Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Hole in the Sky - Spenceville Road

THE WHOLE POINT OF UPGRADING to the big Beemer GS model is typified by what happened Saturday. Ten days of rain seems like ten weeks in central California. So when the sun peeks through a hole in the clouds – a hole in the sky – if time permits, because the weather permits, you ride.

Dr. David Lantis, Geography, Chico State, in the 1970s taught that California’s climate is so much like that of Italy and Spain, that the early Spaniards felt like they’d come home. The arid summers and cool wet winters of California mirrored the half-a-world away climes of the Mediterranean. That the Russians, in their eastward expansion, found the coastal cliffs so foreboding inspired the loss of what arguably was their empire. The Spanish took up the pastoral life-style that lives on today along the rural roads tracing the foothills of the Sierra.

Astride the big BMW, galloping along those secondary roads is much akin to riding a stallion through the foothills near Perugia or Assisi or Siena. Palio style. The rider feels every rise and embraces every turn. Tunneling through a stand of oak one finds vineyards and pasturelands and vales of green and bluffs above. The only quantitative difference between Placer County’s foothills and those of Umbria is that the castles atop our bluffs are about 1000 years more modern.

NORTH OF CAMP FAR WEST LAKE, the Spenceville Road turns from pavement to gravel and enters the wildlife preserve. I course along at 40 miles per hour, occasionally glancing in my rear-view mirror to see a slight plume of January dust kicking from the back tire. Past vernal pools colored red with the algae that will bloom for only as long as the pool exists this spring. Bending around a cattle chute where, in about fifteen weeks, the now-scattered herd will be loaded and transported to the high-grass country some fifty miles east.

The further I travel, the greater that hole in the sky becomes. A low winter sun blinds at some points and at others, illuminates naked black bark of the valley oak and the tender green winter shoots of yet-to-be wildflowers. A blue heron stands at the edge of one of those pools and a non-descript hawk stands sentry on an ancient fencepost.

A dozen miles up the road, pavement – chunky, pot-holed pavement – returns. The Beemer’s suspension absorbs each imperfection and when the boulevard transitions to refreshed asphalt, the big bike begs to open up and run. Somewhere out on that smooth road, the hole in the sky closes up and the spatters of rain pelt the windshield and blow over the top of my helmet.

I’D PLANNED ON A NINETY-MINUTE RIDE. After about twenty, I came to the graveled Spenceville Road. On the old RT, a wonderful bike, I’da turned around, fearing damage to the plastic parts, and my ninety minute ride would have been half that. On the GSA, the gravel proved to be a new road that otherwise would have gone unexplored. And the ninety-minute ride became two-and-a-half hours.

Any questions?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Break in the Rain

NINE DAYS AND NIGHTS OF RAIN – just 31 short of needing to retrieve the old cubit stick and start construction on a big boat. On the tenth day, a brave winter sun warmed the atmosphere just enough to melt a marine layer that blanketed the valley. Blue sky. A January rarity. Knowing that tomorrow could be just as wet and nasty as its day-before-yesterday, today is the only day to ride.

Before there was Shasta Dam, the Great Central Valley filled with rainwater in the winter and drained itself dry late in the spring. Long before there was a Canada, Canadian geese (as well as other water fowl) wintered in the waters of the Sacramento drainage, feasting on fish and their eggs, insects and their larvae, worms and roots and all manner of creation.

Today, a bright, low winter sun illuminates an azure sky; a sky reflected in the still water standing in fallow, laser-leveled rice fields of Yolo, Sutter and northern Sacramento Counties. Coursing along a secondary road north of the capitol, one would think the air would be warmer with that bright sun beaming so generously. But any chill is forgotten once the rider is absorbed in the teaming life of the winter valley. The colors. The contrasts. Distant lines of riparian trees follow the meandering routes of the Feather, the Yuba and the Sacramento. A snow glazed Sierra to the east and a deep purple coastal range to the west. And in between: Great sheets of white fowl covering endless expanses of deep blue fields.

