Tuesday, January 17, 2017


A Church of the Open Road

My father was an honorable, honest and straightforward man – except when it came to cookies.  Mom was a prodigious cookie baker often producing double and quadruple batches of Toll Houses or Gingersnaps in an effort to ensure our classic, fired-clay cookie jar was always full.  She was famous in the neighborhood.

As a letter carrier, Dad would leave for work before sunrise and pedal home at around 3:00.  Having been on his feet all day, he’d collapse in his chair for a thirty-minute siesta then rise to go prospecting for a snack.  Ever bountiful, the cookie jar was a virtual Mother Lode – one that would never disappoint.  There was a drawback, however.  It seems the clinking of the fired-clay lid back down on the fired-clay jar resonated like a pick’s head on bedrock, often alerting Mom that someone was fixing to ruin his appetite within an hour or so of dinner.  Raging invectives would follow from the sewing room or the laundry. Nabbed in the act, Dad would sheepishly slip the Snickerdoodle back into the jar and sneak away to partake in a pipeful of Half-n-Half out on the back patio or in the den.  There, he’d sit quietly puffing and contemplating.

Apparently, he eventually contemplated this:  On the counter near the cookie jar was a stand-up holder for paper napkins.  If, armed with a four-fold napkin, he could carefully lift the jar lid, snatch a nugget or two from within, lay the napkin atop the jar and gently replace the lid, then he could slide the napkin out and the lid would settle silently into place. 

At some point, spying him lumber into the kitchen after his nap, I peeked around the doorway and caught Dad returning a napkin to the holder.  It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on and that I could use this information to – what’s the word I’m looking for? – blackmail him.  Thus, every day for months and months – maybe a year or more – Dad and I enjoyed a smuggled cookie about an hour before dinner.

One day, however, Dad screwed up.  As we tittered and snacked and he congratulated himself over his shrewd and refined ability to continually outsmart Mom, he must have forgotten to slip the napkin out from between the lid and the jar.  Mom obviously discovered this, but said nothing.  Instead, the by the very next day, mysteriously, napkin holder disappeared from the counter.

And for the remainder of his time on this planet, Dad never figured out where that napkin holder went.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, January 15, 2017


A Church of the Open Road
call for civility

Check out this clock face.  It is round with twelve at the top and six at the bottom and all the other hour designations properly marked numerically around the edge. 

The clock face is the image upon which we might graphically represent and then examine how others may view us rightly or wrongly – or how we may view others, again, rightly or wrongly – based upon the tenor of our discussions and debates.

But before we do…

My first teaching assignment was in a remote and impoverished school far, far away from any major city, town, interstate or even state highway.  I would be there as a substitute for about four weeks.  During that time, I received an education the likes of which one doesn’t receive in Teacher College. 

The community was pretty evenly divided between two groups. One was then called hippies and perceived as system-draining welfare leeches of questionable morals who’d never held a job, probably raised a then-illegal cash crop and generally bummed off the system.  Kids came to school poorly clothed and poorly fed, late and often not at all.

The other was the chronically unemployed worker, many of whom claimed to be both God-fearing and disabled.  They drove battered vehicles with questionable emissions and brakes, kept the local grocery afloat through the purchase of beer, cigarettes and diesel fuel.  Kids came to school poorly clothed and poorly fed, late and often not at all.

Little evidence existed to suggest to me that members of either group actually worked for the money off of which they lived.

The biggest complaint I heard from parents of either group had little to do with my lousy, inexperienced teaching capability and a lot to do with “makin’ sure mah boy don’t sit anywheres near that [fill in the blank.]  Seemed to me that a member of one group was always at the throat of a member of the other.

In my young mind, both factions seemed fanatical to a new-to-me extreme.  I was only 23 at the time – so sue me – but both groups appeared to be about the same in their crazy disdain for the other.

Now, thinking about our graphic…

Image I:  Our clock face shows a single hand pointing directly at 12:00.  12:00 represents normal – not to far too the left, not too far to the right politically, socially, economically, spiritually, and neighborly.  Most everyone imagines himself or herself at 12:00.  When we get to the end of this paper, let’s agree to first concentrate on how we view others.  We can be far more objective about others than ourselves because, well, we’re right where we want to be.  12:00 o’clock.  Perfect.

Image II:  Viewing our clock face, that single hand is now pointing directly at 6:00.  Straight down.  That’s where all the crazy people are.

