Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Iowa Hill Road - to Colfax


A LATE AUTUMN TRIP up the hill and I find Iowa Hill, a spot forgotten by time. Maybe not literally, but I sure didn’t see any power lines on the road in or out. Houses are dotted here and there, along with a store, a fire station and a school supported by a solar collector rigged next to it. No gas station, but a nice assortment of battered old pick-ups and equipment. There’s a church, the congregation of which meets the first Sunday of the month, and two cemeteries. Back in the nineteenth century, a bar was a bend in the river where the deposition yielded color for some stumpy-fingered sourdough. In the twenty-first, a bar is something that tells you how much clarity you can expect from your cellular phone. Except in Iowa Hill. In Iowa Hill, a bar is right there in the general store.

Iowa Hill Road slips from the crest of the ridge and curves west into the deep recesses canyon of the North Fork of the American River. The pavement is narrow – perhaps two arms-lengths wide – carved into the rocky canyon wall. Blotchy asphalt patches the worst of the potholes. On this dusky November afternoon, whispers of moisture hang in the canyon’s shadows and the distant view finds the rugged rock walls of the Royal Gorge melting into a soft afternoon vapor. The remains of a chorus of fallen rocks litter the narrow pavement. The route asks for agility, not speed.

At the bottom, willows and berries consume the 1890 suspension bridge. The American slips between boulders and willows and wild rhubarb and burbles beneath the rusty, ancient span. I walk across, broken plank decking and all. The road takes “new” bridge – circa 1954 – crossing just down stream of a campground. People encamp in cars, well past the fourteen-day limit. And send their kids to school where? Up the hill to Colfax? Or back up the hill to Iowa Hill? Is this one of those “pockets of poverty” that Spiro Agnew talked about remedying 40 years ago?

Looking up the nearly vertical wall on the other side, chiseled across the top, is the Cape Horn route. The infamous point on the Central Pacific where “Chinamen” were lowered from the cliff’s edge in wicker baskets to chip out and blast away ton after ton of granite – and sometimes their own souls – to make smooth the path of progress. A few years back, the hill side stretching from the North Fork of the American twenty-five hundred feet to the top of Cape Horn was burned bare by the work of a transient who was said to have got himself pretty messed up – probably with product from the chemistry set up found in the abandoned travel trailer a few hundred yards away – and set to entertaining himself by lighting toilet paper wads and sling-shotting them into late September’s dry grasses.

Brilliant. This is the progress those Chinese laborers blew themselves to smithereens for.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. You really need to be writing...you are quite gifted! Great to see you today and I will continue to visit your blog and keep up with you! Jill

  2. Thanks "Jill." Please pass the blog address forward to anyone who may be looking for a place to go - locally - or who might be crazy enough to spend time on a motorbike. Great to see you as well.