Saturday, June 25, 2016


The Sea Ranch is a several thousand-acre development of gracefully designed homes set above ocean cliffs or nested deep in the coastal woods.   

It used to be a center for logging activities supporting San Francisco’s growth, then sheep property.  Some evidence of that ranching heritage still remains.  California’s Highway 1 – one of the world’s greatest motorcycling roads – ask anyone – bisects the development.  For a ten-mile stretch, small, well-maintained private roads reach into the prairie grasses that top the coastal rim, and amongst those grasslands are ribbons of houses most people I know could not afford to own. 

The Sea Ranch was going to be a modern coastal community located between Marin County’s wealthy enclaves to the south and Fort Bragg’s gritty, working-class outpost to the north.  There’d be grocery stores, hotels, galleries and recreation – all placed on this windswept tableland west of the San Andreas Fault and east of the Pacific.  It would be a play land for the affluent who could, in essence, have it all with them as they left it all behind. At least that’s my rudimentary understanding of it. 

At the time of The Sea Ranch’s origins, private coastal properties could change hands – change from ranching to subdivisions – change from open range and to privatized beaches and bluffs – without much oversight, coordination or discussion of opportunities gained or lost beyond those monetary.  Enter the California Coastal Commission whose existence owes itself to the threat of a widespread locking up of our coastline.  Visionary one time Sonoma County Supervisor, the late Bill Kortum lead a charge suggesting that the coastal expanses belonged to the citizens.  Excess, as it was proposed, needed to be curtailed in the interest of access. 

Many times I have traveled this section of highway thinking how great it would be to stroll along the tops of the bluff with that on-shore breeze whipping at my face.  Signs warned me off in all but a handful of designated access routes to specific postage stamp sized beaches.   

Now, however, because I dropped about a grand on three nights in a beautiful house only steps from the shoreline, I can access over fifty miles of trail with views stretching nearly to the Golden Gate, nearly to Cape Mendocino – the lower 48’s westernmost point – and, one imagines, nearly to Hawaii.  Not bad.

The conundrum is this:  When the land was privately held, cattle or sheep ranchers fenced and gated miles of the coast between highway 1 and the bluffs.   

Riding along on the BMW or Guzzi, I never considered parking at a wide spot, squeezing through the rail fence and traipsing across private property in order to glimpse a section of rocky coastline or roiling sea.  Why, then, should I be upset that a development of privately held homes restricts my access?

I know the answer to this, of course.  The Coastal Commission had it right.  Their argument that the coastline belongs to all and that access is for everyone is just in a socialistic sense.  Perhaps not so in a corner of the world where private holdings bring esteem and demand respect. 

Nevertheless, the kibosh was placed upon such urbane development and a more modest, but certainly quite upscale plan evolved: 

A clubhouse, some preservation of historic buildings, tended and groomed trails and CC&Rs.

From the porch of my mine-for-three-days home I determine that not much could be better than sipping a piping cup of Point Arena’s locally roasted coffee while the morning unfolds before me. 

Buzzards roost nearby. 

Swallows flit here and there. 

A grazing doe slips past. 

I can always hear the sea’s murmur punctuated by the distant bark of harbor seals and the occasional screech of a hungry raptor. 

This is a place where you can take that book you’ve been meaning to read with depth, the one that takes all your best and most focused concentration to fully appreciate, and although interrupted only momentarily by a kit fox carrying off a hapless vole or field mouse as he scampers between your house and the next, finish the book in a deep and satisfying manner.  (Mine happened to be Ian McEwan’s 2005 morality play: Saturday.) 

Later, I watch the afternoon breeze pick up, worrying and bending the coastal prairie grasses to its will. 

Members of the non-migrating herd of deer will soon be out for their evening forage.  Edward, the lab mix, will see them and downshift into his predator mode from behind the picture windows. “Can’t I just have one of them?”  “Sorry, Ed, No.”  The Sea Ranch is a pleasant, controlled place, “and you must be on a leash at all times.” 

The sun sets and the winds calm and the sea air floods the house through the home’s open windows, inviting us out for a moonlight stroll. 

Perhaps there’ll be harbor seals again tonight.

Yeah.  I like this.  But I’m not sure about the fairness of it all.  I think I’ll need to secure this rental for a few days in October, and again in February – perhaps yet again this time next year – to further research my feelings on the matter.


