Friday, May 18, 2018


A visit to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum
in Portola, Plumas County, California

The Western Pacific Railroad was organized on March 3, 1903.  The first spike was hammered in 1906.  On November 1, 1909, the last spike was driven on a steel bridge over Spanish Creek near Keddie, California. 

The WP became the all-weather transcontinental route cresting the Sierra at Beckwourth Summit some 2,000 feet in elevation lower than the Donner Summit Route chosen by the Central Pacific some forty years before.  According to Norman W Holmes in his book “My Western Pacific Railroad,” it is the route the Union Pacific would have selected as they built their line west had not the Big Four and construction engineer Theodore Judah chosen the Donner Route out of Sacramento for the CP.

Today, tracing the historic line of the WP along California’s State Route 70 offers the rider (driver) a spectacular journey up the Feather River Canyon – complete with granite cornices, tumbling water, picturesque trestles – out across glorious high-country meadows and pristine pine forests, and into the subtly beautiful Basin and Range.  From Belden to Blairsden (great pizza place in Blairsden) the route is dotted with quaint villages and towns.  If you haven’t driven Highway 70, do so.

And along the way, be absolutely sure to visit the Western Pacific Railroad Museum (WPRM) in Portola.  The museum is maintained by the Feather River Rail Society for the express purpose of keeping alive the history of the ol’ WP.

Here are a few shots of what you’ll find:

Volunteers have collected aging rolling stock some of which dates back nearly 100 years. 

What cargo may have passed through this door?

How many times did this hinge squeak open?

The collection of diesel locomotives is beyond expansive.  Many hold the fading livery of one of the WPs four paint schemes.  Others represent lines the WP purchased during its heyday like this Sacramento Northern road switcher. 

I recall watching this very engine roll up Main Street in Chico when I was a kid (often colliding with automobiles driven by motorists who mistakenly thought a 100 tons of locomotive and freight could stop any time soon.)

This yard unit spent its final years near Quincy working a short line associated with a lumber mill…

… but a close up look at the aging paint reveals that there is likely a bit more to its history.

Looks sorta like an interesting quilt square, now doesn't it?

Although the grade was only 1.2 percent or less, the WP used their Portola yards as a point where extra motive power was released after the pull up the canyon from Oroville.  A shop was built here early on but abandoned when maintenance operations were consolidated to Stockton.  Decaying with busted out windows and without power, the building came into the hands of the non-profit. 

Here, the volunteers have established displays including road signs…

…and cargo.

They also use the shop as, well, a shop.  Currently, a steam locomotive is undergoing restoration.

Staffed mainly by volunteers, one gentleman we spoke with gave new meaning to the term “Postman’s Holiday.” A three-trip-per-week engineer on the UP line from Sparks to Elko, he lives locally and spends his weekends and vacations working on the antique equipment and visiting with wayfarers ensuring that the history of the WP is not lost. 

Back out in the yard, this monster caught my attention…

…as did this remnant of the California Zephyr, the supremely elegant passenger service that, having earlier left Oakland, CA, snaked up the Feather River Canyon on its way to Salt Lake and beyond. 

I remember Dad driving us up the canyon simply so we could get a glistening glimpse at the Zephyr, always thinking, if only…

But my visit to the museum was about to get better.

Behind the old shop, we hear this electro-motive diesel freight unit roar to life.  A cloud of exhaust that, normally, one might avoid, this day smelled like a slice of heaven from by-gone days.

Inside, Charles, a retired steam-fitter is ensuring that all the controls – forward drive, neutral, reverse; brake lever, air horn (two longs, a short and a long when approaching a grade crossing), the bell switch, the forward light and the rear – are operating.

Then he motions me to the engineer’s seat, points down the line and says “Give ‘er two short blasts on the horn and start movin’ forward.”

I operated old number 917 (circa 1950) for over an hour.

If only happened.  I’m still giddy about it.



The Feather River Rail Society, curators of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, is a valuable resource worthy of our support.  Here’s their link to our digitalized present:

My Western Pacific Railroad, Norman W Holmes (Feather River Route engineer) Steel Rails West Publishing, 1996.  This volume contains a concise history of the WP.  The historic photos are fun – as are all old railroad photos to me.  The perspective of the author – a guy who actually ran the route – is unique in the world of rail fan publications.

Lastly, Gumba’s Pizza in Blairsden:

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, May 13, 2018


“The chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned…”
- Luther Burbank

Famed botanist Luther Burbank reportedly said this about his adopted home, his beloved Sonoma County.  And I suppose he was right.  For him.

My “chosen spot of all the earth” is close by, geographically, but different.  In a thick catalog of fond childhood memories, it is a place may well hold the fondest.

