Saturday, December 31, 2011


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana
in Reason in Common Sense

AT YEAR’S END, both print and broadcast media are replete with stories about Americans happy to bid a horrible year good bye. Poor job prospects, down economy, incessant wars, endless political bickering coupled with an election cycle that apparently has no end, and perhaps “I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas” feed this sad mentality. Too bad, but this isn’t news. Every year, the media finds the disgruntled man-on-the-street and tells the same story come the end of December.

Why doesn’t the monologue change? Because the average Joe apparently doesn’t want to pick out the lessons of the most recent year gone by and learn from them.

Average Joe ought to be thanking 2011 for the lessons proffered like:

GRIDLOCK DOESN’T SOLVE ANYTHING. Those who voted for ideologically inflexible candidates can thank themselves for a Washington unable to do the work of government and move our country toward renewed prosperity. Amped up concerns about spiraling debt, matched with pledges to not raise taxes simply means the government cannot accomplish the tasks demanded by its people.

AMERICA DOES NOT ALWAYS NEED AN EVIL TO OPPOSE. Propping up our decade long war in the Middle East and Central Asia with false claims about Islamic theology only serves to anger the world community and drain our national treasury. In the name of security, we use fear and falsehoods to create insecurity abroad while folks at home drive across crumbling bridges and over leaky gas pipelines to communities that sacrifice police protection and public schooling in an effort to save tax dollars. Meanwhile, the average Muslim would like to get up in the morning and go to work without fear of getting blown to bits.

PEOPLE CAN ASSEMBLE PEACEFULLY TO EFFECT CHANGE. The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement have shown this works. We should have learned that the quicker those in power respond positively to the message of those in the square, the more peacefully the change will evolve. Confronting protests with bullets, pepper spray, or worse, lies, only prolongs the conflict and proves to be antithetical to the democracy we claim to embrace.

MONEY DOES NOT BUY HAPPINESS. Once again, the New York Yankees, with the highest payroll in all of baseball, did not make it past the first round of the playoffs. (If I cared for the Yankees, I might shed a tear.)

Finally, CHEETAS NEVER PROSPER. No, that’s not a typo. Recently the chimp featured in the Tarzan movies of the 30s and 40s died at age 80 of kidney failure. The primate was never compensated in any way for being a better actor than Johnny Weissmuller and - to the eye of a seven-year-old sitting in the El Rey Theater on Second Street in Chico for so many Saturday afternoon matinees - nearly as cute as Maureen O’Sullivan. Nope. Cheeta never got paid.

THERE IS MUCH TO LEARN from a 2011 that sacrificed its good name in order to provide many, many, many teachable moments. 2012 will be a great year, but only if we heed the lessons of her predecessor.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


MAYBE I’M LATE TO THE PARTY, but I just read Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. It came to me as a Christmas gift. Ostensibly about a low-budget baseball team out performing its available revenue, it is really about the use of data to drive success. Baseball is at once a beautifully simple game – hit, run, throw, catch – and a team sport driven by statistics: batting average, runs batted in, earned run average, slugging percentage. The mind-numbing list goes on and on.

Lewis suggests that success can be predicted when all but the most important data is thrown aside. At least that’s what Oakland Athletics front office folks figured out.

SO WHAT? For the longest time, we, as educators, didn’t give a crap about data. In fact, when asked about numeric proof, we gave every indication that we were threatened by data. We found comfort in defining success as doing what we’d always done, eschewing numbers. When asked for a measure of success, we couldn’t pinpoint anything because we relied upon how happy our students were, how content our parents were, and how the school community expectation was that younger sibling would get exactly the same thing that older sibling got. In essence, as a former superintendent aptly put it: “We weren’t teachers with twenty years experience; we were teachers who taught one year twenty times over.”

Critics of schools justifiably looked at world-wide performance in math and literacy - comparing us to them - then, like the man in Tiananmen Square a few decades ago, stood in front of our line of tanks and said, essentially: “Wait a minute.”

Educational leaders, legislators, and the publishing houses that found they could make a dime off of this discord immediately jumped on a bandwagon of testing each and every thing a kid was supposed to know. This will have proven to be a necessary step, but one with enormous costs in terms of instructional time, one which yields rafts of statistics, but few of which are of actual value.

