Tuesday, July 19, 2011


HISTORIC PATHS crisscross the west. The same can be said of historic lives. Confluence of these paths and lives can be found in the charted but rarely visited reaches of northeastern California.

On a trip to Oregon three years back, I stumbled into the Surprise Valley and spent the night at a $48 a night hotel in Cedarville. Doffing luggage from the tourer, I used the available daylight and drove north to check out Fort Bidwell. This was the place I knew Captain Jack had been executed in payment for his hand in the death of General Canby at the conclusion of the Modoc War.

Halfway between Cedarville and Fort Bidwell, Fandango Pass Road heads westward over the mountains. If ever I get a motorcycle more capable of handling gravel roads, I said to myself, Fandango Pass will be on my short list of to-dos.

Today, I would check that one off the list.

RISING EARLY IN ALTURAS, I assumed my usual practice of riding for a distance before stopping for breakfast. State Route 299 heads east, gently gaining elevation before cresting the Warner Mountains at Cedar Pass. Early morning mists cling to the higher reaches and the smell of the late night-early morning rain sweetens the air. Delightful smooth pavement sweeps through turns that descend past clusters of aspen and pine.

In forty minutes, I’ve achieved Cedarville, a town where former Sacramento resident Jamie Day reports: “strangers wave to you and say hello.” [Northern California Traveler, July 2011] This proved to be true as two gents; stopping for breakfast exited their well-worn pickups, inquired about my GSA and where I was going, and offered the latest report on road conditions up that way.

FANDANGO PASS ROAD is nicely graded and maintained. A push button adjustment dampers the shocks on the BMW to better handle the occasionally washboarded surface. The ascent is so smooth and captivating that I neglect to stop for pictures of the broadening panorama as frequently as I should.

The map lists the lakes in Surprise Valley as dry playas, but after this unusually damp-late season, both Upper and Middle Alkali Lakes shimmer in the mid-morning sun.

PETER LASSEN was a Danish emigrant who landed in Boston for a while but, like many of his day, moved west with fortune. His name is affixed to mountains, creeks, high schools, counties and national forest lands. He rubbed elbows with Spanish governors, US military leaders and California politicians. At one point, he settled at the confluence of Deer Creek and the Sacramento River, establishing a settlement he called “Benton City.” To populate the locale, “Uncle Pete” charted the Lassen Cut-off, a route that split from the Applegate spur of the old Oregon Trail and brought settlers to the northern Sacramento Valley. I knew the near-Chico portion of this route as Dad and I explored the Ishi Wilderness and Bruff’s Camp many times in the 60s.

The Fandango Pass portion was the eastern end of this cut-off, named, some say, because men, in crossing this pass late one season found themselves having to dance a fandango at night in order to warm bodies against the freezing October nights. It makes a nice story. Approaching the summit, that morning mist becomes a little more threatening. At the top I survey the rugged terrain and think about those old boys dancing around the fire to keep warm.

THE ROUTE PAST THE SUMMIT is a gradual descent over nicely groomed cinders. Approaching Goose Lake, where the Lassen Cut-off markedly departs from the Applegate Trail, a well-worn hay barn tells me that rugged folks still populate these reaches – and somehow make a living off the land.

Riding a bike, exposed to the elements and free of radio yammer, one is easily transported back in time. The imagination may turn the motorcycle into a mule or an ox and the route may turn from something graded to something needing to be picked through with a long knife and very careful steps. I can’t help but marvel at those who had the will and tenacity to do this.

Looking back at the Warners this morning, I note the threatening clouds and realize I was only moments ahead of getting drenched under a cloudburst. I wonder if I would have bitched about the conditions or danced a Fandango.


In all of our conflict with Native Americans, only one U S Cavalry general was killed in action. His name was not George Armstrong Custer. You can look it up.

The story of Peter Lassen's death is also quite interesting and still shrouded in darkness.  Yo!  NBC folks:  His story is great fodder for one of those "Unsolved Mysteries" episodes.


A detailed account of Peter Lassen’s life, exploits and ultimate death may be found on-line at The Nevada Observer. Lassen’s contemporaries read like a who’s who of pre-and post- gold rush luminaries including Fremont, Sutter, and Bidwell. How their paths intertwine is nicely recounted here through the use of both primary and secondary sources:


The Northern California Traveler is published 10 times per year. Mainly a vehicle to promote real estate sales in northeastern California, editor Dennis Smith ensures that the content matches the good nature and good will of the people and the ruggedness of the area. Plus, the real estate listed is an enchanting look back to when we worked on, recreated on – and maybe appreciated a bit more – the land. www.northerncaltraveler.com

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. A "Pashnit" Forum reader comments: Thanks for the posting. I was actually in Surprise Valley/Fort Bidwell last week Sunday. I tried to take the road up north to Adel but gave up after a couple of miles as it was so dusty. Tried to take the shortcut back to Hwy 395 (Co Rd 2) at Forth Bidwell but when I reached the forest there were snow everywhere, ho ho.

    So I had to take the whole route down to Cedarville and then back to 395 to head north.

    Anyway, Surprise Valley was a surprise, indeed. Expected to see a lot of dry desert but instead huge farms everywhere.

  2. Wild Goose Reader Sasquatch Jim adds:

    In about 80, myself and two friends were coming south from Lakeview and crossed over that mountain ridge on some nonroads and at one point had to back track at rifle point and find another trail when we accidentily happened into some prospectors diggings. We came out at Fort Bidwell and gassed and snacked before heading up to Adel and north into some real back country finally coming to Plush Oregon for a beer stop.
    Then it was on to French Glen other civilized resort spots. I forgot where we camped that night but by then we had been on the trail for about 4 days finally heading to a friends place just east of Bend for a drunken party then heading out the next morning. My two pals headed back to Seattle the next day and I rode on to the coast with my Bend buddy and his wife for a few days around Depoe Bay before going back north myself.
    We covered a lot of roads less traveled that week.

  3. "Pashnit" reader Bill adds:

    1. A lively Spanish dance for two people, typically accompanied by castanets or tambourine.
    2. A foolish or useless act or thing.

    Cattle country. One of my best memories was a family reunion at Bull Meadows as a kid. Thanks for the post, I'll have to get back up there this fall.

  4. The great thing about discovering new roads is just that: discovery. It is the feeling that "I may be the first person every to darken this path." (Forgetting for a moment that if this were the case, there'd be no path.) Imagine "the Church's" shock - SHOCK! - to discover that other riders recognize the route and have been there also!