I reflect on this at the confluence of two events:

1.     Six months ago, Mom passed.  With Dad already on the other side – he had waited 22 years for this – I now represent the oldest generation and I know what’s inevitably gonna happen.  (Not soon, I hope.)
2.     In the current process of rewriting our living trust, the question is raised, “Where do you want to spend eternity?”

Click on this picture to expand it, because it's a really cool shot.
Yesterday, we revisited the chosen spot.  After all, somebody’s gotta know how to get there.

From a ridgetop deep in the remote California Coastal Range one can see Mt Lassen some 110 miles to the northeast.  Turning west, the bank of coastal fog that blankets the Pacific is no more than thirty-five miles off.  In between both Lassen and the coast lie row upon row, ridge upon ridge of seeming unsullied forests and meadows, forgotten place names and forgotten history.

A quarter-mile down the slope stands a cluster of ancient firs, headquarters for a century-and-a-half ago summer sheep camp.

As a family, we’d visit annually with the last of those who’d actually run sheep up that way.  Woods would be explored.  Rusted relics found.  Meadows would be traipsed.  More relics.  Springwater consumed.  Hide-n-seek played.  Sticks gathered for the evening fire.  Outdoor cooking.  Outdoor everything.

After chow, we would walk to the top of the ridge and watch the sun descend, turning the Pacific sky all ranges of oranges and purples and, finally, midnight blue.  In the dark, we’d stumble down the hill to a campfire that would last well past dusk and to stories told by the old sheepherder that would animate ensuing dreams under a starlit sky and last through until today: Stories of mountain lions and Ford Model As, Friday shindigs at neighboring camps and Sunday stillness shepherding lambs across the glade. 

Campfire tales.  Yesterday, they returned.

Atop that ridge stands a copse of gnarled oaks – “looks to me like a Greek Chorus,” Dad said five decades ago – oaks that had and still have a forever view of Mount Lassen, the Pacific fog, and that favored camp just down the hill.  (I never figured out what Dad meant by a Greek Chorus – always swore I’d look the term up, but never have.  Probably never will – don’t want to spoil the image I have.)

The chorus is at rest.  Silent.  The only sounds are the soughing forest, the murmur of a brook and the occasional report from a red tail or a grouse.

In the merry-go-round of a mind entering, perhaps, the final third or quarter – not exactly the home stretch, yet – this is where the finish line will be: intermingled with Dad’s so-called “Greek Chorus,” overlooking the chosen spot of all the earth as far as eternity is concerned.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Genocide and Vendetta

A book recommendation…

A new neighbor moved in a couple of months ago.  Previously, he had lived in Mendocino County outside of Round Valley along what was once California’s “Trail of Tears.”  Having camped many times near Mendocino Pass as a kid I mentioned my interest in the history of the area.  He went to his bookshelf and loaned me this.

Readable and painstakingly researched, it exposes the awful truth about the creation of the reservation near Covelo in Round Valley and the ultimate eradication of the Yuki (Native Americans) living in the Yolla Bolly region of the Coast Range.  

Published in 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press for 20 bucks a copy, it names names.  And therein lies the problem.

Sources I’ve found report that between 2500 and 8500 copies were produced, but most of them were scooped up by relatives and descendants of the cattle barons and land owners who wished to claim Round Valley for their spreads.  A bogus suit was filed against the authors and publication was ceased. And an important bit of history slipped out of touch.

As an adult, I have had the opportunity to explore a bit of the lovely and unforgiving territory central to this book from the Mendocino / Humboldt Coastline to the Trinities and Yolla Bollys and the river courses of the Eel and the northern Russian.  It is fascinating to take that country and overlay the history written in this book.  On my shortlist of things to do is to re-explore the Yolla Bolly country with my DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer in one hand and a copy of Genocide and Vendetta in the other.  Summit Valley, Long Valley, Round Valley, Sanhedrin Peak, Hull Mountain, Fort Seward, even Weaverville and Eureka – all exist, now, in a richer and more tragic context for me.

I need to return this copy to my neighbor and am seeking a copy of my own for my collection.  Prices online (as you’ll see below) are out of reach, but I suspect that a used book store or an antique shop might have it in its Western Americana, California History, or Native American section.

So, Church of the Open Road parishioners: Please keep an eye out for a copy and let me know if you find one. Priced reasonably, I’ll certainly buy it.

And while we’re at it, let’s do what we can to ensure voices are not stilled by those they might offend or expose.


Hull Mtn. denizen
Genocide and Vendetta Subtitled: The Round Valley Wars of Northern California  
by Lynwood Carranco and Estle Beard.  University of Oklahoma Press. 1981. $350 – $1148.  (Originally about $20.)