Tomorrow – hell, later today – I’ll be gone. And in time, mankind, also, because that’s just the way of things. The massive dam up north will crumble and the Great Central Valley will return to its natural cycle of flood and dust. Crops of rice and wheat and corn and cattle will give way to native grasses and flowers. Oak and willow will slowly return. And through it all, long after Canada is no more, those Canadian geese will winter and feast here.

Thrilled with the opportunity to see this today, I ride home, knowing tomorrow, it’s gonna rain.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ten Questions Regarding the Pot Debate

I do not smoke pot. Full disclosure: Thirty years ago, I had a couple experiences with the stuff – peer pressure – and something inside told me this wasn’t for me. I struggle with arguments both for and against full decriminalization. I believe there is a dearth of non-biased information from which people should draw (pardon the pun) prior to making a decision about this.

While the making of law should be left in the hands of an informed legislature, the initiative process seems to have put this ball in our court. That being the case, here are some questions that need to be addressed.

1 What evidence exists supporting a conclusion that the banning of substances prompts people who want to use it to abstain? Examination of our country’s experience with alcohol prohibition might play into this.
2 What evidence exists supporting a conclusion that the legalization of a substance would prompt people who don’t use it, to begin to use it? Many people, who could smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, choose not to.
3 Regarding youth, what does the data tell us about trends in underage use of both alcohol and tobacco? How does that data break out when disaggregated for youth whose parents use tobacco or alcohol?
4 If education programs exist that reduce youth usage of alcohol and tobacco, wouldn’t those same strategies be effective in keeping kids from using pot?
5 While the concept of legalizing marijuana and taxing it to raise revenue is a red herring, how much taxpayer money could be saved if local, state and federal governments were not pursuing, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating pot smokers and growers? Could a fraction of that revenue be used for public service announcements or educational programs regarding marijuana use?
6 Assuming (sorry, that’s the best verb I can come up with for this one) – assuming that the illicit nature of marijuana is a price-support factor making cartel operations viable, how would legalization reduce the motivation for cartel-based violence, particularly in Mexican border towns?
7 Similarly, would access to legal pot lower the price and reduce domestic assaults and property crimes?
8 What groups or individuals stand to gain from the current laws banning or limiting marijuana use; and which of these groups are active politically? Some groups that come to mind that may have a vested interest in the status quo include: the tobacco industry, the alcohol and spirits industry (competition for those selling legal substances); police associations, prison guard unions and trial lawyers (pursuit, arrest, prosecution and incarceration are all processes that employ members of these legitimate and very necessary groups); independent pot farmers and those prickly cartels (for whom the current system may support higher prices.) How do these groups influence the data that is used in arguments opposed to changing marijuana’s status?
9 What groups or individuals stand to gain from legalization of marijuana? Some that come to mind include those doggoned cartels and individual growers; folks who currently use the stuff; neighbors and communities that suffer crime associated with the drug’s current illegal status. How do these groups influence the data that is used in arguments supporting a change in marijuana’s status?
10 What evidence exists that society’s attempt to legislate morality is ever successful? Certainly people don’t go out and kill one another just for the hell of it. A number of reasons – including criminal and penal consequences – keep folks from doing this. I wouldn’t suggest that taking laws regarding homicide off the books is in any way rational, reasonable or within any realm of possibility. But there most certainly are reasons beyond those found in law that preclude folks from killing one another, or taking someone else’s stuff, or coveting their neighbor’s ox or ass.

The state and the nation are confronted by hugely critical problems like terrorism, climate change, economic calamity and a couple of wars. If, as voters, are going to have to make the call, a full-disclosure, evidence-based review of our current marijuana laws might allow us to make a rational decision and move on to more critical issues.

Bonus question: What does Sarah Palin believe? Because I probably believe just the opposite. (Insert laugh track here. Perhaps I can get on with NBC.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Flirting with the Drug War

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I ventured into rural and rugged western Sierra County, exploring roads that were scribed on a map – skinny, wiggly roads I had yet to experience. In circumstances like these, my mind wanders into odd crevasses of dislogic and I find myself thinking about being the first person ever to see what is unfolding in front of me. Dislogic this is, because if I were the first, how could there already be this road? Still, the feeling of discovery unleashes the dopamine that excites my senses and urges me onward. It encourages me to enjoy the ride and long for the next adventure – the next unexplored road on the map.

