Friday, November 13, 2009

Capay Valley - Hwy 16


I WONDER, as I cruise through little bergs like Madison, Capay, Brooks and Rumsey, if the folks who live out here know what they’ve got. We sometimes view folks who live in rural spots as being somehow less. Less fortunate. Less well to do. Less intellectual, maybe. (Now THERE’S a damning statement.) Maybe because they possess less stuff. And the stuff they possess is dinged up. And bent. Or rusted. Or worn out. Or maybe just worn. Don’t these folks aspire for more? Don’t they want?

California State Route 16 leaves Interstate 5 just north of Woodland and heads west toward the first of the Coast Ranges. The late winter almond orchards near Esparto have yet to bud, so whizzing by, naked, black trees stand in a beds of tender green winter grass, with spindly, wicked sticks reaching into a crystal blue atmosphere. A storm passed through a couple of days ago, so the air is pure – tastefully sweet. The morning fog had dissipated. When the angle of the sun is just right and the color of the sky the right shade of azure, and the bank of the motorcycle perfect, the occasional pond or stilled creek water just beyond a bridge becomes a cold, sapphire mirror. Glass.

The Coast Range and the little hamlets and outposts dotted there-through are among the last undiscovered gems in California. One day, I always think, I’ll explore all the inner-mountain valleys that hold such delights as Lodoga, Stoneyford and Elk Creek. Hit the mom and pop stores along the way. Taste the honey and wine. Take a week, I think, and start at about Fairfield and head north to Happy Camp riding only the secondary roads that slip in and out of the folds of the Coast Range.
Today I would do just a bit of that.

THE PROPRIETRESS at the Guinda Corner Store remembered when you could drink water out of the creek, a comment she made as I bought a bottle of Aquafina, “but not this creek.” A leg stretch around this little crossroad town finds a mud and concrete bridge, rounded smooth by the passage of decades, spanning an abandoned ditch that may have supplied water to both the community and the orchards: “1911” the dedication plaque states.

Back down the road a piece, I’d passed the Cache Creek Indian Bingo and Casino. A tiny piece of Las Vegas misplaced in the tranquil Capay Valley. Not that the Indians shouldn’t be allowed to have casinos. Fleece all the white folks whose ancestors took it all away. I only wish those who are going to use Highway 16 to get there would get the hell out of my way when I’m on Highway 16. It is too fine a road to waste on a Buick Park Avenue, in my opinion.

Physically and, at some points, spiritually, I’m one with both the machine and this road as each lifts itself into the mountains following the rocky course of Cache Creek. The curves are inviting, open and enjoyable once the casino traffic has bowed to its Mecca. Out of the sun and into the shade and back again, I experience the temperature: a little chill, a little golden warmth, a little chill again and a little of that thick humidity that the morning sun has failed to yet vaporize. Aromas of an early spring: pastures, mown grass. A wisp of diesel from the pump working the creek. And music that seeps out of my head and floats around inside the helmet. This time, I think, it’s Strauss. Maybe Bizet. Your music will be different.

Presently, there’s another little village. Rumsey, the sign says. Diesel repair shop with a big American flag. Closed up bar. Post office not much bigger than a postage stamp. Really! I’ve got a garden shed out back that’s bigger. And, was there a store?

Then more hills and creeks and pastures and turns of pavement.

HIGHWAY 16 ENDS at Highway 20 and a left turn there leads me toward Clear Lake. South on Route 53 to 29 and I wind down into the Napa Valley. A wonderful Dolomite / Tuscany style road that snakes through redwoods and oaks on the hillsides and descends into vineyards and traffic.
Still a beautiful day, but now I’m a-mid a string of about fifteen other vehicles stuck behind an RV with a little girl jumping up and down on the bed in the rear. I see this through the big slug’s back window and shudder to think what might happen if Grandpa ever lost control. He’s pulling a trailer with a fishing boat and two bicycles strapped securely, I’m hoping, on top. The guy behind me pounds an irrational rhythm on his horn button. Soon, several others join the chorus. Some Sunday drive, I think.

My mind goes back about two hours to a bit of the conversation with the proprietress at the ancient counter of the Guinda general store.
“Mighty quiet,” I’d said.
She’d replied: “Perfect.”
And I realize that these people – at least some of them – want exactly what they’ve got.

© 2004
Church of the Open Road Press

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