Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I SUSPECT THE UTES still inhabit the deep reaches of the arroyos sweeping down from the peaks of heaven. I suspect they’re still up there – the pure ones – and like Sasquatch, prefer to remain unseen.

They see us though. And, as we race by on the blacktop we’ve laid, between fences we’ve strung, inside cocoons of plastic and metal and glass, they laugh at the immediacy of our every need and weep over what we’ve done to our precious mother.

And they wait – wait until we simply go away.

Or so I suspect.


"So this is where God decided to put the west.” 
- John Wayne to director John Ford upon seeing Monument Valley, 1938.

WELL, MR. WAYNE – may I call you Marion? – Monument Valley is a fine example, but the west is full of vistas and stretches, passes, arroyos and vales.

Seven AM or shortly thereafter, the sun has crested some nameless range east of Eureka. Shadows are in a tiptoe retreat and the road, having emerged from the former range darts east-northeast straight as a rifle shot. The hillsides and swales are dotted with pinion pine – one wind-swept example looking like a fanciful rider on horseback climaxing a ridge.

Elsewhere, sage blossoms and fragrates the morning air.

In a land where the population density is less than one per section, eighty-five miles per hour seems like fifty-five, and fifty-five a crawl. Although I know the road will not last forever – at least not at this rate of speed – I pray the west will.


FIRST, THEY MAKE YOU PAY TO PARK, which is really okay because the parking fees support really fine restroom facilities in the Chamber of Commerce/Amtrak Depot. However, one can either pay in coin or with credit card. Lacking pocket change I inserted my Visa to discover I’ll be tagged for a two-hour minimum at a buck an hour. The good news is that I got credit until noon even though I slipped the card in at 9:40. Very liberal meter, I’m thinking in a very liberal town.

So I hiked across the street to the bakery and find one of those white oval shaped stickers in the window of the door. You know, the ones often seen on cars and SUVs with black lettering that brags of the owner’s travel exploits saying “LT” for Lake Tahoe, or “JH” for Jackson Hole – and you feel like an idiot for sneaking a peek at the small print because you’re not hip enough to know what the initials stand for. This one had “NRA” on it and I was just about to settle in for a cup of Joe and a cinnamon roll, when my curiosity got the better of me. In this berg, NRA must mean something hip. It can’t be that NRA. Well I looked. I was wrong.

THE OTHER DAY, I received a letter from Wayne LaPierre telling me that forces were afoot trying to restrict my second amendment right to bear an arm and they were comprised of the Hollywood elites (who have spent the last eighty years glorifying the use of firearms, Wayn-oh), the liberals in Congress and the current administration. Coincidentally, that same day, five folks standing in their driveway in Del Paso Heights after the recent Lakers victory were cut down in a hail of bullets from a passing car. Two died. One still may. No additional number of guns in that or many other situations would have reduced the mayhem. Quite the opposite.

The waitress may have had a “What the hell?” moment as I left without ordering. An ethical thing for me to do would have been to stop by the owner/manager and say:

“I will respect to my dying breath your right to hold a point of view and your courage for putting it out there for all to see and, in some cases, like this one, risking some small loss of business because of it. Good for you, sister! However, because individual gun ownership is constitutionally reserved only for those members of a well-regulated militia, and because of the NRA’s wanton disregard for this and their constant fear-mongering, I shall be seeking my cinnamon roll elsewhere.”

But I didn’t man-up and say this. I just marched on out.

DOWN THE SIDEWALK I strolled, finding coffee and pastry just a few doors away. Eight bucks later, after having what must have been yesterday’s brew and what appeared to be a grocery store variety Entenmanns’s bear claw (bad) smothered in butter (good!), I headed back for the bike a little lighter of pocket than seemed reasonable.

Two hours remained on my two-hour parking pass. A livin’-the-dream twenty-something pulled up in an older Toyota Highlander. A well-worn river kayak strapped to the roof. He looked like he could use some free parking this day.

