Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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

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