Thursday, December 19, 2013


Holiday Greetings 2013
From the Church of the Open Road

An old gentleman struggled to shuffle up an icy winter hillside.  He was not well outfitted for either the weather or the terrain this day.  A brisk mountain breeze shot through his light trousers, pasting them to aging, spindly legs. Mud caked his soft-soled shoes and the cane he relied upon carried a nasty dollop on the tip as well.  He stopped for a moment’s arthritic fumble with a fleece’s zipper then the zipper of his too-light topcoat shell.

The younger people had hiked ahead, scouting through the grove of scotch pine, silvertip and spruce for the perfect holiday tree.  Occasionally, they tossed a glance over their shoulders just to see that the old man was still progressing.  But when the quest for the tree became more intense, the little check-in glances became less frequent, and, once over a rise that split the acreage, those glances were rendered useless.

In due time, a small but handsome specimen was selected, felled, and dragged back up the path.  However, upon cresting the hill, the old gent was nowhere to be seen.  The couple rolled their prize to the side of the trail into the grove – didn’t want some Johnny-come-lately to claim this little beauty – and searched up one lane of trees and down the next.  Forgetting the severe impairment of the aged man’s hearing, they called “Papa!  Papa!”  To what avail?  Their words were likely lost on that chilled mountain breeze anyway.

The holiday crisis was averted when, near the Christmas tree farm sales office, the old man, jacket and fleece now open, was spotted alternately warming his back, then his front from the glow of a huge pine bough fueled bonfire.  Facing away from the blaze, he gazed at the glazed winter peaks some thirty miles east, marveling, perhaps, at this late opportunity to have them so near.  When turned about, activity around the dancing flames enchanted him.  He laughed with the offspring of our fellow tree fallers – kids whose names he would never recall – as they darted in and about; even holding one’s Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows as the tad frolicked in and amongst the boisterous little mob.

After loading up the tree, we encouraged “Papa” to shuffle toward the truck, no mean feat given that, for a time, back at the campfire, he had been declared “home base.” 

Once tucked inside, the delight of the fire still glowed. 

“I’ve been eighty-five years,” he said, “and always had a Christmas tree in the house no matter whether we felt rich or poor.”

He paused. “But this is the first time I ever went into the woods and actually cut one.”

Then he added with a timeless grin and a slightly dampened eye: “I think I’ll remember this forever.”

Here’s hoping the holiday season
brings each of us something to “remember forever.”

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, December 6, 2013


A book review and part two of this two-part epic…

The West Branch Mill of the Sierra Lumber Company Andy Mark; The History Press; Charleston, SC; 2012

Tucked away in a corner of your local independent bookseller, or, perhaps, sprinkled through their collection, one will find gems not destined for the New York Times Best Seller List.  Works by little-known local authors who have a story to tell or a piece of history to regale, simply because that is their passion. 

Back in about 1969, my father and I took it upon ourselves to find West Branch, the site of a small lumber mill that, by the time we’d arrived, vanished. [See related Post:]  I'd been reminded of our adventure by an old Kodachrome slide of his I uncovered.  Then, the other day, while shopping for books for others, I stumbled across Andy Mark’s The West Branch Mill at a small bookseller in Chico.

Mr. Mark apparently shares my love of history that oozes from the canyons and foothills in and around Chico.  But he did me one better: He researched and wrote about his discoveries.

Within the cover of this little work one finds the thread linking Chico’s earliest pioneers to an industrial past I still remember.  Historic photos and their contemporary counterparts illustrate the massive efforts in which men engaged in order to tame this little corner of the west – and what remains of their work.  I’d heard that flumes not only carried logs from the mountains to town, but also, on rafts constructed solely for the purpose, injured loggers.  A photo shows Dr. Newton Enloe (grandfather of a high school classmate) riding the flume on one of these.

I thought I knew Chico Creek from headwaters to the Sacramento.  As a kid I swam and canoed in the creek.  I bicycled and hiked in Upper Bidwell Park and was tapped, at 16, to help designate the route for the Yahi Trail, which is maintained by the City of Chico to this day.  In 1986, my wife and I chose to be married at the headwaters of the creek in Chico Meadows.  Still, I had no idea that, four or five miles east of the park, a huge, hand-built arching, wooden structure supported a flume from the mill.

Original Source: Mr. John Nopel
Well-researched (Recall church elder “John” from a previous post?  That’d be John Nopel, longtime area historian who contributed the flume picture included herein) it contains stories of humor, determination and grit.  This piece of local history makes me want to discover more bits of lore in the field and more historic works in the bookstore.

One unfortunate footnote, however:  The text and the maps included in Mark’s work confirm that all those years ago, Dad had not parked the Land Cruiser anywhere near the old West Branch Mill.  I think we may have found the hotel a mile or so up the hill from the mill.  To me, this revelation appears to present a challenge, now doesn’t it?

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, December 5, 2013


…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. 

In December 2013, while archiving Dad’s slides, I discovered the picture that kindled this memory.  I’m thinking there may be more memories to come…

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press