Speaking of dope (yes, there is a very direct connection between the term “dope” and term “dopamine”): about two weeks back, an unemployed cement contractor from the Sacramento area decided to rob and secure to a table leg – or some other stick of furniture – an independent pharmacologist in the very area I had so recently discovered. Unfortunately for the contractor, within moments of the robbery, the pot farmer loosed himself, got into his pickup and chased down the thief. The ensuing road rage left the interloper dead as his own vehicle was rammed, pushed off a windy highway 49 and crashed into a tree somewhere down the canyon side.

The sheriff reported that lots of folks up on “the ridge” make their livelihood growing weed and that one should use caution when venturing out in the hinterlands, as stumbling across a plot or plantation, or surprising a grower could have violent and deadly consequences.

I thought immediately about my six-weeks-prior sojourn into the woods on a road that, for a time, simply faded into the duff.

• What might have been just to my left or my right along that route?
• What might have been just over the hill?
• Or just through those trees?
• If I stumbled upon some entrepreneur’s homestead, would the individual care that I didn’t give a rip about how he spent his time or what he did with his land?
• Or even on the public lands?
• Would he care that as a non-pot-smoker myself, I favored legalization so that he could come out from the shadows?
• Or would legalization take the profit out of his little slice of agri-business?
• In the west, do they still really shoot first and ask questions later?
• If so, did I want to risk becoming yet another casualty of the ill-advised drug wars simply so I could pretend I was a latter day Daniel Boone?

I guess I’ll continue to ride the enchanting rural roads of the Sierra until I find out.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Winter View of Clementine

[January 2002] THE SOUND WAS OF THE BREEZE blowing through bare winter trees – only much louder. Like a huge, distant orchestra shrouded by a curtain of canyon wall, warming for a performance. Blended notes.

Canyon wall, to be sure. I was perched on a paved strip half way up and half way down. Motorcycle cooling behind me.

Over the edge I peered.

The symphony was of water cascading over an ancient, gray concrete dam barricading the American River. Built to halt debris from upstream mining or timber operations, but halting, momentarily, the river itself. Rivers are only halted momentarily, if at all.

Mist from this crashing water wafted up the canyon side and rested on the clear plastic face shield of my black Arai helmet. I opened it. Droplets, fresh and pure, coated my face and beard.

In washed the smell of the duff wetted in last night’s rainstorm. Breathe deeply this nectar.

Standing in a nearly vertical shaft of sunlight – the only degree from which sunlight would ever strike this winter canyon ground, viewing the water thundering over the dam, smelling the history of last night’s storm and the history of this place:

WHEREVER I’VE JUST RIDDEN is my favorite place to be.

(c) 2003
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, January 17, 2010


THE JOURNEY, like faith, it is within you. Sometimes inaccessible, but never more than a fingertip’s reach away.

THE JOURNEY is assuaged when, on one of those endless, biting-cold winter days, she is pushed from the garage, cleaned – or at least dusted; and lovingly polished – even though the last thing done was to loving polish it just two weeks ago. Then pushed back into her secure storage.

The final step – after closing the garage portal – is to climb on. Squirm a bit to find the seat’s familiar sweet spot. Settle in. Twist the throttle: once, maybe twice.

Then simply believe.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Up I-80

GLOBAL WARMING, evil bastard.

January 11th. Arguably the dead of winter. I am rocketing up I-80 at breakneck speed, hoping to inhale some mountain air. The highest reaches sport frightfully little snow. Lake Spaulding lay nearly empty. I view the impending summer with foreboding.

I SHOULD HAVE VIEWED the sweeping off-ramp onto State Route 20 with similar emotion. Where the cut bank blocks the sun from the pavement, a thin sheet of ice lays giggling, waiting for me to try to cross on my two-wheeler.

