Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Skyway - Humboldt Road

Skyway and Humboldt Road

Butte and Plumas Counties

At Inskip, California, the Skyway turns from pavement into dirt. As a kid growing up in Butte County, I always thought the name Skyway seemed rather implausible – like going from wherever I was to heaven. In reality, the Skyway does leave Chico and head east toward Paradise, replacing the windy and steep Honey Run Road that crosses Butte Creek at a covered bridge that was once destroyed when our neighbor’s kid hit it in his dad’s truck while driving drunk one night. Good thing the Skyway had been in place for some thirty years by then or all of the residents of Paradise would have been isolated from Chico, the then-center of my eleven-year-old universe.

Beyond Paradise, the Skyway breaches forest land heading east northeast through DeSabla, Lovelock and to Stirling City. Stirling City earned its name not for a sterling reputation or for yielding sterling amounts of gold, but because the boilers on the steam donkeys used to yard timber had been manufactured in Stirling, Ohio. Good a reason as any, I suppose. Two parallel streets and five or six cross streets form a grid of ramshackle houses with derelict automobiles as yard art. The Post Office and a house converted into a purveyor of beer, ice and snack foods are two of the only remaining businesses. An evening on the town would be somewhere down the hill.

Beyond this berg, the Skyway loses its painted centerline having narrowed to a two-lane width, safe enough so long as one does not come head-on into a Diamond Match log truck – when they used to run – easing down the grade, belching smoke in low gear. The storm knocked needles from the pine trees creating a slick blanket atop the pavement over which I drove warily – especially into and out of turns.

There’s a delightful old inn in Inskip. I think I once bought a pop there for fifteen cents from the Nehi cooler out on the front porch when out and about with dad. In the recent past the inn closed and fell into disrepair although I could swear folks live in the building. Across the road is the cabin in which two Butte County deputies met their maker when confronting an area meth head some fifteen years back, putting Inskip, population 28, on CNN for its fifteen minutes.

Leaving Inskip, a newly installed sign reads:

Road Improvements – Next 4 Miles.

Expect Delays on Skyway

between Inskip and

Humbug Summit Road Junction.

It appeared work had not yet begun in earnest; rather signage had simply been erected foretelling this little public works prophecy and a few trees were cleared on the right side of the road.

The Skyway runs from Inskip to Butte Meadows and on to the source of Chico Creek at Camp Lassen, the Boy Scout complex where my wife and I married 25 years ago. The road is graded dirt, far wider, in this iteration than the paved part that leads up from Paradise to the old, retired inn. It having rained in record amounts three days prior, what with low October sun, the tall Ponderosa Pines and the turns in and about the lay of the land, sections of the road were either dry, but not dusty, or slippery with rainwater that would not evaporate until April.

I thumbed the Electronic Suspension Adjustment on the left grip of the BMW GSA regulating the preload to accommodate the washboard surface of the unpaved road. The bike absorbed primitive road imperfections in a manner that inspired confidence and ignorance all at once: confidence that I could twist the grip and go just a little faster than I should and ignorance that the Metzler Tourance tires had traction anywhere near like they’d grip on a paved surface.

On a particularly straight and relatively level stretch, about a thirty-foot section was flooded with water that seemed unable to drain to the side of the road. It covered the entire width. I’d dodged puddles along the way and had wide latitude in the use of the roadway in that there was no other traffic this day and probably none in the foreseeable future – until April – as far as I could tell. I considered slowing down and tiptoeing the big Beemer through this water hazard, but did the counter-intuitive. Not knowing whether the bottom of the pond was hard or soft, not knowing how deep the filled depression actually was, not knowing whether I’d bog down and die in the middle, I cracked the throttle and plowed through at thirty-two miles per hour.

On my previous BMW, a fiberglass fairing protected the rider – me – from all manner of wind and water when riding. On this virgin Adventure Touring model, excessive plastic is gone to afford lightness, a rugged appearance and a little less to repair should one go down.

