Saturday, April 21, 2018


… not so Californee-ized as California …

From Inyo to Modoc, something about the east side of the Sierra Cascade is different.  Perhaps those great mountains that keep out the rain keep out something else as well.  Slower in pace than the rest of California – a bit lower in price, too – travelling along US 395 from Ridgecrest to Alturas provides a peek back at times past.  

In early April, we travelled the southern portion from Kramer Junction (with CA 58) to Minden in Nevada’s Carson Valley.

I – Alabama Hills

Outside of Lone Pine, on the way to the trailhead at Whitney Portal – closed in April due to snow – one passes the Alabama Hills.  

A great display of wind-rounded granite or sandstone, one could be excused for thinking Hop-a-long Cassidy might be about to round a bend in the trail, because this is where they filmed him doing so.

John Wayne, Duncan Reynaldo, Gary Cooper and countless others as well.

A museum nearby recounts the Hollywood history of the area and roads and trails allow visitors to believe, for a time, that they are extras if not in a western, then an ad for a Chevy or a Ford truck or a Mazda automobile rooster-tailing dust across the desert.

Watch out!  Perhaps there’s a sidewinder hiding out behind this. (Probably not.  Outside of Sacramenta, they ain't no sidewinders in Californi-ee. - Walter Brennan as a renegade sourdough in a John Ford Western, shot in these parts.)

The April weather turns quickly and the clouds present a real-life drama without the help of lighting or sound technicians.  

A half-day spent here is a half-day well spent.

II – Manzanar “Relocation Center”

I’d been to Manzanar before. (A link to that visit follows this post.)  In August of 2010, the heat seemed unbearable and it was easy to feel how miserable life was for fellow citizens whose only crime was being born with a different color of skin or a different shape of eye.

In April of this year, a nasty north wind blew rain drops horizontally across the landscape peppering us like birdshot and chilling us to the bone.  

The gale beat at the tar paper roofing and siding. Residents were never far from the fierce elements of springtime.  I don’t want to imagine winter.

The National Park Service has reconstructed a few of the crude dormitories, cookhouses and latrines.

And in the substantial gymnasium, built by the hands of those interred, displays speak to life in this high desert and of the misguided thinking that prompted the creation of this and ten other remote and inhospitable places.

As a tiny girl, a one-time colleague of mine spent time at Poston in Arizona.  At age three, it is hard for me to believe that she was ever a threat to the Republic.

III – Bristlecone Pine Forest

When my computer malfunctions, when the tool becomes and obstacle to getting work done, I often slip into use of my second language – profanity – until the problem is resolved or I’ve tossed the thing out the window.  My traveling partner, I came to find out, has a similar reaction to steep, narrow, windy roads without guardrails.

Such is the road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

I stopped for few pictures.

The Visitor’s Center, some 28 miles east of US 395, offers interpretive exhibits when open (it wasn’t, yet) and a couple of easily accessed trials (if you discount the drive up there) to the oldest living things on earth.

Humbling indeed.  Our visit was truncated by the anticipation of the road back down the mountain.  

On my list is a revisit on Enrico, the Yamaha, affording me more time to embrace the truly timeless nature of… …nature.

IV – June Lake Loop

A side trip on the June Lake Loop might be preferable to rocketing up 395.  The loop swings west to the foot of the precipitous tilted fault-block uplift that forms the east side of the Sierra.  Summer homes and ski cabins cluster in the tamarack pines along the edges of high mountain lakes.

Snow melt pours over rocky ledges…

…filling those lakes with pristine water and perfect reflections.

You can’t help but come away with a crick in your neck after looking skyward at the jagged aretes and peaks of the High Sierra: So near and yet so far.

V – Parting Shot

We chose not to visit Mammoth this trip having been advised that is may be a bit too corporatized for its own good.  Fine winter skiing is offered but in the transition from being an out-of-the-way secret to a destination resort, some have suggested Mammoth may have lost a bit of its charm.  The same might be said of much of Tahoe, further north.

I suspect I may have inherited some sort of a latent desert rat gene from Dad.

Thoughts of mountains and valleys and sage and clouds and a little thunder – rather than speedboats and casinos – are all I need to urge me to return to the East Side.