THE TASKS BEFORE us as educators are to:
  1. specifically determine which data from which assessments measures success, and then 
  2. focus on curriculum content and instructional strategies that contribute to the necessary and desired measurable student performance.

Does that invite us to teach to a more limited test?*

Absolutely not. We must demand of ourselves that all students receive a broad curriculum grounded in knowledge but richly steeped in problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Evidence of our success will appear as student performance beyond simply the Scantron sheet.

Great! That means we can bag interim assessments and annual tests, right?

Wrong. What is means is that we make professional decisions about our assessments based on the select data that we know will serve as predictor of success later on in the student’s academic progression and ultimately in the student’s life.

Job one is to identify assessments that don’t lend themselves to this task and see that they receive less of our time, and less of our attention. Perhaps, some just need to be thrown aside.

The immediate result? More time to actually teach.



* Shame on us for having been cowed into “teaching to the test.” When we teach the curriculum kids’ll do well on the test; when we teach to the test, they’ll miss out on huge swaths of curriculum and we are guilty of malfeasance.


Lewis, Michael: Moneyball. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 2004.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, December 26, 2011


Fourth in an annual series…

Books that are half-read gather dust on my shelf and generally have a bookmark still placed at their point of death. More often than not, these are works of fiction: stories poorly told, too frequently told or stories written for a denominator different than my own.

Some books this year, however, were completely and eagerly read – and some reread. I am surprised to note that most are non-fiction – although they read as though an entertaining novelist plotted them – and most were written by journalists. It seems a good reporter tells a good story. Here are some examples:

WEST OF THE WEST. Mark Arax (formerly of the LA Times.) New York: Public Affairs. 2009. $15.99

As a native son of the Golden State, I once inquired about supplementing my Geography major with a minor in California. In my twenties I enjoyed the diversity of the geology, wild land, climate, histories, peoples, ways-of-life and constant change. I knew I would be intrigued by whatever “research” this study might involve. The university advisor was kind enough not to laugh. “People don’t do that,” he said. At least not for credit.

Arax pulled it off. West of the West collects eleven essays based upon stories Arax reported. Not limited to column inches, he invites readers into the world that is our state, allowing us to embrace the everyday characters we might otherwise only pass on the street: cops, drug dealers, organic farmers, military parents, immigrants, business people and barkeeps. Although personally rooted in the agricultural regions surrounding Fresno, Arax ventures north to the Humboldt, south to the Salton Sea; from the ‘burbs of LA to the dusty valley bergs like Oiltown and Taft. He examines who we are in these places and where we came from. He outlines how systems built to protect the system serve to destroy the individual and how individuals in California survive in spite of it.

He makes us examine the ironies we seem to accept: We are more than happy to pay the same $5.00 we paid in the 1990s but give little thought how that trickles down to the farmer and his field hand. And this contradiction extends to the farmer himself, who votes for the politician who wants to bar the Mexicans and then complains that his fruit is rotting on the vine because of a shortage of Mexicans. [Page 171]

California’s angst, I would conclude, we own.

THE BIG BURN: TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE FIRE THAT SAVED AMERICA. Timothy Egan (currently with the New York Times.) New York: Mariner Books. 2010. $15.95

I appreciate all that is done to preserve the woods for my enjoyment. A day off will find me discovering some passage into Gold Rush history on a barely-maintained road. My imagination calls me to think that maybe I’m the first one ever to see this place – ignoring the fact that I am indeed traveling on a road that was built by someone.

The combined vision of President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot allows my fantasies to exist. In a time when a burley America was resolute on subduing the resources of our vast, open west – Manifest Destiny style – these men understood the finite nature of that which seemed infinite. Egan recounts how Roosevelt faced down a Congress bought and paid for by industrialists, railroad men, mining interests, and timber corporations. A rag-tag group of college boys, farm hands, and drunkards – our first rangers – set to the forest to protect the watersheds, trees and wildlife, much to the chagrin of those who’s fortunes rested in exploiting the virgin west. The political intrigue is palpable.

Then, after a series of drier than normal winters, a fire erupts across the Bitterroots.

