Monday, December 20, 2010


ABOUT MID-NOVEMBER, when what we call “cold” in Northern California sets in and we’ve pulled from the cedar chest the woolen shirts and extra blankets for their properties of comfort, we had a holiday. It wasn’t one marked on the calendar.

The local paper predicted that the first big storm of the season would slip down from the Gulf of Alaska, and, like clockwork, it did. Coincident to that, family had lost a member, one who’d been hurting for some time. In the days before the advent of the storm, we’d gathered in the city to say our farewells. We would all return to our respective homes resuming lives that were, at once, a little bit richer and a little bit poorer.

Then came that polar burst from the Gulf. It started with a gathering overcast – one that fully insulated the earth from the sun. The temperature dipped and a drizzle developed, prompting use of the intermittent setting for windshield wipers while driving up the Interstate. As the storm matured, the rain became steady and darkness fell without sunset.

Down to the city, after services but before parting, someone mentioned that perhaps they could come to our section – maybe visit for an evening. And they did.

I think that suggestion sowed the seeds of holiday.

LIKE THOSE WOOLEN COATS and blankets, a bracing stew is a favorite essential of late autumn evenings cloistered in fog and mizzly precipitation. Cubes of beef and lamb are rolled in a flour mixture, browned in a skillet, and set to steep in a bath of bouillon and water. At the opportune time, chunks of carrot, celery, turnip, bell pepper and potato are added. The mixture simmers and the house is filled with a tantalizing aroma that boldly declares: this winter may be bitter, but we’ll beat it.

Such as this was cooking when, with a gentle rap on the door and a chorus of welcoming barks from the dogs, folks arrived.

Warm apple pie had been pulled from the oven to be replaced by biscuits made with too much baking powder.

“No guarantees,” the self-anointed chef said as he slipped them in.

A DANCING ROW OF FLAME from a pressed-wood log tickled the metal edge of the only-on-occasion-used fireplace. With red wine, we toasted the departed. Then we toasted each other. We sat and ate at a table not big enough to accommodate our number. We bumped elbows and off-handedly drank from our tablemate’s cup. The sorrow of loss quickly dissolved: first with a titter, then a barb, then laughter. One spoke. Then we all spoke. Then we all laughed some more. Most had second helpings of the stew. The batch of biscuits did not see the end of the meal.

“Save room for pie!”

Another bottle had been uncorked and a third – perhaps even a fourth – waited.

IT BECAME ONE A MOMENT that could never last but would always linger. By late in the evening, folks headed home: To Texas, to Maryland, to parts unknown – and some only back to the city an hour or two down the Interstate.

Those of us who’d hosted sat for a long spell – fairly quiet – wrapped in warmth. The dishes would wait.

As they left, somebody had said: “We must do this again.”

“And soon,” said another.

“Yes, soon,” said another, “because there are no guarantees.”

It had indeed been a holiday –one in which no gifts were exchanged.

Except for the gift of family.

1438 Bidwell Avenue.  Circa 1958
© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, December 17, 2010


If you let one get away, you’ll always be one behind.

- Sage advice from somebody’s uncle,
though likely not about scenic by-ways.

WARREN, A FRIEND FROM THE BAY AREA, called the other night. “Say,” he began. “I was thinking of you the other day. I was in Likely (Modoc County) and took the road over to Eagleville.”

“Up to the Surprise Valley?” I asked.

This he confirmed and added: “Lots of Canadian geese in the stubble. And some Great Blues in the standing ponds.”

I’d passed near that section this summer, returning from Wyoming. Stopped in Likely for a Coke and had seen the road of which Warren spoke. A bit saddle weary at the time, I said to myself, next time I’m up this way.

When our conversation concluded, I reached for my California Atlas and Gazetteer, looked up the route and thought, what if there is no ‘next time?’

NORTHEASTERN CALIFORNIA exists as if were separate and apart from the rest of the state. It exists as if frozen in time. Outside of pickup trucks, farm implements and some stretches of paved road, Modoc County is wonderfully romantic window into nineteenth century life.

Driving up 395 several years back, I detoured into Cedarville, capital of the Surprise Valley. I consumed a pizza and two beers at open mic night – fellow played a pretty fair honky-tonk while a young gal in tight jeans sang western songs. All for about fourteen bucks. In the morning, I was unable to finish the “Ranch Hand” breakfast at the café across the street. I paid cash to the proprietor of the four-room motel a $42 room, thinking he might not take American Express.

(c) New Day Academy
OUT ON THE HIGH LONESOME, the air is clear and sweet, perfumed by sage in the spring and summer and hearty wood smoke in the fall and winter. The peaks of the Warners some years never lose their snow, the melt of which provides irrigation for vast expanses of hay, wheat and cattle.

Every vehicle on the road is a truck, with Chevys seeming to predominate. Most are aged with finishes baked to a shineless patina by long days operating under an intense sun. Every truck is driven by a rancher whose broad-brimmed hat is not a fashion statement: rather, a necessity. Every pickup box carries a cattle dog, antsily pacing its confines, waiting for the trigger word so it can leap out and herd something.

photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle
But for every rancher in a truck, there’re two or three commuting on horseback.

WARREN'S TRIP to Eagleville occurred this past November. “Got dark real early. Setting sun kinda turned the snow pink. I’m not sure I saw everything there was to see once I crossed the pass after about 4:30.”

Years back, I recalled the summer sun setting well past nine with alpenglow on the Warners lasting until ten. I sat out behind the motel with a Rocky Patel cigar I’d packed and watched those mountains fade to black.

TODAY IT RAINS. The forecast calls for about a week of this type of weather. I’d not taken Warren’s road into the Surprise Valley last summer. Thinking of his gleeful descriptions of winter waterfowl and pink, fading sunlight, I sat thumbing through the Gazetteer. I pictured what I may have missed and cursed myself for not having availed myself of that mere 30-mile detour into a history lost yet still apparent.