At this point you should be thinking: Huh?

Image III:  Bear with me and see that the clock face has a vertical line running from 12:00 to 6:00.  1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 and 5:00 rest on the right hand side of the line.  11:00, 10:00, 9:00, 8:00, 7:00 rest on the left hand side.  This bisected clock face represents folks’ political, social, economic, spiritual and neighborliness if we labeled the 1:00 to 5:00 side conservative and the 11:00 to 7:00 side liberal. 

For the purposes of this little task, let’s examine the terms conservative and liberal and view examples of beliefs folks within those categories might espouse.

Student News Daily offers these ideas contrasting the two groups:

·      Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems.

·      Liberals believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.             

Source: Student News Daily © 2005, 2010.
You are invited to check out the post on their website 
for more specifics.

These descriptions aren’t perfect and the two categories “conservative” and “liberal” probably don’t cover absolutely all nuances or points of view.  But you’ve invested about five minutes in this exercise all ready, so keep playing along, okay?

Image IV:  Now the clock face has two horizontal lines.  One crosses the clock face running through 10:00 and 2:00 (where you should place your hands on the steering wheel when driving – but that’s a bird walk).  The other crosses the clock face running through 8:00 and 4:00. 

The clock face has been divided into three bands – one centered on 12:00, one centered across 9:00 to 3:00, and one centered on 6:00.  Each of the three bands represents different degrees of behaviors practiced when discussing or debating an issue, a concern, or something hot in the news.

In the 12:00 band, people hold opposing views about government, economics, neighbors and families.  It’s a Giants / Dodgers or Yankees / Red Sox kind of thing where you may root for one team or the other, but everybody likes to see a good game.  People discuss their similarities and differences agreeing sometimes and agreeing to disagree at other times.  When the game is over or plebiscite results are tallied, folks support the outcome, even if the other guy won, perhaps resolving to pitch a better game or conduct a better campaign next time around.  As citizens, they stand behind the new leader in a manner similar to how passengers on a jet plane get behind the pilot of the airliner knowing that if the plane crashes the results are not good for anybody.

In the 9:00 to 3:00 band, discussion is more heated.  Resolution of differences is more difficult.  Listening begins to take a back seat to speaking often because folks are planning their next rejoinder prior to hearing all of their opponent’s argument.  The mood is less cordial, and folks may leave unhappy with the discussion mulling the points they’ll be sure to make next time around.

The 6:00 band is typified by acrimony, and harsh words. While persons residing in the 12:00 band at 1:00 or 11:00 might engage with one another, in the 6:00 band, those at 7:00 and 5:00 mostly associate only with other 7:00ers or 5:00ers.  As in war, the opponent is often de-humanized – make sure mah boy don’t sit anywheres near that [fill in the blank.] Brothers don’t speak.  Adult kids lose respect for those who brung ‘em up.  Combatants sunshine only the parts of the story that support their conclusion or advance their narrative. To this end, creation of facts is acceptable and commonplace.  Name-calling is considered fair play. Libtard, asshat, and many other new defamations crop up as defense when positions are indefensible.  Talking heads who make stuff up point fingers across the divide claiming the other guys make stuff up.  Legislatively, one side stonewalls the other until they gain power then cries foul when the other side threatens to stonewall them. Things are said – well, written on social media sites – that if they were spoken in a barroom might send one or more participants to the hospital or worse.  Civility is not even a distant memory and agreement is rarely, if ever, reached.  And the airline passenger in me wonders: Is anybody out there concerned about whether the plane makes it safely to the airport?

In summary, conservative thought resides on one side of our clock face graphic, liberal on the other, and behaviors evolve (or devolve) as we descend through the bands from 12:00 to 6:00. 

Back to that remote elementary school…

For over forty years now, the dope smokin’ hippies and the disabled rednecks have both been firmly ensconced at or very near 6:00 on my imaginary clock face.  Crazy.  Bat-shit crazy, some might say nowadays.  Both, in my opinion, arrived at the same place but both took opposing routes to get there.  At least that’s the view of this once-23-year-old.  Four decades later I am beginning to wonder: Was the polarized circumstance of that rustic elementary school a harbinger of what we’re all witnessing on a much larger – and more consequential – scale today?

