Friday, June 16, 2017

Sometimes Brilliant – a book recommendation

Dr. Larry Brilliant’s memoir.  Harper Collins.  2016.  $28.

I served 35 years in public education and felt like, for the most part, I contributed something to some greater good.  Yet, when I get hooked into some story on PBS Newshour, I see the works of others who probably contribute more and a twinge of regret tickles the backside of my brain.  Perhaps, I think to myself, if I’d better understood the movements of the 60s – the decade in which I came of age; perhaps if I’d studied science; or embraced some sort of concept of the nature of existence; or been more politically aware. 

A month or two back that twinge hit when the Newshour interviewed Mill Valley resident Dr. Larry Brilliant on the occasion of the publication of his memoir.  I was, at first, interested because “Mr. Brilliant” was an alter-ego character I wrote about in a series of true to life short stories regarding a school principal who didn’t ever quite know what he was doing – but things worked out anyway. 

Larry Brilliant’s life adventure seemed to begin in a similar fashion.  Reared in Cleveland, he moves west, earns a medical license, joins up with a cavalcade of interesting characters (including Wavy Gravy who lives just up the road from me), travels the hippie trail from London over the Khyber Pass to commune in India.  Confronted there with the reality of poverty and disease, he plies both his training and his spiritual awareness becoming “Doctor America” to the spiritual teacher Neem Karoli Baba who tells Brilliant he is to rid the world of smallpox, the ancient disease that has claimed billions of people.

And – you know what? – he does.

Now, forty years later, a confidant of presidents and counsel to titans of our electronic age, he writes of the people, great and small, that accompanied him on his remarkable journey.  He writes of God and of good, of frustration with status quo and of a type of universal love I don’t yet fully comprehend.  Good thing he does, though.

A real-life (and very readable) respite from the daily news, I came away enlightened to this:  As long as there is poverty, as long as there is suffering, as long as there is pain, there is good work to be done.

And this realization: When we teach, we may not be curing some ages-old disease, but we are indeed engaged in good work.

See your local independent bookseller.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


Return to a favorite ride along California’s Coast Highway

I recall my dad turning 65.  He looked really old.  His right leg, shriveled from a mining accident forty years before caused a markedly deteriorating limp.  He received hearing aides but arthritis in his hands prevented him from changing the batteries.  His active pastime changed from backpacking into nameless places to reading books – over and over – and sipping highballs starting at about 3:00.

I think about my recently repaired hand and my recently repaired knee – neither ever to be “good as new” – and I realize that turning 65 is passing a marker – a marker that causes one to reflect.  Sometimes that reflection looks clearly like a country – western song:

My knee’s near shot and my hand can’t grip
I’m getting’ hard of hearing and there’s pain inside my hip
Politics is blood sport and kids no longer spell
Seems as if my world and self are goin’ all to hell

The big Triumph had only been on local, hour-long trips for well over half a year.  I am beginning to think my touring days are coming to an end.  A trip is scheduled to Wyoming later in the month and then to British Columbia later on, and I’m wondering if I should just plan on taking the Subaru.  The Thunderbird is a fabulous bike for what it’s made for, but is it made for what I want to do any longer?  What about switching to a Triumph Scrambler – lighter, more maneuverable, or a Ducati – lighter, more maneuverable, and with mojo, or a Yamaha or Honda each of which have local dealers?  What about a Vespa?

The late spring weather is glorious.  A damp cloth massaged the bugs away from the windscreen and wiped the accumulated dust from the bike’s fenders and tank.   By 9:30, after downing a gulp of orange juice, I am on the road to I didn’t know where.

Climbing the freeway ramp onto northbound 101, the Thunderbird thrusts me forward with an exhaust note whispering, “Why haven’t we done this recently?”  I feel a smile creep across my face. 

US 101 north of Sonoma County is a mixture of freeway and two-lane coursing over hills and through valleys blocked with vineyards.  On the freeway portion, about three weeks ago, a new Chevy Impala was sliced in half in a head on collision – the spot now speckled with orange marking paint over the oil and coolant stains.  The Chevy driver walked away.  I check my speed and find myself obsessing about the weird collection of skid marks that decorate the blacktop on this length of 101.  How'd they get there?  Who survived?  Who didn't?