Accessing “The Sea Ranch”:  Located on California’s legendary State Route 1 about midway between Tamalpais Valley where it leaves US 101 in Marin County and Leggett, north in Mendocino County, where it rejoins it, there are several engaging routes linking the coastal highway with 101.  Get a good map or atlas and explore.

Rental information is readily available.  We secure ours through

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, June 18, 2016


“Unseasonable weather is typical this time of year.”
- Dad

This would be the first “tour” on the Thunderbird LT.  LT reportedly stands for “light touring.”  We’d find out.  Our goal was to drive north to Eureka, east to Yreka, where brother Randy would split north on his Guzzi Stelvio, and I would head further east to Burney and Lassen Volcanic National Park.  Summer being but a week away, the weather should be perfect.  But, as things turned out, unseasonable weather is typical this time of year.

Upon my return home, I realized I did not stop frequently enough for pictures, as is so frequently the case.  But oh, well…

Every good ride starts with a good breakfast and we are never disappointed with the fare at the Bluebird Café in Hopland, California.

We pose the bikes at a lovely rest stop north of Willits on US 101.  A nice place to pause even if you don’t have to “rest.”

Having stayed at the historic Benbow Inn, just south of Garberville, I insisted we stop there for coffee just to show the place off to my riding partner from Washington State.  The historic bridge and the inn are sublime.

North of Garberville on the old 101 at Redway, a route heads west toward the Kings Range National Conservation Area (great, remote Lost Coast hiking) and Shelter Cove.  Bearing right on Ettersburg Road toward Honeydew the pavement tunnels through oak woodlands and across dry pastures.  I’d taken this route on the more capable BMW GSA a year ago and, about forty-five minutes into this leg of the trip, I realized why I swore I’d never take it again.  Just two-and-a-half miles from Honeydew the road begins a very steep descent, corkscrewing down perhaps 600 feet in elevation in what seems like about a four hundred yard section the way the crow flies.  The problem is that, with no turn around and with a stupid desire not to revisit the previous forty-five minutes of travel, this is where the pavement ends.  Hidden beneath a four inch layer of dust and grime is a jumble of brick-sized rocks each intent on throwing the unsuspecting motorcyclist off his or her mount.  And I was on my pristine, new, 800-plus pound Triumph Thunderbird with, as yet, no scratches.  Second note to self: Don’t do this again!

Mattole Road is paved, sort of.  We follow it west of Honeydew and past Petrolia, the little wayside where oil was first discovered in the state.  We find reward for our gritty recent travel after several chunkily paved miles: a six-mile run just north of the Lost Coast.

Brother Randy opines that the Mattole Road could provide someone engaged as a pothole filler employment for life.   

From this remote section of coast, we climb over Bear River Ridge and drop in to Ferndale for a slice of pie and a little time out of the saddle.

Day 1 ends at the historic Eureka Inn a short stroll to that city’s picturesque fishing port and some pretty good dining at the Café Waterfront  

The route from Eureka to Yreka would be less challenging to either bike’s suspension.  US 101 north along Humboldt Bay is a delight in the early morning mist.  East on CA 299, we pause at a vista point to glimpse the coastal-most hills, but the big blue Triumph somehow gets in the way of the photo.

CA 96 junctions 299 at Willow Creek where we’d stopped advisably to top off and inadvisably for coffee.  96 passes through Hoopa, crosses Mill Creek Ridge and then drops into the Klamath River Canyon.  With sweeping curves through rocky canyons and into and out of remote burgs, state route 96 may be one of the great motorcycling roads in all of northern California – which is saying something.

An oft-forgotten historic fact is that California’s gold rush reached this far north and west.  Mining claims are still active.

A fine suspension bridge crosses the river at Orleans, worthy of a photograph, but, once again…

To further animate our ride, an early wildfire was active west of Happy Camp; helicopters swoop into the depths of the canyon to capturing Klamath River water to be dumped on the blaze.  Seeing the various stages of fire-scarred hillsides on this drive, one wonders: Is there ever a time when some portion of the Klamath National Forest isn’t on fire?

All in all, it is 156 miles from Willow Creek to Yreka.  The highway traces the Klamath in a most engaging fashion, but toward the end of the run, the limited fuel capacity of the ’09 Stelvio becomes a concern.  Topping off in Willow Creek was the right call, indeed.

