Wednesday, December 30, 2009

January 1, 1960

The 1960s (which admittedly started in 1961) saw, in part:

• The interstate highway system;
• The introduction of the first production sports car capable of sustained speeds of 100 miles per hour (okay, that was ’59 – the TR-3a);
• Televised presidential debates;
• The inauguration of the country’s first non-Protestant president (outside of Thomas Jefferson);
• Missiles in Cuba;
• The British Invasion;
• The Mustang;
• The “Dream” and the angst of Civil Rights for more people;
• The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mayberry and a talking horse;
• The loss of our country’s innocence in 1963;
• Bond, James Bond;
• The Great Society and, concurrently, the Vietnam War;
• Wide spread acquisition of color TV;
• Marijuana, free love and the Haight;
• Two more daggers to the heart of our innocence;
• The Chicago Seven;
• Classmates and contemporaries at war on foreign soil – some returning, some returning changed, some not returning;
• The “most trusted man in America;”
• Human beings on the surface of the moon.

December 31, 1969, I no longer look at the night sky in wonder. We’d conquered the heavens, just not the gremlins (introduced in April of 1970, so the AMC actually counts) here on earth. The December, 1959 view of a skyward-looking, cold-footed eight-year-old that “everything would remain just about the same” proved to be as far from reality as the thought that God might be looking down and winking at him from behind a distant star.

Fifty years later, we face the ‘tens of the next century and this one thing is certain: I somewhere, sometime returned to looking at the night sky with wonder.

Monday, December 28, 2009

New Years Eve 1959

MAN IT WAS COLD THAT NIGHT! But there I stood, bare-foot on the curving red cement walk that led to a front door we never used. The night sky was clear and every star in the galaxy was out, celebrating the first time I would see a midnight come and go. My flannel pee-jays and white terry cloth robe did little to insulate me from the winter cold, and I should have gone back inside and found my slippers. But the hour was nigh and I would not miss this stroke of midnight.

My brother or some kid from up the road had brought out a flashlight, but I wanted them to leave it off. Had I wanted light, I could have stayed inside where it was warm. Finally, after enough of my caterwauling and poking, the flashlight’s dancing beam was doused and all that could be seen heavenward were those stars, framed in the foreground by the wicked looking bare winter branches of the huge and ancient sycamore trees at either end of our farmhouse.

I looked toward the stars, toward the heavens and wondered if God might be looking back. I never considered that he might have his hands full with other earthy or celestial matters so I imagined if I found just the right star, I might also see him peeking back at me from behind it. Maybe even winking.

I stood flat-footed and peered upward until my neck hurt.

I wondered. I wondered about the distance to those stars. I wondered about the passage of time and how long there’d actually been time. I wondered about what might change when midnight marked the beginning of a new day. I held my breath and waited for this particular midnight’s stroke.

In the distance, back toward town where streetlights more than likely dampened the crystalline nature of the stars, popping could be heard. Fireworks, low on the horizon. And faint huzzahs and yelps. Clyde, the fox terrier next door began to bark.

But beyond his local report and that muted commotion over in town, nothing was different. The stars still shown. The world was still dark, waiting for now-today’s inevitable sunrise. The passage through midnight meant nothing. Likewise the passing of one year into the next, for it was now January first.

Presently, I found myself back in bed, wrapped tightly blankets, hoping my feet would warm up enough that I could fall asleep. I rubbed them vigorously against one another and up and down my flanneled ankles. I awoke to the familiar smell of bacon frying in a pan in the kitchen.

THAT WAS A HALF CENTURY AGO. The 1950s, the decade of my birth, had drawn to a close. And as I watched, the 60s, with all their mystery and possibility slipped in under a starlit, dark cover. There I’d stood, an eight-year-old in flannel jammies and numb feet wondering how this new decade might be different from the last; yet confident, from all I’d learned that night, that everything would remain just about the same.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Western Waterfowl Conference - Sutter Buttes Loop

DATELINE: SUTTER, CALIFORNIA. The 18,134th annual western hemisphere waterfowl meetings continue this winter in Sutter County. Tens of thousands of convention attendees from as far away as Canada, Alaska, and even the Arctic Circle gathered for this annual confab. Local residents had prepared for the event by flooding area resources providing food, shelter and recreation for weary and distant travelers. “Even though times are tough,” stated one organizer, “we were able to put this together without negatively impacting our resource reserves. We really wanted to protect our nest eggs.”

In the convention area just south of the Sutter Buttes, the mood was festive and congenial with flocks of visitors milling throughout the area and winging from one session to the next. The chatter among those present seemed cordial for the most part and any language barrier that may have existed separating those from Siberia or Chile with their North American counter-parts seemed insignificant.

While a conference program was not made available to the press, sessions on climate change and its impact on habitat may have been high on the list of topics.

Scenic flights were available throughout the day on no particular schedule. Following a recent early-winter rainstorm, the air was spectacularly clear given the normal propensity for Tule fog this time of year. Once airborne, conventioneers could easily enjoy views as far north as Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, east to the Sierra Buttes and the Crystal Range, and west and southwest to the Coast Ranges and Mounts Tamalpais and Diablo.

At one point, at least a section of the assembled appeared to be startled by what may have been a gatecrasher. A large number of participants seemed to rise as one frustrating the individual who reportedly sought only to be pictured with members of this gathering. It was thought the intruder may have been shooting pilot footage for a reality program planned for the Animal Planet cable channel. Identified as a Mr. Fox, it is unclear whether he had other designs as well. Security suggested that, “this happens all the time,” but was confident that no harm had come to any of the registered guests. No investigation is planned.

The gathering is scheduled to continue through mid-February with visitors coming and going throughout the upcoming eight-week period.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Real McCoy

WHEN THE ROAD APPEARED TOO RUGGED and, from behind my desk, I simply needed escape, I gazed longingly at the picture of the delta ferry called “the Real McCoy” taped to the side of a cold, steel file cabinet. Highway 220, outside of Ryde. Some guy got paid to pilot this thing back and forth across a placid Sacramento River. Back and forth. Back and forth. Day after blissful, carefree day.

Every patron who boarded needed to cross – every patron who disembarked did so satisfied.

Not so with public school district administration. After a GOOD day, I could count on one hand the number of patrons who didn’t leave dissatisfied; or the number of kids who actually benefited from my employ.

SO WHILE CROSSING on the McCoy one time last spring, I asked the pilot: “What about this job could possibly bug you?”

“Bikers,” he responded, then clarified after eying my BMW: “Bikers who get drunked up over ta Al the Wops (in nearby Locke) and then wanna ride across. Oncet, this guy drove his Harley right off the end, then dove in after it.” He paused, scratched his chin and spat over the side. “Bikers.”

I returned to my federally sanctioned categorical ‘No Child Left Behind’ funding application thinking about green grass and where it might truly be found. My vote still rides with to the pilot of the Real McCoy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sierra Buttes

[Mid-October] A co-member of a writers group reminds me that when in a boat on the ocean, the coast does not approach; rather one approaches the coast.

Good enough. But when in the outback of Sierra County traveling west from Yuba Pass on a road only identified alpha-numerically by the Forest Service, and when chugging up hill on a dirt and gravel logging road at the east edge of the Lakes Basin, the Alp-like Sierra Buttes do rise in front of me as I near the crest. So, just as the coast approaches, these alp-like mountains grow and evolve before my eyes, capturing more of my breath with each meter of elevation gain.

A stop to absorb the majesty and a quick, reorientation glance at the map. The area at my feet, I find, is daubed with alpine lakes and traversed by countless miles of roads to explore. Somewhere through this area is the old Henness Pass toll road; the route worn-out and disheartened gold miners took to escape the disappointment of the Mother Lode in search of the silvery riches of the Comstock.

Gotta take that one. Must return after the spring melt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

US 395 near Susanville - and Miss Holly Evermore

[July 2008] I’D ALWAYS PRESUMED THAT SAGE was the natural perfume of that great basin and range territory east of the Sierra. South of Susanville, most of days of the spring and summer, and just after any rain, sage scents the entire east side. But when I crossed Yuba Pass and escaped the acrid smoke from 2008’s very early forest fires, the overwhelming scent was that of lilac. Fifty-five miles of it. And for nearly an hour, I was transported back to the only high school dance I ever attended. The one where Miss Holly Evermore wore lilac, and not too much off it.

FROM THE MOMENT Miss Holly walked onto campus, everyone noticed. All the boys, because we were boys, paused and simply appreciated as she wafted by, noticing honey-colored hair, her finely sculpted legs, and her slightest-every-wiggle – all the while inhaling deeply of her signature fragrance. ‘Shangri-La’ was her soundtrack even among the boys we knew to be stoners. Meanwhile: all of the girls, well, most of them, hoped she’d hop on a one-way out of town and never return, because of all of the boys. One girl, I’m told, even dropped a hand drawn map on her desk indicating the quickest route to the Greyhound station between Sixth and Seventh on Wall Street.

Miss Holly wasn’t my date. No. She was about a second year home economics and bonehead mathematics teacher the likes of which prompted several of us to curse our success in algebra as under-classmen. Most of us were good enough at math to cipher the six or seven-year age difference between a senior class male and a second-year teacher; and most of us sighed in the face of that impossibility. I, like most senior boys, adored her, partly, in my sad case, because she’d felt sorry and danced one dance with me. From that point forward, I was certain of two commonly held beliefs: One, Miss Holly Evermore was forever out of reach, and two, Miss Holly Evermore was assuredly going to marry beneath her standing.

Miss Evermore was the essence of a whole bunch of things. Confidence – she never shied away from having a word with any of us. Patience – she could teach a thumbtack to do algebra. Smartness and savvy – she had to: she taught mathematics to thumbtacks. Spirited – heck, she chaperoned school dances and she’d danced with me. Prior to that, my only true love had taught Kindergarten. Plus, she was far more beautiful than Johnny Kay’s new maroon and gold Boss 302 Mustang. More beautiful by a long shot.

Miss Holly Evermore. Soft. Sweet. Smelled oh, so pretty. Like lilacs. Still makes me wish I’da flunked algebra…

I AWOKE FROM THIS COMPLEX REVERIE, now fifteen or more miles on the north side of Susanville, a town that I did not see. I thanked the Gods of the Open Road that a deer or a steer hadn’t decided to plant him or herself in my path anywhere over the past fifty-plus miles. The lilac had dissipated and in its absence returned that traditional sage perfume. The aroma of far-off-in-the-distance horizons. Of adventure. Of a romantic, pastoral life from another time, a century or so back.