Now long out of the classroom and more recently out of the field, the teacher in me cannot resist posing a few questions at the end of this little exposition.  So here goes: 

·      From your position on the outside looking in, where do you find our important national discussions / debates today?  Does our collective position on the clock face need to change?  If so, how is that change accomplished?

·      Where might others view your position on the clock face?  Is that where you really want to be?

·      Finally, if you could change others’ perception of your place on the clock face by changing your behaviors, interactions and contributions, would that change contribute to healthier discussions and debates…

… and, over time, a more civil, healthier and stronger US?

Perhaps sadly, the teacher in me is also tempted to ask: “Bueller?  Bueller?”

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, January 7, 2017


… in words and pictures

I’m not much of a photographer, although sometimes something likeable will come from a series of shots taken on the road or trail.  I’m on my third pretty-good Panasonic camera (with an excellent Leica lens) for which I will credit much of my photographic fortune.  Here are a few pictures that turned out pretty well last year:

January:  Sonoma County’s wine country is glorious any time of year.

Old barns will always make me stop and ponder the days of cooperative effort it took to build ‘em.

February:  The Triumph Thunderbird replaced both my Italian and my German scoots.  A pleasure to both ride and look at, the T-Bird is found in more than its fair share of photos.

Fishing access to San Pablo Bay off CA 37.

March:  An historic crossing of the Eel River at Benbow.  Check out the Inn’s accommodations there.

Iris in the sunshine on the trail near the house

April:  Who could not be moved by a visit to lower Manhattan’s 911 Memorial?

The Triumph poses in West Marin County.

May:  This guy looked like he didn’t want us visiting his turf.

Close up of toothed blade at the High Dessert Museum’s mill reproduction in central Oregon.

June:  A creature great and small.

Typical view through the windshield.

July:  Humboldt’s Mattole Road near Cape Mendocino.

Sunset at Sonoma County’s Sea Ranch.

August:  Old trucks fascinate me, as do old barns.  Many, I’m sure, have stories to tell.  This one did.

A couple from Tasmania happened through on this vintage Guzzi having crossed our continent on it.  My little adventures pale in comparison.

September:  My two favorite traveling partners sneak up on an elk herd at nearby (and nearly dry) Lake Pillsbury.

Hugs and kite.

Meeting new friends on Hull Mountain.

October:  First major road trip on the Triumph.  Ice age effects on ancient volcanic peak.

Have you ever noticed that fire lookouts always seem to have tremendous views?  Why is that?

November:  Shore bird.

More birds.

December:  Time travel trip: Life off the grid (before there was a grid) at the Carrizo Plain.

Derelict implement.

My favorite travel partner (and her dog Edward.)

Shot of the Year – Second Runner Up:  Old truck.

Shot of the Year – Runner Up:  The World Trade Center.

Shot of the Year:  I don’t know why I like this shot.  It is simply a raccoon footprint in the mud, but the lighting last January had my eyes playing tricks on me.

2016 played a lot of tricks on me – perhaps many of us – it turns out.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


 a holiday tale for 2016

I never met Amos but here’s what I’ve been told...

About seventeen years ago, and both recently retired, Amos and his wife moved to their brand new home.  Perhaps it was their first brand new home.  A pleasant place – just this side of heaven – its fresh stucco painted white and its sizeable back yard sloping up to a green belt, shaded by an ancient, pre-subdivision black oak that seemed to cascade stubbornly hard-to-rake leaves heavily late in the fall.  Amos maintained the house with paint and polish, and the yard, planting and replanting flowering shrubs and annuals, ensuring adequate water and mulch.  The result?  A bit of springtime stretching into sultry summers and many evenings watching moonrise while enjoying the warmth of lovingly caressed hands.  Come November, he’d rake those leaves.

At some point, Amos’s wife passed.  I’m not sure how long they were married, but I know that if my wife passed, I’d consider folding my tents and calling it a life.  Clearly I’m not Amos.

Amos turned to the community in which he lived staying active at the lodge on various boards and councils and bocce tournaments. He kept his aging fingers on the pulse of his little way station ‘just this side of heaven.’  He organized transportation for those who couldn’t otherwise make an appointment or, perhaps, shop in 30-mile distant Santa Rosa.  He participated in a kind of meals on wheels – maybe he started it – wherein those laid low by an illness or a loss had something hot delivered until order was restored in their lives.  A fixture in the community, I picture him on morning walks greeting and being greeted by whomever else was out. I suspect that both handshakes and hugs were common.  That’s the way it is in a community.