I pass though Hopland, eschewing a favored breakfast joint, motor north past Ukiah and the right turn that would take me inland into Lake County.  There’s a new by-pass around Willits I’ve wanted to try and it cuts about twelve minutes off the journey north.  I wonder what’s happening to down town.  CA 162 splits off toward Round Valley and Covelo to the east, but the T-bird would be no match for the rugged forest road that crosses the Coast Range.  Nice rest stop just north of the junction.  At Laytonville, I head west on Branscomb Road.  It’ll be twenty-eight winding miles out to the ocean.  Recalling that folks on the west end of this route often take their half right out of the middle of the road, I cling toward the shoulder only to be proven right on curves twice in a span of about 20 seconds.  The descent to the Pacific is a corkscrew shrouded in trees that settles onto a willow thicketed stream course.  No surprise view of the ocean.  Just a stop sign at CA 1.

The Coast Highway is tucked behind a dune until it crosses a river and then rises to one of those points where “Wow!” is simply involuntary.  Thirty miles of coastline bluffs and breakers stretch before me under an azure sky supporting just enough cirrus cloud to provide depth.  I stop at the nearest vista.

There, a couple from Minnesota gush about their drive and how we have so much in common (referring to my Governor Brown and their Senator Al Franken) and then ask if I’d snap a photo.  Of course I will.  And he insists on taking mine.

I’ve ridden this road many times on all manner of motorcycles.  On a good day, the tablelands and cliffs are spectacular and the green hills sweeping eastward seem Eden-like.  The road twists and drops into creeks and river valleys, forested and cool; then back along the pasturelands where, indeed, the cows must be contented.  Motorcyclists – even the Harley guys – wave, the experience being so grand.

A fine little winery called Pacific Star sits overlooking the sea, their Dad’s Daily Red being a worthwhile catch.  McKerricher State Park offers trails and tide pools.  There’s a nice excursion train ride out of Fort Bragg and a great coastal hike recently opened behind the old mill site.  Noyo Harbor is what San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf used to be about 60 years ago.  The state maintains the lighthouse at Caspar.  Mendocino Village invites one to stroll its wooden walkways, explore its galleries and enjoy the ocean’s symphonic sound track.  Little River, Albion – where the highway crosses on a historic wooden trestle – Elk and several other waypoints dot the route.  There’s another lighthouse and a classic motorcycle shop in Point Arena as well as a nice chowder house out on the pier a mile west of town.  

State parks, vista points, old barns, farmsteads and contemporary architectural wonders speak to the changing history of the land.  Gualala offers a nice grocery store and access to the mouth of a river of the same name.  Sea Ranch is a ten-mile stretch of privately held properties, many of which are vacation rentals.  Access is restricted to paying customers in all but a few places.  Sea Ranch’s development prompted outcries about the fencing off of the coast leading to the establishment of the California Coastal Commission.  Just moments south is Stewart’s Point with a fine country store and gas.  It rests in the heart of a coastal protection zone established by the previous administration…

…but I don’t stop at any of these.  I’ve visited them before (even renting at Sea Ranch) and I don’t want to get off.  I just want to ride. 

Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs Road heads east from this point.  An arduous 40 miles on will come to Healdsburg on US 101.  The first four miles are single lane pavement, well worn and feeling the effects of a winter in which many coastal roads succumbed to nature’s greater powers.  Climb over one ridge then another, descend into a river valley and cross on a 1911 vintage bridge that some numbskull thought would be improved by decorating it with gang sign in red spray paint.  But the redwoods here, unsung and unprotected, provide a cathedral-like canopy.  I stop for a photo and a passer-by pauses to make sure I haven’t broken down.  “You are riding a Triumph, after all,” he says.

Within ten or twelve crow-fly miles the temperature has risen from a coastal 62 to an inland 85.  The forests have faded into the rearview mirror and rolling hills awash in knee high dry grasses remind me that it’s summer.  Cresting and falling and turning, the pavement has improved and soon I pass the Warm Springs Dam on Dry Creek.  I’ve entered my home stompin’ grounds.  I’d hiked the lake just a week ago.

At 4:00 I arrive home having stopped only for gas once, for “rest” twice and for photos three times.  That glass of orange juice saw me through the day, the bulk of which had been in the saddle.  Rolling the T-bird into the garage, I reflect on the people and the scenery and the road and the day.  I assess my hand, my knee and my hip and realize I am feeling no discomfort.