…Hollinghead knew at least one thing about wildfire, a retreat strategy the Indians used: it will never burn the same ground twice. So the young forest guard led forty men at a run back through the fire to get to a clearing that had just been overrun by flame. The dash cost them – burns on hands, face and hair afire… [Page 181]

Heroism, tragedy, cowardice, and fate play roles in a work that reads like a novel but invites the reader to visit the landscape upon which the story unfolds.

History repeats, I note, upon closing the volume: corporate interests today seem to have regained the run of the House. And Senate.

NICKEL AND DIMED – ON NOT GETTING BY IN AMERICA. Barbara Ehrenreich (Harper’s, The Nation, Time, the New York Times.) New York: Holt. 2008. $15.00.

A Facebook “friend” raged, “Do you know that more than forty percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes! Before we tax the business man, let’s see about getting them to pay their fair share!”

Then, at my nephew’s suggestion, I read Ehrenreich’s book, which had been initially published in 2001. Ehrenreich went “undercover” taking on the tasks and lifestyles of those who serve us, waiting tables at a coffee shop in Florida, cleaning houses for the well-to-do in Maine and stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She attempted to live on what she earned making rent payments, buying food, and covering all the costs we generally absorb without much thought. Along the way she met honest people who, though possessing next to nothing, would share that which they had. She observed cultures where in management sold services those employees were instructed not to deliver quite so well. She worked for the big corporation and for the littlest of Caesars. Although the reader knows she survives to tell the tale, at times we find ourselves wondering if she will. Hunger. Bodily breakdowns. Living quarters with no heat and or working locks – when not sleeping in the car.

I conclude: The forty-plus percent of the people who do not pay income taxes in this country do so because they don’t earn enough income to pay taxes on it.

EDWARD R. MURROW AND THE BIRTH OF BROADCAST JOURNALISM. Bob Edwards. (Formerly of NPR.) New York: Wiley and Sons. 2004. $19.95

Principles. We are exposed to so few of them in the media. Why? Because those who have found there is more money to be made if principles are ignored have convinced their viewer/listener base that only they have principles. Everyone else is lying. It’s a liberal media.

Two questions: What does the media have to gain by exposing corruption? What do the corrupt have to gain by controlling the media and its message?

Bob Edwards – a journalist who knows more than a little bit about delivering truth to power – reports: Nothing scared Murrow – not bombs, dictators, generals, members of Congress, sponsors, corporate executives or Joseph McCarthy. Murrow could not be muscled, bullied, bought, corrupted or intimidated. [Page 155.]

Edward R. Murrow looked evil in the eye and stared it down. Too few of us expect that from our news sources today. Too frequently we are convinced to concern ourselves with the labels someone else pinned on him, whether the candidate wears a flag on his lapel, whether his name sounds like the kid who sat behind us in Junior High, and what scandal our favorite media outlet has congered up. Morrow would have nothing of it. Morrow insisted that his boys report only the truth.

IN THE SECOND DECADE of the 21st century, we’ve been told we cannot trust the liberal media – interestingly almost all the time from one major media (well, cable media) source.

Poppycock. If Americans today:

• Lack the critical thinking skills or the simple will to see beyond the smoke screen;
• Care for preservation of personal well-being even in the face of evidence that our actions are leading to our own demise;
• Decide we cannot believe anyone who purports to deliver the news; and
• Convince ourselves that there is a man behind the curtain who cannot be trusted…

…then we deserve the decline in which we find ourselves.

Truth be told, print and broadcast journalists are honest folks like Mark Arax and Tim Egan and Barbara Ehrenreich and Bob Edwards. Each has a story to tell. Each does more than a day’s work to get the story out. Indeed, they are our country’s invaluable fourth estate.

But there is a “man behind the curtain” telling us otherwise. Like in Oz, we can almost glimpse him turning and manipulating and pushing smoke into our eyes – then he turns toward us and says, “Ignore that many behind the curtain.” Ed Murrow would find out who the bastard is, tear down that damnable curtain and expose him. Then, as a country, we could all stare him down.

