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