Opening the garage door, I straddle the GSA. I twist the throttle grip and pinch my knees against the BMW’s cold tank. I remember how long it’s been since we engaged in a really long road trip, the bike and me. Leaning forward, face almost touching the instrument cluster, I whisper: April, May at the latest, Likely to Eagleville below the Warners. Okay?  Yeah, I promise. I pat the tank and dismount.

That’s how roads get on the list.

photo credit:

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

BOOKS FOR TOTS (instead of toys)

BETWEEN ABOUT THE END OF OCTOBER AND CHRISTMAS, we are often asked to contribute to Toys for Tots drives. The California Highway Patrol sponsors one. Your local Chevy dealer sponsors one. Even big, bad motorcycle groups conduct toy runs. The results are lots of – but never enough – trinkets for the less well off. Ever wonder just what becomes of those gifts, when the battery dies, when the flimsy plastic fitting wears out, or just when the excitement of its newness runs its course? Household clutter comes to mind, as does the word landfill.

With that bias in mind, the Church of the Open Road offers a modest proposal: It is a verifiable fact that young readers are more successful than non-readers. School folks know that in impoverished areas, students struggle with literacy more frequently than kids from well-off communities. Since early exposure to literature is a key to success as a reader and therefore, success in school, it follows that a book is a gift with far more potential for good than almost anything else one can receive.

So, what if, instead of a plastic toy requiring a battery or, perhaps, what if along with a plastic toy requiring a battery, the less-well-off in our communities received a brand new book? (And idea doesn’t just have to go for kids.) Here are a few thoughts on the benefits:

  • Reading is an act of creativity. While a battery-powered toy prompts the child to watch what the toy does, a book prompts the child to create images based upon the stimulus of print. Unlike television or film or any of a number of other popular distractions, while a book is a creation of the author, the reader engages in a creative act by reading.
  • Reading takes the reader places. While a computer game allows the player to travel through fantastic animation (and vanquish all who get in the way), a book can take a child around the world allowing him or her exposure to cultures and climates far different (and perhaps more fantastic) than their own.
  • A good book never wears out. With a battery-powered toy, once the battery dies (on or about December 27th) unless the battery is replaced, the toy becomes less toy-like. A book can be opened and closed time and time again. It can be read and reread, sometimes the second reading reveals more than the first.
  • Literature is easily recyclable. When the joystick busts or the player has finally outsmarted the game creator, the product is thrown away. It goes to the dump or, if we’re lucky, goes to a place where its toxins and heavy metals can be safely recovered. A book is recycled simply by handing it to the next person.

MOST FOLKS on the Church of the Open Road's shopping list, by now, know they’ll be receiving a bag o’ books for Christmas. Each of the books will be a copy of something I’ve read and with which I’ve been particularly impressed over the past 12 months. The collection may include some light, contemporary or classic fiction, perhaps an atlas or other resource, and, quite likely, a memoir or non-fiction work that broadened my understanding of our culture or the human condition.

The Church would like to think that each carefully selected book will be appreciated, but if not, the good news is that the book can be re-gifted to someone who may find worth or insight in the author’s work.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Think about the best half-dozen books you’ve read over the past twelve months and consider passing copies to folks on your list this holiday season.

And for the kids across town? Think about the books you loved as a child and give copies of those. Some child you’ll never meet may grab your insight and your love of literature. And maybe they’ll have a better chance because of it.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 11, 2010


MY POSTINGS MAY NOT HAVE ANY INTELLIGENT VALUE, but what if there’s intelligence value? I wonder this because, on the domain server which hosts mine and a zillion other blogs, one can keep track of traffic by clicking on a button labeled “Stats.” I did this and discovered that the Church of the Open Road has been accessed by readers around the world, including India, Great Britain, Romania, Russia, China and other countries we've only recently heard about - given their existence was behind the iron curtain not so very long ago.

This got me to thinking – never a good proposition. If my stuff could be, you know, leaked to, I don’t know, somebody somewhere somehow, perhaps I’d get discovered! Fame would be mine (along with the associated riches) and the rest would be history!

Having attended three or four writers’ conferences, participated in a semi-local writers’ critique group and hooked up with the Sacramento chapter of the California Writers’ Club, I find that many fledgling and many successful writers, early on, develop a web page. We are told that this is a good way to “get your name in front of people” and “show off your work.” I checked into some of these web pages and found to my surprise that the excitement each creates varies based upon the author’s ability to, well, create excitement. (Not an easy task, to be sure. I am reminded that the Pontiac Motor Division was unable to “create excitement” for the final thirty-five years of its existence.)

That said, I’ve also spent some time looking over the cables that Wiki-Leaks has made public and guess what? Their content ain’t all that exciting either. Still, they’ve created quite a stir.

SO HERE’S MY REQUEST: Julian, baby, please leak the content of the Church of the Open Road website as follows:
  • The entries tagged “Motorcycle Day Trips” or tagged with a State Route number, if you could leak those to Clement Salvadori or any of the staff at Rider Magazine, I’d appreciate it. I’m sure they would find that the wit and insight in my work, brought out in me by the "spirituo-chemistry" of riding so many miles of open road, would fit nicely with their editorial content. I can imagine even more issues flying off the shelves of newsstands world wide, just because Mr. Brilliant is now a regular.
  • The entries tagged “Great Potty Stops,” please route to the editors of magazines catering to parents of little kids or magazines catering to husbands of wives. Both of these demographic groups certainly could use a potty stop resource as they find themselves travelling here and there accompanied by family members – the majority of whom can never find a loo when called upon to do so.
  • Those entries that regard finding a political middle ground, please leak to our human brethren in the Middle East. Perhaps they will learn that at least some Americans respect and appreciate the cultural and religious diversity planned into this world we share. Maybe a dialog might develop. Also, consider leaking these entries to Congress so they’ll understand that not everyone who votes is of one fringe or another. Perhaps they’ll decide they don’t have to be, either.
  • Finally, those referencing new life, death or God, please leak directly to the Almighty. I know, the Church of the Open Road may not look like a church when viewed through the omnipotent eyes of a deity, but perhaps some of the thoughts are redemptive. God knows I don’t attend a traditional service often, if at all, but I’d like Him or Her to know that I readily acknowledge a greater spirit than my own. Frequently this spirit visits me when I’m in the saddle heading somewhere. I’d like God to know this.