And we’d be better off.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, December 22, 2011


…a cautionary tale about the office party
circa 196x…

CHICO’S KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS HALL, even fifty years ago, was a cavernous old building. Exterior walls were washed white and the window trim was black. Inside, bare floor planking was worn from decades of dance events, potlucks, receptions and various and sundry gatherings. All the corners of the great hall were dark, especially those back of a stage partially hidden by an ancient maroon velveteen curtain.  

Or was it forest green?

The doors from the main floor were white with blackened metal doorknobs, knobs that were always locked no matter how many times a curious little hand twisted and pulled to gain entry or simply peek inside. To be sure, looking through the skeleton keyholes, everything in the chambers beyond those doors was dark, mysterious and therefore, wonderful.

Even full of celebrants, the Knights of Columbus Hall smelled like old, cold dust. And once a year, just before Christmas, the place would teem with celebrants. Postal families – families of the guys who carried the holiday mail – gathered for cheer, for heaping plates of saucy spaghetti topped with a buttery slab of French bread, and for a visit with Santa.

The kids my age – sixish – and those both a little older and much younger, skated around the great hall, up and down the aisles between the alignments of oil-clothed tables sliding in stockinged feet, until one of us would pick up a painful sliver from the planking. There’d be a shriek. The injured party repaired to his or her particular mother who would remove the wood piece with surgical precision using only long, painted fingernails. Warned about the dangers of our frolic, we would not return to the skating activity for at least another five minutes.

During that recess, I would find Don VanMeter, the man who carried our mail, look up at him and say “Hello.” With a bottle of Miller High Life in one hand, he’d rub my burr-cut head with the other and say “Hello yourself.” Then I’d go find Glenn Walker, the neighbor who owned eight acres of almonds directly behind our place, also a letter carrier, and get similar treatment. Dad’s hiking buddy, Bill George responded in the same way as did the countless others who took this evening to eat and celebrate before returning to their holiday-heavy duties, ensuring that Christmas would arrive on time in Chico.

Dad’s closest work mate, Terrence, wasn’t on hand. I searched for him – he wrote little poems and gave them to kids – but I couldn’t find him.

When the bell rang for dinner, we all sat down, family style, on hard wooden benches pulled close to the long rows of tables. The postmaster stood up and offered thanks to the Lord while most of us kids nibbled at the sweet French bread until our respective mothers slapped our hands, glaring down at us as only mothers can. Next we’d dig into that saucy spaghetti having been admonished by the man who’d so recently been in conversation with the Lord: “San-tee Claus won’t come ‘til you’ve cleaned up your plate.”

An eternity passed while we ate the meal. Then, unexpectedly, the lights went out. An audible whoosh emptied the air from the room as everyone’s surprised breath sucked in. All was silent save for an infant or two. A tiny crease of light shown from beneath the velveteen curtain, and after a time appropriate for raising anxiety, the curtains split. There sat Santa. We cheered.

Santa read The Night Before Christmas. We then lined up – littlest ones first – to climb onto the stage and receive our presents from Santa and his helper: a peppermint stick, a naval orange, and a six-and-a-half ounce bottle of Coca Cola. Santa’s helper, Terrence’s “girl,” mom told us, hurried us off the stage so the line would keep moving.

Once back on the floor, the oldest of the boys would place penny bets about something embossed on the bottom of their soda bottles. I turned mine over, but was far more interested with what was inside. Some of the girls broke the ends off their candy canes and poked them through the rind of their naval oranges, using the candy as a straw to draw out the juice. The kids my age and younger just wandered about, trying to negotiate holding three precious gifts while walking across the slick wood floor in stockinged feet and grinning because we’d all just seen “San-tee Claus.”

Christmas was here.


ONE HOLIDAY, maybe four or five years on in this tradition, Dad announced to Mom that, “You should run along over to the Knights of Columbus and go ahead and enjoy yourselves.”

Dad wasn’t coming!

The hall was as big as ever, as dusty as ever, but somehow colder than usual this time. I sat on a bench next to Mom choosing not to ice skate on the wooden floor. I didn’t nibble at the French bread atop my mound of spaghetti while thanks was offered. I only wished that the postmaster would ask God to somehow send Dad to the party. I stabbed and twisted my dinner and let it grow cold.

Then the lights went out. When the curtain opened, before the kids lined up, I looked to my left where Mom was sitting, but she was gone.


