Sunday, April 10, 2011


Part 1 of a 3-part series.

AS A YOUNG BOY, flabbergasting my mother, I walked down to Chico Book and Stationery and ordered a copy of Remi Nadeau’s Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of California. I was, perhaps, eight. For days – well evenings – I poured over the book’s photographs and stories of life in the gold country of California – the corridor along state route 49 – and dreamed of one day buying a practical car (at the time, either a Jeep Wagoneer or a VW Combi Bus) and spending the rest of my life camping out like a 49er. In the fifty intervening years, I have traveled most of 49, achieving its northern terminus at Vinton (Plumas County), but never to its southern end at Oakhurst. Little did I know I’d make it this trip.

Our plan had been to meet in Santa Rosa and travel up US 101 to Eureka, using the Eureka Inn as a home base from which to explore 299 east to Redding and return on the most glorious state route 36 west from Red Bluff. But the weather gods frowned on this, sliding a hillside across 101 north of Garberville and prompting us to scrub those plans for no plans in particular.

CHURCH OF THE OPEN ROAD original parishioner, Randy Boek, hailing from Washington State reserved a 2010 BMW R1200 GS from Adventure Touring in Santa Rosa, California. Proprietor Mike Bongiovanni meticulously maintains his rental fleet of GSes and when Randy and I met up at the plaza in Sonoma, it was immediately evident that we were in for a good time.

I’d ridden from home in the Sacramento area, stopping in Winters at the Putah Creek Café for breakfast – if you can find a better breakfast sausage anywhere on the planet, please contact “the church” and let us know; we doubt if you can – and pausing at the Monticello Dam to see if the waters of Lake Berryessa had eclipsed the Glory Hole. They hadn’t.

© 2011 Suisun Valley
WE TRACED MY ROUTE from Sonoma to Napa on 121. Nine miles east we slipped into the bucolic Wooden and Suisun Valleys, rustic land of wineries, local farmers’ markets, bergs and hiking trails. Often overlooked by those traveling I-80 to or from “the City,” this little part in the Coast Range offers a view back to slower times where drivers pull over to allow passing, quite possibly, locals know one another by first name. In the highest reaches, every flat half-acre homes a vineyard; and as we approach Fairfield, row upon row of varietals are just in bud for the new growing season.

Crossing I-80, we rode along state route 12 toward the Delta. A pause at Rio Linda. The public restrooms are barricaded by steel gates slipped into concrete dikes. Silt rests upon the river-side of these arrangements, reminding us that flood stage means things really, well, flood, in these parts – as recently as last week.

We devised a simple plan to cross the valley floor on state route 12, catch state route 49 at San Andreas and spend the night in Sonora. Phone reservations are made at the Gunn House there.

Not far east of Lodi, route 12 begins a graceful waltz through the foothills. The spring grass is tall. Blue gilia and lupine decorate the berm and I recall that an edible bulb lives at the base of the former.

San Andreas is the first of many towns along the Golden Chain Highway that we will pass through. Each will have brick buildings with aged and cracking plaster exteriors revealing, well, brick buildings. Highway 49 bypasses the oldest part of San Andreas, but the “business route” steers one through a town with one foot secured by history.

I know this section of 49 well, having once worked a mining claim near “Mark Twain’s (rebuilt) Cabin,” and later having served in education in both Jamestown and Sonora. At the time I drove an ’83 R65 “airhead” BMW, a bike for which these roads were specifically engineered. 49 sweeps into and out of the canyons of the Mokelumne, Stanislaus Rivers and several smaller creeks. The sun dips below the ridgeline south of Angels Camp. The ride past Columbia into Sonora turns cool.

(c) Gunn House Hotel
Our room at the Gunn House is comfortable, affordable and historic. An evening there with my wife would have been far preferable to an evening there with my riding brother, but oh well. We hiked down to the Diamondback Grill for some oriental ribs and local wine, ran across some friends from long ago, then returned to the hostelry and turn in. All in all, a most excellent first day.


Downtown Sonora: circa a while ago.  Source: Google Images
NOTES: Owing to the fact that we dropped the ball on stopping for pictures, many images included in these posts are swiped from Google. They are noted as Google Images, but may be the copyrighted work of other photographers, artists, sojourners, or others in league with ne’er-do-wells. When possible, I will credit the photographer or their URL and regret my inability to do so in every case. That said, the pictures are used for illustrative purposes only. The Church of the Open Road profits in no monetary sense from their use.

I recently lost track of my old copy of Remi Nadeau's Ghost Towns and Mining Camps.  I must locate it.


Adventure Touring Santa Rosa: Mike’s main business involves offering guided tours of some of the best roads found anywhere. Repeat: Anywhere! But Mike rents maintained, state of the art BMW GSes when they are not being used on a tour. Randy’s bike was flawless.

The Putah Creek Café was recently featured in the Food Network’s Diners, Dives and Drive-ins. Fine small-town atmosphere, offering killer burgers for lunch and, oh, yes, that house-made breakfast sausage.

The Diamondback Grill had just opened up when I relocated from Sonora, but I remembered the ribs. They have moved across Washington Street from their original location and have added greatly to their menu and wine list. This is a must-stop-at eatery.

The Gunn House is conveniently located on Washington Street near restaurants, watering holes and shopping. Its ambience takes one back a century and a half. Nice rooms, nice staff, nice price.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. I just love The Church of the Open Road!

  2. TW: should have waved as you drove by!

  3. Actually, we hadn't planned on this route. We were going to go north to Eureka and check out routes 299 and 36; but the highway above Garberville was closed by a slide and the weather reports looked terrible. So our whole trip was unplanned.

  4. PA: Well next time you're in Sonora would love to see ya :)