Mr. Assange, I know you’re likely to have some time on your hands, but I also know you possess great technological skill.  It would be a shame if those talents went to waste.  Thanks for giving this request some thought. Know that it won’t get you into any deeper crap than you may already find yourself, but it may help me get discovered. And that just might benefit all of mankind.

Or not.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, December 10, 2010


[LATE NOVEMBER, 2002] Winter has descended on the Great Central Valley. I know because baseball ended about a month ago, at my hand, and that motorcycle excursions are less pleasant because of daggers of cold that seem to pinpoint fingertips wrapped around rubber grips. The sun seems to be absorbed by a pewter colored sky and leaves us no shadow. Jax, the pound-puppy Aussie dog burrows to the furthest corner of what used to be Sadie the Boxer's house. It's dark when one leaves for work and dark when one returns. Rather than smoking ribs next to a pecan wood fire, I brown beef and lamb and prepare a hearty stew. My hand is wrapped around a Black Butte Porter – a meal in itself and "early to bed" seems particularly sage advice. Oh, and did I mention? Baseball is over.

YESTERDAY, while my wife corrected papers or planned a quilt, I straddled the Beemer for a ride along the sensuous levee roads of Sutter, Yolo and Sacramento counties. I'd hoped to find the confluence of the Feather and the Sacramento where the clarity of the Sierran river mixes with the dogged labors of the artery that both feeds and drains the valley. No such luck. That pewter gray sky and the absolute stillness of the water in late November gave no clue as to the point of commingle-age. I had to be satisfied with the red leaves of the vines that dipped into the waters and the bright, broad gold leaves of some sort of bank tree I'd like you to think I could identify.

The "little" BMW handles these winding levee roads as if God had invented road purely for this motorbike. [Back in ’02, I was riding an R 1100 R “naked” Beemer. No windshield or fairing for protection from the elements.] Only occasionally did I think of my icy fingertips. More often I thought of Dusty Baker and how he'd not have this kind of enjoyment on his Harley. Of course, Dusty's in Chicago, now. And it's my fault.

THEY SAY THERE ARE NO SEASONS in California. I say there are two. Baseball and winter.

I just dropped two sliced and peeled turnips into the stew pot along with other vegetables. The house is beginning to have that comfort smell that isn’t present past mid-spring. I don't like turnips in my stew, however. Always try to pick them out when I eat. They look like potatoes, though and sometimes, I am dismayed by the texture and tang of the “potato” I have speared.

HERE'S THE DEAL: Bottom of the seventh. Sixth game. I'd purchased a less-than-moderately price bottle of champagne because, as I told Jax quietly, WE'REGONNAWINTHEWORLDSERIES!!! The wine was chilling, and at five to nothing, only nine outs to go, I thought I'd dust off a couple of flutes and place them on the front edge of the refrigerator shelf. You know. Kinda casual. Real quiet. Which I did.

Then, Dusty replaces Ortiz with Felix. I feel a little knot.

Sure enough: SWWAACCKKK! Three runs.

I want to pull the champagne flutes out of the fridge, but I already know it's too late: just like Linus doubting the Great Pumpkin for an instant.

NOW DUSTY'S in Chicago. Somebody from the South State has the trophy. (At least it's not the Dodgers.) Kent and Bell are likely gone. Those damned glasses are shoved to the back of the shelf -- I refuse to touch them -- and I'll be long dead before the Giants even see the playoffs again.

Yes. We have descended into the darkness that is winter. Long cold nights. Brief doses of late afternoon sunshine. An occasional ride along a levee or a fog-shrouded by-way. Hearty broth-based meals from a crock-pot. Husky beers. And no runs scored.

This one's on me.

© 2002
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, December 6, 2010


Second in a series

"My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. Then I saw another piece. Putting one of the pieces on a hard river stone, I took another and commenced hammering. It was soft and didn't break; it therefore must be gold."

– James Marshall, January 1848

Click to enlarge image and read content.

IN MY MIND, a good “potty stop” is one where Doritos and soda may not be readily available, but great distractions are. If this is the definition, then the James Marshall Gold Discovery site at Coloma more than offers a fine experience off the saddle. Eight miles north of Placerville and 17 miles south of Auburn on state route 49, the Day Use rate for this locale is $8.00.  It is eight bucks well spent. There is much to do after visiting one of the many well-maintained “comfort stations.”

The State of California has restored or rebuilt many historical buildings including the fabled mill whose tailrace yielded that discovery on January 24, 1848. The replica mill is several yards from the American, but the original location is marked and quite accessible. A well-groomed trail follows the west flank of the river, easily negotiated in even the "most supportive" of riding boots. Another fine trail leads to the top of the hill where a monument to Marshall overlooks the valley.  In completing the loop on this trail, Marshall's cabin and the cemetery must not be missed.

The park’s museum nicely represents the pre- and post-gold rush history with displays recounting Maidu life prior to the discovery as well as the incremental industrialization of the Mother Lode that followed.

Highlights include the stamp mill by which gold was crushed from quartz. A large wheel accommodating a fabric belt was first powered by water harnessed by a Pelton Wheel (invented some 40 miles north near North San Juan) and later by a steam donkey’s piston. One can only imagine how the decade between 1848 and 1858 saw the placid course of the American transform from a bucolic river valley into a mechanized means by which the golden metal was extracted from the riverbed and surrounding hillsides.

Smithy's product is available.
The State of California employs docents to recreate life in the mid 19th century. Not to be missed is the blacksmith shop (circa 1902) where volunteers continue to use red-hot coal to turn black iron malleable.