Now, too big to cry or yell out – the year prior, I’d won six or eight cents from the other boys because my Coke bottle had the word Louisville embossed on its bottom – I sat on the wooden bench like a stone. As the kids lined up to walk across the stage, it seemed that the room had grown colder. My eyes filmed over and I blinked to clear them. Why, I didn’t know. It’d just be a haggard procession of children getting a peppermint stick, an orange and a bottle of Coke. And Santa’s 'helper' would hurry them off the stage to keep the line moving.

Sitting among the long rows of tables, I was the only kid left on the floor. I swiped a finger across my eyes and watched. Immediately, I saw:

Mom was up there! Mom was San-tee Claus’s helper!

Like peering through a keyhole into a fully lit room, I understood a number of other things – frightening things, things steeped in a new and confusing reality.

After the procession, Mom brought me an orange, a candy cane and a Coke, which I consumed slowly but didn’t really enjoy. Once the hall was all cleaned up, we got in the car and drove home with Dad.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, December 18, 2011


…in pictures

Dawn over the Olympics – New Years Day.  [If you really have time on your hands, click on any of these pictures and it'll expand.]

January: Butte County’s historic Covered Bridge up there on Butte Creek.

Often pictured from the outside, here’s an additional shot from the inside. Very cool. Very old. And more wooden than even Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner.

Up Butte Creek Canyon, we wind through the county’s pot growing region. Did I say pot growing? I meant historic gold country. (Silly me.) The Beemer rests on the side of old Humbug Road heading up the slope toward Tuttletown.

Not all photographs come from the seat of a motorcycle. This sinister looking old willow is silhouetted against a setting sun beneath the waterline of a drawn-down Folsom Lake. Much to explore on those denuded hill sides.

February: A clear day invited the odd trip to the high country. Here, on State Route 20 east of Nevada City (Nevada County), we view the consequences of hydraulic mining 140 years hence.

March: An extended road trip in order, touring the Gold Country in and around Sonora. This shot finds us in Coulterville (Mariposa County)…

…then out to Monterey and back up the coast on State Route 1. In Santa Cruz, I was introduced to the Moto Guzzi Breva. As I left the Italiano bike shop there, a piece of my heart remained behind.

Up the road a piece, we outran this storm.

April: Back on the coast, practicing foul weather riding in and about the environs of Mendocino County north and east of Elk (nee Greenwood).

A lovely iris up that way, reminds us what spring is all about.

May: Back closer to the ranch, this old barn presents itself in El Dorado County on the road in toward Rattlesnake Bar on the south side of Folsom Lake. Nice State Park camping area out that way. Will it stay open?

June: A road trip finds us crossing Fandango Pass in Lassen County, tracing a portion of the California / Oregon border and again skirting a storm.

Dramatic view of Mount Shasta (Siskiyou County) at the conclusion of a 210-mile day – 120 of which were not paved.

I succumbed, bought a Guzzi, and took her up State Route 49 toward Downieville (Sierra County.) Certainly a most excellent shakedown for the little Italian number.

July: Table Mountain (Butte County) and a visit to the area’s other – unsung – covered bridge. Wonderful wildflowers up this way in early spring (not in July, however) and now, trails are set aside for hiking and viewing. No so, fifty years ago.

August: Duncan Peak Lookout invites a more-frequently-than-annual return. By personal decision, while this road calls, I always simply walk it. Great loop for hiking out of Robinson Flat (Placer County) for wives, kids, dogs, and fat ol’ guys such as myself.

The gentleman in the current tower bore witness that the lookout is not in its original location. He offered directions to the old site which I visited.

Early September: and another trip to the Coast is in order. Riding buddy crosses this historic Sonoma County bridge on his GS. Life does not get much better.

Our loop takes us from the Pacific Coast to the Cascade highland. Here is Mount Shasta as viewed from the old mill in McCloud, CA (Siskiyou County).

Abandoned rail cars are like an adult-sized playground for two restless boys on bikes.  Here's a Maintenance of Way car for the old McCloud River Railway about 100 years short of rusting into oblivion.

Autumn and the California Delta calls, although the Delta affords great riding any time of the year. The Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg (Yolo County) provides cover for several area wineries.

Nearby, a derelict lumberyard and an old oak tree compete for historic significance.