Saturday, April 21, 2018


… not so Californee-ized as California …

From Inyo to Modoc, something about the east side of the Sierra Cascade is different.  Perhaps those great mountains that keep out the rain keep out something else as well.  Slower in pace than the rest of California – a bit lower in price, too – travelling along US 395 from Ridgecrest to Alturas provides a peek back at times past.  

In early April, we travelled the southern portion from Kramer Junction (with CA 58) to Minden in Nevada’s Carson Valley.

I – Alabama Hills

Outside of Lone Pine, on the way to the trailhead at Whitney Portal – closed in April due to snow – one passes the Alabama Hills.  

A great display of wind-rounded granite or sandstone, one could be excused for thinking Hop-a-long Cassidy might be about to round a bend in the trail, because this is where they filmed him doing so.

John Wayne, Duncan Reynaldo, Gary Cooper and countless others as well.

A museum nearby recounts the Hollywood history of the area and roads and trails allow visitors to believe, for a time, that they are extras if not in a western, then an ad for a Chevy or a Ford truck or a Mazda automobile rooster-tailing dust across the desert.

Watch out!  Perhaps there’s a sidewinder hiding out behind this. (Probably not.  Outside of Sacramenta, they ain't no sidewinders in Californi-ee. - Walter Brennan as a renegade sourdough in a John Ford Western, shot in these parts.)

The April weather turns quickly and the clouds present a real-life drama without the help of lighting or sound technicians.  

A half-day spent here is a half-day well spent.

II – Manzanar “Relocation Center”

I’d been to Manzanar before. (A link to that visit follows this post.)  In August of 2010, the heat seemed unbearable and it was easy to feel how miserable life was for fellow citizens whose only crime was being born with a different color of skin or a different shape of eye.

In April of this year, a nasty north wind blew rain drops horizontally across the landscape peppering us like birdshot and chilling us to the bone.  

The gale beat at the tar paper roofing and siding. Residents were never far from the fierce elements of springtime.  I don’t want to imagine winter.

The National Park Service has reconstructed a few of the crude dormitories, cookhouses and latrines.

And in the substantial gymnasium, built by the hands of those interred, displays speak to life in this high desert and of the misguided thinking that prompted the creation of this and ten other remote and inhospitable places.

As a tiny girl, a one-time colleague of mine spent time at Poston in Arizona.  At age three, it is hard for me to believe that she was ever a threat to the Republic.

III – Bristlecone Pine Forest

When my computer malfunctions, when the tool becomes and obstacle to getting work done, I often slip into use of my second language – profanity – until the problem is resolved or I’ve tossed the thing out the window.  My traveling partner, I came to find out, has a similar reaction to steep, narrow, windy roads without guardrails.

Such is the road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

I stopped for few pictures.

The Visitor’s Center, some 28 miles east of US 395, offers interpretive exhibits when open (it wasn’t, yet) and a couple of easily accessed trials (if you discount the drive up there) to the oldest living things on earth.

Humbling indeed.  Our visit was truncated by the anticipation of the road back down the mountain.  

On my list is a revisit on Enrico, the Yamaha, affording me more time to embrace the truly timeless nature of… …nature.

IV – June Lake Loop

A side trip on the June Lake Loop might be preferable to rocketing up 395.  The loop swings west to the foot of the precipitous tilted fault-block uplift that forms the east side of the Sierra.  Summer homes and ski cabins cluster in the tamarack pines along the edges of high mountain lakes.

Snow melt pours over rocky ledges…

…filling those lakes with pristine water and perfect reflections.

You can’t help but come away with a crick in your neck after looking skyward at the jagged aretes and peaks of the High Sierra: So near and yet so far.

V – Parting Shot

We chose not to visit Mammoth this trip having been advised that is may be a bit too corporatized for its own good.  Fine winter skiing is offered but in the transition from being an out-of-the-way secret to a destination resort, some have suggested Mammoth may have lost a bit of its charm.  The same might be said of much of Tahoe, further north.

I suspect I may have inherited some sort of a latent desert rat gene from Dad.

Thoughts of mountains and valleys and sage and clouds and a little thunder – rather than speedboats and casinos – are all I need to urge me to return to the East Side.


Notes and Resources:

Along with your DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteeryou should

Read:  The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. 1903. Widely available, Mary Austin writes of the area in a beautifully lyrical fashion, providing the reader with a deep view of the geography, natural history and culture that have shaped and are still shaping this Land of Little Rain.  (My copy, Penguin 1988, has an introduction penned by Edward Abbey making the volume a special treat.)