“Dude,” he said, as I handed the pass his way, “that’s very kind of you.”

“Hope you’re not in the market for a pastry this morning,” I replied, hoping to alert him to the seriousness of the current circumstance.

His quizzical look was not lost on me as I mounted the motorcycle and drove off.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, June 12, 2010


“There’s history all over these hills – some of it people know, some of it they don’t.” He didn’t move. “I wonder about that.”

“About what?”

“About history, when it dies.” He leaned back into the seat but regarded me. “Kind of like the tree that falls in the forest when nobody’s around? I mean, if nobody remembers history, did it still happen?”

Craig Johnson in “The Dark Horse” pg 130-31

ELLIE SIMPSON IS 94. She stands about four feet eight inches and carries a step stool in case she needs it so she can climb into my pickup. And she does. With my mother, we are on our way to lunch at a favorite spot in Magalia. “Left at the first intersection past the stoplight,” Ellie says. And she’s correct. “I always order a cup of chili because they don’t make chili where I live. Too many old people there. Most don’t like spicy food like I do.” The melted cheddar forms rubbery tendons like harp strings that stretch from the spoon to the cup. One snaps free and slaps against her faded, plaid blouse. “This is embarrassing,” she says.

“Good thing it isn’t a first date.”

ELLIE AND ZIBE SIMPSON moved from our neighborhood in 1978 to a mobile home in Paradise Pines: one at the end of a cul-de-sac with a view of Sawmill Peak. In 2003, the set up became too much for the octogenarians to care for so they relocated to a senior complex – a nice apartment with views from two windows of the forested hillsides. Always the hillsides. In 2004, Zibe died.

“Oh, I wish I hadn’t thrown out the camping pictures,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would ever care to see them.”

We had finished lunch and returned to the apartment. From a tiny closet, Ellie retrieved two small photo albums and a shoebox filled halfway with envelopes of photographs. The oldest of the albums stretched back to her childhood days in Canada. Beautiful crisp black and whites of the farmhouse in which she was raised by grandparents after her mother died in the pandemic of 1918. Each picture or pair of pictures was fastened perfectly to the black page and each was labeled in white cursive. I wondered if white ink pens might still be available. The cavalcade of pictures ranged from her toddlerhood through Zibe’s courting of her, included pictures of their only son, Eric and one shot of Jovanna the boxer. The last few photos were in color – faded color – of the new place in Paradise Pines. The volume spanned our annual trips to Simpson Camp, in the remote reaches of the Coast Ranges, but the album held no pictures.

The smaller book was exclusively of Eric. And the random pictures, those unfiled and in envelopes, were just that: random.

Ellie had lost a son and a husband over the course of her life. At least one of those events was out of presupposed order. Still, her effervescence made me ignore how bland the chili had been. She would caution me that she couldn’t remember things like she used to and then provide precise details about how something looked, how a spring morning felt high in the mountains just east of Mendocino Pass, and how she swelled when someone’s car would inch down the road to the old sheep camp. “Because that car was always you and your family.” The detail prompted me to think that Zibe and Ellie chose not to share this locale with others. I felt special all over again.

IN THE 60S, when our families visited Simpson Camp, tales of how the old sheep camp ran were ancient history to my twelve-year-old way of thinking. Summering before the war seemed pleasant in a manner I couldn’t get my mind around. Given that I was born well after the war, this whole bucolic life just as well could have been three centuries before, rather than just three decades.

Now we are in the 10s. Fifty years later for me, and I want to find the little spot before history of it dies. “It is actually now considered an historic archaeological site that is protected by the forest service,” writes the District Ranger in response to my query. “ That is not to say you can’t visit there, it is just that it is more important to preserve the surroundings.” Then she adds, “Township 22N, range 9W, somewhere west of Smith Camp. Check section 17.”

I’LL DO THAT. I have a new copy of the Mendocino Pass Quad. 7.5 minute.