Time to pack for Wyoming.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, June 2, 2017


No longer employed in a gig requiring button-down collars and pants with creases, I enjoy a semi-annual trip to the haberdashery in the next town over to purchase a pair of dungarees or two and a durable twill or plaid shirt or two.  I’ve dropped in frequently enough over the past two-and-a-half years that the gent behind the counter seems to recognize me.

After digging through a rack of tightly packed shirts, I pulled two Carhartt short-sleeved samples and headed to the jeans department.  There, I settled on pair of blue denim work pants, also Carhartts – sans the hammer loop, this time – and moved toward the counter.

“What’s new?” asked the clerk, as he slid my goods his way on the counter.

Handing him my debit card, I said, “Well, we just bought us an electric car.”


“Yeah.  The bad news is I had to sell my pick up.”

Dropping his gaze and with a slight shake of his head, he handed my card back to me, unswiped, and said, gathering up my shirts and pants, “I’ll just restock these.” 

I’m sure my faced looked quizzical.

“Cain’t have you wearin’ these workin’ duds if yer gonna give up yer truck so’s you can go out and drive an ee-lectric car.  Least not in these parts.”

My neighbor says he has a truck I can borrow next time I need to get some clothes.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, May 19, 2017


…An afternoon with Sonoma’s Vintage Aircraft Company…

The ’42 Boeing Stearman was 10 years older than myself.  

Climbing in (with daughter Jessica) I could not help but remember that 100 years ago this year, my grandfather (Edgar W. “Hap” Bagnell) landed an even more primitive machine on the polo field behind the White House in an effort to impress Congress with the military capabilities of aircraft.

Our flight plan would not take us to DC – and we likely wouldn’t have lived to tell about it had pilot Chris Prevost attempted a landing behind the White House.

Located on Arnold Drive near Sonoma, CA at the Sonoma Valley Airport, the Vintage Aircraft Company offers scenic flights over the Napa Sonoma Wine County, down to view the San Francisco skyline and waterfront, or out to the Pacific Coast and Tomales Bay. 

Having ridden California’s Highway 1 on the Triumph just a week ago, I thought it would be interesting to see things from the air, so we opted for the flight to the coast

The powerful Stearman fueled and eager to slip the surly bonds of earth, Jessica pulled together her best impersonation of Amelia Earhart prior to wheels up.

Settling into the forward compartment, a glimpse at the instrument panel exposed how far we’ve come since Hap flew.  This ain’t no Southwest 737-800.

Lifting off, we were soon bearing west across US 101 near Petaluma toward Two Rock tracing, I think, Tomales Petaluma Road.  I hoped to tell my seatmate I just driven that lovely, pastoral route on the T-bird, but the roar of the big Pratt and Whitney pushed the words back down my throat.  All I could do was point.

I also found that when I placed my Panasonic camera just above the windscreen, I couldn’t get the shutter to operate, thus, no pictures from directly over the engine.  Then again, no bug splats on the lens…

Later, I determined that I should simply pocket the camera and enjoy the flight, which is what I’ll do next time.  From the still air of the forward cockpit, I did fire off a selfie of sorts…

The open-air cockpit left little doubt when we entered into the marine layer lapping over the coastline.  Glad I was that the purveyors of this trip offered – and I accepted – a fleece layer for the journey.

Short of Dillon Beach, at the mouth of Tomales Bay, we bore south atop the San Andrea Rift Zone.  Again I pointed and attempted:  “Pacific Plate over there.  North American Plate over there…”  

Jessica didn’t need to hear that.  Why must I always be the Answer Man?

The pass south over Tomales Bay, at – what did the gauge say, 110 knots? – went too quickly, but that was on me.  I missed some ground points I was looking for as I fumbled with my camera.  Marshall.  Inverness.  There were things I’d seen from State Route 1 that I wanted to see from the air…

Banking eastward, the ambient temperature rose and we paralleled the northern reach of San Pablo Bay lay to the south.  A fingernail of the San Francisco skyline melted into the haze.

Soon we found ourselves circling the airfield and preparing to land.

After touching down like a feather, Pilot Prevost taxied between the hangars and, for an added entertainment bonus, somehow used forward braking to back us into the big Stearman’s resting spot.  

Passers-by from Dubai who’d just ridden up on rented Harleys expressed awe.

I, however, had been awestruck by the whole thing. 

The adventure had been a gift from my altitude challenged wife, something I wish I could have shared with her, but sharing it with daughter Jessica made the whole event memorable times three.

Jessica, me...

