Monday, September 30, 2013


What Messages of encouragement and confidence do we send our children as they grow, and what messages inadvertently do the opposite? I sat on the back deck with my semi-monthly Rocky Patel, a dram of rye over ice, the dogs, and as darkness descended, I wondered this.

Twenty-five years ago, I lived in Sonora.  Dad was visiting from Chico.  We’d entered the garage early one evening after completing some outside chore.  I reached to flip the interior light switch off and troublingly noted, again, that the switch plate felt hot.  With a flat-bladed screwdriver I’d been carrying, I removed the plastic plate.  Two bare, five inch pigtails of wire were twisted together and crammed into the box around the switch by the previous owner/builder.  Current coursing though those wires had blackened the inside of the switch cover. 
Damn house could burn down, I thought, turning off the breaker.  I fumbled around until I could snip the wire ends.
Dad stood back, looking over my shoulder and said: “You can’t do that.  You don’t know what you’re doing.”
I clearly recall that, without thinking, I responded, “You’re my dad.  You’re supposed to tell me what I can do; not what I can’t.”
Having built and wired a tiny workshop at a former residence, I’d been here before.  I clipped the wires and inserted them into respective holes in the side of the switch, tugged on them to make sure they were secure, reassembled the thing, flipped on the breaker, then the switch.  The interior light worked and no heat was generated.
But Dad had left the building.

Down some stairs from the deck, a big silver maple tree grew in the middle of our neglected back yard.  Dad had found a Henry’s in the refrigerator, made his way to that tree and sat in the weedy grass, back against the tree’s narrow trunk, fingering his beer and smoking a pipe that now-and-again glowed against the darkness.
I found a Henry’s of my own, and, in the gathering dusk, made my way out to the tree and sat down, back against the opposite side of the maple.
Nothing more was said.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, September 28, 2013


A mid-September inch-and-a-half of rain to the high country was considered early this year, but not early enough.  Back in mid-July a wild land fire roared up from the depths of the Middle Fork of the American River.  For a time, the community of Foresthill was threatened.  But as the winds shifted, most of the fire’s activity worked its way east.

Earlier this month, before that storm, I decided to ride up Foresthill Divide and check out the changes in the environment up there.  At a junction in a still-green section of cedar and fir, a Forest Service Security Officer – all the way from Minnesota – stopped me.  “Fire’s still active.”  (It had been at least six weeks.) “They’re still doing water drops on hot spots with helicopters.” 

I’d seen a distant plume from a clearing back down the road and was a bit surprised by its robust nature this late in the game.  “Did it get as far as Robinson Flat?” I asked.  “Is the old guard station okay?”

“You know, I don’t know.  Ever’body who comes up this way seems to want to know about Robinson’s Flat.  I’ve never been there.  This is as far as I’m supposed to go.”

I counseled him to get up that way if he got the chance.

“Not the first time I’ve heard that,” he said with a casual grin.

Curiosity and time arc on separate trajectories.  Yesterday, mine crossed.  I straddled the Breva and headed up the Divide to tour the aftermath.

That first good soaking quelled the fire.  The security stop was gone but the area immediately around it was still a verdant green.  A map of road closures was posted there.  It indicated that Foresthill Road was open all the way to Robinson Flat and beyond, but every offshoot from Foresthill Road was closed.
A half-mile up the road, the fire’s effects were fully realized.

Blackened trees, devoid of leaves or needles stood naked against an innocent, blue sky. 

Manzanita ground cover was stripped of leaves in some areas; reduced to ash in others.
The pavement of Foresthill Road provided enough fuellessness to break the torrent from crossing and descending into the North Fork drainage.

Huge sugar pines had been expertly felled by the side of the road in an effort to push fuel back into the fire’s path.  I could imagine the heroic efforts of the firefighters wielding chainsaws in choking, hot conditions.
Foresthill Road, six weeks hence, was open, clear and free of debris, although the air was tinted with a stale ashtray aroma emanating from the moist and musty remnants of charred duff.
Three or four miles in, I came to a sign recounting the story of the last major fire in the area, one from 2008.  Conflagrations are not unknown in these parts.  Not even rare.

The drama of the American Fire was eclipsed by an explosion called “the Rim Fire” down on the Stanislaus, about 80 miles south.  In that episode, tens of thousands of acres were scorched and thousands of folks battled to save forested lands and properties.  Beyond the monetary costs and human-view losses, an unfortunate aftermath of both of these fires has been finger pointing and blamesmanship.

Some say if we’d allowed timber harvest to continue as it had in the 60s, there would not have been the fuels available for such a broad swath.  Others suggest that the government mishandled clearing of the understory.  Still others say the urban-forest interface locates people in places where protection of private property is too expensive and is accomplished at the expense of the rest of the forest.  Many, in each of these camps, are absolute in their assurance that it is the other guy’s fault, whether the other guy is the environmentalist, the government or the developer.

Some things seem fairly simple, however. 

The devastation of a forestland fire is awful to look at, but simply part of a regenerative process.  Prior to our meddling in the natural situation, fire rolled through forests cleaning underbrush, reducing fuels and enriching soils for seeds to sprout and the cycle to continue.  Then we came along with plans to improve on the circumstance.

We are all responsible for maintaining healthy forests.  We can do this through moderation in our efforts to harvest, develop and groom our wild lands.  Too much of any one puts things out of balance.  And we see the results.

