Saturday, January 19, 2013


It was my night to cook.  But it had been two-and-a-half years since my last “annual winter” motorcycle sojourn around the scenic and mystical Sutter Buttes and today’s weather was better than fair.

The route around the this eons-old formation is a combination of flat, straight nicely surfaced roadways punctuated with a few sweeping curves.  The life-blood of the Sacramento Valley is farming.  This little tour offers great glimpses into that agrarian roots.  At points along the loop, gentle rises offer views of either the Coast Range to the west or the Sierra to the east.  This day I would clearly see Mount Lassen, the next volcano in the string, as well as the snow glazed Trinity Alps peeking over the northern horizon.

The Sutter Buttes provide a touchstone viewable from almost anywhere in the Sacramento Valley.  As one travels from Red Bluff to Sacramento or Stockton, the position of the Buttes tells you how close (or far) you are from your destination.  Back when California was being wrested from the Mexican government, prior to the Gold Rush, John C. Fremont and his band used these highlands as a wintering spot during a wet and boggy trip down the valley. 

To the west and south, rice is king.  Known as the Butte Sink, the basin here holds water that is leveed into curvaceous tracts. 

Not sure if the paddies have yet been seeded, but all manner of waterfowl have chosen these stretches to gambol or float or dive for bugs or aquatic food.

To the north and east, almond orchards lay in wait of the spring warmth that will festoon branches with fragrant white blossoms. 

The mantles of the mountain are greening.  On the formation’s flanks, sheep graze, some climbing into and out of tiny ravines flush with runoff.  They eye me as I ride by and some bolt away.  Cattle reside in the area but they simply stand there, more or less aloof on the hoof, knowing I’m not going to hop the fence and take out a weak one. 

Here and there, Pacific Gas and Electric has sunk wells to suck natural gas from beneath the surface.  Yet again, I don’t stop for enough pictures.

The town of Sutter sits in the foreground of the Buttes.  It isn’t particularly picturesque, but it lives an honest existence where residents tend the pasturelands, grow almonds, fruit or rice, provide wintering habitat for migrating birds and care for the ancient and reverence-provoking “Middle Mountain.”  The Buttes Grocery and Meats is on a thoroughfare that beelines over to State Route 20.  Inside I approach the meat counter and request a whole chicken.  The butcher comes out with one that weighs in at well under three pounds.

“You got another just like that?”


Skinny bird two looks as if it came from the same brood.  He packages both and after waiting while the young clerk toys with a neighbor gent’s change, I make my purchase, saddle up and head the 45 miles home.  Along the way, I contemplate the joys of small-town banter and rural living and my personal need to return to such areas now and then for some grounding in a different reality.

Five o’clock comes early this day.  I am watching the sun set over ridge upon ridge of concrete tile roofs contrasting that with what sunset must look like from a farmhouse on the edge of the Butte Sink.  I monitor the progress on the two skinny chickens in the smoker, enjoying a Romeo y Julieta Reserva Real with a dram of Knob Creek over ice.  Ahhhh.

I decide that there are at least three elements to a really good day.  They include:  Great weather, a pleasant motorcycle ride, and a little time next to the barbecue with, perhaps, a dram of hooch and a nice cigar reflecting on the how lucky one can be.

Today’s Route:
SR 20 west from Yuba City; north on Township; east on Pennington which becomes North Butte Road; south on West Butte Road (the verdant Butte Sink will be on our right, the mountain on your left); east on Pass Road to Sutter – stopping by the Thompson Seedless Grape marker before arriving in town; follow your nose east on Butte House Road or south back to SR 20.


The Middle Mountain Foundation protects the delicate Buttes and offers guided adventures into the heart of this little-known area.  Their website invites us to visit and is worth a look.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Last summer I took a trip where I decided to take a route I have never done. Having moved from Woodland to Trinity County some seven years ago, I tend to need to go back for visits from time to time. This particular time, i was not under the burden of the clock, so I decided to point my 12C towards a new, for me, road. Once I turned of Hwy 36 in Red Bluff, I got on 99W south. That road changes names a few times as you head south through some wonderful ag lands and ends at Hwy 32. A slight jog to the east and you can turn south on Hwy 45, this is the part I have never been on in my 50 plus years living in the area. Although I had time for this trip, I did have a meeting that I needed to attend, so no time for photos (which I now regret, maybe another trip is due). A gradual change in the type of ag as you get further south on 45, was not only very interesting, it was amazing peaceful landscapes. The Sac river comes and goes from your view, with a couple of spots where you could easily dip your toes in the fast moving waters. Short stop in Colusa at the wonderful park with lots of old shade trees and a super clean restroom. At Knights Landing, a turn onto Hwy 113, which brought back many memories, and on into Woodland. Must do again!

    1. Yeah. State Route 45, which starts in Hamilton City, traces the west side of the Sacramento River. At some places it follows the levee system, in others it drops into walnut orchards and rice land. The run from Colusa is quite nice.

      Little known fact: Prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the river port at Colusa shipped more wheat than any other transhipment point in the US. The grain went on skows to SF Bay, thence, by who-knows-what around the horn to New York state. With the coming of the railroad, the interior of the country opened up. Ease of plowing up the ground and planting wheat, in part, precipitated the dust bowl. With the market for California wheat gone, Colusa area growers switched to rice and other row crops, water being so plentiful.