Fall, again, proves a great time to revisit the oft-overlooked areas of the Gold Country. This CCC era suspension bridge is on the old road to Iowa Hill (Placer County.)

Revisiting the stompin’ grounds of my youth, I find myself looking at a fiery black oak just over the hill from Mineral (off State Route 36 in Tehema County.)

Mistakenly I visited the localest of shopping areas in December. To cleanse my soul, I had to seek out this windy country road nearby.


Blast from the past: Circa 1984, I wore myself out after a 600 mile day and bedded down by the side of the road not knowing I would have the security afforded by the Malheur County Sheriff in Oregon. The little airhead was a durable bike as dependable as the sunrise, but the seat may have been engineered by the local pre-cast concrete folks.


Second runner up for shot of the year: An old saddle, perched for who knows how long, on a fence rail out back of the General Store up in rural Adin (Modoc County.)

First runner up: A coach parked on the old McCloud River Railway across from the town’s gracious hotel.

Shot of the year: I love this old hay barn adjacent to Goose Lake (Modoc County.) It speaks to our agricultural heritage, our agricultural future and to simpler times.

2012 breaks and I hope for two things: more adventures and the possibility of meeting you on the road.

Ride with care...

Friday, December 16, 2011


Just the facts, Ma'am...
 - Joe Friday

A SMALL WATER DISTRICT serving a tiny community in the Sierra foothills finds that its income doesn’t cover its costs. A plebiscite is placed before voters regarding a rate increase. It fails. Unable to make ends meet, the district manager shrugs: “Maybe we’ll have to close up shop.” Howls of protest follow. “This is just another example of big government taking our money!” “The unions sold us out!” [The water district employs six (6) people.] “The board members forgot where they came from!” “You’re just punishing the voters for telling you no!”

Digging deeper, one finds that a former iteration of the Board, concerned about providing a secure source of water, purchased a dam and the rights to the water reserved behind it. Knowing that their future constituency needed the water but the current constituency did not favor higher rates, the Board made no accommodation for paying for the purchase. New members elected to the Board pledged to continue to hold the line against rate increases. Once seated, reality sets in. An outstanding debt exists to pay for capital acquisitions and improvements to serve ratepayers who desire a reliable, uninterrupted source of water. But the rates don’t cover the costs and the Board can’t give the dam back. Confronted with the big picture, the Trustees are stuck: there is but one course of action.

Never in a position to garner all the facts or see the entire big picture, some ratepayers demand a more responsive board. They demand Board change. Again. And again. And again.

THE SAME SCENARIO PLAYS OUT in water districts, lighting districts, town councils and school boards across the country; and now, even Congress. Agenda-driven candidates are elected to positions at their own risk.  Once sworn to “…defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic…” these new representatives find themselves in an unavoidable conflict between what they said they intended to do and what actually needs to be done.  Myopic adherence to the narrow view that got the individual elected can sink the governmental organization.  Acting responsibly to meet the needs of the entire constituency can sink a political career.

IN A REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, here’s how it works: As the electorate, we pay the elected to grasp the big picture. We understand and accept that the big picture is not something we have the advantage or privilege of seeing. Truth be told, we don’t want to see it. The big picture is often just too damned complex – except in the example of the water district where it’s pretty damned simple.  Never-the-less, we expect our elected representative to get the big picture and then to make choices based upon the big picture.

(c) California State History Museum
Skewering, brow-beating, slandering, editorializing against or condemning a good person who has risen to a legislative position simply because her or she bases important decisions on an understanding of all the of facts, including those not available to us – that is, condemning someone for doing their elected duty – doesn’t add to the debate. Neither does it strengthen our democracy, contribute to getting work done in our school districts or our water districts nor make us look as if we paid attention in Civics class back in 12th grade.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, December 12, 2011


THE YOUNG DEER – one who’d maybe just lost his spots – and his doe stepped right into traffic. I saw the whole thing as if it were in slow motion. Actually, it was slow motion, because I was in town, not on the highway, and I was neither on the BMW nor the Guzzi. Wouldn’t have mattered if I had been on a bike because, as I said, the whole thing happened in slow motion.
NORTH AMERICA’S deer population resides in two emotional spaces at once. For many of us, they are graceful, placid creatures occupying a certain place in the meadow, the forest and the food chain. From a distance, we watch one ear twitch, then another. They raise their noses and, once they’ve caught our scent, they bounce out of harm’s way and then prance off into the brush. But for many of us they are vile vermin who graze in our gardens, wreaking havoc on our cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries. They crane upward and fetch our low hanging apples and pears. They drive the dog nuts.