After a late lunch in Yreka, brother Randy headed north while I sojourned east into the Cascades.  A leadened sky portended showers, but it wasn’t until twenty minutes down I-5 that I stopped to wriggle into my rain gear, placing my camera a layer or two out of easy reach.

California’s route 89 is also a keeper.  Coursing from Mount Shasta City south to Topaz Lake on US 395, it crosses the Cascades and the Sierra past lovely lakes (including Tahoe) warranting several days simply to appreciate its diverse beauty.  I’d get only as far as Burney, enjoying high pine forests illuminated by dappled sunlight as the series of thunderstorms bumped overhead.

Arriving at my lodging early evening, I shuddered to think of my newly beloved Thunderbird getting soaked as the night’s rain set in, but there are some things you can help and some things you can’t.

My plan for day three involved touring Lassen Park on CA 89.  Reports indicated that its winter closure ended two days ago, but by morning, the snow level had dropped to 5,000 feet.  With the park road’s summit at over 8,000, I chose a westerly escape route down a curvaceous, but wet, CA 299 to Redding and then home.

Disappointed?  Nope.  As a six or seven-year-old on my first backpack trip – mid-June in Lassen Park – sleeping bag in a plastic tube tent as rain and hail pounded Dad and me to sleep, I’d learned early on that, in these parts, unseasonable weather is typical this time of year.  Dad said so.


Tour Route – Day 1:  US 101 north; at Garberville/Redway, west on Briceland Road bearing right onto Ettersburg Road (I’m tellin’ ya: don’t ever do this!), at Honeydew west on Mattole Road to Ferndale; north on 101 to Eureka.  Day 2: US 101 north to Arcata; east on 299 to Willow Creek (get fuel!); north on 96 toward Happy Camp and Yreka.  South on I-5 to Mt. Shasta City, east on CA 89, west on 299 to Burney.  Day 3: Live right and it won’t have snowed in Lassen Park, otherwise, continue west on 299 to the North Valley around Redding.

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, June 17, 2016


Escaping LA, my folks moved us to a five-and-a-half acre spread on a creek near Chico.  The back four acres were planted in almonds; the front was a fruit orchard that would soon succumb to too much water when Dad decided to put in a lawn.  The lawn Dad envisioned turned out to be an acre-and-a-half predominately made up of weeds. 

As the task of tending of the grass-weed parcel grew to an enormous reality, Dad purchased a heavy-duty lawn mower from a power tool shop around the corner on Nord Avenue.  A Jacobsen by brand name, it was unlike any mower any kid in the neighborhood had ever seen before.  The thing looked like a weird mechanical grasshopper with big, big bicycle wheels on the back, a smoke belching two-stroke engine set between the wheels and a nasty, spinning blade propelled by a V-belt under a cowling that stretched about three feet in front of the motor.  A long, black, custom-bent steel pipe shaped like a squared off U formed a handle.  It was about eye level for me.

By the time the peach and plum trees finally gave up, brother Bill was about ten and I was eight.  Both of us needed spending cash so Dad arranged that if Bill would mow the acre-plus to the left of the gravel driveway, he could earn about a two bucks a week.  I was in charge of the smaller parcel on the right for seventy-five cents. 

Wow! I thought. Almost a whole dollar for an hour’s worth of pushing the grasshopper-mower around the yard?  

In my mind’s eye I could see all the neighborhood boys perched on our rail fence watching me with envy as I operated the thing.  On top of that, there was this: A little mom and pop called Neal’s Market was located about a block off my route home from Rosedale Elementary.  The Neals sold homemade tacos for a quarter from a counter toward the back of the store.  I figured with that kind of money, I could get me a taco almost every day of the week on my walk home from school.

“It’s a deal, Dad!”

For I don’t know how many years, brother Bill and I dutifully tended the grass and weeds in front of the house until Bill found other interests and my mathematical prowess informed me that two-and-a-quarter for three hours mowing an acre-and-a-half of grass didn’t pencil out no matter how many tacos it would buy me down at Neal’s Market. 

Dad would be on his own. 

Soon, a bright red Toro riding mower arrived, and while we were once again eager to contribute to the lawn’s upkeep, Dad was loath to let us mount up and race around the yard and pull wheelies on it.  At some point after the appearance of the Toro, the Jacobsen disappeared.  I thought it might have been sold back to the mower shop around the corner, but brother Bill insists Dad just gave it away to someone who had weeds to knock down somewhere else in town.