...and Hap

Check out Vintage Aircraft Company at and give some thought to scheduling a flight with ‘em.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, May 12, 2017


You don’t see many of these in the wild…

I never considered a Chevrolet, what with GM’s checkered history on quality.  I never considered not owning a pickup, given that pickup ownership and masculinity go hand in hand (even if the pickup is a compact Nissan).  And I could never consider a plug-in electric car given the range anxiety inherent in having to plug the thing in every 90 miles or so.  Granted a Tesla will go nearly 300, but I could never consider putting a hundred large into a car of any kind that didn’t have a stallion on its badge.

But continuing to pour gasoline into the tank and hydrocarbons into the air formed an equation that seemed not too right for my grandchildren’s children.  That, coupled with the fact that pretty much any projects I might have and any dump runs I might make are becoming less and less frequent.  Why drive from here to there in an empty ¾ ton truck returning 20 miles per gallon, when an electric car uses less than a fifth the energy?

Range anxiety?  The evolution of electric car technology began when Elon Musk envisioned his first Tesla.  Now the Tesla III is about to hit the market with a 250-plus mile range per charge and “Range Anxiety” will return to its rightful definition: the emotion Billy Crystal felt when confronted by the Jack Palance character in the first “City Slickers” movie.  Musk’s III was to be the electric car made affordable to all except GM beat him to the punch.

So now we have this Chevrolet Bolt.  The pickup went to a nice young man who paid cash and the Subaru pouts in the driveway, longing for the good old days when there was room for her in the garage.

The Bolt is a nice looking small car similar in style any of a number of econo-boxes.  A huge and probably very heavy battery rests beneath the flat passenger compartment floor.  Wheels are pushed to the corners of the vehicle making for a well-planted ride.  The electric motor offers enough torque to beat a Z-1 Corvette off the line up until about 18 miles per hour.  By then all you’ll see is the Vette’s taillights peeking through a cloud of dust and road debris, but the little Bolt wastes little time rocketing up the freeway on-ramp and merging into unforgiving traffic.

A 120-mile loop out to the coast proved that the car could more than make the distance handling four-lanes, highways, county roads, sweeping turns and hills.  Going up, it is appalling to watch the KWH meter ramp northward.  Descending, however electricity usage almost disappears.  Touching the brakes reverses the flow of energy.  There’s a graphic on the info-screen that shows when this is happening. 

The dash has all kinds of animation and the touch screen is a bit more intuitive than in previous cars we’ve owned.  The seats seem substantial and nicely are detailed for a commuter car.  There’s a way back with room for Edward, our lab mix, but he’s happier when we flop down at least one of the split rear seats so he can join in our conversations up front.  We did want to get out after an hour or so as the spacious interior may seem to shrink a bit over time.

On the road – out in the wild – we’ve yet to see too many Chevy Bolts, however today, when we did, a throwback moment occurred.  Recall the VW bugs of the sixties?  Recall when driving one, someone driving another would wave at you and you’d wave back.  Yeah.  That happened in the Bolt today.  So, cool…

Electric car buyers benefit from incentives from the feds, the state and our local utility.  A $7500.00 incentive from the feds went toward a buy down of the initial lease payment.  With a simple application, we are awaiting a $2500.00 check from the state thanking us for reducing our carbon footprint.  And although a 220 volt charging station costs the user around $800.00, our local utility offers them for free – pay only shipping and sales tax – to owners of electric vehicles.  With installation, the “Juice Box” set us back about $270.00.

The car can be programmed to charge at off-peak hours and we are anxious to see the increase in our electric bill as we appreciate the decrease in the tab we pay to Big Oil and its Washington and Wall Street minions.  We leased the vehicle with the expectation that in three years, something more efficient might come onto the market and market forces might be at work to decrease the current initial costs.  So as far as out-of-pocket savings, we’ll probably not experience much this time around.

We found that we had put an inordinate number of miles on our relatively new Subaru with around town and over to the next one driving, so the main purpose of the Bolt will be to spare the Sube for longer adventures.  That being our goal, the initial impression of this little GM electric is that it offers a pleasant and sometimes exhilarating ‘charge’ for such a wonderfully small car. 

At this point in ownership, we’d get another.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, May 7, 2017


Stumbling across the Carnegie Library in Bayliss, CA

Circumstance has dictated that once every two or three weeks, I drive from northern Sonoma County to Chico, California.  An aging mother enjoys her son’s visits.  The route from Cloverdale to Williams is pretty static, involving a good chunk of CA 20 over the top of Clear Lake and through the Coast Range.  Wonderful ride even after the first dozen or so times.