‘Sage,’ I’m thinking, as I motor toward Alturas, ‘Not bad, but not Miss Holly Evermore, either.’

© 2008
Church of the Open Road Press


I WAS DOING RESEARCH. Well, just researching the meaning of a word. I leafed through the ancient Webster’s – five and a half inches thick – lost in lists of words I would never know, let alone use.

Dad had built a stand for this gold-cloth-covered behemoth from plans in a handyman’s magazine back in the fifties. I’d thumbed through this volume before, but today I was thumbing through it again. Looking for “philoprogenitoveness.”

Didn’t find philoprogenitoveness.

Did find, tucked in at about page 742, a hundred dollar bill so old that I learned Ogden L. Mills was treasury secretary in 1932.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas in the Gold Country

If I’m lucky enough to break away in December, I usually find myself exploring a dirt road into or out of a deep river canyon somewhere east of the money vortex that is Roseville. I like to get away from the freeways and the neighborhoods and the shopping outlets, and imagine a simpler time.

On a December ride, typically, I’ll pull through an old town site or homestead that had a rather finite history. Remains will be a silvered-wood, clapboard building, long devoid of whitewash; or a brick chimney left standing after the house burned; or a sprawling web of non-native green-leafed Vinca Minor crawling over a brick or rock foundation, vines that in the spring will yield delicate periwinkle blossoms in this decidedly rugged and non-delicate place. Or a piece of rusted corrugated tin. Or an ancient apple tree with broken, worm-holed bark.

I’ll sit myself on that foundation, finger the vine and think about the yesteryears. The days before Feliz Navidad came on the Safeway sound system right after Halloween; the days before retail success was based on only one month’s worth of activity; the “good ol’ days” when Black Friday related to the plague or some such disaster. I’ll wonder about the busted miner who gave up his gold pan and planted the apple tree so’s he could provide for the wife he’d promised he’d come back for when he wuz rich. And about the schoolboy or schoolgirl who must have lived in the house that was supported by this foundation – walking seven miles to school (uphill both ways) in the snow. I’ll wonder about the difference between a good year and a bad year. And then I wonder about Christmas.

In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore anonymously penned “A Visit from St. Nicolas.” In 1848, gold was discovered in the California foothills. By the mid 1850s, any flat or meadow with access to water had a town. During the 60s, the gold played out and the folks that stayed, set to farmin’. In 1897, the New York Sun confirmed that there was, indeed a Santa. In the 1930s, Haddon Sundblom helped Coca Cola show us what he looked like and, in 1947, we found out he worked for Macy’s.

But not out here. I wrap my finger around a strand of Vinca and wonder, “Did Santa visit out here? Back then? Did the kids know about or believe in him? And if there were no Wal-Mart, no K-Mart, no local mall, QVC or on-line shopping, how would the kids ever know that there was a Santa to believe in?”

Of course, the miner-turned-farmer and his gingham-clad wife and neighbors in this section were resourceful people. With some scraps of fabric, a corncob or a carefully dried apple or some good time spent whittlin’; with some penny candy spirited home recently from the general mercantile in town; with a Christmas eve feast of wild turkey (the game bird, not the whisky), dried venison, something from the root cellar, and a pie made of the apples from that tree; with stories of wonder told by candlelight until the sandman pushed shut the eyes of the little ones – Christmas would delight all and Santa Claus would live through this generation and be passed on to the next.

I saddle up and begin the climb out of the canyon, starting the journey home from yesterday and wonder this final thought: “If there were no Wal-Mart, no K-Mart, no local mall, QVC, or on-line shopping, would we have a Christmas?”

I drive home just wishin’ I’da lernt me how to whittle.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Parable

THE LOCOMOTIVE hung wheezing from the gnarled and ruptured rails just past the eastern bridgehead. Engineer and crew hours ago swept down river.

THE EVENT lurked sure as evil on a moonless night. The darkness, the storm, the lateness of the train’s arrival from Reno.

He’d been told the river was up – roadbed saturated from a week and a half of unseasonably warm rain. He hadn’t known an ancient Douglas Fir uprooted itself, washed down the torrent and loosed the trestle from its footings.

Warned to go light on the throttle, the rookie charged himself, instead, to “make up time.”

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Felling the Yule Tree

AN OLD GENTLEMAN could be seen struggling to shuffle up a cold December hillside. A biting upslope breeze tossed daggers of ice through layers of clothing and nearly frozen mud caked his soft-soled shoes. His cane had a nasty dollop on the tip as well. The younger people had hiked ahead, scouting through the grove of pine and fir for the perfect holiday tree. Occasionally, they tossed a glance back, just to see that the old man was still there. However, when the quest for the tree became more intense, the little check-in glances became less frequent, and, once over a hill’s crest, became meaningless.

At length, a small but handsome tree was felled, however, upon return, the old gent was nowhere to be seen along the muddy path. Had he fallen? Did he wander off into the grove? And what about these winter temperatures?

A holiday season crisis was averted when, a hundred yards distant, back near the Christmas tree farm sales office, the old man was seen alternately warming his backside, then his front side from the glow of a crackling and fragrant bonfire of pine boughs and tree stumps. Facing away from the blaze, he peered through rheumy eyes at the glazed winter peaks some thirty miles east, marveling, perhaps, at their purity and how they reached skyward to, perhaps, touch heaven. When turned about, the dancing flames enchanted him. He laughed with children whom he didn’t know as they darted in and about, perhaps recalling campfires antics of long, long ago. He even held one child’s Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows as the tad frolicked.

After loading the tree into the bed of the pickup, we encouraged Father to shuffle toward the truck. This he did, glancing occasionally over his shoulder toward the snowcapped peaks and occasionally toward the near-by merriment of that winter fire. Once inside, the delight still glowed in his eyes. “I’ve been eighty-five years,” he said, “and always had a Christmas tree in the house.” He paused. “But this is the first time I ever went in the woods and actually cut one.”

Then he added: “I think I’ll remember this forever.”

© 2007
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 30, 2009

Relief Hill Road - North Bloomfield to Washington


I’M SURE THERE ARE TROLLS in the world. I always had thought that they were little three-fingered, rubbery creatures with long purple or orange hair stemming from the sides of their otherwise bald heads, like the ones I bought at the Eighty-eight Cent Store in Chico as a kid. But this is just ignorant. Trolls are the size of us. People size. I know because I’ve seen um.

I WONDER ABOUT THOSE who live out where there is nothing for which to exchange coin. How do they survive? Do they hunt? Fish? They can’t grow grain where grain doesn’t grow, so what do they do for bread? Up and around the derelict townsites of foothill California, gold rush era apple trees and fig trees still, I suppose, bear fruit. But apple season is October and fig season, who knows?

In and about Relief Hill’s odd collection of 150-year-old buildings, long devoid of glass or paint – amply marked with “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs – trolls exist. The ones I’ve seen all were male, all of a certain age – edging toward old. Long gray-white hair – perhaps not shorn in this decade – and string-thin beards, same color, except about the lips and brown-toothed mouths, where the whiskers are the color of mud – dyed by tobacco juice or some other sort of spittle.

VIETNAM was more than a generation ago. Many of my era who served never came back. Or came back to places like this. Away from a society that chose to assume a holiness to which it had no claim. Away from those who spat in their faces. Away to a place where time didn’t exist. Or right. Or wrong. Or someone else’s definition of what’s moral. Away to a place of distance. Of peace. Of relief.

Relief Hill. Why not?

I DIDN’T SEE MANY OF UM. Reclusive lot they are. Gripping the bars of the too-big-and-expensive-to-drop GS, I held on, crossing wash-boarded ruts and ball bearing gravel. Stopping seemed not an option, given the gravity of the postings on each side of the road. When I passed one, though, I made a conscious effort to nod my head. He glanced and lifted a hand in acknowledgement – the other hand pinching a handcrafted Marlboro Light. In the seconds when I wasn’t focused on negotiating the road, I did see his eyes. Old, deep blue eyes. Eyes that knew something. But what? How to live from apple season to apple season? How to snare a trout down ta the Yuba sans license? Maybe poach a deer or wild boar? Or a squirrel? How to dodge the wild fires that rage through the region every late summer – that somehow leave the ancient buildings of old Relief Hill standing? Or how to keep warm in the damp winters at 3000 feet – too warm to snow, but too cold to warm aging, arthritic bones and joints?

This old troll knew something. In just an instant, his blue eyes told me so. I wished I’d stopped the bike and hiked back a few yards for a little visit – or, at least, to pay tribute, as one must do when encountering a troll.

TWO OR THREE MILES LATER, down at the bottom where the Relief Hill Road crosses the South Yuba, I paused and thought about “the grace of God.”

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mr. Brilliant Recommends...

In honor of not shopping on black Friday, I visited my localest independent bookseller – “The Book Seller” in Grass Valley, California, and selected (or ordered) several titles that may have been overlooked by big publishing or the corporate bookstores. Here is a short list of books worth gifting this season.

The California Atlas and Gazetteer: This atlas truly has the 1000 places you need to see before you die. And most of them are accessible within a day or two – best if on two wheels or on foot. Mr. Brilliant has worn out three copies and is on his fourth.

The Sierra Nevada Natural History by Storer and Unsinger; The best all-around guidebook to the flora and fauna of the Sierra. Know what you're seeing when you are driving through what you're seeing. Mr. Brilliant is on his third copy. Keep this in the car or saddlebag.

Motorcycle Journeys through California by Clement Salvadori. Never run out of places to ride! Clem’s moto-journalism is the absolute best. He recently autographed my copy, which I now keep under my pillow at night. I’m going to have to get a new copy.

The Virginian – Owen Wister; defines the western cowboy. Written in 1903 and set in late 19th century Wyoming, Wister’s depiction of the nameless young man from Virginia sets the bar for character in the west and should set the bar for character period. A slow read but one you’ll want to read twice.

Merle’s Door: Ted Kerasote who presented at the Wyoming Writers Conference speaks to the relationships between man and dog; and the lessons learned when the dog is allowed to be free and independent. Set in Kelly, Wyoming, this book breathes the Tetons. (We met Merle’s ‘successor’ as we rented a place across from Ted’s this summer – after the conference.)

The Cold Dish is the first in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmeyer series. Great read(s)! Set in contemporary Wyoming, the land is as important to the story as the characters, relationships, police procedures… …and the murders. Craig spoke at the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference in Wyoming and happens to ride a BMW GS, much to his wife’s chagrin. Read Dish first; you’ll run to get the others.