Chico is a small northern California city that, once many folks move to it, they don’t move away.  It is a beautiful example of small-town America.  In the mid-50s, there was a state college and a nice main street with train tracks down the middle. The creek we grew up on coursed through town splitting the streets to the south from the avenues to the north.  The watercourse offered a pleasant, musical burble while its pools proved to be a cooling place to swim on sweltering summer afternoons.  With the passage of time, those who moved in but not out of Chico have brought growth, but not much has really changed.  The college is now a university and the tracks down Main Street are gone.  Some shopping has moved from downtown, but the creek still provides a soothing soundtrack on quiet evenings.

Our five-and-a-half acres was sold and subdivided decades ago and career moved me away.  But brother Bill stayed near town, purchasing a parcel not dissimilar from the one we grew up on.  Lots of ground.  Lots of weeds.

I visited the other day and something caught my eye.

Seems brother Bill was right.  Dad did pass the Jacobsen to someone who, like Dad, ultimately gave up on having acreage with weeds to conquer.  When the person decided to downsize, by one of those small town quirks of fate, Bill found himself helping with the process.  His compensation?

“I’ll take that old mower, if you don’t have a use for it.”  

© 2106
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, June 3, 2016


A Church of the Open Road Report
about family, food and bigger things…

The restaurant is called Scopa (  Tucked into a narrow space across from Healdsburg’s town square, the venue seats about thirty inside and, through the window that opens onto the street, another eight at a common table on the sidewalk patio.  Intimate. Italian. Perfect for the evening.  Our dinner was in celebration of the 24th anniversary of Candi’s 39th birthday.  Attending would be our wine-making daughter, Jessica, a young professional who knows her way around this wine-centric town and its wine-centric wine lists.

After some small talk with the waitperson whom she’d known through various encounters in the industry, she settled upon a Piedmont Gio Dominico Negro Arneis for the salad course to be followed by a “big” 2012 Aglianico from friends Ryan and Megan’s Ryme Cellars (  Both bottles would arrive at the same time with the red decanted in order to breathe, volatilize and do other stuff a country boy like me lacks sufficient sophistication to fully understand.  The red would accompany a rib eye which was ordered not rare or medium, but “perfect.”  And it would be enough for three.

About halfway into salad, a group of thirty-something gents hailing from Dallas, we were to discover, sidled into that outdoor table just though our open window.  As Californians, we’re supposedly not ‘spozed to think much o’ Texans, now are we?  Cultural differences?  Conservatives versus liberals?  They’d brung a couple of magnums of something red purchased on the square.  Overheard were questions about which white wine from the list that might precede their repast.

“Try this,” Jessica said as she handed the half-full remains of the Gio Dominico through the opening.  “Really.”

After a bit of Dallas Cowboys / San Francisco 49er ribbing, the Texans learned, thanks to the waitperson, our daughter’s roots in viticulture and our celebration with three became, for a time, a celebration with ten.  They were visiting the area intent upon checking out some of the area’s 400 wineries and, as a result of our cordial chitchat, at noon the next day, they’d be visiting Jessica’s Passalacqua by-appointment-only winery. (

Dinner came.  Salted, peppered, seared, barely transitioning from red to pink on the inside, and accompanied by crisply roasted Yukon Golds, the rib eye was, indeed, perfect.  (“Bet they can’t find steak this good where they come from,” I said just loud enough to elicit chuckles from the guys out the window.)  Ryan and Megan’s Aglianico paired perfectly, and to top it off, a mysterious man-about-town, sitting deep in the recesses of the restaurant’s narrow footprint divined that this was somebody’s birthday and provided a molten chocolate soufflé which proved to be dessert.  Again, perfect.

Dinner out in small town America – where everybody knows everybody else, or soon will.

Concurrently, a couple of hours south, in San Jose, protesters engaged in a violent confrontation at a rally for a rather polarizing political figure.  Made the front page. A yuge unflattering image, to say the least. 

Sad.  Counterproductive.  Unnecessary.  Behavior that makes ‘Murica look doltish.

Better, might I opine, had those factions sat down and shared a delicate Arneis or a big Aglianico with something chocolate and, I don’t know, chitchatted…

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


At about age four, Santa gave my brother and me trains for Christmas.  They were S-gauge Gilbert American Flyers: bigger than HO scale but smaller than the more popular Lionel, and with two rails instead of Lionel’s three, more realistic.