And they step out into traffic as if they were here first. Exhibit A: Up highway 70 about fifteen years ago, one bounded in front of a pick-up fifth wheel combination and its entrails spattered across the front of the Mazda MPV my wife was using to pass the combo. Until we sold that vehicle, the van bore scars in its finish from the deer’s gastric acids. Exhibit B: On State Route 9 in Washington, a riding buddy, travelling at about 60 miles per hour, glanced momentarily at some Cascade arête. When he returned his focus to the road, it was too late – both for the deer and his expensive riding suit.

Still, the sight of a yearling grazing the mule’s ear in some pristine glade prompts pause and wonder and feelings of peace.

SONORA, CALIFORNIA is a foothill town whose roots are firmly planted in the Gold Rush. The old town site spans several small streams where pockets of gold were uncovered by miners from Mexico in the early days. The current water system still relies upon small dams and a network of ditches that course along the sides of area hills: a system set in place over 150 years ago. In this Central Sierra region, deer summer in the high country at places like Kennedy Meadows and Clark Fork. Come fall, they migrate down to the foothills; some sharing pasture land with horses and cattle, some living off the bounty of residents’ vegetable gardens and orchards. Sadly, the urban/forest interface is invisible. The path from food to water crosses pavement.
Washington Street is Sonora’s main thoroughfare leading from the antique district up to the town’s signature Red Church. It is Sunday and there is not much traffic. Services ended early enough that the men folk could arrive home in time to gather beer and chips and settle in for the kick-off of the 49er game. Three or four streets join at this intersection: Washington, Elkins, Shaws Flat. Down the way a bit is the creek that runs next to the high school. I wait at the stop sign on Elkins at Washington Street because there is a little rise over which traffic flows on its way in from historic Columbia, perhaps at a clip a bit too great for the old downtown.

Looking across the intersection, my wife and I see the mama and her yearling, clippity-clopping across the pavement. The scene unfolds. They are in the crosswalk, but they are not watching. A car comes over the rise, but it is a vehicle from the other direction – a direction from which the deer are evident – that moves unabated. In the seconds before the inevitable, I wish I’d have yelled or sounded my pick-up’s horn, but as I said, things were happening in slow motion and that slow motion included me.

The doe is bumped broad side by the car and bounces away; the yearling is not so lucky. We see him tumble under the front wheel, his foreleg run over. The automobile didn’t stop. Perhaps the driver didn’t even feel the impact. Perhaps the driver understood deer as vermin. The little fella struggles to its feet and falls. Struggles some more and falls again. And again. Mother waits in the churchyard. Finally, the yearling finds its balance and hobbles – three little hooves operational, one dangling, helpless – next to the doe. They make it to the edge of Washington Street. By this time, I am out of my car, waving at traffic that creeps up to the scene. The animals cross the main street and head past my vehicle. I call 9-1-1 and animal control, but what I really want to do was intercept the little deer and hold on to him – hugging – hugging until the authority can arrive and dispatch the little guy. A second yearling comes to the scene; bounds recklessly across the street and the three of them make it up Elkins taking shelter somewhere in the woods just beyond the Aronas Women’s Club.

The police arrive. I point the direction and the young officer thanks me. (Privately, I wonder whether he simply returns to patrol because there is likely nothing he can do – it being a Wild Kingdom and all.)

Returning to the truck, I rejoin my wife who is reliving visions of Highway 70 and shaking with angst.

VERMIN OR PEACEFUL CREATURES, deer are living beings. Pity’s fingers wrap around my throat and hold on. For a long part of the drive home, I cannot speak.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Takin' the Guzzi to the warehouse store...