Perhaps a dozen years into Amos’s time in the neighborhood, circumstances turned the way circumstances do.  Gradually, Amos transitioned from being the support to being provided for.  Instead of driving people in to town, he found himself being driven.  Instead of preparing meals for the infirm, meals began coming his way.  I have no knowledge of how Amos felt about his freedom to assist being replaced by his need for assistance.  I do know – people have told me – that folks signed up to take him places and bring him food.  There was a waiting list.

One June, a few years back, Amos became housebound.  In late autumn, as leaves rained off that old black oak and scuttled down the back yard slope, someone – family, I suppose – decided that caregivers should be employed to assist twenty-four hours a day.  Because the following is part of what paid elder care does, many aides spent hours listening to records or watching television or swapping stories with Amos – or reading or dosing off while he rested – waiting for the moment when he needed assistance to the bathroom or help with nourishment.

At the same time, Amos’s focus during those days turned to ensuring the comfort and caring as much as he could for those whose charge was to care for him: MTV rather than college football; frozen pizza rather than chicken soup.  Or so it was reported.

This I was also told:  It was December 24th, Christmas Eve, four years ago.  Shift change happened around 2:00 PM.  His afternoon assistant was a young mother who lived on the other side of town.  She had two toddlers, each probably bubbling with the anticipation and excitement that only that night’s visit from Saint Nick could bring.

Around five, the young mom began to stir in the kitchen, preparing Amos’s evening meal, when he called to her from the guest bedroom where his hospital bed was set.  “Julia (I’m making up the name) Julia, come here.”

I suppose Julia came right to his side.  “¿Está bien, Amos?”

“I’ll be fine, just fine,” he said.  “But you.  It’s a special night and you have two little ones at home.”

Están con su papá. Son bien.”

“They should be with their mother.”

No puedo. Mi turno no… no…

I picture him raising a tired hand and, with a bluing finger pointing for emphasis: “Usted será.  You will.  Now please go on home for this evening.  Gracias.”

In the ensuing moments, surely with many conflicting thoughts racing though the young mother-caregiver’s mind, the front door quietly clicked closed as, in the dusk of this special night – Christmas Eve – ‘Julia’ headed back across town.

In Amos’s Little village, emergency service response is, at most, three-and-a-half to four minutes from phone call to arrival.

Amos called 911 shortly after that door clicked shut.

Medics did not revive him.

How do I know all this?  Through a fiduciary, we purchased Amos’s house.  Over the past couple of years, countless neighbors have shared their stories, often reminiscing about a handshake or a hug.  Two – maybe three – have spoken about that Christmas Eve.  Others have asked if we knew Amos personally.

I’m beginning to think I can answer, “Yes.”

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Opening a Church of the Open Road discussion

It has been over a month since our great land began the “smooth transition of power,” no matter how unsmooth the process appears this time around.  In those weeks, the awful rancor of the 2016 election has done anything but abate.  Although seemingly magnified now, it is a given that with the upcoming change in administration, some people will benefit and some people will – how do we say this? – benefit less.  Some folks will enjoy gains in wealth and security and personal satisfaction, some won’t.  That, it can be argued, is the normal result of any election. 

But our reaction has been anything but normal.  Or civil.  Fans of the president-elect still clamor for his opponent’s incarceration while foes of the outcome cry for some sort of postponement in the Electoral College process until all the facts are known about out-of-country influences in the campaign(s). These and other doubts, misgivings and finger-pointings are manifested on social media as a mélange of marginally literate tweets and/or barely factual Facebook memes designed to create sides and accentuate differences rather than bridge those differences.  The incoming administration appears to distrust the CIA, the CIA and the FBI struggle to look at the same evidence and arrive at the same conclusion, Congress refuses to take any action that might involve compromise or bipartisanship, while the person on the street has difficulty differentiating between news and outright lies cloaked as news. Meanwhile, no one is receiving the answers they want to hear to the questions they are asking.  The populace seems mired to its axles in the mucky aftermath of campaigns based less upon policy and issues and the better angels in us all, than in flashpoints of innuendo, character assassination and generally nasty behavior.  The result?  A country not moving forward.