Notes and Resources:

Along with your DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteeryou should

Read:  The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. 1903. Widely available, Mary Austin writes of the area in a beautifully lyrical fashion, providing the reader with a deep view of the geography, natural history and culture that have shaped and are still shaping this Land of Little Rain.  (My copy, Penguin 1988, has an introduction penned by Edward Abbey making the volume a special treat.)

Purchase: At the bookstore in Bishop or, better yet, prior to departure get: Guide to Highway 395: Los Angeles to Reno by Ginny Clark.  Western Trails Publications, P O Box 2485, Lake Havasu, AZ, 86405. Revised 2013. $20.  A few typos but a lot of tidbits of history that’ll make you want to take – rather than pass by – that non-descript turn off.

Pick up: Available at many businesses along 395 are county-specific guides to backcountry roads with travel tips and advice you’d be wise to follow.  Grab these at any visitors center or small business along the route.  They’re free.

And you may want to visit these web links:

Church of the Open Road notes from a previous visit to Manzanar:

This Inyo County website is quite comprehensive with additional inks to click through: Owens Valley / Eastern Sierra Visitors Planning Guide:

As is this Mono County website:

Though we were just passing through, we opted to spend a lay-over day in Bishop.  We should have planned for more.  Central to many alluring attractions both historic and natural, the town is the type of place where you’ll meet a stranger and leave with a new friend.  Nice, affordable and close to some good eating, we stayed at Bishop’s Creekside Inn:

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, April 20, 2018


…the things you don’t see from the air…

The subtle beauty of the Mohave Desert is too easily flown over en route to Chicago or New York from the West Coast.  That’s a tragedy.  Too frequently the arid landscape becomes ripe for mineral extraction because it’s easy to believe there’s nothing there.

We spent a week visiting this fly-over territory and came away realizing that it’s easy to believe a lot of things that are just plain wrong.  Here are some highlights:

I - Barstow

Most of Dad’s best stories about growing up seemed to center on his young life as a desert rat outside Barstow, California.  I may have visited there once.  That “may have” phrase prompted me to want visit for sure.  

Dad made Barstow sound far more enchanting than I happened to find it the day we dropped in.  The hills.  The trains.  The adventure.  Barstow High School – home of the Bulldogs – where he and his pal Ralphie Fairbanks hopped the fence the night prior to the dedication of the then-new pool to christen it with a moonlit skinny-dip.  The circa 1934 pool is long gone and the Bulldogs are now the Aztecs, but the old building stands.

Trains rumble through on the old AT&SF route.  The old depot has been converted into a train museum where one of the volunteer ladies behind the counter – a woman only a few ticks older that I – said that she, too, went to school with a Fairbanks.  “They’re everywhere in these parts.”

As high school grads, Dad and Ralphie tamped ties on the Tonopah and Tidewater, a mining railroad that left the mainline up the tracks at Ludlow but never quite made it all the way to Tonopah.  I never quite made it to Ludlow.  Perhaps next time.

II – Twenty-Nine Palms
Joshua Tree National Park

The enchantment Dad talked about wasn’t particularly evident in Barstow, but elsewhere it became clear.

Across the valley from our lodging rests the largest Marine base in the United States.

Our place looked as if it had been carved out of the mountainside.

Only minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, ample areas to stroll and hike are available.  April proved to be the perfect not-too-hot time for exploring.

Wind and water and eons carved the landscape.

The panoramas are magnificent, even if a bit shrouded, at times from haze blowing in from the LA Basin.

Rugged plants cling to an arid existence.

Signs warn us not to touch…

… but apparently “Bruce Wayne” didn’t get the memo.

III – Forty-Nine Palms Oasis
Joshua Tree National Park

I haven’t done as much hiking as of late, given trepidation about my gimpy right knee.  But a trailhead, close to the lodge, proved too great an adventure to ignore.

Along the way, we spot a denizen of the desert.

Cresting the ridge, we are rewarded with another great panorama.

Not to be lost are the cactus blooms that dotted the desolation.  Soon we realized things weren’t all that desolate.

Down the trail stood a grove of palms.  The oasis.

The water was non-potable for humans, but apparent ‘pote’-enough for this stand of trees.

From the oasis, a view down 49 Palms Canyon out to the 29 Palms area is pinched between two hillsides.

Dotted here and there are life forms foreign to those of us residing west of the Sierra, like this Barrel Cactus.

IV – Pioneertown

North and west of the full-service community of Yucca Valley rests the sound stage where, at any moment, James Arness might come staggering out of the saloon with Amanda Blake in tow.