Virgin no longer. Just after entering the puddle, water the color of overly creamed coffee enveloped the entire being of motorbike and me. The bright red tank was speckled with that iron-oxidized dirt so infamous on the Paradise ridge – the type of grime that wouldn’t wash out of a little boy’s jeans, Mom emphatically believed, so when we were considering our move from Altadena to the north state back in 1957, Paradise lost out to Chico, where the dirt, presumably was more wash-out-able. Rust colored, muddy dots covered the tank, windshield, steel panniers and every exposed portion of the engine casings and electrical doohickeys. My white Shoei helmet would sponge off, I was sure, and the now-soaked mesh-tex riding jacket was due for a wash anyway.

The following day, I invested two hours spit cleaning my new BMW GSA, but concluded that there are places on the bike that shall never be clean again. And the jacket? The red dirt did rinse out, Mom.

Do they need to improve the Skyway east northeast of Inskip running toward Butte Meadows? No. It’s perfect exactly as it is.

East out of Butte Meadows, the Humboldt Road tracks up Scotts John Creek drainage through Jonesville and up to Humboldt Summit. Starting 35 miles west in Chico, this was the old route to the Idaho mines frequented by frustrated forty-niners whose dream of quick fortune hadn’t been beaten out of them by experience. Past Jonesville a bucolic section of the Humboldt Road, nicely graded and graveled tunnels through a canopy of evergreens and arching black oak with their autumn colored leaves. Toward the crest, a formerly wildfire scorched hillside is tangled with Manzanita, nature’s intermediate step toward the return of the conifer forest. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses at the top and I respect more highly of those traveling this section on foot than I do my lazy-butt self.

Beyond the summit, now in Plumas County, the road twists down the mountain past the Robbers Roost, where Black Bart more than once plied his trade; Ruffa Ranch, where a hundred and twenty-five year old cabin, barn and outhouse still stand; and toward its intersection with state route 89, some twenty-two miles east at Lake Almanor.

My last visit across this route had been on my first bike, a 1970 Honda Trail 90 model K2, nearly new at the time. The little beast had a seven horsepower engine with a block made out of cast aluminum. There was a small button one could pull on the top of the carburetor if, because of increase in elevation the thing started to sputter and choke. By altering the mixture due to reduced oxygen at elevation, the little 90 hummed along carrying my carcass with nary a complaint. Humboldt Summit was one of only two places I ever pulled on that little button. This day, the Beemer carried me quite comfortably and ably over the roughest of roads and the highest of elevation with me needing to pay little more than attention.

The first freeze of the fall had visited or, at least, the air at the five-thousand-plus foot elevation had cooled to the point where the sap thickens and cannot carry life through the smallest of capillaries, thus the leaves on the willows along Scotts John Creek and those of the aspens in the meadow where some fortunate built his homestead and called it Ruffa – the leaves of all the deciduous trees in the area turned golden. Stands traced area streams, ringed area meadows and painted swathes on the sides of mountains amid vast expanses of Ponderosa Pine, Red Cedar and Douglas fir. Green and golden yellow.

Parked at Ruffa Ranch, a location for a recurring whimsy again materialized. This little flight-of-fancy contains only a few elements: a remote, rustic cabin; five or six cord of seasoned pine for fuel; perhaps three dozen books divided equally between titles I know I should read and titles I just would like to read; a store of food to last a winter; some companionship; and blessed, simple time equal to a season’s worth of snow pack. The fantasy has no real higher purpose other than to, in April, say, “Yeah, I did it,” and, perhaps, kiss the companion.

The mid-October day had changed from blue skies in the Sacramento Valley only a couple of hours before, to a foreboding pewter gray, darker where, close to the summit, the cloud cover hung a bit lower. Reaching from the forest floor, those Ponderosa Pines looked to be clawing at the bellies of those leadened clouds inviting them to dump their contents on me and my GSA. Me with my rain suit safely stowed in the garage at home. The air is warm; I’m comfortable in my mud-tinged summer jacket, so I know it won’t snow, although my sources tell me it snowed here with that record-breaking event of earlier in the week.

Coursing along the Humboldt Road, five miles shy of state route 89, a dirt road angles in from the right – the Humbug Road. Seven miles up that route, back toward Stirling City, lay Humbug Valley, a beautiful mountain high-grass meadow currently home to summer grazing cattle. The little valley earned its name at the hand of an early-day financial advisor who commanded booty from hungry miners living in Chico in the 1850s still yearning for that one big strike.