Five Skies by Ron Carlson – A great story about coming to terms with loss, drawing a parallel between hard work and the hard work of relationships. Set in rugged, rural Idaho, this is a short novel to be savored slowly so that the images don’t pass too quickly. Mr. Carlson is on the faculty of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Make Way for the Ducklings: Bumpa’s favorite kid’s book.

If you have a favorite book, please pass the title along using the Church of the Open Road’s comment section.

Happy reading.

- Mr. Brilliant

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Up I-80


MY FRACTURED RIGHT FOOT sufficiently healed from last month’s dog toy incident, I straddle the GSA for a quick loop in the Sierra. The foot works okay and the weather is of those late November gifts that makes one thankful, in a selfish and perverse way, for climate change. It lengthens the riding season.

Above Colfax along the Interstate, the Tahoe is decked in her finest fall fashion. Dying leaves cling to stands of black oak creating acre-sized swaths of gold lamé across the cool evergreen fabric of pine and fir. A late autumn sun admires its part in this work from the southern edge of a crystal, azure sky. “God gets color,” I muse.

Approaching the turn-off for state route 20, I pause at the summit between Nyack and Yuba Gap. The mountains have survived another growing season. Above, their granite flanks dazzle. Below, their expansive forests hush. Snow glazes the highest peaks, and at this elevation, the leaves are gone. The gentlest up-slope breeze prompts me to zip my leather jacket tight around my neck and seek a sunny place to stand for a moment. Remnants of what ploughs pushed aside border the pavement warning me to drive gingerly. Resuming the road, daggers of cold pierce my heaviest riding gloves. All foretells the advent of a winter cold and still.

I HOPE THE SNOW FALLS. I hope it falls in great quantity this season, renewing our aquifer and satiating our over-taxed environment. But I am thankful that the old man had held off until my foot repaired itself so that I could – one last time – touch the beautiful Sierra.

My spirit arrives home soothed.

And my mountains may now rest until spring.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, November 22, 2009

BSA 441 Victor


IN ABOUT 1968, maybe 1966 or ’67, after a really wet winter, my brother and I decided to take the family’s eighteen foot Old Town “Guide’s Special” wood and canvas canoe from the One Mile recreation area on Chico Creek about a mile east of downtown, to our house, about a mile west of down town. We donned our heavy army fatigue jackets for warmth this February day, and put in just below the One Mile Dam.

The creek was running full and swift. The two-mile run would probably take much less time than the hour or two we had planned.

Had it not been for the snag.

Winter’s rain had toppled an ancient sycamore. It lay partially tipped into the creek about a quarter mile upstream from our house.

The bow of the classic canoe slipped under this white barked skeleton and the current pushed the stern so mightily that the ribs of the venerable vessel cracked. Out we tumbled. Down the raging creek we were carried, weighted down by those damned army jackets. We struggled out of the water and hot-footed it back to the scene of the now-derelict classic. How we rescued its remains is of no consequence.

AN ENGINEERING STUDENT from Chico State, one who minored in industrial arts, was commissioned to repair the damage. He arrived one day on the most classic of all thumpers. A BSA 441 Victor.

He had modified the exhaust (meaning: chopped off) so his presence was advertised long before it was realized.

This single cylinder machine was as rugged as Steve McQueen and as powerful as one of the battleships on which he served in some war movie or other. The Four-Forty-One’s tank was yellow on the front and aluminum silver on the back half and with a red-winged BSA logo tattooed on the yellow part.

Simplicity. A couple of wheels. Knobby, no nonsense tyres. An engine made mainly of cast iron. A single headlight, black with a pitted chrome ferrule. A cracked and worn seat that had probably seen about a million miles. And the tank: Red-winged “BSA” on a field of yellow paint and scoured aluminum.

If there were poetry in anything mechanical, this thing epitomized it.

The student came and departed many times on the BSA. The neighborhood kids soon knew. And after that first visit, we listened for the distinctive, throaty thump of its British motor and while the young man worked, we just stared at his bike: little boys imagining adventures in Ceylon, or Rangoon, or Malaysia, or some other far-flung point of the empire, doing something pithy, something British.

The college kid didn’t fix the boat, but he had a hell of a bike.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mosquito Ridge Road Fire


THE ASSAULT HAD BEEN INTENSE. And effective. Fire engines, pumpers, tankers, the ambulance, a couple of green Forest Service pickups and some supervisory Cal Fire vehicles choked the road. Amidst the collection, positioned at an angle to block passers-by was the white Law Enforcement Ford Explorer. Now covered in an orange slime looking a bit like a layered birthday cake with twenty-minute old dollop of orange sherbet melting on its top.

A squat man, crew-cut hair, in a no-nonsense green uniform, and packing a no-nonsense side arm, looks beyond the two civilian pick ups that were in front of me in line and pointed.

I flash on him passing me as I snapped pictures from the wide point three miles back.

“You!” he yells above the equipment. “You’re next.” His left hand rests on the butt of his side arm. In his right hand he clutches a walkie-talkie with which he traces a line on the pavement for me to follow. Diagonally. Onto the shoulder. Between the upward cut bank and his frosted Ford.

“Go! Go! Go!” He yells swinging the hand-held in a giant circle.
I felt as if I should parachute over the edge.

I pass him and nod. Fifteen feet to the catty-cornered vehicle. I select my route.

“Wait!” he commands. “You…”

I looked over my shoulder.

“You! Wait.”

Oh great!

I thought of the pictures residing in the Leica. And of Joe Friday of the Forest Service spotting me snapping them as he raced toward the scene of the incident.

My blood ran cold, as if up-upslope wind had sliced not only through the Mesh Tex, but through my skin as well.

“Got a question for you.”

I pulled in the clutch lever, put a foot down and raised the visor on the Arai.

He crosses the pavement and puts a firm grip on the shoulder of the jacket.

“Armor, huh?” he asks.


“The jacket,” he repeats. “It’s padded, right?”

“Ummm. Yeah.”

“Elbows, too?”


“Elbows, too?” he asks. “This looks like a pretty neat thing. Is it cool?”

I’m flummoxed. “Ah, well, yeah.”

“You like it?”

I’m sure the gentlemen waiting in their pickups are none to happy that I got cuts.

“Well, yeah.”

“Where’d you get it?”

I can’t remember breakfast today, let alone where I bought this First Gear summer jacket two, maybe three years ago.

“Cycle Accessories? No. Cycle Barn. No, A&S. No… Heck, you can get them anywhere for about a hundred bucks.”

He squeezes the shoulder, then the elbow. “I gotta get me one.”

I look at him, full-face helmet covering most of the perplexity of my face.

“Just started riding about six months ago. Got me a GS, too. A 650.” he grins. “Well, have a nice day…”

Winking through the visor I throttle up. I catch Joe’s reflection looking at me in my rear view mirror.

Not like a cop. Like a brother.

I stop, put a foot down and motion him over.

“You take the motorcycle safety course yet, brother?” I ask.

He shrugs, “Nope.”

I point at the fire and its devastating aftermath. “And you think this stuff is dangerous?”

He grins like a sheep and off I ride.

(c) 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Iowa Hill Road - to Colfax


A LATE AUTUMN TRIP up the hill and I find Iowa Hill, a spot forgotten by time. Maybe not literally, but I sure didn’t see any power lines on the road in or out. Houses are dotted here and there, along with a store, a fire station and a school supported by a solar collector rigged next to it. No gas station, but a nice assortment of battered old pick-ups and equipment. There’s a church, the congregation of which meets the first Sunday of the month, and two cemeteries. Back in the nineteenth century, a bar was a bend in the river where the deposition yielded color for some stumpy-fingered sourdough. In the twenty-first, a bar is something that tells you how much clarity you can expect from your cellular phone. Except in Iowa Hill. In Iowa Hill, a bar is right there in the general store.

Iowa Hill Road slips from the crest of the ridge and curves west into the deep recesses canyon of the North Fork of the American River. The pavement is narrow – perhaps two arms-lengths wide – carved into the rocky canyon wall. Blotchy asphalt patches the worst of the potholes. On this dusky November afternoon, whispers of moisture hang in the canyon’s shadows and the distant view finds the rugged rock walls of the Royal Gorge melting into a soft afternoon vapor. The remains of a chorus of fallen rocks litter the narrow pavement. The route asks for agility, not speed.

At the bottom, willows and berries consume the 1890 suspension bridge. The American slips between boulders and willows and wild rhubarb and burbles beneath the rusty, ancient span. I walk across, broken plank decking and all. The road takes “new” bridge – circa 1954 – crossing just down stream of a campground. People encamp in cars, well past the fourteen-day limit. And send their kids to school where? Up the hill to Colfax? Or back up the hill to Iowa Hill? Is this one of those “pockets of poverty” that Spiro Agnew talked about remedying 40 years ago?

Looking up the nearly vertical wall on the other side, chiseled across the top, is the Cape Horn route. The infamous point on the Central Pacific where “Chinamen” were lowered from the cliff’s edge in wicker baskets to chip out and blast away ton after ton of granite – and sometimes their own souls – to make smooth the path of progress. A few years back, the hill side stretching from the North Fork of the American twenty-five hundred feet to the top of Cape Horn was burned bare by the work of a transient who was said to have got himself pretty messed up – probably with product from the chemistry set up found in the abandoned travel trailer a few hundred yards away – and set to entertaining himself by lighting toilet paper wads and sling-shotting them into late September’s dry grasses.

Brilliant. This is the progress those Chinese laborers blew themselves to smithereens for.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Iowa Hill Cemetery


I’D PASSED THE IOWA HILL CEMETERY many times, and today I stopped. On the north side of Iowa Hill Road, graves date back to the 1850s. On the south side, the Catholic Cemetery dates back to the 1860s. Why the Catholics and the rest of us cannot be buried together is a question I’ll have to research. Perhaps it’s easier for God to sort us all out if we do a little presorting in advance. I entered the gate and contributed five dollars to the donation box that must be in place to defray maintenance costs of the departed. Inside this park, under a canopy of black oaks and sugar pine, the temperature is notably cooler. Inviting. The plots view a distant valley carved by a tributary of the North Fork. First impression is that this is not a bad address for one to spend eternity.

Closest to the road, the markers are oldest, each in a different state of decay. I note that the names of those who pioneered this section are different from those of my contemporaries. One settler had the first name of “Plummer.” Plummer Baxter. Great name! I make a mental note to use this moniker for a character in an as-yet-uncomposed story and begin to seek other names that would be more mysterious or period-like than Steven or Jane.