Not so much an actual town but a Hollywoodification of the old west looked like, Pioneertown mimics history with its rustic facades…

…broken down artifacts…

…and out-of-service infrastructure of days gone by.

Perhaps most curious, however, came from the heavens this day as we spy something better suited for Area 51 hanging over the mercantile.

Spooky.  Very Spooky...

V – Parting Shot

If nothing else – and there is something else – the flora of the desert invites me back.

Next time, I’ll be sure to visit Ludlow.  Maybe I'll catch up with Dad and Ralphie.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, April 19, 2018


A Church of the Open Road
‘do unto others’ project

Long time readers will understand that the Church of the Open Road is not so much a church as it is a state of mind; a state of mind achieved when touring the countryside on a nice motorcycle (or in a car or on foot.)  This non-churchiness does not preclude the church from engaging in missionary-type activities toward the betterment of others. 

Case in point:  The Redwood Valley fires of October 2017 were less reported than those, a few miles south, that ravaged Santa Rosa.  Still, individuals in that bucolic valley fled from terrifying flames through blankets of smoke in the thick of the night only to return two days later to ash.  Ironically, the neighbor’s house may have been untouched.

Such was the case for parishioner Brother Randy’s cousin Ken.  “One day, I had wealth,” he says with a chuckle.  “Now, after the insurance settlement, all I have is money.”

We surveyed the acreage where once stood his hand-built home of fifty years.  Charred oak and pine towered above the site.  Excavators had removed polluted top soil, and with that, remnants of foundations, remains of out buildings, access to a wine cellar once carved out of a hillside and stuff.  That stuff is the wealth that once was held.  Photos.  Collectables.  Rugs from around the globe.  Wines.  Tools: the tools necessary to live self-sufficiently on a small plot making your own food, your own wine, your own garden; and the ability to adapt and change the house as children are born, raised and depart.

“I had wealth.  Now all I have is money,” he said, standing outside the rented cargo container flush with borrowed and donated tools.  “I’d like to get back to having wealth.”

Randy deftly backed the rental trailer onto the driveway next to a newly constructed fence.  The olive trees we’d secured at Santa Rosa’s Urban Tree Farm had survived the fifty-five-mile ride north, as had my old New Braunfels Smoker.  The agenda was easy: fire up the smoker, throw on some ribs, and start diggin’ holes.

The day was post card perfect with an azure sky arching over verdant green hillsides.  Vast stretches of distant trees leafed green, untouched by a half-year-ago’s conflagration.  Splotches of standing deadwood made it appear as if the fire whimsically hop-scotched down the hillside, sadly placing one fiery foot on this square for a moment.

The digging wasn’t easy in the dense clay soil, but then again, I don’t spend a lot of time digging holes.  (My wife might disagree.)   

But as the designee for tending the bar-be-cue, I could climb into the back of the rental trailer, where the smoker had been leveled, and tinker with fuel and oxygen and rotate the rib racks – much lighter duty than hole-digging – while the others labored in the dirt.

As work progressed, the woman living across the street – hers, the house untouched –  parked her Mercedes mid-road and climbed out to check on her neighbor and offer a bottle of wine to enjoy with the meat.

A cousin showed up, then another with a guitar.  Accompanied by some blues and some yodeling, and after a coffee break where the ‘coffee’ was actually a nice, local Pinot, the work became lighter.

Word travels pretty fast in Redwood Valley.  That explains why so many escaped October’s terrible disaster.  That also explains why, by the time the trees were planted and the ribs and potato salad about to be consumed, the crew had expanded from three or four to nine or more.

Being the only non-relative, non-once-Sacramento-area-Church-of-Christ Sunday School attendee, I enjoyed an outside-looking-in view of a warm, informal reunion: Wine and potluck victuals.  Music.  Memories.  Laughter.  Love.  Five decades old remanences seemed only as distant as yesterday.

Too soon, the sun settled over the rim of a western hill.  Our trailer was repacked with equipment and our work was done.  As we rattled away, I realized that the day’s product was not that of a small orchard of olive trees.  Rather it was a new and healthier meaning of the concept of ‘wealth:’ A meaning I would be wise to embrace.

Ken, I knew, was well on his way to ‘getting back to having wealth.’  But maybe it was something he had never fully lost.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press