A 56-DEGREE late autumn afternoon: the sky is clear and I need a break from the action. Aria, my black Guzzi Breva, has been idle in the garage for the better part of two weeks and she needs some loping moments on a back road. But on my agenda is a visit to the warehouse store where I am to pick up some photographs previously e-mailed in by my beloved for development.

I see this as an opportunity. I fire up the B-1100 and head over knowing that I can’t return home with a pallet of toilet paper or a fifty-five gallon drum of dry-roast mixed nuts since I can strap neither to the bike.

Also, given that this is a Tuesday afternoon, the outer reaches of the parking acreage – there are smaller countries in Europe – will provide a nice little laboratory for practicing some braking, cornering and maybe a slalom or two.

BAD THINKING. Forgotten in my logic is that this is the heart of the holiday shopping circus. Within a half mile of my destination, I begin to know what cholesterol must do to the circulatory system. Almost nothing is moving. Instantaneously I am blocked from the rear. I look at the long line of automobiles stretching ahead, behind and around suburban curves and rethink Carl Sagan’s use of the term “billions and billions.”

Twenty minutes elapse before I make it to the parking lot. No space is empty, even in the farthest reaches. Spaces only come available. The traffic line creeps. I feel more than vulnerable on my little bike. Shoppers departing back blindly from spaces in cars loaded to the headliner with cases of soda and bubble water and motor oil, bales of paper towels, multipacks of deodorants and shampoos, lugs of cantaloupes and gunny sacks of oranges or walnuts. Steel shopping carts the size of three-quarter ton pickup trucks drift driverlessly across the tarmac seeking the nearest low spot or newest new car to ding.
Individual drivers in search of a parking slot plant themselves in traffic lanes waiting while successful shoppers puzzle-piece their take into the back seats of now-surprisingly small full-sized Explorers and Suburbans. The whole world stops.

Once inside, the behaviors continue. Many customers engage in an activity known to me as “the Costco Walk.” Aisles in these stores are wide; ample room exists for folks to push their pick-up sized baskets or flats all the way to the back of the store unimpeded except when the come up behind someone engaged in the Costco Walk.

A Costco Walker moves very slowly if they move at all. When they aren’t moving, they position their cart at a 45-degree angle across the middle of the aisle. Typically, they aren’t perusing merchandise; they are engaged in conversation – many times loud – with a spouse or partner or sampling a food product. About the time I feel the need to say, “excuse me,” or to try to squeeze by, they begin to move. Too often, however, this is just a stutter step – a fake. They stop further in the aisle and continue their leisurely exchange. Shoppers back up in all directions. If the shopping carts came equipped with horns, I’m sure the store would sound like rush hour on Broadway in New York City. To be honest, the place could use a traffic helicopter hovering just over the twenty-foot high steel shelving racks. There seems to be congestion around cold medications. Emergency store employees are not yet on scene. To get to frozen foods, an alternate route would be…

I hang a left taking a narrow passage between discount books and discount socks/underwear. But toward the end of the alley, a Costco Walker is sampling Peruvian dried apricots. Someone pulls up right behind me and begins to thumb through the latest James Patterson novel. As in the parking lot ten minutes before, I am trapped, blocked, almost incarcerated. The rattle of carts, the nagging of partners, the impatience of children riding in baskets, the drone of holiday music – in short, the sounds of the commerce that makes this country great – begins to pound on me. I think of the classic horror movie trailer line: “What if you screamed but no one could hear you?”

I ARRIVE AT THE PHOTO COUNTER only to discover that the pictures are not ready. Developing services need to be prepaid and we hadn’t done that on line.

ONCE BACK ASTRIDE the Guzzi, I survey the parking area and flash upon the Demolition Derbies that used to be held at the end of the racing season at the Silver Dollar Speedway up in Chico when I was a kid. I think about the physics that will come into play should my beautiful Italian bike be broad-sided by an overloaded Dodge Ram 2500 and choose a route that will get me to the margins of the lot in the shortest order and with as few turns as possible. Once free, I don’t head home.

Six miles up the freeway, past the town of Lincoln, a beautiful country road stretches from the valley floor to the gold country foothills. It calls. There will still be autumn color, I know. There will be curves.  There will be little traffic.  The music I will hear will not entice me to consume - rather it will be music I select for myself.  Aria, the little black Guzzi, will get in her lope.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press