A marker on the Catholic side indicated a fellow came to his reward in 1871 at age ninety-three. I did a little math. Walter Cronkite, coincidently, had passed quite recently at age ninety-two. Tearfully, a nation recounted the monumental events that this titan’s calm personality led us through. I was prompted to think of the romp of history that this Iowa Hillian had seen in his time – beginning just two years after the boys met in Philadelphia to set our nation on its course and ending just two years after a gold spike was driven at Promontory, Utah.

Across the way, a marker listed Martha Irish 1858-1865, John Irish 1861-1865, and Clarence Irish 1865-1870. The travails of our failing economy what with the increase in unemployment, the numbers of folks losing their homes and the political fallout of the cyclical nature of all things economic fell into their rightful place. Unlike the children named Martha, John and Clarence, prosperity would, one day, return.

The stories whispering inside the gates of gold-rush era cemeteries: a good reason to get off the bike.

© 2009
Church of the open Road Press

Friday, November 13, 2009

Capay Valley - Hwy 16


I WONDER, as I cruise through little bergs like Madison, Capay, Brooks and Rumsey, if the folks who live out here know what they’ve got. We sometimes view folks who live in rural spots as being somehow less. Less fortunate. Less well to do. Less intellectual, maybe. (Now THERE’S a damning statement.) Maybe because they possess less stuff. And the stuff they possess is dinged up. And bent. Or rusted. Or worn out. Or maybe just worn. Don’t these folks aspire for more? Don’t they want?

California State Route 16 leaves Interstate 5 just north of Woodland and heads west toward the first of the Coast Ranges. The late winter almond orchards near Esparto have yet to bud, so whizzing by, naked, black trees stand in a beds of tender green winter grass, with spindly, wicked sticks reaching into a crystal blue atmosphere. A storm passed through a couple of days ago, so the air is pure – tastefully sweet. The morning fog had dissipated. When the angle of the sun is just right and the color of the sky the right shade of azure, and the bank of the motorcycle perfect, the occasional pond or stilled creek water just beyond a bridge becomes a cold, sapphire mirror. Glass.

The Coast Range and the little hamlets and outposts dotted there-through are among the last undiscovered gems in California. One day, I always think, I’ll explore all the inner-mountain valleys that hold such delights as Lodoga, Stoneyford and Elk Creek. Hit the mom and pop stores along the way. Taste the honey and wine. Take a week, I think, and start at about Fairfield and head north to Happy Camp riding only the secondary roads that slip in and out of the folds of the Coast Range.
Today I would do just a bit of that.

THE PROPRIETRESS at the Guinda Corner Store remembered when you could drink water out of the creek, a comment she made as I bought a bottle of Aquafina, “but not this creek.” A leg stretch around this little crossroad town finds a mud and concrete bridge, rounded smooth by the passage of decades, spanning an abandoned ditch that may have supplied water to both the community and the orchards: “1911” the dedication plaque states.

Back down the road a piece, I’d passed the Cache Creek Indian Bingo and Casino. A tiny piece of Las Vegas misplaced in the tranquil Capay Valley. Not that the Indians shouldn’t be allowed to have casinos. Fleece all the white folks whose ancestors took it all away. I only wish those who are going to use Highway 16 to get there would get the hell out of my way when I’m on Highway 16. It is too fine a road to waste on a Buick Park Avenue, in my opinion.

Physically and, at some points, spiritually, I’m one with both the machine and this road as each lifts itself into the mountains following the rocky course of Cache Creek. The curves are inviting, open and enjoyable once the casino traffic has bowed to its Mecca. Out of the sun and into the shade and back again, I experience the temperature: a little chill, a little golden warmth, a little chill again and a little of that thick humidity that the morning sun has failed to yet vaporize. Aromas of an early spring: pastures, mown grass. A wisp of diesel from the pump working the creek. And music that seeps out of my head and floats around inside the helmet. This time, I think, it’s Strauss. Maybe Bizet. Your music will be different.

Presently, there’s another little village. Rumsey, the sign says. Diesel repair shop with a big American flag. Closed up bar. Post office not much bigger than a postage stamp. Really! I’ve got a garden shed out back that’s bigger. And, was there a store?

Then more hills and creeks and pastures and turns of pavement.

HIGHWAY 16 ENDS at Highway 20 and a left turn there leads me toward Clear Lake. South on Route 53 to 29 and I wind down into the Napa Valley. A wonderful Dolomite / Tuscany style road that snakes through redwoods and oaks on the hillsides and descends into vineyards and traffic.
Still a beautiful day, but now I’m a-mid a string of about fifteen other vehicles stuck behind an RV with a little girl jumping up and down on the bed in the rear. I see this through the big slug’s back window and shudder to think what might happen if Grandpa ever lost control. He’s pulling a trailer with a fishing boat and two bicycles strapped securely, I’m hoping, on top. The guy behind me pounds an irrational rhythm on his horn button. Soon, several others join the chorus. Some Sunday drive, I think.

My mind goes back about two hours to a bit of the conversation with the proprietress at the ancient counter of the Guinda general store.
“Mighty quiet,” I’d said.
She’d replied: “Perfect.”
And I realize that these people – at least some of them – want exactly what they’ve got.

© 2004
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meanwhile, in the Neighborhood

The big houses so many people HAD to have...

THE MANSION stands stately and still. Remnants of its grandeur flutter through unglazed window cavities. Downspouts and electrical wires hang lifelessly from cracking eaves. Paint scales, peels and lays bare the stonework and masonry of decades ago’s craftsmen. Landscape overgrows, proliferates and dies.

Life’s cycle.

An imperceptible squall kicks up from the west as a storm of European starlings – not native to this portion of California – flush themselves from an upper reach.

Swiftly, they form a disorganized cloud, mindlessly turning and twisting.

In a heartbeat, the black, beating swirl disappears through a vacant upstairs window into the house next door.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, November 5, 2009

LaPorte Quincy Highway


(June 2004) ATOP THE 6500 FOOT SUMMIT of a 31-mile stretch of the LaPorte Quincy Highway, one can see Lassen Peak off to the northwest, and to the east, the course of highway 395 as it escapes Nevada and heads toward Susanville – and everything in between and around for 360 degrees. The highway follows the top of a ridge crisscrossing it first on the east side, then on the west side then back again. Expanses of green glades sweep down from minor peaks, one with a distant, inviting fire lookout perched atop. Stands of rich timber carpet the hillside. Snow patches dot the higher climes. Icy snowmelt brooks feed meadows of a late spring.

Past the summit, the road, shaped like a miles-long serpent, descends nearly 4,000 feet in about five miles, crossing the middle fork of the Feather River. Just over the top, a guy in a huge red Ford pickup pulls over and waves me by. What a nice guy, I think. Not the typical big-assed Ford truck driver, I prejudge.

At a particular point, the LaPorte - Quincy Road is chiseled into the rugged canyon wall. About a half mile from the bottom, the road is vertigo inspiring as it fairly clings to the side of the mountain. Slide rubble litters the pavement and, while I want the unfolding view, “I need the road.” Hitting a chunk of rock would surely render a badly broken bike and a few broken bones at best. Or I could simply drive off the cliff into oblivion. That’d be the opposite of “best.”

I glance to my left at the river course about 300 feet below at willows along the stream course and summer-dried grass on the flanks. I correct to miss a piece of roadway scree and wink back to my left again. There, riding a vesper lifting off the warm canyon bottom, about thirty feet to my left and traveling my direction about my same languid rate of speed is a graceful black raptor with a white head and tail. He bats a golden eye at me, rises further, circles back and dives back into the canyon.

I stop on whatever side of the road I can find and fumble for my camera, wishing I didn’t have to battle my riding gloves. Can’t pull them off with your teeth when your teeth are inside a full-face helmet.

Baldy comes floating back and tips a wing at me as if to say, "Try to get a shot of this." Up he sails on some invisible lift and up canyon, eastward, he goes, disappearing and reappearing into and out of a background of verdant firs and pines that 'scape the hill side.

I wait. The guy in the truck rumbles to a stop and his lady friend rolls down the window to ask if I'm okay, stalled in the road as I am.

I explain myself, salute and they continue their descent.

Baldy had only teased me. He wasn’t coming back for a third pass. There would be no picture. After a while, I remount and head down the canyon bottom and back up the other side. Any photo I might have taken would simply be an image of blue sky with an indiscernible black dot somewhere in it. I know this because I’ve photographed big black birds on updrafts before.

Five or six miles further, I come up behind Mr. Big-Red-Ford. Again, he pulls over to wave me by. I draw up next to him and pause: "You must be the most considerate driver in all these parts. Maybe all of California!" I exclaim.

"Naw," he says, "I ride one of them and I just wanted to make sure you weren't broke down."

"Not broke down, yet. Just lookin' at the eagle," I say.

“Us, too,” his companion says. “Ain’t it great?”

Our conversation lasts only a moment longer and I pull out ahead of the couple in the big red truck.

I felt like I should have said, “God bless you, man,” for the act of this driver being concerned about another human being traveling the same road. A tiny piece of my faith in humankind was restored.

After all, aren’t we all traveling the same road?
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Delta Artist


“THE PLACE IS INSPIRATIONAL.” I said. “The old buildings. The orchards. The river…”

“It’s the pace,” the painter said. Something in his voice matching the soft collage of oily hues rainbowing each of his thick hands. “Everything just slows down here.” He chuckled, “About thirty years ago, I got drunk down the street and I woke up and never left.” Sheepish grin. “Or maybe I just didn’t wake up.”

I judged several pieces hung up in the old studio’s wall or leaning against it from the floor.

“We… my partner and me… we use real paint, you know.”

“I know.”

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 2, 2009

Day Ride, Injury and Aftermath


SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE OF PIKE CITY, (population about three – four if you consider the dog whose Sunday reverie I’d interrupted) Schoolhouse Road kinda disappears. There’s a sign at the intersection by the old red schoolhouse that reads “Schoolhouse Road.” And, referencing my Sierra County map, the road is listed. So I take it. It isn’t paved. And after a hundred yards or so, it isn’t graveled. And after a bit farther, I can’t even see tire tracks. To either side of whatever I am on are “No Trespassing” signs, so I know I’m on something. I am divining my route by the widest distance between the pines and oak trees and the levelest flank of land leading between ‘em. Sorta like playing croquet – aiming the big Beemer through the wickets. But that’s not the story.

Somewhere out here, all the bars go away from my cell phone. There’s no coverage – so in my mind, “nationwide coverage” is a slogan. A myth. I say to myself, “I hope I don’t get a flat tire out here because no one will find me until the thaw in the spring. If then.” Then I think: I hope I don’t fall off this thing and break a foot or something because no one will find me until the thaw in the spring. If then. Then I think: What if I’m lost? Then it really won’t matter that the phone doesn’t work because I won’t know where to tell ‘em I am.

