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


  1. Wait a minute. You talk to your motorcycle?

  2. Sounds like wonderful, untouched country. Don't tell anyone else about it. I'll meet you up there! - Candi