ON THE OPEN ROAD, whether travelling alone or cooped up in the car, it is all-too-easy to find a potty, pull over, conduct business and get back on the road. Frequently, it is a missed opportunity to do much more. Even as it faces bankruptcy, the California is doing yeoman service in maintaining sites that, if lost, would leave an historic, cultural and educational void that cannot be recaptured by browsing through a book or looking something up on Wiki-pedia.


NOTES: The Church of the Open Road makes a habit of paying the day-use fee in California State Parks even if only pausing to “refresh oneself.” It is the least we can do to preserve the rich, bawdy, pristine and delicate heritage of the Golden State. Readers are asked to consider similar “donations.”

The Church of the Open Road seeks reader input for this series on Great Potty Stops of the Open Road. Submit your recommendation through the “comment section” below, and we’ll check ‘em out and write ‘em up.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, December 4, 2010


On a ride a few weeks back I found that the bottom of my left foot was wet and getting increasingly wetter as the ride progressed and as the pavement got puddly. Come to find out, I'd worn through the sole of the riding boots I'd had for maybe four or five years. Seems the right boot was about shot as well.

I went to the local moto-supply store and bought myself a pair of Dainese Stivale BB3 D-WP Boots touring boots for a real pretty penny. I already own a pair of Dainese riding gloves and they fit, well, like gloves. Likewise, the boots. Cruising around the store, these 12.5s fit my weird size 12 feet as if engineered specifically for me. The YKK zippers at the back of the boot (not the side), however, take quite a bit of tugging - especially where the boot narrows around the ankle.

Took the Dainese’s on their first outing today as the temperature was about 54 and the sky broken overcast. New boots always take some getting used to as the soles and arches fit differently against the foot peg so braking and shifting is thrown off. That aside, these are another example of why one pays more dollar for an up-grade in quality. The Stivale's certainly have it.  The fit is tremendous. The support - especially around the ankle - is superior to anything I've ever worn when riding.

Up Foresthill Road about ten miles east of Auburn, there’s a high-end subdivision on acreage that looks down on the North Fork of the American. I’ve had my eye on a hunk of property up there for some time, so I thought I’d check as to whether it’s still available and whether they’re still asking $550,000 for the bare parcel. (Yes and yes, so "no.") I wore the boots as I walked maybe a half mile of dirt, rock and muddy trails out to a view over the river. Even though new, the boots were glove-soft comfortable, supportive, and did not feel as it their Vibram soles would let me down. Had I opted to head further east and frequent the fancy steakhouse in Foresthill, the boots may have belied my bikerness. (Not that it would have mattered in Foresthill.)

I took the long way home through the little Tuscan-like environ that is the Sierran foothills of Placer County. Where shafts of mid-afternoon sunlight thrust themselves through the broken, misty ceiling, the last of the fall colors ignited and stole my breath.  At one point, however, the clouds gathered themselves up and it rained a good steady bit.  Feet dry and toasty.

After nearly 70 miles, my only niggle would be the zippers. I am hoping to acclimate to the angle necessary when pulling those YKKs. Perhaps I just need to hold my mouth right…

(c) 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


FINALLY, THE MACULAR DEGENERATION had worked its evil on what used to be known as the good eye and mom was now, for all intents and purposes, blind.

“Are you still safe in the house?”

“I do fine. I sometimes have to use the flashlight to see what temperature I’m adjusting the oven to, but I keep it at hand, so I’ve figured that one out.” She paused for a moment of thought. “And since Peke died, I don’t have to worry about tripping over her. It’s been a year, you know.”

“I know.”

COPIES OF THE MEMOIRS, histories and little fictions I compose, I send to mom. Although she was a masterful touch typist in her day, when they brought computers on board, she’d have nothing to do with them. At 62, she quit. “Never used one, never needed one,” and she doesn’t own one at home.

Living 90 miles apart, I call on her once or twice a month. A couple of visits back, I heard the usual neighborhood gossip, the successes and failures of my nieces and nephews and was reminded that it had been more than a year since Peke died. After the news, mom picked up copies of my three latest posts and came to where I was sitting. “Can you read these for me? I can’t see to do it anymore.”

You don’t say “No” to mom.

She settled into her platform rocker – the one she purchased in 1946 and still holds the sales receipt for – as I began, stumbling over several poorly crafted words. When I finished, she asked a question or two, then said, “Read the next.”

You don’t say “No” to mom.

The second piece was a bit embarrassing. It was poorly written, didn’t have an arc and contained a couple of typographical errors.

Note to self: For God’s sake, read the stuff you write out loud, maybe in front of a mirror, before you waste electrons posting it.

The third piece wasn’t much better.

“I used to be able to see,” she said, “but now, well… I can tell where you are and that your legs are crossed, but if I didn’t know it was you, I couldn’t pick you out from your brother.” She sat with both arms atop the familiar arms of the old maple rocker. “I think I’m legally blind.” Then she added, “but I’ll get an additional tax deduction for that.”

RECENTLY, AT AN ELECTRONICS WAREHOUSE, which, for some reason, also sells refrigerators, candy bars and girlie magazines, I found an adjustable floor lamp with a circular fluorescent tube that ringed a powerful magnifying lens measuring about six inches across. I thought about it for a day or two and then returned to pick one up.

Setting it up over the right arm of mom’s rocker, I took her hand and directed it to the switch on the back of the light, having her turn it on and off a couple of times. Then as she sat in the rocker, I adjusted the lamp’s arm so that it could pivot out of the way for rising and sitting and pivot into position for reading.

“Try it out.”

Slowly she moved a copy of the local paper under the lens reading aloud the words that seemed to me sized large enough to be printed on one of those highway billboards between her house and mine.

Suddenly, she stopped reading and looked up at me. “It’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas all in one,” she said, showing rare emotion.

That day, I picked up her mail just before getting in the Nissan to head south. Another one of my stories had arrived.

Mom: Before the good eye gave it up.
LAST WEEK, cruising north on the motorcycle, I decided to drop in on mom for a moment. Surprised her. After formalities – the neighbors, the kids, Peke: It’s been nearly fourteen months, now, you know – she handed me the story that had arrived when I last departed and told me to sit down. “Read it.”