As I’ve done so many times before, I find myself gently tiptoeing the bike over new-to-me, uncharted territory and wishing I’d given better direction to loved ones as to where I was planning to ride this day. That thought, of course, presupposed I had planned where I was going to ride this day. Which is never the story.

In about the amount of time I would have expected it to take, Schoolhouse Road tees into Pliocene Ridge Road, a paved thoroughfare that goes to points-known to me. Sigh of relief. Only at the intersection Schoolhouse Road is now called Anderson Ranch Road. So I was lost! But that’s not the story.

A pleasant day ride on both paved and unpaved roads, through tamed and untamed regions proved beautiful, if uneventful. No story here.

IT IS EVENING. Dusk. I am home, sharing the above non-story travelogue with wife and folks. Also grilling our weekly fare – this time teriyaki salmon – on the smoker out back. The fish is done. I ease the spatula between the grill and skin and gently slide the main course onto the serving dish. It is savory.

Stepping from the deck upon which the smoker is placed, my right foot twists atop a strategically placed red ball. A dog toy. Both pups were peeking around the corner of the shed. I’d seen the twinkles of anticipation and delight in their eyes that I was about to understand. I should have known something was up when I heard Jax the older, say to Edward the younger, “Shhhh! Watch this.”

My unbalanced course threw me from the brick path into the six-inch rock cobbles landscaping the area around our heritage oak. Momentum carried me into the tree and by this time, my right foot was throbbing. I am found leaning against the old oak, moaning, it was reported. The perfectly grilled teriyaki salmon slipped off the platter onto the rocks and was thoroughly enjoyed by my two “best friends.” But that’s not the story.

Over the phone, the advice nurse tells me to elevate, take ibuprofen, avoid Scotch and she’ll schedule an appointment for me with my primary care doc for the morning. I attend and a fracture is confirmed. The busted foot I deserved to get out in the woods somewhere, I’ve gotten in my own backyard! I am fitted for an e-boot and hobble to the car thinking, I used to work in Chester, now I walk like him. But even that’s not the story.

THAT EVENING, my betrothed is a bit later than usual coming home from work. I am concerned, but I do not call. I am assuming she is dropping by the local Rite-Aid and picking up some ibuprofen for the pain. Or aspirin. Or maybe even whisky.

Noooo…. My loving wife came home with three new dog toys. THAT’S the story.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ridin' with the Myrmidons


“IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS, I can’t see you.” And apparently this long-haul trucker couldn’t see me. Or it may have been he was just figuring that whomever was behind him couldn’t miss his merge from the number one into the number two lane. With the courtesy one trucker always offers another, the gent pulling this fifty-three footer was giving way so that the big Kenworth tractor pulling the Ruan Company fresh water tanker could slip onto eastbound 80 at Douglas. My new BMW GSA has the power to accelerate out of a dangerous situation and the anti-lock brakes to avoid one.

To my left, two gentlemen on “American Iron” advanced; to my right the rear end of a utility reefer with Idaho plates. The trucker courtesy is missing from these two big-Vee guys. They bombed up to a point where I could not slide into the number three lane and there was no number four. One tipped his head my way and from beneath his FTC shorty helmet, his silk balaclava grinned a screen-printed skeletal grin. Gingerly, I applied enough brake to avoid contact with the truck and slipped in behind the boys. “Myrmidons” was arched across the backs of their sleeveless leather jackets. [Note: The group name has been changed to protect the author’s butt from being kicked out to the curb in case any member of the “Mymidon” brotherhood is literate enough to somehow access and read this piece.] A quick glance in my rearview mirror and I found myself riding with about fourteen of ‘em. Six more pair were advancing.

The thing about a American Vees is that in order to make it perform, after one shells out twenty thousand dollars for the bike, one must add another four grand in pipes, chips and a performance enhancement kit. The additional cost is enough to make an eagle scream. Even then, while the thing goes faster, it doesn’t go as fast as something costing half the dough, it just makes more noise.

The other thing is the mystique. Bold. Tough. Powerful. Many riders make these machines into works of art. Many dealerships have done yeoman service broadening their appeal to include a family aspect. Yet many riders think that by straddling iron they are immediately bold, tough and powerful. They’re not. They’re simply people who enjoy riding big, good looking motorcycles that don’t return particularly excellent fuel economy and don’t always handle with the greatest aplomb. Like driving a two-wheeled SUV, I unfairly opine.

Then there are the Myrmidons.

MERGING ON TO INTERSTATE 80 is not at all taxing on the GS. 105 horsepower is more than enough to safely assume a position in a lane and throttle down to traffic flow speed. Except when the big boys are jockeying around in their eighteen-wheelers and the Myrmidons are on the prowl. The Myrmidons weren’t driving all that fast, but they did seem to think they owned the deed-of-trust to the fast lane. So between Mr. Ruan, Mr. Idaho and these guys, traffic began to clog behind them.

It probably took two-and-a-half miles to eclipse the Idaho trucker, all the way through Roseville going eastbound. The wind off his high trailer buffeted the BMW just a bit and I didn’t much care for it. I gave some consideration to splitting between the two in front of me, but courtesy prevailed.

There’s a funky Country and Western love song that states rather unequivocally that “it ain’t right to go slow in the left lane,” and while decorum would dictate that once past the Kenworth dragging the 53-footer, Misters Myrmidon should assume a more rightward lane so that those of us with places to be could get there, these gentlemen had this deed of trust thing going on in their reptilian sized brains. So I notched over to the right.

Tiers two through seven roared up and as I prepared my departure from the freeway, Mr. Myrmidon in the right hand side of tier three, slipped in front of me, blipped his throttle creating an explosive roar, and slipped back over to his lane. I’m sure he saw me startle. I instinctively took evasive action, but saw that huge, chrome KW radiator just over my shoulder in the neighboring lane. I barely resisted the urge to gesticulate rudely to this fellow rider, but the Ruan water tanker was creeping up, limiting my options should any of the Myrmidon Brotherhood be offended by my actions.

LIKE SO MANY THINGS we enjoy in America, motorcycling is a gift. Open roads. Vast scenery. Freedom. Independence. Exhilaration. Something so grand we want to enjoy it exclusively our self, while at the same time, share it with others. Unfortunately, some riders don’t appreciate or perhaps deserve the gifts we are given. At least one of them (perhaps several) wears sleeveless Myrmidons leather and rides a really loud “American Iron.”

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, October 30, 2009

To the Dance


THE DANCE HALL IN FOREST CITY is tiny and worn, but back in its heyday, it must have burst at the seams on a Friday night. Lola Montez sang here. A historian of sorts, at the recent Forest City preservation group’s potluck picnic, shared that in the old days, the boys from Downieville would tie their dance shoes together, drape them over their necks and hike in their work boots seven miles over the hill to the big dance in Forest. I drove about that hill after having left Forest City that day and I can say that it was more than seven miles. That or they actually went over the mountain rather than around it. In any case, Lola must have been a hell of a draw, because by no means was the commute an easy one.

On the occasion of the preservation group’s Apple Festival potluck, the boys from E Clampus Vitus fired up the steam-powered stamp mill positioned at the downhill end of town. Stamp mills were used to separate gold from quartz by simply crushing the brittle white rock to power and leaving the malleable gold to be picked away and either bagged or melted into bullion bars. Stamp mills can be found throughout the Mother Lode, most of which are decayed or rusted into a state of inoperability. This one, the Clampers restored. And from its operation came the rhythmic racket of huge pile driver-like weights rising and falling accompanied by mechanical chugging and whistling. Walking up the main street of Forest, away from the industry of separating gold from its ore, one can imagine how the hundreds of folks living there must have acclimated to the incessant clank and rattle. Even at the far end of town, past the half-dozen remaining houses – each with an unkempt but yet-yielding apple tree on the premises – and the turn off to the school some two hundred yards up stream, the cascading water and the wind in the pines was drown out by the sounds of the stamp mill: the sound of the town’s bread, butter and grit.

I suppose that when the work was done the dance was the celebration that punctuated things. An old barroom serves as a lobby of sorts. Through back doors at either end of the bar one may enter the dance hall – a dark-at-daytime area of perhaps twenty-five by thirty feet. A stage appears to be cut out of the rear wall like an afterthought and cantilevered out over nothing. Inspection of the exterior of the building shows this is so. Throughout, the wooden floor gives under one’s foot, but must have been more substantial when Lola sang. An upright grand sits to the left and two double hung windows are position on the western wall to the right. The hall houses a wood heater, an aged American flag, a tarnished old tuba and a half dozen vintage wooden skis-shoes leaning up against a wall. (There’s a dingy old couch against one wall, but I don’t think it’s period.) When the sun set over the hills, oil lanterns around the entire perimeter were lit and festivities roared until the last light failed, I’m sure.

Then there was the seven-mile walk home. And it would be a long one.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Forest City to Goodyears Bar

Mountain House Road

Sierra County is dotted with tiny settlements and the gold sources that supported ‘em. Following Mountain House Road out of Forest City the route descends past the cemetery into a creek drainage that flows west; then climbs the ridge to look down on Goodyear’s Creek, or a tributary thereof that appears to flow east and north. As I drive these rustic roads, at some point I pass through a portal that carries me to a yesterday of 100 years back. Perhaps the portal is that canopy of brilliant fall colors flecked with darts of low October sun where the road feels like a kaleidoscope for a few hundred yards.

At the top of the ridge, I pause and look into the depths of the canyon. Five or more miles distant, and perhaps two thousand feet or more below, I can see the community of Goodyear’s Bar – a place with a bath, a good hot meal and a warm feather bed – and the wagon road that carries goods and people up to Downieville. Today, the old hostelry is a bed and breakfast and arriving on the BMW after thirty minutes, patrons look up from their games of checkers on the sunny porch to nod quizzically, wondering, perhaps, what this mechanical beast is. Didn’t the last person leaving town have his kit lashed to a burro with a fresh supply of grub from Major Downie’s encampment four miles up the Yuba?

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ghost Lady of Paxton Lodge

Highway 70 - Feather River Canyon

Paxton. It’s across the river from the highway, just underneath the WP tracks. We stopped on our first trip to Bucks Lake. Up the new road. Highway 70. Smooth paved highway that snaked up the canyon. Mom and dad oohed and ahhed at the water cascading down the canyon walls in various places. We twist our heads around and maybe get a glimpse of yet another trickling waterfall. Big deal. Brother Bill and me, we just wanted to get there. The old road, the Oroville-Quincy Highway was shorter but it was hardscrabble dirt. The longer route up Highway 70 was quicker, overall, and the old ’54 Ford Ranch wagon wouldn’t need a washing once we got home.