I distinctly remember my train coursing around the Christmas tree: a Union Pacific switcher followed by a brown box car, a flat car with stakes so that it could hold to-scale sections of pipe, and a little red caboose that my tonally challenged mother sang about.

Within a couple of years, we moved north from the LA suburb of Altadena to a five acre “spread” along a creek in Butte County that included a grove of almond trees.  Lost in that transition were some elements of the American Flyer train set including those replica pipes.

My flat car needed new cargo – you know – freight.

In those days, our little farmhouse’s laundry room contained a Kenmore washer, but for drying things, Mom relied on the old fashioned, tried-and-true, solar powered clothesline out back.  On laundry days when it rained or was foggy, she set up a drying rack back porch.  It was made of half-inch dowels and 1x2s and it opened sort of like an accordion. 

But it didn’t rain all that much, so for most of its life, the rack sat on its end collapsed next to the Kenmore.

Just short of the orchard, in a long, narrow structure behind the house, Dad had a shop, a tool shed and a vacant space he converted into a train room for his sons.  A twelve-inch wide shelf skirted the entire interior.  We laid S-gauge track and could spend hours watching our trains chug around the rectangle.  There was one problem, however.

My flat car still needed freight.

One sunny day, while Mom was off to Harvey’s Market, the neighborhood mom ‘n’ pop, or a PTA meeting or something, I had little else to do with my time but watch my train do its circuit with the flat car rolling around and around naked.  It occurred to a seven-year-old me that some half-inch dowels, cut to the correct length would make a dandy load for that empty freight car.  By this age, I could boost myself up onto Dad’s workbench and grab his prized Disston-Porter hand saw, and the drying rack proved not so cumbersome that I couldn’t haul it out to the shop.

Finally, and by my own hand, my flat car had its freight.

About a week-and-a-half later, it rained on laundry day.


Note:  Here’s the locomotive.

And for a view of some of the freight cars supplied by Gilbert for their American Flyer toy trains check out:

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, May 28, 2016


More on shopping locally, thirty-five miles from home

I live in a place where there are no bad roads.  Even the freeway that cuts through town is palatable: north to the redwoods, south toward the bay.  Secondary roads?  A week ago, I ventured to a tiny grove of redwoods – just a dot on the map.  Yesterday, it rained and I rode west to the coast.  Today?  I was running short of the whole bean coffee I grind each morning for my single cup of Joe.

My first experience with a really nice motorcycle involved an ’83 BMW R65.  Perhaps a bit too small for my lanky frame, I enjoyed the occasional commute from one end to the other of Sonora in Tuolumne County for a haircut.  I chose a barbershop that required a good thirty minutes on skinny and entertaining roads for my once-monthly riding delight. Twists. Canyons. Pines. Granite. And then the shears.

Long ago, it became my practice to shop locally as far from home as possible.  My intent yesterday was to buy coffee, but I ended up taking a route that led me in exactly the opposite direction to a nice little chowder house with a view of a churning sea just off the pier in Point Arena.  Not surprisingly, today, I was still short coffee.  Funny how wanderlust can derail even the simplest of agendas.

Sonoma County, California, it is said, has more soil types than all of France.  Perhaps this is why Sonoma’s main agricultural endeavor seems to be wine grapes.

Travelling along the secondary roads, over ridges and into vales, vineyards appear as rolling waves across the undulating landscape.  Real picturesque.  Generally, we find Pinot Noir and Sauv Blanc to the west, Zins and Cabs in the drier regions east.  But pocketed microclimates married to soil regions borne through the combination of tectonic forces and eons of erosion bear blocks of myriad fruit, each with specific characteristics based upon genetics and locale.  If one likes wine, Sonoma County is heaven.

Likewise, if one likes a range of riding experience, Sonoma County does not disappoint.  Today’s excursion traced the edge of the Alexander Valley, crossed the Mayacamas hills and descended into the northern reaches of a Napa Valley that may not quite deserve the vaunting wine reviews it receives; at least that’s what those of us in Sonoma County believe…

To be sure, there is – or was – more going on in the realm of agriculture in this region than simply viticulture: cattle are grazed, fruit and nut orchards dot the landscape and tiny farms, organic and otherwise, checkerboard the area.  But overall, the acres and acres of grapes, which have displaced perhaps too many of the old time farms, provide a beautiful backdrop for the twisting, rise-and-fall pavement that invites a casual throttle and a relaxed pace.

