and violent histories that we traverse in our travels either by bike or because of bikes. The American West, including towns like Downieville, was shaped tremendously by the gold rush. And Josefa, like many Mexican and Indigenous women at the time, was impacted by the power dynamics in a society that was as patriarchal as it was lusting for gold. The gold rush transformed Downieville and shaped California history forever but, Josefa’s story gets little to no mention. I’m not here to disparage Downieville, because this town is not unique in holding histories like these, nor am I here to take away its great contributions to mountain bike culture. But I do think history is important; it educates us on what occurred in the places that we now enjoy as recreational destinations and provides visitors with more in-depth knowledge of the towns and the people that live, or have, lived there.

Downieville has some of my favorite trails. I love going there and I make a trip most years. The town’s history feels alive as soon as you pass the bridge– providing an almost anachronistic energy as the historic buildings of Main Street are something you rarely see in California. After passing several historical markers, including the one about Josefa, I wanted to dive deeper into history with books and articles.

Traveling Through Time, Across the Sierra

The intention of this road trip was about paying tribute to this region in two forms: riding some of my favorite trails through the Sierra Nevada, while stopping at historic sites and reading regional history to understand what took place where mountain bikers, like myself, love to recreate.This is not a comprehensive history, but snippets of small moments that are etched along the route from LA, to Mammoth, and finally Downieville. I wanted to learn about what came before the trails and how those histories shaped the towns.

Mammoth & the Owens Valley Water Battle

Starting from Los Angeles, close to where I grew up (the Antelope Valley), my first stop is Mammoth Mountain. The area is one of my favorite places to ride for nostalgic purposes. I moved there in my early 20s, and it’s where I first learned about mountain bikes. It’s there that I began to appreciate alpine riding. When I lived there I didn’t grasp the importance of getting to know local history.

I went to community college in Mammoth, before eventually attending a graduate program and ultimately leaving academia (a story for another time). Driving up the 395 highway, I passed vast stretches of land and once in the Owens Valley, or what the Nüümü (Owens Valley Paiute) refer to as Payahuunadü (Land of the Flowing Water), I saw a beautiful—albeit dry—landscape with towering mountains. Unfortunately, because of early settlers and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), a dry lake bed is the only remnant of the once-flowing water and lush environment.

Known as the Alabama Gates, a small building sits on top of an aqueduct that controlled the water flow from the Owens Valley, eventually reaching the city of Los Angeles 223 miles away. The Alabama Gates were the source of deep tensions between Owens Valley ranchers and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In 1905, LADWP started buying water rights in the Owens Valley, under the direction of William Mulholland who was in charge of the water agency. Simultaneously, the LADWP priced out local ranchers by forcing them to sell their lands at below market rates. The goal was to buy access to waterways and, in turn, divert the water from ranchland to Los Angeles residents.

In 1908 construction on the aqueduct began with Mulholland at the helm. This enraged Owens Valley ranchers, leading to bombings of the Alabama Gates with dynamite, in the hope that the water would be returned so the area and their land could prosper as it once had. There is a bit of tragic irony here: while ranchers decried the systemic abuse of LADWP, they enacted similar measures toward Indigenous people of the area by destroying the natural flow of rivers and streams, along with building fences to stop Indigenous people from utilizing water systems that they had relied on for thousands of years.

My next stop was nearby: the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center. There, I took in the exhibits and historical accounts that describe what it was like before and after settlers came into the region. Before the 19th century, when ranchers and settlers arrived and began disrupting the flow of water, implementing policies that forever changed the landscape of Payahuunadü, the area was in balance. Their agricultural practices were (and are) sustainable and they employed advanced systems of irrigation, using only what was needed. But once ranchers and the LAWDP came into the picture, they saw water as a resource that was underutilized. William Mulholland’s proposal to put in a dam in the heart of Yosemite Valley is just one example of this insatiable water lust. Mulholland, in many ways, embodied a logic that only envisioned short-term gain and saw the land as an object to be exploited. On the other hand, the Nüümü see water as a priority for life, a relationship not to be conquered or controlled, but to be respected. Stopping at Indigenous cultural centers not only allows you to ask respectful questions but also allows you to understand historical events through their perspective.