Paxton was a little more than half way. Brother Bill and me had had about enough of each other – Mom would attest: “That’ll be about enough!” more than once on this trip. So we needed a break and dad would be happy with a cold can or bottle of Lucky Lager.

Across the Paxton Bridge and up the hill, we tumbled out of the station wagon in front of the once grand old hostelry.

There was a great room adjoining the bar where dad ordered his beer. Maybe a dance hall? In it was an upright grand piano that I wanted to pound on. A tattered woven rug covered at least a portion of the pocked, nearly black wood floor. Filmy, aged-to-yellow curtains danced in the gentle breeze that slipped through the almost closed double-hung wood framed windows.

Positioned to look out one of those windows, the one with the best view of the tracks was an empty rocker. I advanced toward it and slipped my fingertips along one arm.

“I wouldn’t do that, boy,” came a voice punctuated by a spasmy cough. The man who’d served up dad’s beer had come around the end of the bar. He was half the size of Dad with a tattered plaid shirt tucked over a round belly and partially into blue jeans. A half-spent Chesterfield dangled from his gray lips.

My hand retreated.

“Boy,” he said, “the woman who owned this old place, why, that was her chair.”

I looked at the old wooden rocker. It was just an old wooden rocker.

“Yep, she and her husband built and ran this old hotel way before the turn of the century. Ever’thing’s original, just like she left it.”

I remember looking at the faded curtains, the old piano and into the shadowy darkness of the dance hall room. Then out the window again at the WP tracks that wound down the canyon and disappeared.

“One day, her man, he hopped on that train to head down to Oryville to conduct some bid’ness or other.”

The barkeep had grown closer. I could smell the toasted aroma of his cigarette. He gently put his hand on my shoulder and pointed down the tracks with the hand holding the smoke.

“Yep. The train pulled a whistle stop and let him on and off he went.” Barkeep exhaled some and coughed a deep phlegmy cough. “Never returned.”

“Never?” my voice squeaked wonder.

“Nope. Never did.” He paused. “Old woman, why she positioned that rocker just exactly so and sat at that window mornin’ ‘til night, rockin’ ever so gently. Waiting. Just waiting…” A thoughtful pause and an exhale. “Waiting for her man to return.”

I felt my eyes getting big.

The barkeep took a final drag on his Chesterfield and snuffed it out in one of those old glass-yellow Harrah’s Casino ashtrays.

“One day, ‘bout dusk, she was sittin’ in that chair when a train rumbled up the canyon. Why you could hear the engines straining to pull a mile o’ box cars up the hill. By and by, it passed…”

I looked up at the man.

“…and so did she.”

I stepped away from the dead lady’s chair.

“But you know what, sonny?” he said resting his hand on my shoulder and giving it a little squeeze, “’Round midnight, ever’ night, when I come down stairs to kinda check things out an’ make sure the doors is all locked up, why, she’s here…

“Right there…

“Rockin’ in that chair…

“Ever so gently.”

Another spasmy cough.

“I figure she’s still waiting for her man, her true love to return.”

I turned to find dad.

“I seen her…” the unkempt little barkeep whispered as I wiggled away.

I needed to find dad or mom. Dad was finishing his beer at the bar singing, “It is Lucky when you live in America.” Mom was standing by the door, wishing we’d a get a move on. I found her skirts and clung to them.

In a moment we opened the door. A shaft of afternoon light bathed a section of the wood floor. A breeze quaked through and disturbed the yellowy curtains. I shot a glance over my shoulder back toward the pot-bellied barkeep and squeezed mom’s hip ever more tightly. The proprietor was tapping a fresh Chesterfield on the old bar.

He coughed a bit and acted as if he needed to spit. “We’ve got rooms tonight,” he laughed, “Spend the night, sonny boy. I’ll wake you and you c’n see her too.”

© 2004
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

MORE un American Graffiti

On Sunday, October 25, while driving down highway 49 from Grass Valley to Auburn, I stopped and removed three “Obama Sucks” signs from their postings on the public highway right-of-way. The signs were crudely written in black and red felt tipped pen on flat Styrofoam and stapled to trees and public signposts. I did this about a week ago as well.

If you live up that way - or if you live anywhere where you see this type of incivility happening - and you know who is contributing to this un-American graffiti I would encourage you to hold a little “beer summit” and remind the individual that the election is over and that the people who won, won. Further, you might suggest alternative and more constructive means by which the individual might bring about his or her desired change next time around.

It is time to let the elected govern. It is time for us to raise our sights toward intelligent conversations and debates about the issues of the day. Energy spent on name-calling and defamation of others is energy we cannot afford to waste, given all of the vital issues confronting our nation today. (And no, I don’t care what anyone thinks somebody or some group did or said about the former occupant(s) of the office. It wasn’t any more right then, either.)

Please know that I will continue to exercise my right to freedom of expression by removing defamatory signs on public property (but only from public property) regardless of who is defamed. I would encourage all responsible passers-by to do the same.

Mosquito Ridge Road ii

Glass Ceiling
Mosquito Ridge Road

It was about two weeks after when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Hilary Rodham Clinton had shattered the glass ceiling into “eighteen million pieces,” but Barack Obama was on his way toward shattering something else.

Mid to late September in the high country is the time of change. As night creeps up toward equality with day, temperatures fall. Leaves turn. The sweet aroma of the forest floor dissipates as moisture from an eon-ago spring has long evaporated. Pine needles and dust. At mid-day, the sun is not exactly low, but the shadows cast by pines arching over the pavement provide an optical challenge as one rides out of and back into the shade. Squinting becomes a skill. A life skill.

On the north facing side of the Mosquito Ridge, south of the river, the shade is predominant. As the road twists south, tracing a north-rushing tributary, one cruises from soft and comforting mutedness into flashbulb like sunlight. And quickly back again. Once back again, those little circles of light cross the cornea left to right and upward and cannot be blinked away. Blinking only returns those illusions to the lower left where they start upward again.

Eighty-five percent of California’s population lives within twenty-five miles of the coastline. Or, at least, that’s the way it used to be thirty years ago or so. Now, places like Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno may have chipped away at that imbalance, but in the foothills of the Sierra, the population density mirrors more of our nation’s interior than California’s coastline. Fewer folks. More space. And seldom-used roadways. Roads one can travel for an hour and never see another vehicle – another soul. I often get off into the woods and wonder why they ever bothered to pave whatever strip of asphalt I find myself on. Some roads, I imagine, mayn’t be used more than a couple of times a week - ten times a month. Maybe ten times in a whole year. ‘Cept for hunting season. Or fire season. Or when some tree-hugger wants to wander off in the woods in his or her Camry or Accord or Subaru.

Out of one flash-pop of sunlight and into a long expanse of shaded roadway way, my eyes battle to readjust. Those little circles won’t blink away. But I was aware of objects ahead. Left side of the road. Moving objects. Lumbering. Too many of ‘em to be bears.

I slowed the KLR to a crawl. The muffler on this little machine whispered a rhythmic puh-puh-puh-puh as I gently stole up behind the herd.

Cattle. Range cattle.

Two horsemen are riding toward the rear. A big one and a littler one. Managing the flanks were two or three cattle dogs. Shorthaired mixed-breeds. Aussies. Smart. Trained. Working dogs. From a hundred yards back, I could hear the dogs yipping and see them nipping as they wove in and out of this herd of maybe twelve or thirteen head.

I crept forward. The bigger rider waved a gloved hand motioning me to pass. But I was timid. Didn’t want to spook anything.


The rider turned. “It’s okay,” she said, a smile emanating from beneath a broad-brimmed hat. A pleasant thirty-something cattlewoman. Handsome, and hard working. Yet feminine. A tight, dusty blond braid was flipped over her right shoulder. “They’ll stay fine at the side of the road.”

I opened my helmet and said something like, “You sure?” And since she was, I gently powered up, short shifting into second gear to keep the revs and engine noise down. Didn’t want to spook anything.

The second rider was much, much smaller. In fact, about six years of age. Maybe five. Maybe seven. Riding a real full-size horse that was three-quarters the stature of what her mama rode. The little lass, too, had a dusty blond braid. One that slipped off her right shoulder and swung freely across her back as she looked down at me while I passed. In one little gloved hand were grasped reins. In the other, a coil of rope. A neat coil. Her teeth were clenched just so, and as I passed, I heard one of those whistles, the likes of which commands a well-behaved working dog.

I smiled at the little one before I flipped closed my helmet and slipped around the next bend. In to and out of the light.

In all of California, there are perhaps thirty-four million people. Within the age-span of five to seven, maybe million or so. Of all those little kids, on this Sunday afternoon, I’d ‘spect maybe a dozen of them were ridin’ herd somewhere out on the free range. And of that dozen, I’d wager only one of ‘em was a girl.

Sarah? Hillary? There goes your glass ceiling.

© 2008

Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Trip to the Local Redwoods

A Trip to the Redwoods
Mosquito Ridge Road

As the season of low sun approaches, short journeys and small pleasures are the order. Those grand road trips miles and miles from home will need to wait until after the mountain snow ceases to fly; after the valley fog clears.

A little more than an hour east of Rocklin there’s a grove of redwoods. It’s a small grove of just around a dozen of Sequoia Gigantea: the one that isn’t the coastal variety. The walk from the parking area one-half mile off Tahoe Forest Road 93 (Mosquito Ridge Road – east of Foresthill; east of Oxbow Lake) provides a brief fifteen-minute loop. When no one else is around, it is a cathedral of near-perfect silence. The trail is maintained and by Mid-October, a summer of pedestrian travel has rendered its surface a fine dust that cushions and mutes the footfall.

Starting down the trail, one may be confused by the red cedars spotted here and there among the firs and pine of this forested glen. Red cedar bark always throws me when looking for redwoods. But a few yards further and there is no doubt. A cluster of three massive red-barked monsters looms above the forest floor. I know these ain’t cedars! The area madrona and red oak is dwarfed. As am I.

Further down the path, one of these behemoths has fallen. Long enough ago in history that its bark is gone and its exposed timber turned to silver. It rests flat among ferns and litter, and near its unearthed roots, the carcass proves nearly twice my six-foot-four-inch height. Had I been disposed to clamber atop and walk its distance, I would have found it to be perhaps sixty paces in length. Around the bend, its twin brother still stands.

