Saturday, July 7, 2018
DAY TOUR OF FIRE COUNTRY – A RETURN ENGAGEMENT
Riding through devastation and rebirth
in California’s Coast Range
One of the great positives of the changes in climate some say we are experiencing is that, in most of California, riding season is almost twelve months long. Unfortunately, so is fire season. September’s big blazes began in June this year.
Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties have experienced more than their fair share of wild land fires over the past few years. Only a couple of months ago, a section of hills around the Dry Creek wine growing valley erupted. In October 2017, Santa Rosa lost 4,000 homes and 40-plus lives. Lake County’s Cobb Mountain resort area was lit up in the summer of 2016; the town of Lower Lake that fall. Over Thanksgiving weekend of 2015, the hills surrounding the Geysers geo-thermal units smoldered for days. More than the turkey, that day, was smoked.
I’d checked things out about a month after the October disaster. Now nearly eight months later, Enrico, the Yamaha, and I decided to take another look at the aftermath.
Departing US 101 at Mark West Springs Road a few miles north of Santa Rosa, I am immediately greeted by a forest of standing chimneys. (I so want to photograph this orchard of masonry but, like before, feel doing so invades the privacy of those who’d lost so much. Thus, I refrain.) Continuing into the once-lush Mayacamas Range, the vegetation is now seared away as are the houses once shielded from passers-by. Only their foundations, chimney and a few scraps of twisted metal remain.
Mark West Springs Road sweeps along Mark West Creek and over and around denuded hillsides now cloaked in the golden grasses of summer. Rebirth had occurred – subtle, but a start. It proves to be a nice ride this day, but I can picture residents clogging that windy route deep one October night as the firestorm rolled out of the east like a fiery boulder at the beginning of an Indiana Jones movie.
Passing the Wildlife Safari exotic animal exhibit, I am reminded that the owner, that terrifying night of the Tubbs Fire, saved every critter in the park using only garden hoses linked end to end, screwing them together by the light of the approaching flames. His residence, however, didn’t make it.
The road dips in and out of the fire zone. Ridgelines of standing scorched trees appear with some turns, with other twists of both highway and fate, green meadows, pasture lands and unscathed houses stand as if nothing had happened. The whims of wind and fire, I think.
In Calistoga, I stop at the roastery to purchase my supply of the whole bean that “wakes up Napa County.” Across the street a fine breakfast is offered at the historic Café Sarafina. A bookstore, a bicycle shop, several boutiques and tasting rooms make this a pleasant stop – although I don’t taste when I’m on the bike.
California’s State Route 29 forms Calistoga’s main street. South of town, one would venture into the heart of the Napa Valley where, even on a good day, the traffic can slow to a crawl. North, Route 29 corkscrews out of the valley affording tantalizing over-the shoulder glimpses. As the elevation gains, I pass through Robert Lewis Stevenson State Park, a mecca for hikers and cyclists beneath a canopy of redwood and madrone. I’m thinking I should have packed a snack and taken a stroll.
Out of the forest and over a rise and I enter the higher pastures of Lake County. The wonderfully engaging twists of the route from Calistoga remind me why Lake County never received rail service. Construction through steep and narrow canyons and over rocky ridges proved too daunting. The pavement, however, offers a graceful experience for the me and the big Yamaha. Cresting that rise, I view the denuded tops of ridges that ring the upper reaches of the Putah Creek drainage: Fire scars from two, three, sixteen and perhaps thirty years ago.
State Route 175 curls away from Route 29 at Middletown heading up to Cobb Mountain and, until two years ago, the Hobergs Resort. In the aftermath of the 2016 fires up that way, sections of Route 175 has been resurfaced and some homes rebuilt. Rusted derelicts remind me of what once was. Some vegetation is beginning the slow process of regeneration. As massive as was that conflagration, just moments down the highway, I enter a cool pine and fir forest as lush as anything one might see in the Sierra Nevada 90 miles to the east.
Route 175 rejoins 29 just south of Kelseyville, one of several California sites bearing the surname of a brutal Indian slayer from the 1850s. His wife (or sister-in-law), history forgets to tell us, created the original Bear Flag that was raised of Sonoma in the 1840s. State Route 29 skirts the west shore of Clear Lake, the California’s largest fresh water pond, ending at State Route 20 near historic Upper Lake.
Looking well north beyond the end of the little town’s Main Street, evidence of a decades-old burn area catches my eye, but that’s not why I’m pausing here. Upper Lake boasts the Blue Wing Café, home of one of the best bison burgers on the planet. Garden seating invites me to linger, and, were I not on the motorcycle, the selection of on-tap brews would be more than tempting. Perhaps some future evening will find my bride and me lodging at the historic hostelry next door.
State Route 20 is a busy east-west crossing of the Coast Range. On it, I wind past the picturesque Blue Lakes. A mile or two short of Route 20’s interchange with US 101, I divert onto “Road A,” hopping over a ridge and descending into Redwood Valley. This area was torched the same October night as the huge fire that scarred Santa Rosa. Lives and homes were lost here, as well, just not as many as a few miles south.
I wheel past several lettered roads until I find Road J. Heading east, I check on the site of a friend’s home that’d had burned to the ground that night. Oddly, the fire had placed a fiery footprint on his house but left the one fifty yards away unscathed. Two-and-a-half months ago, a buddy and I had planted some olive trees near the ashes of the house. This day, those trees seem to be doing fine and evidence of a rebuild can be seen through the fence.
For the most part, fire is a natural occurrence. Even after the worst of wild fires, rebirth is almost immediate. It will be a personal goal to ride this route through fire country every six months or so to see how things – both natural and man-made – evolve.
Today’s Route: Exit 494 from US 101, east on Mark West Springs Road which becomes Porter Creek Road. Side trip: Franz Valley Road to Franz Valley School Road (windy and interesting) back to Porter Creek just west of Calistoga. State Route 29 through town then north to Middletown. (Great twisty pavement!) Left on SR 175 through Cobb and Hobergs eventually merging back onto SR 29. North on SR 29 to SR 20, right one mile to Upper Lake, left onto historic Main Street. Continuing: West on SR 20, right on Road A, right on East Road, head north as far as you want. (You could end up in Willits!) Backtrack on East Road, follow signs to US 101.
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