Monday, November 10, 2014


Exploring NE California’s High Lonesome
Part 2 of 3

There is no discernable trail leading up the north-facing slope of Twelve Mile Creek.  A fire had run through these parts at one time: probably many times. An invasive field of sage blankets the hillside.  The fragrant growth is replacing a forest of charred, downed juniper, members of which now lay as random as Pik-Up-Stix, waiting for nature to take its appointed course.  The sage somehow roots itself to this rocky, ashen ground, becoming a thickly barbed tangle.  Even if you could see where your next step would light, it’d be treacherous.

“Great way to keep Oregonians from invading California,” my partner, Stewart, opines.

“Probably the other way around,” I reply.

We were approaching California’s border from the north seeking A W Von Schmidt’s 1872 handiwork: a monument placed at the exact point where the Golden State, Oregon and Nevada met: 42 degrees north latitude, 120 degrees west longitude. 

Except that’s not where A W put it.

The drive out of Fort Bidwell this November afternoon is glorious.  Fall colors paint themselves across the high desert landscape.   

The first dusting of snow frosts the area’s higher promontories.  A clear view south over the Surprise Valley offers a window into life 120 years back.  From this distance, not much has changed.

A dozen or so miles north-northeast on Modoc County Road 1, we are welcomed to Oregon by the good folks at the Twelve Mile Creek Ranch.   

A few hundred yards back, a gated road heads east, probably to our goal.  But it was gated.

Google Earth informs us that another road, one with county demarcation, heads to the south and east about a mile or so in to Oregon.  There being no gate, we opt for this route.  At the crest of the ridge we park.   

We’ll hoof it to the bottom on the road and figure things out from there, including crossing Twelve Mile Creek.

Allexey W. Von Schmidt was a San Francisco-based civil engineer who’d been instrumental in developing that city’s cable car system.  In 1872, as disputes arose between Nevadans and Californians about the location of their common boundary, Von Schmidt applied for and was granted the contract to survey the state’s frontier.  Using a compass, a sextant and some simple dead reckoning, Von Schmidt and his crew were charged with erecting cast iron and stone markers about one mile apart up the length of the state.

Not so many were actually footed and fewer remain today.

Wading, clawing and climbing through the tangle of dead juniper and sage, Stewart approaches the rim of the cliff.  “Hey,” he says.  “There’s a fence up here, right along the bluff.”

I’m down slope and on a different trajectory about 100 feet away.  “I’ll bet that’s the state line.”

“What if it’s just a fence between ranches?”

I scramble up and see the barbless wire fence.  It runs what appears to be east-west.  “What if?”

While Stewart roughs it over the boulders on the edge, I make my way to the mesa top where the going is much less challenging.  “The fence, it kinds just drops off,” he reports, standing where the bluff’s edge curls slightly southward through a thicket of living junipers.

I’d hiked a few yards and spy another fence or identical construction, this one running north-south.  Following it northward about 125 feet, I re-find the bluff.  Stewart joins me.  At our feet lay a tumble of cracked basaltic chunks some as small as basketballs, some as large as up-ended boxcars.  One boxcar piece has a mysterious red lichen splotch slapped on one of its weathered corners.  Other area lichens are yellow or green or white. 

Several hundred rugged feet below flows Twelve Mile Creek.

While Stewart investigates the rim, I trace back the fence.  About seventy-five paces south, a pyramid of lava boulders support an ancient juniper staff.  “Stewart!” I yell.

GPS is a great thing if you have satellite access, and Stewart does.  His iPhone 6 (yep, the new one) can pinpoint on a USGS topo map exactly where we might be standing at any given moment.  But, in this instance, we appear not on any of the four quadrangles that are supposed to come together at this point.  Warning, a box reads, maps may be misaligned.  A Will Robinson fate (from the old “Lost in Space” Sci-Fi series of the sixties) tries to descend upon us, except that we know where we are, don’t we?

It turns out that Von Schmidt did a pretty remarkable job placing markers along the state’s border.  He even attempted to retrace his steps and correct a few that were out of kilter. 

This one, we figure was placed exactly where AW wanted to put it: close to 42 degrees north latitude, but not exact.  Why?  Because 42 degrees is about 250 feet north of the monument over the cusp of the canyon’s wall, right where that red “lichen” was slapped on the corner of a boxcar sized boulder.  The 42 degrees at the top of the California quads correspond with Von Schmidt’s work.  The space in the middle?  Lost, Will Robinson.  (Just my theory.)

After a few minutes of celebratory back-slapping, we take heed of a rapidly setting November sun, knowing it wouldn’t do well to traverse the juniper-sage obstacle course at dusk.  Before leaving, we find a red can – about the same color as the lichen – tucked among the rocks in Von Schmidt’s pyramid.

Inside, a spiral bound notebook contains the names of others who’d found this place.  With the accompanying pen, we sign in.   

Then, flipping though the pages, an entry catches our eye.  In August of 2007, two very special visitors had dropped by, paying homage to the work of their great-great grandfather.

We break down off the bluff and recross Twelve Mile Creek, each harboring our own thoughts about history and geography, time and people.  It is said that if on any day you are awe struck or amazed by something, that’s a good day.  This one qualified.


Resource:  A nice source of further information on the Von Schmidt Survey of 1872 comes from Sierra College Press.  Access it at:

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

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