Lee Iacocca, in a series of ads for Chrysler in 1992 said, “You either lead, follow, or get out of the way.”  [Actually that quote belongs to Thomas Paine and/or General George Patton.] One can only imagine that power brokers in other corners of the world, seeing our raucous disarray, might be of the opinion that the United States is about to tumble into that “get out of the way” posture.  Not an enviable position for the country that used to be the envy of all others.

So here comes the question:

Viewed through a lens framed by these words…

…form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…

What positive actions can each of us take, rising above the currents of distrust and anger, to move us forward again as a country? 

The continued gnashing of teeth won’t get the job done.


A request:  The Church of the Open Road invites your response and you can do it in the comment section of this blog post, even though you may need to go through that “Captcha” authentication process.  Please do.  If you choose to respond on Facebook, where you may have first discovered a link to this post, know that I would like your permission to copy any comment you make* into the comment section of the blog.  That way, we’ll actually have a discussion.  [*You will show up as “anonymous.”]


What prompted all this?  A buddy of mine and I have been sharing our  - let’s call ‘em “concerns” – about the recent unfolding of events.  Apparently, he’d been having similar discussions with others when his daughter – perhaps growing weary of his bitching and whining, as, I know, many of my family members are – said, “We may be very unhappy with the outcome (of the election) but having repeated discussions of worry and consternation will not help.  We need to change the discussion and start talking about what is most important and then define the actions we need to take with respect to that which we deem most important.”  To which I would add:  “And then act.”

With the help of some “Church of the Open Road” community members such as you, perhaps we’ll begin to formulate a refined discussion and begin to move things forward, lifting ourselves out of the muck, mire and gloom and into a brighter tomorrow.

Thanks, in advance, for your thoughts and participation.

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, December 12, 2016


Part of the Pinnacles, Carrizo Plain,
Central Coast Range Tour

On a tour of the central portion of California’s Coast Range, I ran into a wanderer.  An unsung, historic one.

Turning left off of CA 166 onto Cottonwood Canyon Road just west of Cuyama, history-geography-trail-guide John recounts the story of Nancy Kelsey, the first American woman to cross the plains and the Sierra into California in 1841.   

Married at age 17 to Benjamin Kelsey she endured the hardships of the continental crossing, carrying a baby in her arms, because she said, the hardships of the journey would surely be less than those of a life without the man she loved.

The man she loved would turn out to be a prolific killer of the native population.  On CA 20 just west of Clear Lake, a historic marker tells of the Bloody Island encounter.  Ben Kelsey had a hand in that.  On the southwestern shores of that lake one finds the little berg of Kelseyville.  Named for him.  But there’s a Kelsey in El Dorado County between Placerville and Georgetown also named for him.  In Eureka, history tells us the Kelseys were turned away because area fathers enjoyed productive and compatible relations with the natives and they didn’t need Ben and his ilk to “fix” anything.

Between traveling into both Mexico and Oregon territory, the Kelseys found themselves in Monterey during that pivotal time in which Americans wrested control of California from the Mexican government.  There, Nancy Kelsey (some say, perhaps with others) was tapped to create the new republic’s first Bear Flag.  Arguably, she was the Betsy Ross of our state.

Ben died in 1888 and Nancy moved to the remote parts of Santa Barbara County we were exploring this day.

A few miles south on Cottonwood Canyon Road, a derelict firewagon tells us we've arrived at the Sleepy Creek Ranch...

...a wonderful off-the-grid B&B run by archaeologist Bonnie Goller.  

She graciously allows us to visit Mrs. Kelsey’s final resting place on a shaded bank over-looking a dry arroyo.  Not a bad place to spend eternity, I’m thinking.

Upon our return to the ranch house, Ms. Goller shares a bit of the research she has conducted into the life of her nearby resident.  We find that Nancy Kelsey actually lived two canyons over in (you guessed it) Kelsey Canyon.  She gave birth to eight children, many who were prolific in that regard themselves. 

Curiously, etched into a concrete slab next to Nancy’s grave is the surname Clanton.  It seems one of Kelsey’s daughters married a brother of son of Ike Clanton, the gunslinger killed at the OK Corral in Tombstone in the famous dustup involving Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Small world.

But the true greatness of Nancy Kelsey's life and legacy - like most women - had much less to do with whom she married than who she was.   

Her adventures are briefly recounted on a plaque placed near her grave by the Oregon-California Trials Association. 

(Grab a tissue then click the photo to enlarge, please.)   

