Monday, December 20, 2010


ABOUT MID-NOVEMBER, when what we call “cold” in Northern California sets in and we’ve pulled from the cedar chest the woolen shirts and extra blankets for their properties of comfort, we had a holiday. It wasn’t one marked on the calendar.

The local paper predicted that the first big storm of the season would slip down from the Gulf of Alaska, and, like clockwork, it did. Coincident to that, family had lost a member, one who’d been hurting for some time. In the days before the advent of the storm, we’d gathered in the city to say our farewells. We would all return to our respective homes resuming lives that were, at once, a little bit richer and a little bit poorer.

Then came that polar burst from the Gulf. It started with a gathering overcast – one that fully insulated the earth from the sun. The temperature dipped and a drizzle developed, prompting use of the intermittent setting for windshield wipers while driving up the Interstate. As the storm matured, the rain became steady and darkness fell without sunset.

Down to the city, after services but before parting, someone mentioned that perhaps they could come to our section – maybe visit for an evening. And they did.

I think that suggestion sowed the seeds of holiday.

LIKE THOSE WOOLEN COATS and blankets, a bracing stew is a favorite essential of late autumn evenings cloistered in fog and mizzly precipitation. Cubes of beef and lamb are rolled in a flour mixture, browned in a skillet, and set to steep in a bath of bouillon and water. At the opportune time, chunks of carrot, celery, turnip, bell pepper and potato are added. The mixture simmers and the house is filled with a tantalizing aroma that boldly declares: this winter may be bitter, but we’ll beat it.

Such as this was cooking when, with a gentle rap on the door and a chorus of welcoming barks from the dogs, folks arrived.

Warm apple pie had been pulled from the oven to be replaced by biscuits made with too much baking powder.

“No guarantees,” the self-anointed chef said as he slipped them in.

A DANCING ROW OF FLAME from a pressed-wood log tickled the metal edge of the only-on-occasion-used fireplace. With red wine, we toasted the departed. Then we toasted each other. We sat and ate at a table not big enough to accommodate our number. We bumped elbows and off-handedly drank from our tablemate’s cup. The sorrow of loss quickly dissolved: first with a titter, then a barb, then laughter. One spoke. Then we all spoke. Then we all laughed some more. Most had second helpings of the stew. The batch of biscuits did not see the end of the meal.

“Save room for pie!”

Another bottle had been uncorked and a third – perhaps even a fourth – waited.

IT BECAME ONE A MOMENT that could never last but would always linger. By late in the evening, folks headed home: To Texas, to Maryland, to parts unknown – and some only back to the city an hour or two down the Interstate.

Those of us who’d hosted sat for a long spell – fairly quiet – wrapped in warmth. The dishes would wait.

As they left, somebody had said: “We must do this again.”

“And soon,” said another.

“Yes, soon,” said another, “because there are no guarantees.”

It had indeed been a holiday –one in which no gifts were exchanged.

Except for the gift of family.

1438 Bidwell Avenue.  Circa 1958
© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, December 17, 2010


If you let one get away, you’ll always be one behind.

- Sage advice from somebody’s uncle,
though likely not about scenic by-ways.

WARREN, A FRIEND FROM THE BAY AREA, called the other night. “Say,” he began. “I was thinking of you the other day. I was in Likely (Modoc County) and took the road over to Eagleville.”

“Up to the Surprise Valley?” I asked.

This he confirmed and added: “Lots of Canadian geese in the stubble. And some Great Blues in the standing ponds.”

I’d passed near that section this summer, returning from Wyoming. Stopped in Likely for a Coke and had seen the road of which Warren spoke. A bit saddle weary at the time, I said to myself, next time I’m up this way.

When our conversation concluded, I reached for my California Atlas and Gazetteer, looked up the route and thought, what if there is no ‘next time?’

NORTHEASTERN CALIFORNIA exists as if were separate and apart from the rest of the state. It exists as if frozen in time. Outside of pickup trucks, farm implements and some stretches of paved road, Modoc County is wonderfully romantic window into nineteenth century life.