“Doesn’t the light work?”

“Read it,” she repeated.

You don’t say “no” to mom.

She settled into the chair and I read. Something about Butte Creek Canyon – a something in my history that I think she remembered.

When I finished, she thought for a long moment and said, “To answer your question, the light works fine.”

I looked at mom and then at the story and sat for a long time after that.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 29, 2010


SOME AUTUMN DAYS, and some days in spring, possess a kind of harmonic convergence. A convergence wherein sun, color, temperature, and clime blends with or attaches to our spirit and we become one. For the lucky among us, these days happen when we have the time to appreciate and enjoy.

Such was the case on a recent Thursday, one just before feast.

IN A TRIBUTARY VALLEY to the Russian River, we found ourselves exploring privately held vineyards laced in and amongst coastal woodlands.

INITIALLY, THE GRADED ROAD divided one varietal from another, but as the glen narrowed we’d find vines on one side and interior live oaks on the other.

EVEN IN EARLY AFTERNOON, the low November sun, taking a cue from Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, “turned the leaves to flame.”

HIKING WESTERLY, we climbed a ridge where the topography, and, perhaps, the exposure, was less kind to wine grapes. Here, the live oak and black oak canopied the road.

Under foot, evidence of an already wet season sprung from the duff.

Overhead, the evidence suggested that the coastal wetness is a normal occurrence.

Tracing the top of the ridge only for a few yards, the route curls back down into the rolling vineyards.

THE CAMERA I USE is light and small enough to be easily packed for a long trip on the motorcycle. It is a Panasonic “Lumix” (purchased at Costco) with a Leica lens that zooms. It is only slightly larger than a deck of playing cards but it has more capability, I think, than the computer that helped Tom Hanks bring Apollo 13 safely home.  Its ability to take close-ups fools folks into thinking I’m some sort of genius (at least those who’ve not made my acquaintance.) I like a forgiving tool.

THE PATH BACK to our beginning again splits the vineyards. On either side, the red and golden harbingers of winter cling to the vines for perhaps only a day or two longer. “One more good freeze,” we’d been told.

THERE ARE MANY THINGS that man does to the environment that are cruel and ugly. They are done in the pursuit or riches or power. There are a few things that man does – for whatever motivation – that actually enhance the visual. Think of a suspension bridge across the bay or a split rail fence splicing through some pasture land. Perhaps a secondary road that quickly courses out of sight only to reappear atop a distant ridge. I’d suggest that vineyards “laced among woodlands” are among those enhancements.

Particularly on a day when sun, color, temperature and clime becomes one with our spirit.


NOTE:  The Marietta Winery is not open for public tasting or tours.  However, the Bilbro father-and-sons wine-making team produce sought-after reds that are available at finer stores.  The "Church" recommends you begin with a bottle of "Old Vine."  Handcrafted.  Delicious.  Something you'd be "proud to share with friends but affordable enough to enjoy with pizza on a Tuesday night after work."

Acknowledgment: Thanks to owner Chris Bilbro for access to the property - and for the fabulous Thanksgiving repast.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 22, 2010

WHEN DO “THEY” BECOME “US?” - By Don Russell

Note: Don Russell is the editor and publisher of The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, headquartered in Downieville, up on the Yuba. Recently, the folks in Sierra County rejected “Measure C,” a bond issue aimed at providing funds to repair the aging schools in that rural county. The Church of the Open Road has never reprinted, in total, words from another source, however, with Mr. Russell’s consent, the Church reprints this editorial commentary. The Church of the Open Road believes that Mr. Russell has touched upon elemental flaws in our collective thinking about the services demanded of government and how we pay for ‘em.


Letters and arguments during the late Measure C election prompted the question of citizens’ responsibility in a republican form of government. Opponents of the school bond measure pointed out that “they” had allowed the infrastructure of our schools to deteriorate. While this is indisputably true, it also vastly simplifies the issue and implies an unwarranted blame.

Those writers and expositors have never been at a school board meeting. Reasonably, they elected representatives to tend that business. Our friends propose, too late for any good, to second guess the actions of their agents.

“We” are still left with schools falling apart.

This is not an uncommon situation in a representative government. The duplicity that allowed the war in Vietnam was obvious well before the publication of the government’s recitation of its own lies. Likewise, anyone following the disinterested reports of Hans Blix knew the sham that brought the war in Iraq.

“They” betrayed “us” but we allowed, if not supported, the havoc and ran up a nearly unimaginable debt.

Merely cutting the scope of current government will not pay off decades and decades of debts; that we our parents, and grandparents incurred. As in home economics, bad decisions are made, but the bills don’t go away.

Eisenhower probably shouldn’t have stolen Social Security. But then, we got interstates.

Grenada didn’t need invading, but we did it.

California, alone, is full of bad ideas, but we enacted a bunch of them into law.

We, too, dislike government’ inclination to turn citizens into “clients,” but we don’t see ourselves refusing the services, the social security, Medicare, farm subsidies, welfare, tax breaks and investment incentives.

What’s done is done. If we buy into citizenship we also buy into the mortgage. We are wearied by those who claim to be “fiscal conservatives,” uttering drivel about concern for children and grandchildren, and sign “no new taxes” pledges. They are either silly or lying.

Hippies and conservatives share one common understanding: you leave the scene better than you found it.

There is no honest alternative to paying the bills, paying for what we inherited, what we’ve used, what we’re pouring down rat holes. That means paying taxes, before or after we die.

Until we accept “them” is “us,” we’ll never have an honest discussion about the bitter responsibility of paying the bills and throttling the national profligacy.

Until then, we’re spoiled children of the once credit-worthy.


The Mountain Messenger, P O Drawer A, Downieville, CA 95936
[Subscription Rates: One year outside of Sierra County: $30.00; Two years: $55.00]


Note: The Church of the Open Road welcomes your comments as would Mr. Russell at the above address. The Church suggests that the importance of this message warrants your willingness to pass Don’s editorial forward using any means (Face Book, e-mail) at your command. Thank you.  And thanks, Don Russell for allowing your work to appear in this space.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


MID-NOVEMBER and the time-space between storms ranges from three to fifteen days. One never knows. So, with the first hint of a sunny day, I find a place to ride.

