Friday, February 1, 2013


A retired plough horse we all called Cricket used to stand behind a fence on a rise beside highway 108/120 monitoring traffic on the road to Yosemite.  One day she wasn’t standing there.  It didn’t take long for word to get out that she’d passed.   Within hours, a memorial of sorts sprung up on the fence.  The local paper ran a feature.  Even today – ten, maybe twenty years later – frequent passers-by wonder about the stories the old horse might have told.

Riding country roads one often spots old stuff looking back at you as you rocket by.  Sometimes, I suppose, the farmer may have retired an implement by the side of the road because its placement there would be out of the way of ranch operation.  Sometimes, I reckon, that’s just where the old thing died. 

A warm pre-spring day invited some saddle time.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d visited the lowlands of Yolo County.  Not long into the little circuit I’d devised, I began to see a pattern of derelict equipment in the rural farmlands north and west of Sacramento.  With no agenda set for the day, I decided to photograph a few.

First was a land plane.  A primitive sample rested in a thicket of choking willows.  After the area shifted from wheat production to rice, these blades were dragged behind a team or an old tractor.  The objective was to level the land, encircle it with small levees, flood it with river water and set the acreage to seed in rice.  Today’s models are bigger and more refined, able to smooth larger swaths in less time.  Loyal though this implement was, today it sits like a jilted lover – in no way past his or her prime – waiting for the rust to spirit it away.

Further down the road a piece, a heavy implement like this might have been used to tackle weeds, but more than likely it set tiny furrows for planting some sort of seed crop.  Cloaked in winter grass, it too, rusts. 

Both of these prompt me to think of the days before we recycled things; when we employed iron and steel instead of plastic.  Certainly, these could be lifted to the salvage yard, melted down and sent overseas to be reincarnated as a Hyundai, but I was rather glad to see them parked along side the road.  I wondered what stories they might tell.

The old farm truck replaced the horse drawn buckboard.  North of State Route 20 in the Bear Creek drainage, this example awaits the inevitable, its board bed checked, cracking and becoming dust while its sheet steel cab puts up a better fight.

Just off State Route 16, these three amigos – an International, a Ford and, I think, a Diamond Reo – discuss the state of things as only wizened retirees can do.  I suspect each one has more than a few tales of the glory days, hauling silage in the winter or produce in the fall or fording a swollen Cache Creek in the spring.

Almost any side road is an interesting thing.  This one is behind a locked gate, but its gentle curve invites me to wonder what might be around the bend.  And how many times did one of those three trucks drive it?

Barns, too, have stories they won’t tell.  Across the field from Yolo’s Cottonwood Cemetery, this old barn has weathered decades of blazing sun and stud chilling fog.  But the real stories may have something to do with that glorious hayloft, and what, after a Saturday dance and a bit of purloined moonshine, some strapling young hand may have coaxed from the farmer’s maiden.  Better still would be the story about what the farmer did with the boy once he caught up with him.

The catch of the day has to be this classic old 40s era Ford Ferguson tractor.  Whatever color it used to be, it is now just rust.  The sun has worked its way on the huge tires melting them to where a finger swipe will return with a helping of black, oxidized dust.  No telling how long this has been sitting next to the I-80 frontage road east of Davis.  No telling how it feels about the circumstance.

Seeing these derelicts reminds me of when we built things to last and we expected them to do so.  If it busted you could fix it with a monkey wrench and a ball peen hammer.  Strong as an elephant and loyal as a bird dog, these were the implements that tamed the land creating California’s unparalleled agricultural heritage.  I enjoyed my look back.

I “learned” to drive on a late 40s vintage Ford Ferguson tractor.  Dad had purchased it cheap, responding to an ad in the local paper.  He needed the thing to tend four-and-a-half acres of almonds he’d bought after his escape from LA.  Dad taught me how to shift gears using a clutch, accelerate and slow down using the hand throttle and how to avoid obstacles with the steering wheel.  The thing had no brakes.  Countless times I plowed through a fence or ran over a tree or crashed into something.  Dad never knew.  The old Ford wasn’t talking. 

Once, after watching the Indy 500 on TV, I decided a red racing stripe across the old tractor’s gray hood would look good.  Dad did find out about that one.
The property sold about 40 years ago and along with it the tractor.  I drive by my growing-up home occasionally to see if the thing’s been retired to the fence line along the avenue.  As of yet, it hasn’t.  Once it is, however, I’ll stop by and ask what stories it might remember from my youth.


Today’s Route:  I-5 to Woodland; north on E8 (county designation) to Knight’s Ferry; north further on SR 45 to Colusa.  Stop for an omelet at Tommy’s Market Street CafĂ©.  West on SR 20 through Williams to SR 16; south on 16 through the fabulous Cache Creek drainage to Rumsey, Guinda – stop in at the country store if only to say hello - then on to Brooks, Esparto and Madison.  South on old 99W to Winters; east on 128 and Russell Road to Davis; I-80 west to the bay or east to home.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Most excellent remembrances Mr. B of a similar route a few years back astride one of Milwaukee's not-quite best. Thanks for stopping to take the photos.

  2. Really cool site you got there. Sometimes when i am riding through the country and pass a house or farm or even an abandoned place i wonder what the people are like inside, what their lives are like, even what their doing at that very moment....

  3. I was delighted to observe that you did not have my picture in your collection.

  4. Thanks for this post. It brought back memories of being with my dad. He posed many of the same queries about abandoned equipment, and while it made him a little sad he was also filled with nostalgia. And stories.