Driving up 395 several years back, I detoured into Cedarville, capital of the Surprise Valley. I consumed a pizza and two beers at open mic night – fellow played a pretty fair honky-tonk while a young gal in tight jeans sang western songs. All for about fourteen bucks. In the morning, I was unable to finish the “Ranch Hand” breakfast at the café across the street. I paid cash to the proprietor of the four-room motel a $42 room, thinking he might not take American Express.

(c) New Day Academy
OUT ON THE HIGH LONESOME, the air is clear and sweet, perfumed by sage in the spring and summer and hearty wood smoke in the fall and winter. The peaks of the Warners some years never lose their snow, the melt of which provides irrigation for vast expanses of hay, wheat and cattle.

Every vehicle on the road is a truck, with Chevys seeming to predominate. Most are aged with finishes baked to a shineless patina by long days operating under an intense sun. Every truck is driven by a rancher whose broad-brimmed hat is not a fashion statement: rather, a necessity. Every pickup box carries a cattle dog, antsily pacing its confines, waiting for the trigger word so it can leap out and herd something.

photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle
But for every rancher in a truck, there’re two or three commuting on horseback.

WARREN'S TRIP to Eagleville occurred this past November. “Got dark real early. Setting sun kinda turned the snow pink. I’m not sure I saw everything there was to see once I crossed the pass after about 4:30.”

Years back, I recalled the summer sun setting well past nine with alpenglow on the Warners lasting until ten. I sat out behind the motel with a Rocky Patel cigar I’d packed and watched those mountains fade to black.

TODAY IT RAINS. The forecast calls for about a week of this type of weather. I’d not taken Warren’s road into the Surprise Valley last summer. Thinking of his gleeful descriptions of winter waterfowl and pink, fading sunlight, I sat thumbing through the Gazetteer. I pictured what I may have missed and cursed myself for not having availed myself of that mere 30-mile detour into a history lost yet still apparent.

Opening the garage door, I straddle the GSA. I twist the throttle grip and pinch my knees against the BMW’s cold tank. I remember how long it’s been since we engaged in a really long road trip, the bike and me. Leaning forward, face almost touching the instrument cluster, I whisper: April, May at the latest, Likely to Eagleville below the Warners. Okay?  Yeah, I promise. I pat the tank and dismount.

That’s how roads get on the list.

photo credit:

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

BOOKS FOR TOTS (instead of toys)

BETWEEN ABOUT THE END OF OCTOBER AND CHRISTMAS, we are often asked to contribute to Toys for Tots drives. The California Highway Patrol sponsors one. Your local Chevy dealer sponsors one. Even big, bad motorcycle groups conduct toy runs. The results are lots of – but never enough – trinkets for the less well off. Ever wonder just what becomes of those gifts, when the battery dies, when the flimsy plastic fitting wears out, or just when the excitement of its newness runs its course? Household clutter comes to mind, as does the word landfill.

With that bias in mind, the Church of the Open Road offers a modest proposal: It is a verifiable fact that young readers are more successful than non-readers. School folks know that in impoverished areas, students struggle with literacy more frequently than kids from well-off communities. Since early exposure to literature is a key to success as a reader and therefore, success in school, it follows that a book is a gift with far more potential for good than almost anything else one can receive.

So, what if, instead of a plastic toy requiring a battery or, perhaps, what if along with a plastic toy requiring a battery, the less-well-off in our communities received a brand new book? (And idea doesn’t just have to go for kids.) Here are a few thoughts on the benefits:

  • Reading is an act of creativity. While a battery-powered toy prompts the child to watch what the toy does, a book prompts the child to create images based upon the stimulus of print. Unlike television or film or any of a number of other popular distractions, while a book is a creation of the author, the reader engages in a creative act by reading.
  • Reading takes the reader places. While a computer game allows the player to travel through fantastic animation (and vanquish all who get in the way), a book can take a child around the world allowing him or her exposure to cultures and climates far different (and perhaps more fantastic) than their own.
  • A good book never wears out. With a battery-powered toy, once the battery dies (on or about December 27th) unless the battery is replaced, the toy becomes less toy-like. A book can be opened and closed time and time again. It can be read and reread, sometimes the second reading reveals more than the first.
  • Literature is easily recyclable. When the joystick busts or the player has finally outsmarted the game creator, the product is thrown away. It goes to the dump or, if we’re lucky, goes to a place where its toxins and heavy metals can be safely recovered. A book is recycled simply by handing it to the next person.