I’ll plan to arrive mid-afternoon so I can enjoy Ellie’s delight as she sees me driving down the bumpy road into camp. What I will likely find will be a few rusted sixteen-penny nails hammered into the fir trees. Perhaps a couple of aged-to-black pieces of rough-hewn dimension lumber still fastened to stumps or trunks. Maybe there’ll be a campfire ring, or at least a scatter of rounded stones, sooted up on one side. There won’t be a place to sit, unless I bring something. And the Simpson Camp sign will be gone.

I’ll stay until dusk, gather those stones, build a little fire and listen again to Zibe Simpson’s voice tell stories of running the herd up Grindstone Canyon from the Black Butte area ranch west of Orland and how they used Model Ts to do it. And as his words fade with the light, I’ll hear again the whisper-soft pleaing of the lambs in the high mountain glade.

“YOU KNOW, they were done running sheep into that high country long before I ever met Zibe.” She looks at Mom and then to me with eyes still as bright as tomorrow’s dawn. “I’ll take a look for those other albums and if I find them, I’ll get them to your mother and she can mail ‘em to you.”

The apartment is small. There are no other closets or crannies.

“Thanks,” I say.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, June 7, 2010


IT IS THE RARE CASE that I take a fellow rider with me while attending the Church of the Open Road. In solitude, I can hear the message, see the visions and worship more freely. On this day, however, I took neighbor Eric. Luckily.

The mission was to go to Grass Valley and retrieve three copies of a children’s book I’d ordered. The precursor-to-summer day called upon me to find a creative way to do that. Lowell Hill Road parallels the Bear River from below Lake Spaulding. I’d never taken it. That was good enough for me.

Exiting the pavement off highway 20 just below I-80, after 45 miles of freeway travel, it was clear that Lowell Hill was not a place frequented. While the surface was gravel for about 300 yards, it soon became a game of “Which Way Do We Go?” as dual tracks split hither and yon.

“We must be in the infamous Fugahwe Region of Nevada County,” Eric commented. I didn’t know he knew the area.

Conifer needles carpeted the dirt-only route. The mid-70s temperature had dried most of last week’s unseasonably late rain/snowfall. If the road rose or fell, there’d be no standing water. When our route bottomed out, in the lowest depressions, creamy brown puddles dared us to enter. I danced from one rut to the next avoiding these little hazards when they came about. But, at one point, it looked as if God had spilled His mocha into both tire tracks for a little section, and the only routes were through a puddle – pick one: left for Democrats, right for Republicans – or tracing the little ridge in between. I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.

AN INTERESTING THING about the dual sport tires I’d selected for my prized and pristine GSA. Called “Tourances” by Mezeler (a division of Pirelli), they are engineered to handle the pavement quite well – where the bulk of one’s riding occurs – but also do an adequate job in gravel and dirt. They lack a chunky off-road, dirt bike tread. And they do not shed mud like those moto-whatever guys’ tires do. In fact, after a few feet in the soft gooey stuff, they become slicks. No tread. No traction. Just tragedy. I found this out as the front tire slid into the rut on the right while, simultaneously, the rear tire went left.

The BMW GS Adventure is engineered for a lot of things, but traveling sideways ain’t among ‘em. In one of those slow motion moments when you can see what is about to happen, but powerless to stop it, the road dissolved into the consistency of butter and the afternoon’s trip looked to become toast. First to slide into the muck was the right hand cylinder head, which on a Beemer, protrudes to the side of the machine. Next was the optional, Jesse “Odyssey” steel saddlebag. Indestructible, the ad had said. Keeping my foot on the peg, my right leg skittered across the surface of the puddle for the ten to twelve feet it took this whole parade to come to a halt. A light chocolate wave similar to one produced by a slalom water skier washed across the down side of my body. The cylinder head and the bag protected my fragile self from any injury.

Eric was off his KTM is seconds, checking my vitals. I was going to live. We righted the bike and took inventory. It was going to live as well, but the right side Jesse bag had sacrificed its ability to close in an effort to save my drumstick. I tied the “indestructible” closed with a bandana.