Every ride is a physics test – one that if you pass, you make it home.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, January 4, 2010

Along the Miner's Ravine Bike Route

THERE’S A BICYCLE PATH running from near our house to downtown. Given that I just procured my first pair of pants with a 38” waist – up from 34 not all that long ago – I determined that non-exercise had become the great non-option of the up-coming decade. Fitting new tires, tubes and spoke-end rubber-band thingies to the Peugeot ten-speed that I originally purchased in 1968 from Vern Pullins Cyclery in Chico (and which was referred to as “vintage” by the punk who sold me the skins), I slicked the thing up and decided today was the day to ride into the heart of Roseville.

First, a trip to the local Chevron to fill up the tires as, apparently, I don’t have the skills to use the standard bicycle pump I bought recently: specifically, the flipping plastic valve fitting. With each compression, as much air escaped as found its way into the tube. In the old days, one would screw the tire pump to the valve stem, pump up the tube and lose a little as you disconnected. Now, like automobile windshields, Amana refrigerators, Microsoft Word, the government of the State of California, and Christianity as of late, we’ve improved on the simple bicycle pump to the extent that it doesn’t work as well as it once did.

The trailhead on Sierra College Boulevard is a couple of miles from home. I hefted my steel framed French bicyclette into the back of the Nissan pickup. A lighter framed bike constructed of recycled space shuttle might have afforded a more efficient ride, but that would seem to defeat the purpose, I supposed. Off-loading it in the parking area, I climbed on the relic and pedaled a bit, adjusting the gears to what seemed like an efficient ratio for the rolling terrain. I determined that the gear I like best is the one where the chain is on the smaller sprocket in front and the smallest sprocket in the back. I think that’s ninth gear, although it could be second gear. Once set, I didn’t shift. I recalled having the chain slip off the front of too many bikes when I was a kid to ever want to shift this thing.

The bike “trail” is paved. In the old days, trails were constructed by game, Indians or members of the Sierra Club – not Teichert, Inc. Never the less, this path makes for a nice Sunday morning experience as I easily cranked and coasted quite a distance in a very short span of time. Didn’t feel as if the heart rate had risen. Didn’t feel much stress on the legs. The little up-hills, never tempted me to risk throwing the chain off the chain-ring up front. The route follows the Miner’s Ravine drainage and then Dry Creek into town. The dead-of-winter oak woodland is still. Willows along the stream courses denuded, awaiting spring. Green winter-grass shoots barely peek up from the wet soil. The movement of water animates and provides a soundtrack for the evolving scene. Unlike the penultimate Bidwell Park in Chico, this route parallels and crosses under several major streets on its course, so traffic and its noise is never far away. Yet, the glide along the stream courses does prompt one to imagine how life might have been prior to the motorcar and the suburb-of-Sacramento growth it afforded.

The terminus of the bike trail is in Royer Park. An easy trip from where I’d left the Nissan. I turn to return.

ABOUT TWENTY YEARS AGO, when living in the mountain community of Chester, I partook, one Saturday, of the Bizz Johnson Rails-to-Trails route from Westwood to Susanville. The first little bit hurt because, like this time, I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in years. But once my body warmed up, I found I’d achieved the 18 miles into Susanville in well under two hours. Returning, I discovered that a two-percent down grade (what the old Pacific Fruit rail line was) is a helluva lot easier ride than a two percent upgrade. The sixteen miles to the unnoticeable pass took four and a half hours, and I had difficulty both walking and sitting for a week to ten days thereafter.

Similarly, following a path downstream going from the parking area should imply that coming back one would be riding upstream. And this was the case. Still not succumbing to shifting that damned chain, I grunted up the infinitesimal grade along Dry Creek and then Miner’s Ravine to the parking area. When other bicyclists were in the area or walkers, I made sure to sit on the seat as they passed, but once out of view, I found standing gave me a bit more power.

TRUTHFULLY, THE 13.8 MILES round trip was less than an hour “workout.” My heart rate elevated on the way back and my thighs felt as if they were doing something they hadn’t done in maybe twenty years. Work.

A correspondent, responding to a question about new years resolutions, suggested that if one does something they resolved to do for thirty consecutive days, they will be unable to give it up at the end of the month-long trial period. I am resolved to see if this is the case.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press