MOST FOLKS on the Church of the Open Road's shopping list, by now, know they’ll be receiving a bag o’ books for Christmas. Each of the books will be a copy of something I’ve read and with which I’ve been particularly impressed over the past 12 months. The collection may include some light, contemporary or classic fiction, perhaps an atlas or other resource, and, quite likely, a memoir or non-fiction work that broadened my understanding of our culture or the human condition.

The Church would like to think that each carefully selected book will be appreciated, but if not, the good news is that the book can be re-gifted to someone who may find worth or insight in the author’s work.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Think about the best half-dozen books you’ve read over the past twelve months and consider passing copies to folks on your list this holiday season.

And for the kids across town? Think about the books you loved as a child and give copies of those. Some child you’ll never meet may grab your insight and your love of literature. And maybe they’ll have a better chance because of it.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 11, 2010


MY POSTINGS MAY NOT HAVE ANY INTELLIGENT VALUE, but what if there’s intelligence value? I wonder this because, on the domain server which hosts mine and a zillion other blogs, one can keep track of traffic by clicking on a button labeled “Stats.” I did this and discovered that the Church of the Open Road has been accessed by readers around the world, including India, Great Britain, Romania, Russia, China and other countries we've only recently heard about - given their existence was behind the iron curtain not so very long ago.

This got me to thinking – never a good proposition. If my stuff could be, you know, leaked to, I don’t know, somebody somewhere somehow, perhaps I’d get discovered! Fame would be mine (along with the associated riches) and the rest would be history!

Having attended three or four writers’ conferences, participated in a semi-local writers’ critique group and hooked up with the Sacramento chapter of the California Writers’ Club, I find that many fledgling and many successful writers, early on, develop a web page. We are told that this is a good way to “get your name in front of people” and “show off your work.” I checked into some of these web pages and found to my surprise that the excitement each creates varies based upon the author’s ability to, well, create excitement. (Not an easy task, to be sure. I am reminded that the Pontiac Motor Division was unable to “create excitement” for the final thirty-five years of its existence.)

That said, I’ve also spent some time looking over the cables that Wiki-Leaks has made public and guess what? Their content ain’t all that exciting either. Still, they’ve created quite a stir.

SO HERE’S MY REQUEST: Julian, baby, please leak the content of the Church of the Open Road website as follows:
  • The entries tagged “Motorcycle Day Trips” or tagged with a State Route number, if you could leak those to Clement Salvadori or any of the staff at Rider Magazine, I’d appreciate it. I’m sure they would find that the wit and insight in my work, brought out in me by the "spirituo-chemistry" of riding so many miles of open road, would fit nicely with their editorial content. I can imagine even more issues flying off the shelves of newsstands world wide, just because Mr. Brilliant is now a regular.
  • The entries tagged “Great Potty Stops,” please route to the editors of magazines catering to parents of little kids or magazines catering to husbands of wives. Both of these demographic groups certainly could use a potty stop resource as they find themselves travelling here and there accompanied by family members – the majority of whom can never find a loo when called upon to do so.
  • Those entries that regard finding a political middle ground, please leak to our human brethren in the Middle East. Perhaps they will learn that at least some Americans respect and appreciate the cultural and religious diversity planned into this world we share. Maybe a dialog might develop. Also, consider leaking these entries to Congress so they’ll understand that not everyone who votes is of one fringe or another. Perhaps they’ll decide they don’t have to be, either.
  • Finally, those referencing new life, death or God, please leak directly to the Almighty. I know, the Church of the Open Road may not look like a church when viewed through the omnipotent eyes of a deity, but perhaps some of the thoughts are redemptive. God knows I don’t attend a traditional service often, if at all, but I’d like Him or Her to know that I readily acknowledge a greater spirit than my own. Frequently this spirit visits me when I’m in the saddle heading somewhere. I’d like God to know this.