The ride through northern Sonoma County into neighboring Napa County is a rewarding two-wheeled escapade.  The city of Calistoga is a berg of a few thousand situated at the north end of the Napa Valley.  Though there is an a comprehensive John Deere tractor dealer on the east end of the main drag – bring a grandson or daughter and buy ‘em a green ball cap – the community’s agricultural roots are deeply hidden by a burgeoning tourist trade: mud baths, a quaint downtown, tasting rooms monikered with names famous for stuff other than wine.

Allow and hour or so to stroll the street.  A great bookstore awaits.  A classic California café, as well.  And the Calistoga Roastery: it offers the whole bean coffee that, they claim, “wakes up Napa County.” 

I use this independent business as my excuse to do seventy miles of enchanting pavement.  The roastery sells whole bean and blends whose essence, the day after, reminds me of the pleasantry of the journey – smooth, warm and satisfying.  Plus, at the Calistoga Roastery, a pound of coffee still weighs 16 ounces.

What could be better?

I’ll ask myself this question tomorrow morning over a warm and fragrant cup and conclude: “Not much.”

For the ride and the commerce, I’ll be back in about three weeks, unless I should happen across another roaster while exploring a different thirty-five miles of twists, turns and stunning scenery – somewhere else local.


Notes:  Info on Calistoga may be accessed at:

Specifically, the Calistoga Roastery’s website is:


Routes:  Yesterday: north on US 101, west on state route 128; south on state route 1 to Point Arena.  Right on whatever the street is that leads a mile out to the pier.  Chowder house is there.  Try the Manhattan.  Return?  South on state route 1 to Jenner, east tracing the Russian to Monte Rio, Guerneville and Santa Rosa; to 101.

Today:  South on US 101, east on state route 128 at Geyserville to Calistoga.  Left onto the main drag.  Return?  Retrace.

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, May 22, 2016


A Church of the Open Road Mini-Memoir
(and this one’s a classic)

About a year ago, when we moved into our new-to-us house, and having left the old pair at our previous residence, we found ourselves in the market for a washer and dryer.  Consulting a leading consumer magazine, we fell into the purchase of the first laundry units we’d ever owned not sourced through a US corporation: Korea’s Samsung.  The new set does a marvelous job cleaning our laundry with more lights, buttons and sounds than we’d ever understand.

For example, whether it’s the washer or the dryer, when the immediate cycle is complete, a sweet little tune is chimed in a brisk 4/4.  I hadn’t heard this rif before and figured, since the company is headquartered in Seoul, perhaps it was the Korean national anthem.  I began to salute, out of respect, and long for some spicy Korean barbecue, a taste sensation unavailable in our new town.

With our transition from the Sacramento area, I’ve had to adjust the presets on my Nissan’s radio to new stations. I’ve always liked classical music and, many times tuned into Cap Radio’s KXJZ after a particularly taxing day.  In our new environs, there’s a fine classical outlet that is based in San Francisco.  The selection of music and their informative commentary has made KDFC (88.9) my go-to when travelling anywhere within their signal range.

About a week ago, while heading south on the 101, a familiar tune aired, played by a piano in front of a string quartet.  Suddenly I was consumed by an overwhelming urge to pull to the side of the freeway, fold t-shirts and remove the permanent press from the dryer before it wrinkled. 

My knowledge of Franz Shubert’s catalog has always been limited, but it grew a little that day.  I’d been listening to his Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, commonly known as  “Trout.”  Here’s a link to a lovely performance of movement 4, the tune our Samsungs sing:

Still, a week after this revelation, I’m thinking how odd that the Republic of Korea would choose this melody for their national anthem.

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, May 20, 2016


…the lies I told my students

Early in my teaching career, I came up with the idea of using read-aloud time with students to prepare them for whatever the next social studies unit of instruction might be about.  So, while I was teaching California geography to my fourth graders, I’d be reading Scott O’Dell’s classic Island of the Blue Dolphins to surreptitiously provide a little background knowledge for the upcoming unit on California Indians.

