Tuesday, May 10, 2011


 California State Route 20, east of Nevada City

A FAVORITE RIDE is east on Interstate 80 and back on California 20 through Nevada City, then south on 49 to home. At anytime of the year – except for the dead of winter – the ride through the foothills and up the easy western slope of the Sierra Nevada refreshes, relaxes and renews perspective on things. Racing east on the interstate, I find myself at ease behind the cockpit of the BMW, settled into its long saddle. Then, about the time that I find the four-lane a bit too tame, I come to the 270 degree off ramp to state route 20. Off I race past sapphire blue lakes and granite cliffs, through lovely, lush meadows and into the dense conifer forest. The cool air slices through my riding gear and its fragrance recalls a high caloric dessert, although one I will not regret having consumed. At some point, my mind shifts down and I find myself where the bike is supposed to take me.

Usually this means there is a song lacing through my brain and being vocalized within the fine acoustics of my Arai full-face helmet. The song varies depending on what was on my mind prior to departure, but generally it’ll be part of Cole Porter or Harry Warren’s songbook. Sung by Sinatra.  Or me doing Sinatra.

On some days on some rides, however, there is no song. Like today.

MORE THAN THREE DECADES BACK, I was a newly married know-it-all sitting around a campfire at Juniper Lake in Lassen National Park. With my then-wife and me were four or five other couples, each members of an age-aligned “club” formed by our church. The sun had just set over the ridge and the snowfields on a distant Lassen Peak were fading from pink to purple. The fire was warm and fragrant and the group was loose in a very churchy sort of way. Someone brought wine. Someone brought a guitar. Someone brought marshmallows. There were chocolate bars, graham crackers and sticks. We ate s’mores and drank a pinkish Almeden (because it came in a bottle with a cork) and sang until the hills on the far shore echoed back. And until the family staying at an adjacent site yelled at us to shut the hell up.

The conversation stilled and I looked around. After a time, I mentioned that a couple of our number was missing on this outing. The professor Ronnie (not his real job) and his wife Clarisa (not their real names) had been absent from a number of our meetings although Ronnie had attended one without Clar. “And I’m a little worried about her,” I said.


“She hasn’t been to church regularly for a while and she doesn’t seem to want to, I don’t know, be with us.”

“She seems out of it,” someone added.

I saw nods of agreement where the firelight fended off the night.

With a little more discussion, there was a little more agreement and a resolution that one of us would check in or Ronnie and Clarisa – or just Clarisa – before the next week was out. “It’ll be sort of like a mission,” someone offered and we all laughed a bit too loudly prompting our neighbor camper to repeat his request, ending our conversation.

The following Wednesday, Ronnie came home from the university to find Clarisa hanging from a rope in the garage.

I’M NOT SURE WHY this thirty-year-old event pushed Ol’ Blue Eyes soundtrack from my mind. I stopped at the overlook below which the Malakoff Diggin’s State Park could be seen and walked the paved trail through the Ponderosas and out onto the elevated viewing platform. The mid-afternoon’s upslope breeze seemed chillier than what I was experiencing at 50 miles per hour on the bike.

I looked over the valley formed by the Yuba River and its reformation by the mining industry of 150 years back. I thought of the lives that were spent grubbing in the mud and icy water and how little many of those miners had to show for their crippled joints and busted dreams.

Then I thought about Clarisa. I wondered what busted her dreams and wished I’d made the effort to check in before that Wednesday back in nineteen-seventy-something.

I rode home reminding myself of my promise to never allow that to happen again.

Still, there was no music in my head when I set the bike on its centerstand in the garage and went inside for a shower.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

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