Mr. Assange, I know you’re likely to have some time on your hands, but I also know you possess great technological skill.  It would be a shame if those talents went to waste.  Thanks for giving this request some thought. Know that it won’t get you into any deeper crap than you may already find yourself, but it may help me get discovered. And that just might benefit all of mankind.

Or not.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, December 10, 2010


[LATE NOVEMBER, 2002] Winter has descended on the Great Central Valley. I know because baseball ended about a month ago, at my hand, and that motorcycle excursions are less pleasant because of daggers of cold that seem to pinpoint fingertips wrapped around rubber grips. The sun seems to be absorbed by a pewter colored sky and leaves us no shadow. Jax, the pound-puppy Aussie dog burrows to the furthest corner of what used to be Sadie the Boxer's house. It's dark when one leaves for work and dark when one returns. Rather than smoking ribs next to a pecan wood fire, I brown beef and lamb and prepare a hearty stew. My hand is wrapped around a Black Butte Porter – a meal in itself and "early to bed" seems particularly sage advice. Oh, and did I mention? Baseball is over.

YESTERDAY, while my wife corrected papers or planned a quilt, I straddled the Beemer for a ride along the sensuous levee roads of Sutter, Yolo and Sacramento counties. I'd hoped to find the confluence of the Feather and the Sacramento where the clarity of the Sierran river mixes with the dogged labors of the artery that both feeds and drains the valley. No such luck. That pewter gray sky and the absolute stillness of the water in late November gave no clue as to the point of commingle-age. I had to be satisfied with the red leaves of the vines that dipped into the waters and the bright, broad gold leaves of some sort of bank tree I'd like you to think I could identify.

The "little" BMW handles these winding levee roads as if God had invented road purely for this motorbike. [Back in ’02, I was riding an R 1100 R “naked” Beemer. No windshield or fairing for protection from the elements.] Only occasionally did I think of my icy fingertips. More often I thought of Dusty Baker and how he'd not have this kind of enjoyment on his Harley. Of course, Dusty's in Chicago, now. And it's my fault.

THEY SAY THERE ARE NO SEASONS in California. I say there are two. Baseball and winter.

I just dropped two sliced and peeled turnips into the stew pot along with other vegetables. The house is beginning to have that comfort smell that isn’t present past mid-spring. I don't like turnips in my stew, however. Always try to pick them out when I eat. They look like potatoes, though and sometimes, I am dismayed by the texture and tang of the “potato” I have speared.

HERE'S THE DEAL: Bottom of the seventh. Sixth game. I'd purchased a less-than-moderately price bottle of champagne because, as I told Jax quietly, WE'REGONNAWINTHEWORLDSERIES!!! The wine was chilling, and at five to nothing, only nine outs to go, I thought I'd dust off a couple of flutes and place them on the front edge of the refrigerator shelf. You know. Kinda casual. Real quiet. Which I did.

Then, Dusty replaces Ortiz with Felix. I feel a little knot.

Sure enough: SWWAACCKKK! Three runs.

I want to pull the champagne flutes out of the fridge, but I already know it's too late: just like Linus doubting the Great Pumpkin for an instant.

NOW DUSTY'S in Chicago. Somebody from the South State has the trophy. (At least it's not the Dodgers.) Kent and Bell are likely gone. Those damned glasses are shoved to the back of the shelf -- I refuse to touch them -- and I'll be long dead before the Giants even see the playoffs again.

Yes. We have descended into the darkness that is winter. Long cold nights. Brief doses of late afternoon sunshine. An occasional ride along a levee or a fog-shrouded by-way. Hearty broth-based meals from a crock-pot. Husky beers. And no runs scored.

This one's on me.

© 2002
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, December 6, 2010


Second in a series

"My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. Then I saw another piece. Putting one of the pieces on a hard river stone, I took another and commenced hammering. It was soft and didn't break; it therefore must be gold."

– James Marshall, January 1848

Click to enlarge image and read content.