Living in Chico (95926) for twenty-plus years, I’d traveled the old road to Paradise (95969) countless times: as a kid, in the back of the ’54 Ford Ranchwagon to have Chinese served by an old red-headed waitress at the Pagoda; as an eleven-year-old, on a black Schwinn “Racer” with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub; as a teen with his first drivers license and a girlfr… Well, never mind.

It had been at least a quarter century since I’d made it back this way.

Google Images
HONEY RUN ROAD is a mere six miles from the hollows of Butte Creek Canyon to the top of its southern rim at Paradise by the old furniture store. The historic covered bridge was operable forty years back. We’d crossed it several times somewhat troubled as its timbers creaked and groaned under the weight of the station wagon while on our way to get Chinese. Then, one rainy night about this time of year, the farm-boy who lived behind our acreage west of Chico, got himself drunked up, took his dad’s pick-up and drove to Paradise via the Skyway.  He turned at the furniture store, came barreling down the Honey Run and crashed into the south bridgehead. The site never again endured the rumble of vehicular traffic.  About a year and a half later, a concrete and steel replacement was opened.

Google Images
Beyond the Covered Bridge, nearest the stream course, the road is relatively broad and the curves gentle. What used to be cattle pasture has yielded to high-tone homes of those seeking and inadvertently destroying a rural life style all at the same time. Further up, the Honey Run conforms to the canyon wall, narrows, and the pavement is poorly maintained. The center stripe is gone. The gradient is steep. The road twists and bends into little tributaries and out around promontories offering a panoramic view of the canyon and the Cascades. About the time I hope to stop for a picture, a car rounds a blind curve. I elect to continue rather than risk being hit.

BEFORE WE KEPT TRACK OF TIME, the land upon which we walk was sea floor. The collision of the North American Plate with the Pacific Plate prompted an uplift. Ancient rivers flowed easterly toward the Pacific. They cut deep channels in this soft former ocean bottom. Then, emanating from a deep fissure a ways to the east, volcanic action squeezed molten magma from the deep batholith. A viscous layer filled the old river canyons. Over time, it hardened like plaster in a mold. Soon the old ridge tops were of softer stuff than basalt that filled the streams. Millennia passed. Water, ice, wind and any other degrading element God could create broke those soft former-ridges down. The result is a series of canyons that are near the photo-negative of what had existed before.  In them flow the rivers and streams of the present day.  Including Butte Creek.

ABOUT HALF WAY UP the Honey Run, kids from Paradise come down to leave their mark on the land. Well, the pavement. Spray painted for all to see are the primitive etchings of this young and virile crowd. “PHS – Class of 97.” “PHS – Class of 04.” “Stacey (heart) Bill.” “GS + DD – True Love 4ever.”

I drove slowly up this windy section searching the graffiti, only to discover my mark, left in about 1970, had long ago faded.

Google Images
Close to the top, I propped the Beemer on its side stand and hiked fifty yards to one of those promontories. East, a minor bank of clouds obscured Lassen Peak, but the view up the canyon was as clear as a thousand yesterdays. In the depths, I could pick out the old steel bridge at Centerville and recalled hiking the flume that brought water to the miners of that section. Beyond that, I could picture Helltown and the little cemetery with but six markers – one with “Lost on the Steamer Golden Gate” chiseled under the name of the departed. I recalled never catching a fish while fishing in Butte Creek, running out of gas on a Trail 90 up toward Nimshew, and of getting married at the Scout Camp at Butte Meadows, just this side of the crest of the Cascades.

LETTING THE LOW SUN’S rays soak into my black riding jacket I found myself confused as to the source of the warm feeling. Was it indeed the sun or had it something to do with a flood of memories.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, November 20, 2010


IN HONOR OF NOT SHOPPING ON BLACK FRIDAY, I again visited my most local independent bookseller – “The Bookseller” in Grass Valley, California, and selected (or ordered) several titles that may (or may not) have been overlooked by big publishing or the corporate bookstores. Here’s another short list of books worth gifting this season.

The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper Collins, 2008). Those loving wheels, dogs and/or a compelling story will not be disappointed by this 2008 New York Times bestseller. Author Garth Stein reminds us about patience, compassion and love as his main character helps a race car driver named Denny navigate troubled waters following the death of a loved-one. Allow an uninterrupted ninety minutes for the last fifty pages or so.

The Signal (Penguin, 2009). As the director of the UC Irvine writing program, Ron Carlson teaches writing. And he writes. Really well. The Signal is set in the Teton Country of Wyoming. The narrative of lost love and confidence - and the intimate nature of redemption - is as stunning as the scenery in which it is set. If his novel Five Skies broke your heart as it did mine, this work repairs and nourishes it.

The Dark Horse (Penguin, 2009). Fifth in the Walt Longmire series, Craig Johnson continues to develop the character of an our-age guy who is sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Longmire, the everyman sheriff confronts human cruelty with dry wit and cunning, surrounded by a cast of characters whose strengths and frailties are the same as ours. The good guys usually win, but not without paying hell along the way. Consider starting with The Cold Dish and moving through the series.

Long Way Down (Atria, 2007). While not riding locally, if one likes to dream about rides globally, this work by Ewen McGregor and Charley Boorman gives one plenty to dream about. This book follows their round-the-world adventure chronicled in The Long Way Round. A bit self-congratulatory in passages, this trip from Scotland to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa reminds us of the varied cultures on the African continent and the good that can be done by opening our eyes and hearts to the similarities inside all of us. Since I won’t be touring Africa, it was nice that Ewen and Charley took me along for this ride.

The Essential Mary Austin (Heyday Books, 2006). Reading Mary Austin’s view of the east side of the Sierra is better than viewing a photo album. Her precise language evokes details that the most sophisticated digital camera will never pick up. It is a pleasure to walk with her and meet the denizens of this oft-raced-through area of California, feel the sunrise, taste the rain and let sleep cleanse the day’s grit from one’s eyes.