For reasons left to the wisdom of Ma Nature only, there’s a pocket of microclimate tucked into this remote corner of the American River drainage precise enough to support thirteen or fourteen of these impressive individuals.

In an era of instant this and instant that, to look skyward over two hundred feet and to contemplate the time and gentle energy that went into this production gave at me wonderful pause. This was a small pleasure I hadn’t expected on a short-ride: Tall ancient redwoods, rooted on earth but reaching toward heaven to tickle God’s underbelly – just for my personal enjoyment this day.

© 2008
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, October 24, 2009

On a Rural Road

The skidding stopped.

A mule deer lay dying some fifty yards back. Drawing feverish last gasps.

A two wheeled roadster crumpled halfway through a range-wire fence. Up against a silvered, split cedar post.

And a hapless rider splayed in shadows on the icy pavement – protective fabric melted – wondering why his left thigh felt so warm. And moist.

He took a quick inventory. All body parts attached. Motorcycle “over there.” No on-coming traffic. No sign of God. Or Saint Peter.

So he rested in the road. Laid his helmeted head on the pavement.

And waited.

A good day ruined.

Absolutely ruined.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Gorman Ranch Road

Conversation with a Black Bear

[July 2007] As much as I would like the reader to believe that I am a man of the woods and the wild; that I have confronted ice storms by glaring into their teeth; faced down mountain lions by the force of my singular, alpha-dominant persona; and leaped from forested ridge-top to forested ridge-top in single, graceful, arcing bounds – seeing a bear in the wild is darned exciting. And affirming.

They’re still out there. Untamed. We haven’t killed ‘em off.

A grand idea it was. An evening ride up the canyon of the American River. After dinner. Spouse out of town. Dog secured in the side yard. Time belonging to no one but me.

The objective would be to investigate Ox Bow Lake, about 12 miles east of Foresthill on Mosquito Ridge Road, to see if it might be a fitting place to put in with kayaks and explore. The little reservoir proved to be delightful. A fine parking area is located where the Middle Fork flows into the pool. The sun retreating over the high ridge left hints of its daytime glory creeping up the canyon wall. Reflected into the water, an emerald-like grotto-green slipped through the glass-like surface. The wind was calm and the bugs had gone to bed. This would be a perfect place to paddle when the time came.

My evening foray causes me to think that my then-new KLR would be a great tool for exploring the backcountry. Second only, perhaps, to foot travel. The bike is quiet. Stable. Fuel efficient. And when called upon to, it pulls like a Jeep. On the windy pavement strip back toward Foresthill, a sign that called “Michigan Bluff – 9”, intrigued me. Up the canyon wall and out of sight, the gravel road curled. That was enough for me.

Twilight was about to descend, but it was still light enough to see. The bike has knobby tires that call out for unsurfaced conditions, and I had been remiss in not succumbing to this call during my prior two months of KLR ownership. Gravel roads on my pavement-eager BMW RT are approached with a timidness that removes any hint of fun or sport. In contrast, only a few minutes worth of experience on the dual sport promotes a confidence only dreamed about on other conveyances. Puttering up this graded, gravel road was a breeze. I could feel the rubber knobs of the tires reaching through the dust and rock bits to grip something solid below and then to release so the knuckles of the next section of the Dunlops could perform similar duty.

In moments, the American River was several hundred feet below me. The waning sunlight clung to the canyon top still several hundred feet above like a golden crown over some royalty’s emerald robe.

A stop to try to capture this on film. Well, electrons. Zoomed in. Zoomed out. Zoomed in. Then out. Frame. Focus. Zoom… Pause… I discovered that even with 7.1 modern-day mega-pixels at my command, it would be a waste of electrons to even attempt to capture the subtle glory of the descent of evening.

Back on the road. Enjoying the dusk. Impressed by the scope of the headlight on the little machine. And how the suspension smoothed the light’s beam. Gaining elevation out of the canyon, I explored around this switchback and that.

Uris Americanus is the American Black Bear, common, they say, to these parts of the west. Not so common that one who lives in a subdivision of the greater Sacramento region ever sees one. We’ve pushed them well away from our urban scourge.

A guy who knows a little something about bears is this correspondent’s barber – a fixture in town. Everybody who’s anybody gets shorn here. And it’s not the superb quality of the haircut that matters. It’s just hanging out with the sage, hip and funny hair-cutter for twenty minutes. Even though the barber is Rocklin, he lives east of town outside of a little foothill berg. Up in the piney country. He reports that he sees bears “every night.” Rummaging through the garbage. Licking salmon grease off the uncovered grill. Gently peeling the screen off the porch to get at the fresh peaches left there to ripen.

“I own the barber shop,” he says, “but I’m just borrowing the house from the bear.”

Unsullied by human contact, the black bear lives in the woods, generally below the snow line, doing many things in those woods, including foraging for grubs, beneath the decaying bark of downed timber, catching rodents and, perhaps, fish, grazing on willow shoots and leaves and nuts and berries. While those that frequent towns like Downieville and Colfax and Foresthill and Pollock Pines get fat and complacent raiding dumpsters and unsecured back porches, those in the wild are a bit more timid and a bit smaller. They work for their keep. So I’m told.

The route from the canyon bottom to Michigan Bluff is about thirty miles east of Rocklin. The breadth of the headlight beam from the KLR is broad, and, as dusk has settled, it nicely lights up the road and the obstacles moving in front of me as I round the bend.

Astride the Kawasaki, I sense movement ahead – lumbering, hulking movement. I try to down shift, but I’m already in first. The “moving obstacle” was a black bear. Ol’ Uris Americanus himself. Biggest one (of the about six) I’d ever seen!

He stops. Looks over his shoulder. Sizes up the floodlight coming at him. Assesses the burble of the one-cylinder engine. Supposes the prey isn’t really prey. But turns, none-the-less and rears up onto his hind legs, placeing one forepaw one each hip.

“Hey,” he growls, with more than a hint of disgust in his voice.

By now, I’m stopped, wanting to fumble for that camera.

“Hey,” he repeats, moving one forepaw from his hip and striking himself in the chest with a thumb. “I’m talkin’ to you.”

Like a dope, I look behind me. Nobody there. Of course there’s nobody else there. “Me?” I open the face shield of my helmet.

“Yeah. You.” Uris pauses. “What the hell you doin’ up hear this time of night?”

By now, I’ve killed the engine. I shake my head, amazed that this might be going on.


“Ridin’ my new bike.” I stammer.

“In the dark?”

“It’s not all that dark.”

“Of course not. You got that damned chunk of sunlight stuck to your front end.” He points. “You mind gettin’ it out of my eyes?”

I crank the handlebars to the right a bit.

“Now,” he continues, taking a step in my direction, “just what the hell are you doin’ up here at this hour?”

I repeat: “Ridin’ my new bike.”

The bear lets out a raspy exhaling noise. “Can’t you ride it during the day?” He pauses and puts his paw back on his hip. “You know what the matter is with you people?” he asks.

No, I think, but I’m sure I’ll find out.

“The problem is you’re people! It’s not bad enough that you tear around on those damned things during the day disturbing my sleep – and everyone else’s in the forest, but now you’ve got to be tearing around at night! When I’m tryin’ to work. Make a livin’. Stay alive.

“I’m nocturnal!” he growls. “You’re not! Go to bed for crimeny sake!

“Hell! You know, about three hundred yard off that way,” he points over my shoulder, “there’s a nasty-tempered mountain lion, just hoping I’ll stub my toe so he can pounce on me.”

I look over my shoulder.

“You can’t see him, but I could hear him just fine until you roared up on that damned thing.”

“I thought this thing was relatively quiet,” I countered. “It’s got a U S Forest Service approved spark arrester.” For my own safety, I hoped he couldn’t discern the sheepishness in my voice.

“That’s the thing about you people,” he retorted, narrowing his focus on me in a way that made me wish the KLR came with reverse. “You don’t know what quiet is. Everywhere you go, you bring you damned noise with you.”

I was stunned.

But Uris was right. Jet skis. Jeeps. Snow mobiles in winter. Battery operated radios. Aircraft overhead. And rifles. Rifles going off all the time in the forest for no damned reason! The forests of the west haven’t been quiet since the Indians were wiped out.

This poor beast was more petrified than threatening or scary.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got my hide to save.” The bear turned on a heel, fell to all fours and lumbered into the underbrush along the side of the road. Again, the earth quaked with each footfall.

By the time I slowly motored up to his path, he had disappeared into the brush and darkness.

I continued up the road to Michigan Bluff, thence to Foresthill, Auburn and home.

Along the way, I thought of several things. Not the least of which was: I’ve got to remind myself to ask the barber, next time I get a hair cut, if the bear that steals peaches off his porch, ever stops to talk with him.

© 2007
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hwy 49 - Grass Valley to Auburn

Un American Graffiti

The other day, riding south on highway 49 I spotted a hand-lettered sign: “Obama Sucks.” Actually there were three signs all clustered together so that one could view it coming and going from and to Auburn or Grass Valley. The signs were affixed to the fence separating the highway right-of-way from private property.

Shortly thereafter, I drove back up there with the express purpose of removing the signs. And I did so.

For those concerned, let me be clear:

1. Everyone has the right to free speech in this country, but only the government is prohibited from denying free speech to individuals. I’m not the government. I am me. I can take action to shut up anyone I want to shut up and anyone can take action to shut me up as well.

(Right about now, if everyone would just shut up – and listen – the country’d be a whole lot better off, but I digress.)

2. The signs affixed to the fence were not an exercise in free speech; they were an exercise in graffiti. Graffiti has no place in public restrooms, Union Pacific box-cars or on fences next to public thoroughfares.

3. Fences separating public from privately held lands are public, just like courthouses, police stations and the gang mail-boxes found in many neighborhoods. They are not billboards or bulletin boards for advertisements or public expressions of private individuals. Nor should they be subject to graffiti.

4. The content of the sign looked a whole lot stupider than the average IQ of the average Nevada County citizen – Nevada Countyans are very bright folks, just look at where they live! – so as a public service, tangential to my actions, I believe I made everyone up that way look a little bit smarter than the sign would purport.