IN MY MIND, a good “potty stop” is one where Doritos and soda may not be readily available, but great distractions are. If this is the definition, then the James Marshall Gold Discovery site at Coloma more than offers a fine experience off the saddle. Eight miles north of Placerville and 17 miles south of Auburn on state route 49, the Day Use rate for this locale is $8.00.  It is eight bucks well spent. There is much to do after visiting one of the many well-maintained “comfort stations.”

The State of California has restored or rebuilt many historical buildings including the fabled mill whose tailrace yielded that discovery on January 24, 1848. The replica mill is several yards from the American, but the original location is marked and quite accessible. A well-groomed trail follows the west flank of the river, easily negotiated in even the "most supportive" of riding boots. Another fine trail leads to the top of the hill where a monument to Marshall overlooks the valley.  In completing the loop on this trail, Marshall's cabin and the cemetery must not be missed.

The park’s museum nicely represents the pre- and post-gold rush history with displays recounting Maidu life prior to the discovery as well as the incremental industrialization of the Mother Lode that followed.

Highlights include the stamp mill by which gold was crushed from quartz. A large wheel accommodating a fabric belt was first powered by water harnessed by a Pelton Wheel (invented some 40 miles north near North San Juan) and later by a steam donkey’s piston. One can only imagine how the decade between 1848 and 1858 saw the placid course of the American transform from a bucolic river valley into a mechanized means by which the golden metal was extracted from the riverbed and surrounding hillsides.

Smithy's product is available.
The State of California employs docents to recreate life in the mid 19th century. Not to be missed is the blacksmith shop (circa 1902) where volunteers continue to use red-hot coal to turn black iron malleable.

ON THE OPEN ROAD, whether travelling alone or cooped up in the car, it is all-too-easy to find a potty, pull over, conduct business and get back on the road. Frequently, it is a missed opportunity to do much more. Even as it faces bankruptcy, the California is doing yeoman service in maintaining sites that, if lost, would leave an historic, cultural and educational void that cannot be recaptured by browsing through a book or looking something up on Wiki-pedia.


NOTES: The Church of the Open Road makes a habit of paying the day-use fee in California State Parks even if only pausing to “refresh oneself.” It is the least we can do to preserve the rich, bawdy, pristine and delicate heritage of the Golden State. Readers are asked to consider similar “donations.”

The Church of the Open Road seeks reader input for this series on Great Potty Stops of the Open Road. Submit your recommendation through the “comment section” below, and we’ll check ‘em out and write ‘em up.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 4, 2010


On a ride a few weeks back I found that the bottom of my left foot was wet and getting increasingly wetter as the ride progressed and as the pavement got puddly. Come to find out, I'd worn through the sole of the riding boots I'd had for maybe four or five years. Seems the right boot was about shot as well.

I went to the local moto-supply store and bought myself a pair of Dainese Stivale BB3 D-WP Boots touring boots for a real pretty penny. I already own a pair of Dainese riding gloves and they fit, well, like gloves. Likewise, the boots. Cruising around the store, these 12.5s fit my weird size 12 feet as if engineered specifically for me. The YKK zippers at the back of the boot (not the side), however, take quite a bit of tugging - especially where the boot narrows around the ankle.

Took the Dainese’s on their first outing today as the temperature was about 54 and the sky broken overcast. New boots always take some getting used to as the soles and arches fit differently against the foot peg so braking and shifting is thrown off. That aside, these are another example of why one pays more dollar for an up-grade in quality. The Stivale's certainly have it.  The fit is tremendous. The support - especially around the ankle - is superior to anything I've ever worn when riding.

Up Foresthill Road about ten miles east of Auburn, there’s a high-end subdivision on acreage that looks down on the North Fork of the American. I’ve had my eye on a hunk of property up there for some time, so I thought I’d check as to whether it’s still available and whether they’re still asking $550,000 for the bare parcel. (Yes and yes, so "no.") I wore the boots as I walked maybe a half mile of dirt, rock and muddy trails out to a view over the river. Even though new, the boots were glove-soft comfortable, supportive, and did not feel as it their Vibram soles would let me down. Had I opted to head further east and frequent the fancy steakhouse in Foresthill, the boots may have belied my bikerness. (Not that it would have mattered in Foresthill.)

