Monday, November 9, 2015


Courtesy: T R Stewart
In the comic thriller, The Curious Demise of Pug LeBreaux, protagonists Stephen and Jane Meyer hopscotch from public to private to public land while climbing Cisco Butte near Interstate 80.  A helicopter pilot (hopefully played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) has spotted them traversing real estate supposedly closed off to the public.  He sets down and they are immediately detained.

Brother Tim and I decided to test the premise of the novel by scaling that same basaltic dome.  Having examined a few sources, we found – as did Stephen and Jane – that a marked route to the summit crossed sections printed in white (privately held) and sections printed in green (public) on the map.  A long time ago, I recall that someone in a gray-green uniform, wearing a badge representing either state or federal authorities quietly confided to me: “As long as you stay on the marked roadway, you should be okay.”  [Stephen Meyer had heard the same thing I’d heard regarding access.  Apparently the fellow in the helicopter and the folks he worked for, had not.]

A brief stop at the gate to a nationally franchised private campground, and checking with the “ranger” there, told us something a bit different.  “If it was before the end of October, I could have you pay a fee and you could head through the campground, but we’re closed right now, ‘cept for members.”  Then he added, “The guy who owns the property on t’other side is kinda nasty, so you prob’ly wouldn’t be able to get up there anyway.”

With a degree of dejection similar to Arlo Guthrie looking for another place to dump his half a ton of Thanksgiving garbage some fifty-plus years ago, we sought an alternate trailhead.  We came to the side of a side road where a steep and rocky Jeep trail…

…noted on the USGS map, seemed to lead us in the right direction.  Coincidentally, the map also indicated that on top of Cisco Butte, along with a couple of microwave towers, there was an historic airway beacon.

The Sierra Nevada is checkerboarded with square miles (or sections) of both private and public land.  This circumstance dates back to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad when, as incentive toward its construction, the government offered a square mile on alternating sides of the right-of-way to be used for the procurement of materials necessary to build the line: timber and ballast. 

(c) Howell North Books
Through a bit of skullduggery, the railroad men were able to claim more than one section for each mile of track laid.  The result is that sites for towns and private campgrounds, grazing land and hydroelectric facilities would ultimately be sold to folks, enriching the coffers of the Southern (nee: Central) Pacific.  Those of us who like to explore the mountains would ultimately need to be cognizant of where we set foot. 

We heeded this sign.
On the Tahoe National Forest map, the entirety of Cisco Butte’s summit is within a green-tinted (public) section.  Signs on either side of the Jeep trail indicate that the land through which we were crossing was not.  Still, if we didn’t stray, we’d be okay.  We hoped.

Our forestlands are crisscrossed with once-graded roadways. Some lead to forgotten somewheres like gold mines, cattle camps, timber yarding areas or pioneer graves.  Others provide access to power lines for inspection and service.  It turns out, that “kinda nasty guy” owning property up this way might well be named “Pacific Gas and Electric.”  (I don’t know, but because I enjoy heat and light now and then, I kind of like PG&E.)

Using the GPS feature of Brother Tim’s Smarter-than-I-phone, we were able to wind about two miles through forest floors, 

beside paternoster lakes and ponds, and across stretches of granite to intersect with the road that had run through the closed-for-winter campground.  

The last half-mile spirals to the top of the black basaltic bluff past a facility maintained by a multi-national telecommunications provider, a solar powered weather station and…

…finally, to a pair of towers sporting those elliptical antennas that allow calls to travel from point A to point X without wires.  It’s pretty clear why “they” don’t want a bunch of yahoos traipsing around these parts.

Atop the butte, the view is 360 degrees.  Such is generally the case where an airmail beacon was placed in the 1920s or 30s.

Those beacons were planted on huge concrete arrows so that airmail pilots could navigate west to east and back again.  They still exist in Nevada and eastward.  However, in California, at the dawn of World War II, they were obliterated. 

This was done to prevent an overzealous Japanese pilot from wandering into our country’s midsection to, perhaps, strafe Salt Lake City or Omaha or Dubuque.  Our hiking companion sits atop the beacon’s arrow’s crumbling remains.

From our vantage point at 6600 feet, we see the freeway running east and west to our north while a recently snow capped Sierra crest gleams in the low November sun.

(c) Howell North Books
The Union Pacific now owns the old trans-Sierra route.  As we reach the summit, a trio of monster locomotives tugs a mile and a half of freight cars through a century-old snowshed.  The roar of their engines echoes throughout the canyons and hillsides as they have echoed for over 100 years.

Courtesty T R Stewart
While enjoying the sandwich I packed, I gaze west and, over the interceding ridges and lakes, enjoy a view of the far-off Sacramento Valley, all the while, hoping that some Tommy Lee Jones look-alike doesn’t spot me from the air.


Notes and Resources: 

The Arlo Guthrie reference regards his counter-culture epic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” (Warner Bros., 1967) Folks of a certain age will recall.

A previous post regarding historic airway beacons may be accessed at:


Special Note:  The Church of the Open Road in no way suggests, sanctions or encourages trespass onto private property.  The Church believes the property rights deserve and demand our respect.  Therefore, on the off chance that the long ago advice received relative to crossing through private property on an established road is bogus, the Church will forego specific directions to this locale.  Savvy readers can look it up, anyway.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. What a nice view for lunch. A lot of our interesting roads and vistas are accessed from roads and trails that criss cross over private land. Unfortunately the private land is usually owned by Weyerhauser and other tree harvesting companies and they enjoy charging people with criminal trespass. Sad really, even when someone doesn't leave the road.

    1. Yep. That most certainly is a concern. Part of me thinks that hiking over an acre or two of forest harms nothing. Then another part of me would be upset had someone decided to make a habit of using my back yard as a thoroughfare. So, heck. I heed the signs and stick to roads marked on a USGS or Forest Service map - and are ungated. Not sure that'd save my bacon in court, however...