Thursday, December 5, 2013
DISCOVERING THE WEST BRANCH MILL
…part one of a two-part epic...
In the northeast corner of the Chico Quad, Dad had inked a red X. “Some day, we’re gonna find that place, son,” he said pointing to a mark next to the words West Branch. (Many of the maps in his collection, I was to discover, had red marks, including one on South Yola Bolly Peak where he now rests.)
It was 1969 and dad has his first brand new car new: a Toyota FJ-40. In it, we set out to find West Branch. It was to be a fairly simple exploration, the site not far off route 32 east of Chico. Past Forest Ranch, there’d be a left turn onto a dirt road of some sort and surely, we’d come right upon it. What “it” was, we weren’t certain. I’d heard through an elderly gentleman at church named John that there once had been a lumber mill but that not much was left. I figured we might find an old teepee incinerator or maybe some scraps of metal.
There being several dirt roads left of the highway east of Forest Ranch the puzzle turned out have a few more pieces that originally thought. Throwing the shiny FJ into low range, Dad would creep up a steep incline to the edge of a bluff, look at the map, shake his head and creep back down, backwards. Once, I got out and walked along side hoping he’d not wreck the car I was thinking I would one day inherit.
Finally, we arrived at a spot that looked like it could be at least near our target. We parked in what once might have been a clearing. The encroaching woods of alder oak and little pines were thick. I found traces of what looked like a graded route now overgrown. We bushwhacked a ways suffering boughs slaps from low branches and slippery footing on the slick, needly duff. At a point, Dad looked at the map and shook his head. Backtracking, we found a dip that traced the side of the ridge. We marched through brush until we were convinced we were moving away from the red mark on the map. For the better part of an hour we circled and connoitered, north and east, along the bluff’s edge overlooking the canyon, then deep into the forest, then almost back to the highway, hoping to find a square nail or a rotting piece of lumber buried in the duff – some evidence of human industry or habitation.
At length, returning to the Toyota, Dad smoothed the map out over the vehicle’s hood, making sure I watched as he traced various contour lines. “Looks like we should be close,” he said, “but, hell, we could be miles off…”
He shrugged. Folding the quadrangle and as he turned to open the vehicles door, the toe of his boot lifted a rock from the duff. The chunk broke away easily, rolling over and exposing the aggregate of which it was composed.
A laugh escaped.
“What?” I asked.
He kicked through the matting of needles and leaves uncovering a low stem wall of aging concrete stuck through with an occasional iron stub.
He’d parked the Toyota inside the foundation of the old West Branch Mill.
Church of the Open Road Press