Purchase: At the bookstore in Bishop or, better yet, prior to departure get: Guide to Highway 395: Los Angeles to Reno by Ginny Clark.  Western Trails Publications, P O Box 2485, Lake Havasu, AZ, 86405. Revised 2013. $20.  A few typos but a lot of tidbits of history that’ll make you want to take – rather than pass by – that non-descript turn off.

Pick up: Available at many businesses along 395 are county-specific guides to backcountry roads with travel tips and advice you’d be wise to follow.  Grab these at any visitors center or small business along the route.  They’re free.

And you may want to visit these web links:

Church of the Open Road notes from a previous visit to Manzanar:

This Inyo County website is quite comprehensive with additional inks to click through: Owens Valley / Eastern Sierra Visitors Planning Guide:

As is this Mono County website:

Though we were just passing through, we opted to spend a lay-over day in Bishop.  We should have planned for more.  Central to many alluring attractions both historic and natural, the town is the type of place where you’ll meet a stranger and leave with a new friend.  Nice, affordable and close to some good eating, we stayed at Bishop’s Creekside Inn:

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, April 20, 2018


…the things you don’t see from the air…

The subtle beauty of the Mohave Desert is too easily flown over en route to Chicago or New York from the West Coast.  That’s a tragedy.  Too frequently the arid landscape becomes ripe for mineral extraction because it’s easy to believe there’s nothing there.

We spent a week visiting this fly-over territory and came away realizing that it’s easy to believe a lot of things that are just plain wrong.  Here are some highlights:

I - Barstow

Most of Dad’s best stories about growing up seemed to center on his young life as a desert rat outside Barstow, California.  I may have visited there once.  That “may have” phrase prompted me to want visit for sure.  

Dad made Barstow sound far more enchanting than I happened to find it the day we dropped in.  The hills.  The trains.  The adventure.  Barstow High School – home of the Bulldogs – where he and his pal Ralphie Fairbanks hopped the fence the night prior to the dedication of the then-new pool to christen it with a moonlit skinny-dip.  The circa 1934 pool is long gone and the Bulldogs are now the Aztecs, but the old building stands.

Trains rumble through on the old AT&SF route.  The old depot has been converted into a train museum where one of the volunteer ladies behind the counter – a woman only a few ticks older that I – said that she, too, went to school with a Fairbanks.  “They’re everywhere in these parts.”

As high school grads, Dad and Ralphie tamped ties on the Tonopah and Tidewater, a mining railroad that left the mainline up the tracks at Ludlow but never quite made it all the way to Tonopah.  I never quite made it to Ludlow.  Perhaps next time.

II – Twenty-Nine Palms
Joshua Tree National Park

The enchantment Dad talked about wasn’t particularly evident in Barstow, but elsewhere it became clear.

Across the valley from our lodging rests the largest Marine base in the United States.

Our place looked as if it had been carved out of the mountainside.

Only minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, ample areas to stroll and hike are available.  April proved to be the perfect not-too-hot time for exploring.

Wind and water and eons carved the landscape.

The panoramas are magnificent, even if a bit shrouded, at times from haze blowing in from the LA Basin.

Rugged plants cling to an arid existence.

Signs warn us not to touch…

… but apparently “Bruce Wayne” didn’t get the memo.

III – Forty-Nine Palms Oasis
Joshua Tree National Park

I haven’t done as much hiking as of late, given trepidation about my gimpy right knee.  But a trailhead, close to the lodge, proved too great an adventure to ignore.

Along the way, we spot a denizen of the desert.

Cresting the ridge, we are rewarded with another great panorama.

Not to be lost are the cactus blooms that dotted the desolation.  Soon we realized things weren’t all that desolate.

Down the trail stood a grove of palms.  The oasis.

The water was non-potable for humans, but apparent ‘pote’-enough for this stand of trees.

From the oasis, a view down 49 Palms Canyon out to the 29 Palms area is pinched between two hillsides.

Dotted here and there are life forms foreign to those of us residing west of the Sierra, like this Barrel Cactus.

IV – Pioneertown

North and west of the full-service community of Yucca Valley rests the sound stage where, at any moment, James Arness might come staggering out of the saloon with Amanda Blake in tow.

Not so much an actual town but a Hollywoodification of the old west looked like, Pioneertown mimics history with its rustic facades…

…broken down artifacts…

…and out-of-service infrastructure of days gone by.

Perhaps most curious, however, came from the heavens this day as we spy something better suited for Area 51 hanging over the mercantile.

Spooky.  Very Spooky...

V – Parting Shot

If nothing else – and there is something else – the flora of the desert invites me back.

Next time, I’ll be sure to visit Ludlow.  Maybe I'll catch up with Dad and Ralphie.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press