Individual visitors to the forest must be careful with fire.  It has always been the case that our southwestern forests live in an arid climate.  Folks leaving campfires unattended, carelessly discarding smoking refuse, using fireworks, or especially deliberately setting fires deserve jail time salted with some time on a crew cutting line.

And this I learned from a whiskered Forest Service fire boss while hauling groceries to the huge Skinner’s Mill fire camp on the Mendocino outside of Corning, CA back in the 70s:  "We don’t put wild fires out," he said.  "They go out."

With that inch-and-a-half of rain recently, that’s what happened on the Foresthill Divide.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Click on any picture to expand all photos
The trek had been on my bucket list for at least six days.  About a week ago is when I’d read that Sacagawea’s son Jean-Baptiste (Pomp) Charbonneau has spent eighteen years of the latter period of his life only twenty minutes from my home. 

Pomp and I had become fast friends over a summer that began with a rugged drive to his resting place near the Owyhee River in Oregon, including tracing of portions of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery (1804-1806) and concluded with an exploration of Fort Clatsop, the Corp’s western-most outpost at the mouth of the Columbia.  There, I purchased a copy of Sacagawea’s Child by Susan Colby

In 1849 Tom Buckner and his partner Ezekial Merritt, according to a legend recounted by Colby, came upon a gravel bar on the Middle Fork of the American. There…

…they did see signs of a great struggle, evidenced by tufts of hair from both a white man and an Indian.  No bodies were found, but calcified bone fragments unearthed nearby suggested to them that Indians may have cremated and buried both protagonists.  The next day Buckner carved the words Murderers Bar into the bark of a white elder growing nearby…  (pg 166)

Courtesy Tim Stewart
By 1850…

…this new boomtown boasted not only [an] inn run by Jean-Baptiste and [James] Beckwourth, but one other inn, a blacksmith shop, plaza, fourteen saloons, and the Round Tent saloon and gambling hall.  (pg 167)

All of this being in my own backyard, I wanted to see it.  I wanted to walk for a moment in Pomp’s footsteps.

I’d been to the Auburn Recreation Area countless times and I’d hiked the old railroad grade to the quarry many times as well.  The route is level and available only to foot traffic – both four and two – and bicyclists.  From the grade river otters are often spotted frolicking in the shallow waters of the American.

A mile and a half east, the old rail line ends at the Mountain Quarries Mine.

Courtesy Tim Stewart
Here concrete infrastructure rises out of the canyon wall like some dark, European Gothic castle.

An informational sign tells us of the limestone that was wrenched from the canyon’s gut…

…and while directional and distance signs tell us how far it is to many points of interest along the Middle Fork, no mention is made of Murderers Bar.

Can you spot the error?
Recalling the topo map, we know that our goal is east less than a half-mile, but the State Parks more than suggest the game trail along the bank is not an option.

A wide route heads east, but bears away from the river and causes us to gain elevation when we’d really rather stay closer to the stream.   

We hike past the opening of a tunnel that was more likely used for gold than limestone extraction.

Soon we find ourselves on a broad slag pile made up of crushed granite.  Invasive, non-native plants have found toehold.

Crossing the expanse of displaced fill, we peer over the rim to where we feel Murderers Bar may one time have been.

Back in Pomp’s day, an apple was a nutritious treat.  160 years later, it is a tool that, among other things, allows us to pin point our location.  The blue dot on the screen tells us where we are. Lewis and Clark should have been so well equipped.  But then, I guess, we'd never have come to know "Pomp."

Distant enough from the state warning sign to fully recall its content, we find a path leading us down the slope toward a wide bend in the river. 

Along the way, we find more non-native stuff.  A concrete fence post…

…some scraps for metal nearly oxidized to oblivion, what appears to be a coil bedspring (from Pomp and Jim’s inn?)…

Courtesy Tim Stewart
…and some tiny, luscious grapes ready for our harvest, fit for a Murderers Bar Cuvee, perhaps?

After a short scramble we come to a tumble of house sized boulders.  It is difficult to make our way to river level without twisting an aging ankle.

At water’s edge where the current swings to the other side of the canyon, a depositional flat – or bar – appears to be open for the primitive development of Pomp Charbonneau’s day.

But we find no evidence of a carved white elder tree – its natural life long over – nor any traces that the canvas and stick city ever existed, however, because…

…Nature weighed in with her own violence in the form of two disastrous floods.  The first came in January [1850] when the river rose sixty feet, washing away all the miners’ belongings and leaving them without shelter or food.  This was followed by a flash flood in September.  (pg 167)

From the water’s edge, I look up the hill.  Perhaps sixty feet above the river rests that coil bedspring.

Courtesy Tim Stewart
Not entirely certain that I’d walked in Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau’s footsteps, the adventuresome side of me tried to convince me that I had.  After all, he had to follow the American downstream when he finally turned his back on Murderers Bar to settle in Auburn for his final 18 years.  During the forty-minute hike back to highway 49, I spent a little time reflecting on Pomp’s panoramic life and realized I may have experienced an infinitesimal fraction of it this day.

And that feeling made this a good day.

Resource:  Colby, Susan; Sacagawea’s Child: The Life and Times of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. [University of Oklahoma Press (Norman) 2004].

Today’s Route:  I-80 to Auburn, CA; south on SR 49 to confluence.  Right turn at bridge.  Park on either side of the  highway although off-highway parking is available two hundred yards south on the left side of the road.  Fee.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press