Nancy Kelsey died in 1896, asking only that she be buried in a "real coffin, not something scrapped up with old boards."  Fittingly, she rests in the most sublime of places with Bonnie Goller caring for both her and her legacy.


A few websites provide insight into her remarkable life: http://cherylannestapp.com/pioneer-women-nancy-kelsey/

Details on the Sleepy Creek Ranch – book and evening or two!: http://www.sleepycreekranch.com/


The more I travel throughout the west, the more I can trick myself into believing that there were actually very few Americans that actually settled this vast and vacant space.  That few just moved around quite a bit.  It seems that everywhere I go, I run into an historic figure that I know from some place two, three, five, eight hundred miles distant.

Wheels are made for rollin', and mules are made to pack…*

Exhibit A:  John Bidwell, founder of my hometown in the middle of the northern Sacramento Valley.  Destined to become a member of the 39th Congress, he came across the arid west crossing the Sierra in 1841 with the consequential Bidwell – Bartleson Party, which included Ben and Nancy Kelsey.  A while back, while touring along the Sonoma Coast, I saw a familiar photo of Mr. Bidwell.  Seems he was hired by John Sutter to deconstruct Fort Ross, salvage the redwood to be repurposed at Sutter’s Mill along the American River – certainly a great distance from Chico.  I had no idea.

Mud can make you prisoner, and the plains can bake you dry…

Exhibit B:  Jean Baptist (Pomp) Charbonneau, son of Sacagawea.  As an infant he crossed the northern stretches of what would become our nation with Lewis and Clark.  Adopted by William Clark, he travelled to Europe, there to rub elbows with a German prince and the like.  Returning to the states in 1829, he worked as a guide reciting Shakespeare around campfires.  “Pompy” died at age 61 having been thrown from a horse into a river near Danner, Oregon as he sought fortune in the Idaho Mines.  Charbonneau research led me to the factoid that he spent about thirteen years running a way station on the North Fork of the American about walking distance from my house in Rocklin.

Home is made for comin' from, for dreams of goin' to…

Exhibit C:  William Canfield, a survivor of the Whitman massacre on eastern Washington’s Columbia Plateau in 1847.  A blacksmith back then, he hid in the rafters of his flaming shop until the avenging Cayuse figured all the white folks were dead.  Canfield snuck away (one or two others survived, as well) ending up in the Seattle or Portland area where he caught a steamer to San Francisco, later making his way up the Petaluma River; thence to now-nearby-to-me Sebastopol where he is buried in a cemetery bearing his name.

I was born under a wandrin' star.

In truth, there were many strong and hearty folks who wandered from place to place finally coming to this land, setting roots and creating the foundation for one of the world’s most culturally diverse and economically powerful entities ever.  Many of the heralded pioneers were men.  But far too many of our courageous pioneers were unheralded women.
* lyrics by Alan J Lerner

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 10, 2016


The Pinnacles, Carrizo Plain,
Central Coast Range Tour

Were they situated anywhere else in the world, California’s Coast Range would be considered both sublime and spectacular.  Mountain peaks rise over 7,000 feet and valleys ranging from verdant green to desert gold lace the north-south expanse.  Fortunately – or unfortunately – the Coast Range is a distant cousin of California’s higher and more majestic Sierra, thus often overlooked by travelers, birders, hikers, motorcycle enthusiasts and/or general adventure seekers. 

Having settled for a time in the Russian River Valley, exploration of the north-of-the-bay Coast Range has been a delight.  From the rugged Pacific coastline to the heights of Snow Mountain, roads, both paved and graded gravel have led me to the place names of cattle camps, logging sites, hot springs and way stations.  Mostly now abandoned.  Always, there is something new to discover or wonder about.  Always there is the romantic thought: What might it have been like to settle in the middle of this beautiful nowhere? Followed by: Where was the nearest grocery store?  Of course, there wasn’t a nearest grocery store.  Folks settling in these vacant and distant reaches in the late 1800s were on their own, farming, grazing and scratching out a life in a landscape where the average soul would simply wither.

Recently, an opportunity to explore the south-of-the-bay Coast Range presented itself.  The excuse was to follow the San Andreas Fault crisscrossing from the North American Plate to the Pacific Plate.  What I discovered was a delightful more-of-the-same.