Cautiously we proceeded not more than a mile and a half. There, the surface became graded, nice-as-pie gravel. However, in that initial 2,000 yards west of my "ground zero," Eric later reported, the puddles at the side of the road looked as if they were taunting me. He was right. As I tiptoed by, I could feel the mud developing fingers that grabbed at my cuffs, shoelaces and the spokes of the big Beemer’s wheels. Magically, those evil fingers disappeared if I shot a glance at the rearview mirror. This is explained, I concluded, because, like all things evil, muddy puddles do not have a reflection.

TODAY’S MESSAGE FROM THE CHURCH was anything but abstract: When proceeding down a double track and both ruts are filled with slime, pick one. There has to be a bottom or the water wouldn’t be standing there. Go cautiously into it and gently accelerate out of it. This is the one time where being middle of the road is not an option. It is far more convenient to hose down the bike at home than to have to take it in to the neighborhood body shop for a couple of swift licks with a rubber hammer to reform the side case.

Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Backtracking - The Trip Home from Green Island Lake

MORE THAN A HALF MY LIFETIME AGO, I hiked in to one of the hidden gems of the northern Sierra for a little camping and fishing. I’d never caught a fish before, but Green Island Lake was the sure thing neophytes dream about and true fisher-people laugh at. So with friends Randy and Patti and their faithful Collie–Shepherd mix Sheba (may she rest in peace), we hiked down the two-and-a-half miles to the lake from the parking area where I’d locked my ’71 Super Beetle. Prepared for at least two days, we set up camp a few paces from the marshy shore, and I pulled out my Fenwick rod and Quik reel. My dad – the Old Timer – would be joining us for the second night of this trip, so I needed to be careful not to harvest all the fish in this one afternoon.

Hours passed.

Fortunately, we had packed some frozen “Hobo Stew,” a concoction of ground beef, chunks of carrots, potatoes and onions seasoned with salt and pepper; wrapped in aluminum foil to be set in the coals of a campfire for baking. These, with a morsel each of a seven-inch rainbow trout (arguably the stupidest fish in the whole lake that day) would suffice for dinner. Rain began to fall at about dusk, smothering the clouds of mosquitoes but soaking my hastily erected pup tent.

The morrow dawned foggy and dank and we determined that if we broke camp early enough, we could save the Old Timer from hiking down to this miserable little spot.

With backpacks hoisted and secured, and following trusty Sheba, we trekked away from the lake and down the trail toward the car. We passed through glades knee high with lupine and paintbrush, across chattering brooks and beneath black-barked firs. And it was at least an hour and a half before we realized “down the trail” was not the direction we should have gone. Sheba was a trusty and loyal companion, but no scout.

We paused and cursed. The fog had melted. An azure canopy stretched above the towering firs.

“Return to camp?”

“Back track to the trail junction and head home?”

I hate so to undo what I’ve done. I didn’t want to hike back up the untold distance to find the junction.

I sat on a stump.

We’d have to make a decision before nightfall.

SOMEWHERE BACK IN TIME, I was writing the novel like the carefree neophyte novelist that I am. Following a trail known only to my imagination, I took a similar wrong turn. It was well after completing this my best – well, longest – work that something became clear: one or two of the major elements of the main characters didn’t fit. Their actions didn’t advance the story. In fact, their actions were so out-of-any-norm as to be contradictory. And the story flagged. Many of my prized lines and funny quips just didn’t belong. I knew it. I had let my imagination lead me down the wrong path at some unmarked trail junction.

Now I sit on a stump. It’s been three weeks.

I know what to do. I just need to muster the gumption to do it.

ABOUT 4:00 PM we arrived back at the parking area. There, parked next to my ’71 Volksie, was Dad’s yellow VW Type 181 “Thing.”

Days later, the Old Timer reported that the lake was beautiful, and no, he didn’t fish, but some other camper at the lake – because he’d exceeded the limit – gave him three fresh trout that Dad gutted and fried up that night in butter.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press