California Place Names (University of California Press, 1998). Honey Run. Putah. Gibsonville. Henness Pass. Loomis. Noyo. Sinkyone. These are but a few place names I’ve visited on the bike and later looked up in this resource. This 40th anniversary edition of Erwin G. Gudde’s dictionary of California place names is a hoot to carry along or refer back to when traveling throughout the state. Editor William Bright has provided short and insightful thumbnails of places one might otherwise simply pass right through. This work inspires the reader to stop, explore and to seek other resources to read and find out more. Add this to your reference library next to DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer and Storer and Usinger’s Sierra Nevada Natural History.

Make Way for the Ducklings remains Bumpa's favorite children's book.

If you have a favorite new book, obscure or otherwise, please pass the title along to the Church of the Open Road's comment section.

Happy reading!

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


First in a series.

TRAVELING STATE ROUTE 70 from the valley to the Sierra, one can be captivated by the richness of one of the world’s most productive river valleys, the ruggedness of one of California’s most scenic river canyons and the sublime nature of the forested transition between the Sierra and the Cascade. Once in the mountains, the US Forest Service provides ample campground, picnic areas and rest stops for the traveler who is enjoying nature when nature calls. But in the agricultural flatlands, choices are limited to the occasional convenience store where you may not want to buy a bag of Doritos, or the occasional fast food joint where you may not want to buy a kiddie meal.

OROVILLE, CALIFORNIA is the seat of Butte County. Highway 70 skirts the town’s western edge. Configured as a freeway along this section, it is easy to whiz by town and forget that, somebody may have to go.

After many journeys through the area, I stumbled into River Bend Park. Located at the west end of Montgomery Street and built through a joint community effort involving local funds and service club labor, River Bend offers clean restrooms with stainless steel facilities. Nosing around the park, one will find that it is an outstanding place to take a fatigue break. River Bend has individual and group picnic facilities with heavy steel charcoal grills and solid concrete tables. Sites are spaced throughout acre upon acre of groomed grass. Certainly a nice place for a mid-afternoon snooze, if warranted.

(c) Paradise Post
Provided at River Bend is an Outdoor Fitness Course, a project of the local Rotary Club. It is considered state-of-the art and is designed for low impact cardio-vascular health and fitness for all levels and is located on this site. It consists of four stations, each with directions for the various activities. After hours in the saddle, it provides an excellent means by which the rider and limber up those unused muscles, bones and fibers.

River Bend Park is located at, well, a bend in the Feather River, perhaps five or six miles below Oroville Dam. The park is situated on the inside or depositional side of the turn, the opposite side of the river is a bluff that constantly erodes as seasonal changes in water flow eat into its soft composite. The river’s deposition affords a smooth gravel beach which is designated a swim area.

A recent November visit found me concerned about a rotten smell the closer I got to the river. I was ready to be disappointed because the entire facility looked so clean, trim and well maintained. Approaching the river, the submerged chunk that appeared to be waterlogged was actually the remains of a Chinook salmon who had previously spawned just a little bit up stream. Further investigation found several of them. Terrific news that the salmon are back and an interesting lesson that mother nature’s natural beauty and rhythm isn’t always the most sensorially pleasant.

OROVILLE IS AWASH WITH HISTORY from the discovery of gold to the discovery of Ishi (purported to be the last stone-age human living in North America) to the construction of the world’s largest earth-fill dam. But if one doesn’t choose to explore this rich and interesting area, know that one of the better potty stops in all of northern California is just off the highway.


NOTE: The “Church of the Open Road” hopes to add more area photographs of this and other “Great Potty Stops of the Open Road” as the series continues.

Readers are invited to suggest their favorite “Great Potty Stops” in the comment section of this post. The “Church” will investigate.


Butte County’s "101 Things to Do":

Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi in Two Worlds. University of California Press. 1961. The classic biography contrasting the Last Yahi’s life before and after his contact with modern man.

Nadeau, Remi. Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of California. 5th edition. 1999.  "A delightful, humorous and historical look at the towns and mining camps of California to be enjoyed by both the casual reader and the serious history buff." - Placerville Mountain Democrat

Talbitzer, William. Lost Beneath the Feather. Bill Talbitzer, 1963. Compiled and written by a long-time Chico Enterprise Record reporter, Talbitzer shares stories of the section of the Feather River inundated once the pool behind Oroville Dam filled. Available at the Lake Oroville Visitor Center.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Our crack fact-check team here at the Church of the Open Road offers these follow-ups, corrections [and apologies] to previous posts:

TO A GUY NAME JIM - The “Church” apologizes: A correspondent informed the Church of the Open Road that some yahoo in Washington State had sponsored an initiative to change the Washington State seal to incorporate a tape worm underlining the concept that the state’s tax system was sucking the people dry. The “Church” was able to identify said “yahoo” and contacted him out of the blue, electronically suggesting some unkind things about himself and his appreciation for how his tax dollars were spent. Jim, a veteran and a citizen, (and a motorcycle rider) responded with far more civility than was offered by the “Church.” And the Church, proverbial hat in hand, realizing that it had stepped well beyond its middle-of-the-road belief system, (hopefully) graciously apologized.

This post makes that apology public. Jim: Thank you for your service. Thank you for your point of view. And know that it is an honor to read it, disagree with it and (finally) understand the tongue-in-cheek nature by which it was offered. And even if it were not offered in humor, you, sir, deserved better.

REGARDING BOTH SIMPSON CAMP (posts: May 12, June 10, July 10, 2010) AND BRUFF’S CAMP (post: November 8, 2010): Recall that when searching for places visited decades ago, it was discovered that place names related to those enchanted spots were no where to be found on current maps of the two unique and separate areas.

The Church is a little concerned that when a place name is removed from a map, the history of some individual is lost to the proverbial dustbin and the exceptional lessons of their perhaps-judged unexceptional lives will be forgotten.