I still had a few more spots on my list to visit on the 395, but I decided to wait until I was on my way back from a few other trail stops. Stopping and soaking in a lot of the history required emotional presence, and even though I was largely inspired by these stops, sometimes some emotions were heavy to process. I wanted to make sure I brought the right mindset and energy to these visits.

I arrived in Mammoth and the smell of pumice and pine trees reminded me that it was peak riding season. If you’ve never ridden in Mammoth, essentially the trail surface is like riding in kitty litter. Since it’s where I learned to ride, it’s where I feel most comfortable. I love riding loose and technical alpine singletrack there. The scenery added to the uniqueness and from the highest viewpoints you can see Yosemite in the distance. I try to make it out every year, and every time I do I think about how even a decade later, I still love mountain biking as much as ever.

After a few days spent pushing my limits on the bike, eating tacos and enjoying the beautiful views of the Minarets, I packed up for my final riding destination, filled with gratitude, hoping I’d get to make it back the following year.

I headed toward Downieville for my last and final stop before eventually heading back to Los Angeles. Of course, whenever I go to Downieville I have a great time, because the riding and terrain feels remote, fast and as beautiful as it is ruthless. The trails themselves are high-speed, with a mix of chunk and flow. It’s one of my favorite areas in the region, if not some of my favorite singletrack in the whole United States. But while I can talk at great length about the trails, or my favorite river spots–I actually want to talk about my last stop on my way back after Downieville: Manzanar.

Manzanar: A History Not Forgotten

Just north of Lone Pine Manzanar, is a historical site where the U.S. government incarcerated Japanese-Americans into camps during World War II. While the old barracks and buildings were decimated after the war, a few educational barracks remain with models of what quarters used to look like. Fueled by racism and Anti-Asian xenophobia, Manzanar was created to control and surveil people who were seen as enemies because of their race. Meanwhile, Japanese-American citizens were among the US troops fighting for the Allied Powers.

The government wanted to weaponize the harsh environment so that Japanese-Americans would have a hard time escaping. To provide proof to the American people that the conditions were humane and the Japanese were not being tortured, the U.S. government—in all its hubris—hired two prolific photographers, Dorathea Lange and Ansel Adams, to document the conditions of Manzanar. Though Lange consented to the assignment, she was against the forced relocation. Although she had been expressly forbidden from photographing symbols of imprisonment, such as the barbed wire, guards, and guard towers, her anti-internment sentiment was still apparent in her photos and the government hid many of her images in the national archive until as late as 2006. While the two legendary photographers created distinct depictions of life at the camp in their photographs, I learned at the visitor’s center that it was ultimately an imprisoned Japanese photographer, Tōyō Miyatake, that provided the most powerful and accurate depiction of everyday life at Manzanar.

Tōyō Miyatake was a portrait photographer in Los Angeles before Manzanar. Knowing he would be incarcerated, he created a makeshift box that hid his camera so that he could continue photographing and documenting life there. Ultimately he was caught with his camera but was allowed to continue his photography; the guards likely assumed that no one would ever see the images. One of the most vital elements in his photographs was the way he was able to capture symbols of resistance and the possibility of freedom. Miyatake saw struggle and hope but he had to be covert in his messaging. One of his most powerful images shows a pair of wire cutters cutting through barbed fencing. While the themes were heavy, I felt inspired that within a literal war he used his photography to shed light on the injustices enacted on his people.

Riding With Intention

As I head back to my car and venture down the road, I’m glad I stopped again. Feeling the miles in my legs, it would have been easy not to. On my way back to Los Angeles, I begin to process everything. I think of all the things I saw and learned, I think about the violence, the resistance, and the ways that structural problems have impacted communities. I look in the rear view mirror and I see my bike on my rack. What a blessing that tool has been for my mind, body and spirit. I think about the intention behind this road trip, how biking has provided so much joy on the trails but also gave me the idea to mine the public archives and histories along the way.