Life in slow lane along Highway 50 |

Life in slow lane along Highway 50

The traffic that shoots by the Kyburz Mini Mart on U.S. Highway 50 is fast and relentless, a fitting metaphor for life in the ’90s. It is only a 50-mile stretch from Placerville to Meyers, and it takes about an hour to drive it on a good day. By the time Tahoe-bound motorists reach the foothills, they are usually in no mood to stop.

But people occasionally do stop, and there are also enough locals so that Jesse Martin and his wife, Elanore, can make a tidy living selling groceries and conveniences.

Inside of Martin’s store, which sits right beside the highway, life seems to stand still. He and his wife have run the mini mart for 27 years, enjoying the profitable years and weathering the bad – sometimes literally.

Times don’t come any worse than they did in the first few weeks of 1997.

That’s when El Nino storms dumped their fury on this stretch of state highway, closing Tahoe’s lifeline to the valley for nearly two months.

First it was rain and wind hurling debris onto the roadway, then a flash flood, then a huge mudslide. The relentless storms caused millions of dollars worth of damage, causing the highway to be closed four times in January alone.

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 20, when it was finally opened for good, U.S. Highway 50 was open a total of only one week.

In addition to causing much physical damage, the storms also wiped out some of the roadside merchants whose livelihood depends on tourism. But some, like Martin, managed to hang on.

“First the flood closed the road, then the mud came down and wiped it out,” said Martin, who most days can be found in his desk chair just behind the store’s counter. “It took out three bridges, and a lot of people lost their cabins. We watched one house just float down the river.

“But I did all right. I didn’t complain a bit.”

An average of 10,500 cars per day negotiate the winding stretch of highway from Pollock Pines to South Lake Tahoe. Most blast through at 60 or 70 mph on the light traffic days and inch along on the heavy ones, cursing and gnashing their teeth as they languish behind a slow-moving, tractor-trailer rig or family van.

Most do not realize that there are thriving communities out there among the trees. There are about 250 full-time residents in Kyburz and nearby Silver Fork. A few more up the road in Strawberry and Twin Bridges. The roots run deep in these hamlets, which boast hardy year-round residents, a large vacation population and a rich history.

“Few people realize that Kyburz used to be a resort destination,” Martin said.

“It was the place to go up here in the winter, because they closed the roads and you couldn’t get any farther east.”

The Martins’ store is housed in a building that was constructed in the 1860s – originally a stage coach stop and stable. It was relocated a few yards back during road-widening in 1928. He and his wife bought the place in 1971, most times able to sit back and enjoy the bucolic lifestyle in the shadow of Sugarloaf Peak – a large granite outcropping popular among hikers and rock climbers.

But occasionally, hard times set in. A major mud slide in 1983 closed the highway for 75 days, and there have been other, smaller road closures due to inclement weather and road construction. Then the ’97 catastrophe hit.

“With snow, you can always get out,” Martin said. “You’re never cut off more than one or two days. One winter the snow was so deep, they were getting in and out of the post office next door through an upstairs window.

“The mudslides were a different deal. A lot of the businesses up here were hurting. But during the reconstruction, we had a couple hundred truck drivers in here every day, buying everything. We would take the back roads and run out to Reno and Carson City and buy things on sale to keep the place stocked. We did all right, actually.”

The Martins are still there, and doing better than ever. And so is their security guard – a grouchy 17-year-old goose named Tom.

“We’ve had ducks and geese, and wild animals came down out of the woods and got them,” Martin said. “But not Tom. He’s too mean.”

In Strawberry, which is about 20 miles west of South Lake Tahoe, Ken and Connie Woodall have been running the Strawberry Market and Deli for three years. They never closed during the road closure of ’97, doing a fair trade with the Caltrans and other agency workers who stopped in and kept the business going.

“But we struggled,” said Ken Woodall, who had been in the motel management business before taking over the Strawberry store – which is also home to the only towing service between South Lake Tahoe and Pollock Pines.

“It was tough, but we managed to make the bills,” he said. “But if (a big storm system) hit us again sometime, I don’t know what would happen.

“It would really hurt.”

But like Tom the goose, residents here have a certain attitude. Weathering the hard times is second nature on U.S. Highway 50.

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