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Truckee: Solitude in the Sierra : This rustic mountain town has survived the crazy days of shoot-outs, bordellos and roaring saloons

August 27, 1989|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Crowds will invade this old frontier town next weekend in a Labor Day salute marking the melancholy end of summertime in the Sierra Nevada.

Picnics will be spread on the banks of Donner Lake and vacationers will float down the Truckee River in a parade of rafts, past rocky coves and deep green forests where the voice of a blue jay can be as startling as thunder.

Barely 14 miles downriver from Lake Tahoe, the little town of Truckee appears like a turn-of-the-century post card. Saloons still do business on Donner Pass Road and trains roll into town regularly, dropping off passengers at Truckee's old-fashioned depot.

At Bud's Sporting Goods Store & Soda Fountain, waitresses serve ice cream cones while the proprietor sells night crawlers to fishermen.

Dressed in khaki overalls and sporting a crew cut, Truckee-born Bud Owen exchanges small talk with customers as they spoon sundaes and string lures. Bud's ice cream-and-tackle shop features Bud's Secret Lure (a hot fudge sundae topped with cookies and whipped cream), along with fishing poles, flies, nets and creels.

A few doors away, James Hacker turns out copper sculptures and glass blower Frank Rossbach huffs and puffs for a lineup of customers.

Vacationers crowd El Toro Bravo, ordering burritos and tacos, while across the street, leather goods are displayed in a marvelous old barn of a building that once served as an ice house.

Although Truckee still resembles a scene out of "High Noon," one scribe insisted the little town is catching on as the "Carmel of the Sierras." Not quite.

Truckee, which has survived fires and blizzards, is a rustic mountain town where shoot-outs once occurred with amazing regularity, saloons roared round the clock and bordellos flourished during periods when it served as a stage stop, a lumber center, a railroad town and the site of ice harvesting for the West before the era of refrigeration.

In an essay on his visit to Truckee, Allan R. Rahn wrote: "I used to think that towns like this were only recorded in tinted daguerreotypes hanging above near-sighted historians' desks, or in black and white documentaries about the oldest living local resident--but in Truckee I got the feeling I was part of everything and that this town was part of me."

Stepping through the door at Richardson House, a Victorian B&B overlooking Truckee, is like lifting the curtain on a 19th-Century stage play. During winter a wood-burning stove warms the 100-year-old inn as skiers descend on Truckee.

Deep sofas are scattered through the Victorian parlor, and guests snooze in rooms that feature high board beds, marble-top tables and clawfoot tubs. The former home of a lumberman, Richardson House is as snug as the scene from an old Currier & Ives print.

At Bridge Street and Donner Pass Road, the Truckee Hotel has sheltered guests since 1873. Lace curtains flutter at the windows and carved oak beds recall an era when the hotel welcomed railroaders, lumbermen and travelers passing through Truckee on the trail of the ill-fated Donner party.

For solitude in the Sierra, though, not another lodge matches the magic of the Blue House Inn. Facing the Truckee River at the base of a towering mountain, the Blue House Inn rates five stars with its immense stone fireplace and a skylight for glimpsing the forest and meadows where deer graze and other wildlife appear at sundown.

Shelves of books line one wall and guests soak in a hot tub and meet for cocktails at a gazebo beside the river. Pine and aspen rise from a sweep of lawn that unfolds to the banks of the Truckee, with its soothing song that mesmerizes the most hopeless of insomniacs.

The Cape Cod-style home, with its shingled sides and gabled roof, features goose-down comforters, four-posters, queen beds and wood stoves that glow with the warmth of a chilly evening.

For honeymooners and others seeking complete privacy, the Hideaway Suite offers solace in a setting of forest and flowers, with a hand-painted bed and stacks of firewood. In other guest quarters, French doors swing open to the patio and the tuneful Truckee.

With winter, skiers from Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and other playgrounds set up housekeeping in a room with queen-size sleigh beds, while icicles drip from eaves outside the window.

The proprietress Ruth Hutchings, an Orange County widow who traded crowded suburbia for the peacefulness of Truckee, is renowned for her gourmet breakfasts.

In the Sierra, says she, she's found her peace.

Back in Truckee village next weekend, vacationers will queue up outside The Cookery for "Harry's homemade chili," Smart's Wagon Train Coffee Shop (lumberjack breakfasts and fresh fruit pies), the Squeeze Inn for a peanut butter-jelly-banana-and-honey sandwich and O.B.'s Pub & Restaurant, which serves up sea scallops in a strawberry sauce, steaks and a specialty known as Pasta O'Brien, which is to say fettuccini with tomatoes, garlic and herbs soaked in red wine.

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