Once in the Sacramento Valley, a grid of state highways, secondary roads and gravel byways offers almost unending choices to get from point A to point B. 

Some routes cross vast rice fields that in the winter months are thick with migrating geese and cranes and throughout the rest of the year visited by herons and egrets. And other waders. 

Their reflection in the glassy, flooded fields against an azure sky (or a gray one) is always a delight.

Other routes split walnut orchards that in summer invite the passer-by to seek the cool shade and pause for a roadside picnic. 

There’s a great collection of long dead Chevy and GMC trucks near the intersection of River and Ord Ferry Roads. 

And lots of old barns both nearby and distant.

The old US 99 W parallels a frenzied I-5 passing through one-time bergs established as whistle stops along the old California Northern Railway: Maxwell, Delevan, Logandale, Artois, Grapit…

Boarded storefronts and tiny crumbling streets remind us of what once was. 

In some places, nothing reminds us.

Ten miles east of the freeway, CA 45 traces the west bank of the Sacramento River. 

The portions atop levees offer sweeping views of a riparian forest with peeks at sloughs now filling what used to be the river’s channel. 

There’s a nice little store in Princeton to stop for a beverage and a snack, a high school and an elementary school and a little other commerce. No working gas pumps, however...

Just north of town, the skeleton of the Princeton Ferry rests, pulled up to the landing where cars – including our ’54 Ford – once boarded to cross the river.

Glenn has a post office and little else.  Same with Ord Bend although a manufacturing plant churns out something at the crossroads. 

Butte City, Afton, Jacinto, all have pretty much come and gone.

Recently, I traversed the valley on Bayliss-Bluegum Road; Bluegum being the out-of-town spot where many young high school boys may have – or may not have –  “become men” after the prom or some other such celebration.  The motel there is now no longer a motel. 

Heading south on CA 45, I turn west.  Signs indicate the Jacinto Grange would hold a pancake breakfast on an upcoming Saturday morning, and if I miss that one, there’d be another next month.

The walnut orchards near the river give way to rice fields on the fertile flood plain of the Sacramento.  Lettered roads – “County Road S, County Road T,” etc – that are little more than driveways, lead to houses and barns a mile or so north or south.  Wading birds stand like statues in the still canal waters next to the road. 

Weed encrusted implements dot the field edges, coated in rust and field dust.

Then, just ahead on the right: a copse of elms or cottonwoods at a crossroad.  Perhaps something major?  I hadn’t seen a store, a post office or a filling station.  Not even a bar.  But I was coming to a something.

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant businessman and philanthropist.   Pivotal in expanding the American steel industry, he founded the company that would become US Steel.  By the late 1900s, because of his investments in railroads, railroad sleeping cars, bridges and oil derricks, he became one of the richest people ever in America.  Palling around with the likes of English poet Mathew Arnold, English philosopher Herbert Spencer and American humorist Mark Twain, Carnegie’s affinity for the written word and the import of literacy manifested itself, first with the construction of a public library in Dunfermline, Scotland.  His efforts led to there being more than 3000 libraries built throughout the world with nearly 1700 built in the United States.  There’s probably one near you.  (Chico people, check out the Chico Museum on Salem between 1st and 2nd; folks in Roseville, check out the building adjacent to the arched bridge crossing the UP tracks heading north out of town.)

A placid white building, circa 1910, stands near the shade of those elms in what once was Bayliss. 

I stop for a look.  The paint is fresh.  The lawn is trim.  The hours are posted.  Serving the southern section of Glenn County, California, they’re still loaning books.  

Just not the day I happened by.  Besides, my library card expired decades ago.

I stand on the lawn thinking about the visionary accomplishments of this immigrant industrialist, glad to see that the fruits of his love of literacy still flourished.

What else is to be found by the casual visitor to Bayliss?  Not much.  There’s the store.

And an excuse for me to take a picture of an old truck repurposed as a source of power to pump water into an irrigation canal.  Or maybe it’s just stuck inside a cyclone fence.

A few miles further on, I come to I-5 with all of its frenzy and fury and high-speed, gotta-be-there-yesterday travel.  In moments, the Carnegie Library of Bayliss, California is a century behind me.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press