“There’s a valley up ta the other side where’n you c’n simply scoop gold nuggets up outta th’ crick,” the huckster reported. I picture eagerness all over him with tobacco spittle dribbling from the corner of his mouth. Then he’d wink and add, “I seen it, boys!”

So with logic common to discouraged sourdoughs of that age and folks succumbing to the Wall Street prognostications of today, they paid him his tribute and followed him off into the wilds of western Plumas County to – just at dusk – the banks of Yellow Creek. In the morning he and their loot would be gone.

Humbug indeed.

The skies had cleared the further I traveled east from the summit and rain was no longer in my forecast. I continued to Almanor where, hopefully a piece of apple pie and a hot cup of coffee would provide lunch at 2:00 PM. But the café at Prattville was closed. Not just for the day: really closed.

I remember dining on the deck of that place fifteen years back when serving at the principal at Chester Elementary School, at the north end of the lake and living on the east shore. We’d been shuttled across the lake in a speed boat that didn’t handle the waves too well, and while skimming across the lake to breakfast on a Sunday morning sounded like a good idea – like spending a hearty winter warmed by a wood fire at Ruffa Ranch – in practice, hopping in the Mazda van and driving over there would have been a better option; especially when considering the digestion of omelets and pancakes and mimosas offered that morning.

Plan B would involve a café down the road a piece in Greenville.

Highway 89 anywhere – including from Almanor to Greenville – is, I’ve said this time and time again, the reason God created pavement. We know she rides a motorcycle and we know it is one that dives into curves and eats miles of pavement. I suspect it is an Italian marque of some sort. I also suspect that God, when she rides, rides portions of highway 89.

The incredible thing about the GS Adventure is that one can ride at the pace of a hiker in first gear over rocky or slippery terrain and feel safe and confident, yet when the dirt road meets the asphalt, easily keep up with God on her Ducati. The GSA handles the sweeping turns of the Almanor-Quincy route as if riding on a rail. The bike bends to my will with little more than a thought. There’s a sweet spot at 66 miles per hour in fifth gear that is perfect for these eighteen miles and I keep my eyes peeled for deer wishing to engage in suicide by biker.

Swifting past campgrounds, the warm aroma of campfire smoke deliciously fills my helmet. Past a stand of cedars, their essence. Behind a flat bed hauling a load for fresh lumber from the Collins Pine mill in Chester, his exhaust. Two out of three ain’t bad. Collins manages their forestland better than just about anyone in the industry, but it still hasn’t helped. The mill is down to one shortened shift these days, so seeing a little commerce come out of the hills is a good thing, in this time of recession. A few more loads and perhaps that café back up at Almanor might rise from the dead.

My back-up-plan diner at the crossroads in Greenville hadn’t succumbed to the times. It did, however, close at 3:00. It was 2:54 when I walked in.


“What kind o’ pie you got?”

“Punkin. And cheesecake.”


“Nope. Just Punkin.”

“I’ll have a piece. And coffee.”

“Not a very balanced diet,” the motherly woman opined.

“Don’t tell.”

“Our secret,” she said placing her index finger across her lips.

I ended up eating two generous slabs making this a meal I would pay for, as I headed homeward, in terms beyond simple cash.

I once took out the AAA map of northern California and found that, in the nearly ten years of riding since I got back into two-wheeling, I’d ridden damned near every route in the north part of the state. I think there are only about six or seven more I really need to check off my list. Nothing about the ride home would be new territory, even though every ride on the same road is unique due to the time of day, time of year and what folks are burning in their woodstoves and fireplaces as I whiz past. The object behind moving from the BMW RT road bike to the GS Adventure was to access some of those roads that don’t appear on the AAA map. Today proved that this shift in conveyance was a good call.

Now, if we could just get them to not pave the Skyway beyond Inskip.

© 2009

Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Dad, thanks for introducing me to the flume at De Sabla; I have enjoyed quiet walks there many times since.

  2. We miss not being able to walk those Butte County flumes with you. They are the greatest for peace and solitude.

  3. Dave, learned a few things here and enjoyed it along the way. Will have to send this blog over to my peeps up there. Yard art! :)

  4. Thanks for passing this forward...

  5. Dave, your road trip was so close to here but so far away. I really, really liked the way you said that every ride on the same road is unique. Now if we could just get them not to straighten out curvy roads.