I took the long way home through the little Tuscan-like environ that is the Sierran foothills of Placer County. Where shafts of mid-afternoon sunlight thrust themselves through the broken, misty ceiling, the last of the fall colors ignited and stole my breath.  At one point, however, the clouds gathered themselves up and it rained a good steady bit.  Feet dry and toasty.

After nearly 70 miles, my only niggle would be the zippers. I am hoping to acclimate to the angle necessary when pulling those YKKs. Perhaps I just need to hold my mouth right…

(c) 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


FINALLY, THE MACULAR DEGENERATION had worked its evil on what used to be known as the good eye and mom was now, for all intents and purposes, blind.

“Are you still safe in the house?”

“I do fine. I sometimes have to use the flashlight to see what temperature I’m adjusting the oven to, but I keep it at hand, so I’ve figured that one out.” She paused for a moment of thought. “And since Peke died, I don’t have to worry about tripping over her. It’s been a year, you know.”

“I know.”

COPIES OF THE MEMOIRS, histories and little fictions I compose, I send to mom. Although she was a masterful touch typist in her day, when they brought computers on board, she’d have nothing to do with them. At 62, she quit. “Never used one, never needed one,” and she doesn’t own one at home.

Living 90 miles apart, I call on her once or twice a month. A couple of visits back, I heard the usual neighborhood gossip, the successes and failures of my nieces and nephews and was reminded that it had been more than a year since Peke died. After the news, mom picked up copies of my three latest posts and came to where I was sitting. “Can you read these for me? I can’t see to do it anymore.”

You don’t say “No” to mom.

She settled into her platform rocker – the one she purchased in 1946 and still holds the sales receipt for – as I began, stumbling over several poorly crafted words. When I finished, she asked a question or two, then said, “Read the next.”

You don’t say “No” to mom.

The second piece was a bit embarrassing. It was poorly written, didn’t have an arc and contained a couple of typographical errors.

Note to self: For God’s sake, read the stuff you write out loud, maybe in front of a mirror, before you waste electrons posting it.

The third piece wasn’t much better.

“I used to be able to see,” she said, “but now, well… I can tell where you are and that your legs are crossed, but if I didn’t know it was you, I couldn’t pick you out from your brother.” She sat with both arms atop the familiar arms of the old maple rocker. “I think I’m legally blind.” Then she added, “but I’ll get an additional tax deduction for that.”

RECENTLY, AT AN ELECTRONICS WAREHOUSE, which, for some reason, also sells refrigerators, candy bars and girlie magazines, I found an adjustable floor lamp with a circular fluorescent tube that ringed a powerful magnifying lens measuring about six inches across. I thought about it for a day or two and then returned to pick one up.

Setting it up over the right arm of mom’s rocker, I took her hand and directed it to the switch on the back of the light, having her turn it on and off a couple of times. Then as she sat in the rocker, I adjusted the lamp’s arm so that it could pivot out of the way for rising and sitting and pivot into position for reading.

“Try it out.”

Slowly she moved a copy of the local paper under the lens reading aloud the words that seemed to me sized large enough to be printed on one of those highway billboards between her house and mine.

Suddenly, she stopped reading and looked up at me. “It’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas all in one,” she said, showing rare emotion.

That day, I picked up her mail just before getting in the Nissan to head south. Another one of my stories had arrived.

Mom: Before the good eye gave it up.
LAST WEEK, cruising north on the motorcycle, I decided to drop in on mom for a moment. Surprised her. After formalities – the neighbors, the kids, Peke: It’s been nearly fourteen months, now, you know – she handed me the story that had arrived when I last departed and told me to sit down. “Read it.”

“Doesn’t the light work?”

“Read it,” she repeated.

You don’t say “no” to mom.

She settled into the chair and I read. Something about Butte Creek Canyon – a something in my history that I think she remembered.

When I finished, she thought for a long moment and said, “To answer your question, the light works fine.”

I looked at mom and then at the story and sat for a long time after that.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press