Tuesday, April 24, 2012


FLYING IN TO SACRAMENTO International one sails low over it. Crossing over to the west side on I-5 or I-80, one glimpses it and wonders, how do I get to that? “That” in this case is a lovely sinew of pavement that uses the eastern levee of the Sacramento River as a roadbed.

Close to town (exit Garden Highway from I-5 and head west), the tentacles of business park development and subdivisions subdue the old marinas and eateries of yesteryear. But the road quickly changes from four lanes to two as the scenery devolves to expanses of cropland to the right (east) and elegant homes on stilts on the riverside of the levee.

Vacant lots – fewer now than a few years before – still provide space between the upscale homes close in. I picture the well-off sitting on patios, watching the sunset and having recurring Huck Finn fantasies as errant logs flow south with the current. Fantasies that culminate in a soft Euro-foam mattress – not on a bed of cotton wood duff – at the conclusion of the sun’s display.

And about those cottonwoods: Further up the winding lane, the riparian habitat is less impacted by population growth. Except for the fact that one is riding a levee, it would be easy to picture the entire broad expanse of the Sacramento Valley dotted with stands of valley oak, and along tributary courses, willow and cottonwood.

This spring day, the cottonwood was in full flourish. Tufts of fibrous, pollen laden, well, cotton drifted through the air and around my helmet. I pictured the flow of air blasted across some new vehicle design in a wind tunnel. Some of that pollen, however, migrated through vents striking home in my eyes and nose. The former feeling like a gravel pit and the latter, a faucet. It takes practice and skill to sneeze inside a full-face helmet and not have to interrupt the journey for mop-up operations.

The river is full this late-April day. A cold and wet three weeks was followed by a day or two in the nineties. Snow fell in the mountains and then quickly began to melt, filling reservoirs and filling streams.

Prior to the construction of the levees, the months of March, April, May and into June would find the entire valley floor deep in water waiting to soak in or drain away. John C. Fremont noted this as his troops took hiatus just north at the Sutter Buttes during his march toward Monterey to wrest California from the Californios. Joining him on that speck of high ground, he reported, were black bear, deer, cougars, rattlesnakes and all manner of rodentry.

The river’s lode, called Valley Loam, is perhaps, the richest combination of soil ingredients anywhere on earth. Prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, wheat from the fertile Sacramento Valley was shipped from Colusa, just a bit north of here, around the horn to bakeries in cities along the east coast. Now, the flatland is home to stonefruit – peaches, plums, apricots and almonds, pears, row crops and rice.

Water is the life blood of the valley. Pumping stations to the west of the road feed farmlands to the east.  The lack of annual flooding leaves the land, perhaps, depleted, but life blood is life blood.  There'd be little or no agriculture here without the river, regardless of what we do to tame her.

Within sight of the urban center where a pickup truck is a bauble with deep shiny paint and wide chrome wheels, farmers use these vehicles for their intended purpose – ferrying feed to cattle, lugging fenceposts and wire to the job site and towing tractors, plows or a springtooth furrow. When not so engaged, I suspect the pickup rests atop the levee while the farmer fishes some slough, contemplating the simple wonder of it all.

THE RUN FROM SAC-METRO to the hamlet of Nicholas takes one thirty or forty leisurely minutes and carries the rider from a hectic yesterday to a pleasant past. Just before turning around to re-ride the section from the opposite direction, I pass a barn.
Peeking from behind the broken firewall and windshield frame of rusting 20s era Ford, positioned next to the barn it may have once lived in, a little boy in ragged cut-offs and torn t-shirt, undoubtedly playing hooky this day, waved at me as I passed on the Guzzi.

My first thought: Huck Finn? 


TODAY’S ROUTE: I-80 (business) to I-5, north. Exit “Garden Highway.” West toward the river, then north along its eastern levee.

 © 2012
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. Addendum: Ten years ago, just after I'd resumed riding following a fourteen year hiatus, I was out that way on W. Catlett Road on my new-to-me BMW R 1100 R. The day was cloaked in tule fog. A beautiful Swainson's Hawk was resting on a fence post. I figured I'd get a picture of him by outsmarting him. I killed the power and coasted quietly to a stop by the side of the road. Just as I retrieved my camera from the tank bag, the bird lifted off, flew a circle and landed a few fence posts further down. I fired up, drove passed him, turned around and snuck up on him from the other angle. Just as I lifted my camera to my eye, he lifted off again, circled and lit atop a power pole. I padded the bike fifty raised the camera, zoomed the lens and snapped a picture of a dot on top of a telephone pole against a gray, cloudy sky.

    I learned a valuable lesson out in those bottomlands: In order to outsmart a Swainson's Hawk you need to be smarter than the hawk in the first place.