The quirky little town of Genoa has a saloon with a red brick façade; the sign welcomes visitors to “the oldest thirst parlor in Nevada.” Across the street is a bar proclaiming itself to be the youngest.
The antique and jewelry stores are chock-full of genuine items – everything from rusty square nails used by gold miners to gorgeous silver jewelry crafted by local native artists.
There is a striking statue in the town center – a tall figure leaning into the wind and holding a balance pole, with a hat pulled down over his ears, pipe in his mouth, sack strapped on, and skis on his feet.
I like to pay my respects to this pioneer when I visit Genoa. His example of ingenuity, service, and endurance is unique, and his story fascinating.
Jon Torsteinson Rue was born in 1827 in Tinn, in Telemark county, Norway. He emigrated to the United States, arriving in the Carson Valley as a teenager. In his adopted country his name was John Albert Thompson.
When he arrived there was no mail service across the Sierras. How to get across such high mountains in extremely deep snow, a round trip of 90 miles (144 kilometers)? No one had a solution.
But John, a Norwegian, knew how to ski!
The man who became known as Snowshoe Thompson, Viking of the Sierras, initiated winter mail delivery in 1856. He skied on handmade 3-meter-long wooden skis over the Sierra mountains. The first set of skis weighed over 11 kilos!
He made 48-hour treks down to Placerville, starting at night when the snow was firm. He took dried meat and biscuits for provisions. At times he would stop to stamp his cold feet on a rock, or hide out from a blizzard in a cave, but otherwise kept skiing. The return trip east took him 72 hours. If he needed to rest he would build a fire and cut down pine boughs to sleep on.
By the second winter, a stage road had been constructed. He drove horses along it, often switching back to skiing the high passes when the snow was too thick. He performed this service until 1876, twenty winters, and is credited with saving seven lives. He was never compensated by the U.S. Government for his amazing service.
What about Nordic people today – are they as tough as the Viking of the Sierras?