For your information: If you know of the individual who placed the sign on the fence, you may pass along access to this blog. I will gladly inform them that I will happily take down any “Obama Sucks” sign they choose to place on public property along the highway. This, I will tell them, will serve as my exercise of free speech. I will also invite them to “have a nice day.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

State Route 1 - Marin and Sonoma Counties


[February 2009] THE MISSION WAS SIMPLE. Transport Jessica’s 1000 cc Ducati Monster from the repair shop in San Rafael, forty-eight miles to her home in Healdsburg where she would put the thing up for sale. Seems the S2R race bike was too formidable as a first bike for a fledgling rider. One flop and seventeen hundred dollars in repairs later and Jessica was done with it. So as a favor to my daughter, at 10:30 AM on a Saturday, at Hattar’s Ducati of Marin just off the 101, I thumbed the starter and blipped the throttle. A reflexive and grin broke across my face. I knew was that this mission would something a little more than simply driving 48 miles north on the 101, if I made it so.

The forecast called for rain. I had packed my rain suit just for such an eventuality. However, in Marin, the sky was only slightly overcast with the temperature kissing the underside of 60.

Unlike the mellow response of the 1150 BMW, the Ducati rumbles and seethes and so wants to sprint wherever it is pointed. The on-ramp from Francisco Boulevard West to US 101 was the first indication. I found myself not blending into the traffic flow: rather I was knifing into it. The silver-gray S2R transformed me into one of those crotch-rocket riders folks decry and I simply shake my head at.

The first exit was mine and it took me to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard – the route from the cocktail suburbs of the 101 corridor to the bucolic pasturelands of west Marin. Those verdant fields within the morning fog-line of the California coast. In this short stretch, the environment transformed from diesel exhaust and impatient drivers of Mercedes, Infinitis and Acuras jockeying to be first at the light – to the sweet stench of cow manure, alder and redwood fireplace smoke and to folks on motorcycles waving joyously at the completion of what, for me, would be an adventure up the coast.

Especially the Ducatista. (Rhymes with “Sandinista.”)

Once out of the Saturday go-to-Whole-Foods traffic, the stop and go, and getting use to the clatter and pull of an abominable clutch, I could think for a moment about the Ducatista. In fact, this afternoon, I could be one. I’d already ridden like one. I could think like one – cavalier. I could suck in my belly and dress like one. I could wave like one. On-coming Ducati riders never raise their left hand to wave when passing. They simply drop it from the handlebar and open their palm – giving a rocket-fueled “low five” as they whiz by.

And best of all, I could park with them!

ROUTE 1 FROM OLEMA divides the pastureland of the Olema Creek drainage. Cattle grow fat on one side of the road. Sheep shear the grass on the other. Farm homes built in the early twentieth century dot large tracts of green rangeland and highway one rises over small hills and sweeps around others. Traffic is thin and only bunches up behind the occasional motor home, which should, by law, be banned from all such roads.

At a relaxed fifty-five miles per hour, the Duc whispers a sultry tone. Lulled, just a bit, I begin thinking about the ergos of the machine. This is considered a standard. A naked bike. There is no wind protection and the seating is upright. While the fairing on my BMW directs the wind right at my helmet, riding the Duc, the wind is constant but the noise is subdued. And unlike the Beemer, the Monster is not built for folks with a 34-inch inseam. The bike is designed for a normal length person – a rider the size of Jessica. My long legs are coiled between a short seat and high pegs, but they are not crying to uncoil. The reach to the handlebar is just right and business at either end easy to conduct – save for the clutch pull. The throttle likes to be blipped but does not like driving at idle in trafficked situations. The front brake is massive but I must remember that it is neither anti-lock nor is it linked to the rear. The switchgear is amazing simple: thumb left to indicate left; thumb right to indicate right; and simply push the thing to cancel. BMW should have figured this out. The silver-gray tank has a bold black racing stripe painted to the right of center and while by another law, in my mind, every Ducati should be painted red, the color on this one works well.

Two Multi-Stradii (Latin – plural of ‘strada’) and a “ten-nine-eight” pass giving the perfunctory low-five salute. I reciprocate. I belong.

I belong because in a few miles I enter the community of Point Reyes Station. It is noon and my Jack-in-the-Box breakfast has worn off. On the left is the Point Reyes Station Café and out front, three Multi-Stradii, a 900i Monster, a Tri-Colore and an older BMW R1100 GS. Even had I been on my RT, I probably could have parked here, but on the little Duc, I knew that I must. I switched off the ignition and swung my leg over the seat. Immediately, I caught the gaze of other riders and sucked in my belly. I fumbled to figure out where to hang the helmet on the bike and just as immediately, blew my cover.

“Clam Chowder and a Coke,” I requested upon entering the café.

“Clam chowder. That’s what folks come to the coast for,” replied the waitress.

“Actually,” I didn’t say, “I came to the coast to wring out this Ducati S2R before it was sold out of the family.” I just ate my soup, tipped nicely and left.

FOR SOME REASON, the route north along Tomales Bay is posted at 35 miles per hour. The road is relatively straight and the adjacent bay affords nice sight lines. One could go faster.

Apparently not the one driving the seventeen-year-old Corolla in front of me. Apparently, this person thought the speed limit sign was quoted as saying “31.” The line was double yellow. I didn’t have the registration for this bike. I didn’t want to do something untoward. Yet, after four or five excruciating miles, there was a straight stretch that I assumed the 96 horsepower L twin might make short work of.

Out I pulled. I cracked the throttle with great purpose. I’d never done a wheelie before. Always thought they were a dangerous act promulgated by riders with reptilian size brains. I’m sure, however, that the driver of the Corolla thought I was just another moron on a motorcycle more interested in speed than in enjoying God’s handiwork along the California coast.

About the time the front wheel touched down, huge raindrops began to spatter the face shield of my helmet. My rain suit was strapped to the back. Now, I would either need to pull over and let Mr. Slo-Mo pass me in his antique Toyota, or ride a good distance getting a good soaking, until I could hop off, toss on the rain suit and get back out on the highway before the offending (or offended) driver overtook me. I opted for the latter and throttled down from my unintended 78 to a more reasonable 10 over.

IN ALL OF MY ADVENTURES on the BMW, I don’t think I’d ever visited this lower section of Highway 1. Once into Bodega Bay, however, the route was familiar. The ride just different. While the Beemer takes the curves and twists of the coastal roads with ease, the Duc charges and dives into them. The Beemer’s aristocratic approach is calm and controlled. The Duc’s breathless.

After 90 minutes in the saddle, I am now developing a one-ness with this machine. Everything works well. Its reflexes are athletic and exciting. It sticks nicely to the road and it inspires my confidence to plunge into turn after turn with enthusiasm.
I’ve decided that I’ll always have a BMW, but I’d most certainly consider a Ducati as a second bike.

At Bodega, I use the cell phone to check in with Jessica and her mom. “No, I won’t be joining you for lunch…”

“Bodega Bay…” I ho-hum, feigning terribly-sorry-I’m-going-to-miss-lunch-with-you.

“Probably Jenner.” I ho-hum some more.

“A couple of more hours, perhaps…” Ho-hum.

“Oh, it rides okay, I guess…” Ho-hum.

“Yes, I’m having fun, I suppose…” HO-hum.

“No. No. Don’t wait for me…” Sigh.

“Probably about 4:00. Maybe before…”

I take a moment to call my riding buddy who lives in Washington State. “Unless you are kissing the prettiest girl in the world at this very moment, I’m having a hell of a lot more fun than you are,” I suggest, adding: “Ha ha!”

“Do tell,” he replies.

THE BLUFFS BETWEEN BODEGA and the mouth of the Russian River are those typical of the Northern California Coast. They are steep, rugged and while scenic, quite foreboding. It is said that the eastward expansion of the Russian empire was halted because the Washington-Oregon-California coastline rarely afforded safe harbor.  The Russians did build a community. Fort Ross. North several kilometers from the mouth of the river. John Sutter, arguably king of the Central Valley some eighty miles to the east, did business with them. But the Russians never ventured inland, never gaining foothold in the golden state. The riches with which they found satisfaction came in the form of sea otter pelts. A persistent and cold coastal fog, it seems, masked other openings to the inland and the Russian foray into North America was easily halted by the Spanish-later-Mexican-later-Californio dominance of the region.

The ride along these bluffs carries one back to those untamed days. Thoughts of weeks or months at sea. Longing for landfall. Then seeing angry waves chewing at these rocky cliffs. Knowing there is no place to moor. No getting off. How long and discouraging the trip back to Alaska would be.

I didn’t turn inland at Jenner and didn’t follow the Russian River to Healdsburg. Instead, I wanted to let this little Ducati gobble up just a bit more coastline. Climbing out of the river course on the north side of the Russian River, California State Route 1 corkscrews like those roads one might imagine grace the Dolomites of Central Italy. The bike loves everything about this section except for the Buicks that are driven by people who have confused their sedans with a motor home.

Half way to the top of the hill is a secondary road. Meyers Grade. “Narrow Road. Sharp Curves. Next 9 Miles.” Don’t bother asking me twice.

Meyers Grade courses northward while Highway 1 veers to the north-northwest following the coastline. No big sedans or motor homes here. The pavement is broken and patched with splotches of asphalt. The little bike jumps and chatters over them and I can feel my fillings begin to loosen in my teeth.

Atop the ridge is a narrower and windier road breaks off to the east. It is an adventure waiting to be experienced. Every new road is. Foolishly, I think this. Because, if it’s paved, then somebody’s been there before, right? So what can be the adventure? But I suspend disbelief and turn eastward. I love roads not taken by others.

Called Fort Ross Road, it descends into nameless stream courses and canyons. I wouldn’t engage in the following, however, if I were to engage in the following, a sunny spot on a hill side in one of these nameless stream courses would be the ideal place to do it, I’m sure. Moderate climate. Ample moisture. Filtered sunlight. Seclusion. A number of perfect spots for tiny, independent pharmaceutical plantations, I would suspect. Wonder if anyone’s ever thought of doing that in these parts. I mean, they do moonshine in the hollows of Appalachia, banjo music begins to strum inside my brain, why not dope here?

I drive in and out of curves and past innumerable side roads that lead to houses and hovels and wonder about the people who live in rural Sonoma County. What do they do? Where do their kids attend school? How close is the nearest store? Or bakery. Are they on the grid or off?

Cazadero, a mile or two further on, offers an answer to the school question. And the bakery question.

IN SHORT ORDER, I find myself back on a major highway, swinging through Guerneville and making a left onto Westside Road. This will take me to Healdsburg past the site of the place where Jessica took her spill on her new (to her) and very able machine. This one.

I fill up at a station about a half-mile from my daughter’s house and think: The Ducati is sweet: far too much bike for my dear little kid to handle, but an intoxicating blend of Italian styling, sensual whispers and incredible road manners. Wish I had room in my garage.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press