Pinnacles National Park:  Perhaps as remote a National Park as any in the system, Pinnacles is a mere 20 miles off US 101 but a world away from it’s traffic, noise, commerce and general hubbub.  Centered on a unique geologic formation, this tiny park – until recently a national monument – is accessed by CA 146 from Soledad or CA 146 from CA 33, but 146 does not go through. 

My simplified understanding of California’s mountain geography developed in college where I learned that the Sierra is a tilted fault block, the Coast Ranges are essentially folded and all the volcanic stuff was in the Cascade Range roughly north of the Feather River.  Reality – brought about through travel – exposes a new truth: volcanic activity happens almost anywhere along the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.  Including the Pinnacles.

There is a small system of trails that link both stubs of CA 146.  In between, the 23 million-year-old remnants of volcanic activity have created weathered domes and, where seismic activity has broken things loose, caves than can, seasonally, be explored on foot.  Climbers climb, spelunkers spelunk, hikers investigate woodland canyons and campers camp under the watchful eyes of circling red tailed hawks; always on the lookout for rare and endangered red-legged frogs.

The Pinnacles deserved far more than the three hours we could commit to our visit.

Parkfield:  The San Andreas is strike-slip fault marking a six hundred mile stretch of the collision zone between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.  A strike-slip fault is one where the activity moves laterally or horizontally rather than up and down.  Fence lines that were once straight, roadways that are cracked and now misaligned and bridges with bends in their steel railing all evidence strike-slip faults.

While, in general, the North American Plate is riding over the Pacific Plate, for reasons that escape my level of understanding, the land mass over the Pacific Plate is slipping northward while that over the North American Plate moves south.  Should this continue for another billion and a half years, the Giants and Dodgers will again be cross-town rivals and won’t that be great!

Parkfield is among the more seismically active spots on the west coast.  The USGS maintains a manned station to monitor activity along the fault.  And the little village makes the most of its rockin’ and rollin’ heritage inviting visitors to “be here when it happens.”

It didn’t happen while we were there, and the rustic little café happened to be closed at lunchtime, so we moved on, crossing over to the Pacific Plate, knowing we’d need to schedule a return to Parkfield if we truly wanted to get in on the action. 

Carrizo Plain National Monument:  The San Andreas Fault forms the eastern edge of the Carrizo Plain at the foot of the aptly named Temblor Range.  The partly paved – partly graded Soda Lake Road bisects the monument from northwest to southeast.  Accessing from Seven Mile Road off CA 58, the initial view is of dry ranchland and sage very reminiscent of the parched areas of Nevada east of Reno and Carson City. 

South on Soda Lake Road, we pass the entry point and the agricultural nature gives way to a dry plain that in March is carpeted with wildflowers.  December, however?  Not so much.   

The further into the monument we travel, the more it felt like we were somehow reversing time.  At the north end of the monument rests the road’s namesake lake, a low point where winter’s scarce rainfall collects and settles.  No outlet.  During the long, hot dry season, the water disappears leaving the largest alkali lakebed in all of California.

To the west, a promontory known as Painted Rock preserves petroglyphs from the area’s earliest inhabitants, the Chumash and Yokuts, among others.  For much of the year, permits are required to make the half-mile trek from parking to pre-history.  It seems that early in the 20th century, vandals had their way with these antiquities, and the rest of us must pay the price.

Further on, the visitor’s center provides insight into the plants and animals native to the plain.  Nearby, weathering farm implements from a hardscrabble era ending fifty years ago are displayed in a long rusty line against a backdrop of hills that seem older than time.

The closer you look, the Carrizo Plain management team suggests, the more you see.  At one point, my exploratory buddy took a phone call: there is cell service – no potable water – but cell service.  I hopped out of the big 4-Runner to simply hike down the middle of Soda Lake Road.  Within a few hundred yards, I was taken by the grand nothingness of it all – and all the little details otherwise missed by simply driving through. 

Here, the silence is so deep that, at sunrise or any other time of day, you can hear your own heartbeat just standing still. 

The whole thing – the horizon, the desolation, the history – was captivating.  I found myself thinking: What would it be like to settle in the middle of this beautiful nowhere?  Then: I wonder where the nearest grocery store is.

Enamored by this too-short visit to California’s Central Coast Range, I vow to return to spend more time exploring.  Although I’m concerned that there may never be enough time to fully grasp the vastness, remoteness and simple grandeur of this land so routinely overlooked by others.

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press