In preparation for my unit on the westward movement, while teaching about California Indians, I read a compelling novel called Oregon At Last! by a Dutch author named A.Rutgers Van Der Loeff.  It tells the remarkable tale of the seven children of the Sager family.  It seems the family, like so many others during the 1840s, decided to leave Illinois and migrate to the fertile prospects of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  Tragically along the way, mother died shortly after giving birth, then a few weeks later, father died.  Alone in a foreign and hostile environment, oldest boy, John, led his brothers and sisters through floods, fires, blizzards and threats of bears and wolves to finally arrive at Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s outpost on the banks of the Walla Walla River. 

The book was a great read, with the savvy reader – me – learning that if I closed the volume about two sentences before the end of each chapter, just before each crisis was resolved, my students would clamor for me to not stop, sometimes even disturbing the class next door with their protestations.  They loved the book and many were in tears at the end when Narcissa Whitman, clutching the eight-week-old infant declares: “Where did you come from?  I cannot believe that I’ve ever seen a child so beautiful as you.”  Or something to that effect.

We used the themes of the book to write our own stories about bravery, perseverance and luck.  All good stuff.  Except…

Long on my list of things to do has been a visit to the grounds of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s outpost near the Columbia River.  The story of their care for the Sager children long drove this desire in me. 

In the 1835, prompted by an evangelical movement known as “the Second Great Awakening,” easterners Reverend Samuel Parker and a young Dr. Marcus Whitman traveled to Oregon country to assess the prospects of establishing Presbyterian Missions in order to save the “heathen natives” who’d long settled in the area. 

Parker remained west while, in 1836, Whitman returned with his new bride, Narcissa – one of the history’s first two white women to venture west of the Rockies – and a group of evangelical volunteers along what was soon to become the Oregon Trail.

Painting of Whitman Mission as imagined by William Henry Jackson based on written descriptions.
The mission was established and relations developed between the Whitmans and native Cayuse.  Whitman taught the native population farming and irrigation techniques – and religion – and ultimately built a gristmill, blacksmith shop and a large adobe house.

With the influx of immigrants, the mission of the mission changed from that of civilizing the Indians to providing aid and rest to the newcomers who’d suffered immeasurable privations on their journey west.  Among these were the seven Sager children.

But the kids hadn’t roughed it alone as Van Der Loeff (and later, Disney: recall the film “Seven Alone”) would have us believe.  The practice of the times was that if a parent died, others within the traveling company would pitch in – and if both parents passed, offspring would be divvied up amongst other families and cared for.  Such was the case with John and his siblings.  Tragic, but not quite so compelling a tale.

National Park Service
In 1847, a measles plague swept through this section of the Columbia Plateau.  Dr. Whitman’s medicine appeared only to work on immigrant children.  The children of Cayuse died, sometimes several per day.  Believing that the Whitmans were responsible, the Cayuse determined that in order to save their people, the white people needed to die. 

A monument is erected atop a nearby hill with a sweeping view of the area the Whitmans hoped to tame.  The plaque thereon lists the names of those killed in the assault including John Sager and a brother, both of whom had stayed at the mission.

The story of the short existence of the Whitman Mission provides fascinating insights into our movement west, our penchant for believing our religion is somehow superior, the tragedies that befell both the whites who first ventured onto the Columbia Plateau and the natives they encountered.  Remains of the outpost include only the foundation locations of some of the original buildings, a restored pond that had provided irrigation water, a resurrected orchard, and a pleasant interpretive center. 

National Park Service
After a visit to this spot, one cannot but be moved by the enormity of what events here precipitated. Citizens moving west established the Oregon Trail, which might not have taken its soon-to-be-established route, had it not been for the mission.  Word of the tragedy prompted Washington to deploy personnel to protect citizens moving west.  Treaties were written, signed and ignored.  And many brave and beautiful cultures were ultimately trodden to dust as one people overtook another.

You may find yourself driving away consumed in reflective silence.



The Whitman Mission is a National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service.  Details:

The Park Service has provided an excellent video exploring both the Native American’s and the immigrant’s perspective on the Whitman Mission and the tragic events that unfolded.  It is well worth 25 minutes of your time and may be accessed at

Related: A fine Oregon Trail Interpretive Center has been established by the Bureau of Land Management in Baker City, Oregon another worthy stop while on the Open Road.  Details:

For one man’s contemporary view of the Oregon Trail, check out my little review of this recent book, in which, in the end, the author pays his respects to Mrs. Whitman:

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press