Bruff is a case in point. Bruff sent his company forward without regard to his own well-being. He cared for the properties of his company to the detriment of his health. He comforted others who traveled the Old Lassen Trail, showing them kindness, compassion and ultimately the way to safety while standing fast in his commitment. He nearly starved.

Without the map listing, would anyone look through the annals of gold rush history to find that he shepherded hundreds of fortune-seeking immigrants to their goals? And how would what-he-did challenge us to help others in our time, if the place name is removed?

REGARDING “AUNTIE DaVONNE” (posts: October 20 and 28, 2010): On this Veteran’s Day, after staging a valiant come-back from emergency surgery, “Auntie DaVonne” declared victory and left this place to be with her late husband who predeceased her a mere six months ago (post: April 8, 2010).

There are things about love that, if people claim to understand ‘em, they probably are just blowing smoke. “Auntie DaVonne” understood love. She understood commitment. She understood her faith to a degree that others may swear to, but never realize.

Dear Sister Lisa: Those of us who understand far less, know that you are in that special place on the other side of the netherworld, now fully embraced by love – the love in which you so passionately believed. Time to rest, dear woman.

The circle is unbroken. The circle is never broken.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I am informed that it is difficult travelling down the Sacramento Valley, on account of the moisture; and that there is no river conveyance and the stream is very rapid, and obstructed with bars and snags. And that the mines are exceedingly unhealthy.

J. Goldsborough Bruff:
October 21, 1849 in
Gold Rush

ON THE ROAD, in the saddle, riding through hills and forests and glens and weather, it is easy to romanticize those who have gone before. Those whose evidence of passing is a mere place name and, perhaps a foundation overgrown with vines or a rock chimney devoid of house. We travel in and out of these remote places dreaming daybreaks of melted mist and days ends of fiery sunsets, which give way to carpets of stars across a milky way. In between these dawns and dusks: placer mining rich with gold scooped from the stream bed, or boundless pastures upon which cattle graze, or clear pines felled for posts and rails or cabin walls. A Maureen O’Hara-type has a hot meal waiting and a few terse words that enhance the sexual tension. Pretty soon the credits roll: Republic Films.

A fellow named J. Goldsborough Bruff suggests things probably weren’t quite that way.

Poyle spent another weary day, chasing deer in vain. Only observed a few, at a distance. Baked a cake with some mildewed pinola…
November 18, 1849

ALONG THE PONDEROSA WAY somewhere between the old Campbellville Lookout and Payne’s Creek, where the Lassen cut-off – having traced the narrow divide between Deer Creek and Mill Creek – intersects it, there’s a Forest Service sign marking Bruff’s Camp. I don’t have a picture-taken-personally because it’s been forty years since I went that way. A revisit is on my short list of trips yet to take on the BMW.

BRUFF HAD POSITIONED HIMSELF as president of the Washington (DC) City and California Gold Mining Association. This assembly of 65 incorporated to journey west in late 1848. Many historians consider Bruff’s writings to be some of the best sources of information on the Gold Rush. Most compelling are the months he spent in the foothills of the Sierra / Cascade. Perhaps 30 miles from early settlements in the Sacramento Valley, yet with supplies and wagons deteriorating, he sent his party forward while remaining behind to care for the group’s sundries. His encampment along the Lassen Trail proved to be a highway for many emigrant parties and, as he waited his own rescue, he assisted others with their passage west. Assistance meant providing game; constructing shelter out of wagon remains; ensuring the fire was always burning; ministering to the ill and burying the dead. Deep in the evening of October 31, an aged oak collapsed…

A large limb, capable of making a couple of cords of fuel, had to be cut off, and then the long heavy trunk pryed with levers and rolled off… …and there lay a shocking sight – An aged, grey headed man and his grown son, with their hips buried in the ground, their ghastly eyes turned up in death!
November 1, 1849

THE PARTY THAT WAS TO RETURN for Mr. Bruff, did, indeed – however they came only for the provisions they’d left in his care. They did not return with the horse he had loaned. He did not leave camp with them owing to the fact that he carried “journals, drawings and mineral specimens” he chose not to leave behind. His former colleagues refused him further assistance. So Bruff dug in. He weathered drenching rains and low snow. He loaned goods to passers-through, chronicling meetings with good people (a Mrs. O’Brian and “two curly-headed girls”) and selfish…

A couple of men ask’d me for the loan of a camp-kettle and axe as they were about to cook a meal close by. I readily loaned them the articles & they made fire against a tree trunk. I had worn a gum poncho & tarpaulin hat, but the rain held up for a while, and I took them off and threw them into my tent, while I went to a camp near by; on returning, the strangers were gone, with the loaned articles, my poncho and hat. I hope their gratitude will meet its reward.
November 6, 1849

FOR SEVERAL WINTER-SEASON MONTHS, Joseph Goldsborough Bruff lived in the foothill hinterlands just east of the Northern Sacramento Valley until he and two others were rendered so weakened and ill that they had to abandon camp and follow Lassen's cut-off into the lowlands.  He ended up at Lassen's Rancho near the confluence of Deer Creek and the Sacramento River where he was called upon to make good on the debts of others in the company who preceded him to the outpost.  Behind him, he left the bones of covered wagons, the bodies of those who could march no further and the scattered skeletons of promised riches - riches that seemed so real to the legions who ventured into the western wilderness back in '49, '50 and beyond.

I THINK ABOUT BRUFF as I explore the gold country canyons of the American, the Yuba, the Feather and of Butte and Chico Creeks and those lesser streams that flow west from the Sierra into the valley. I think of him when I see a place name or an overgrown foundation or a naked rock chimney. I think of Bruff and am reminded that the settlement of the west was perhaps ten percent romance and ninety percent hard luck.


NOTE:  Like Simpson Camp on the Mendocino National Forest in the Coast Range, I can no longer locate Bruff’s camp on any of the following: The US Department of Agriculture’s Lassen National Forest Map, the US Department of the Interior Geological Survey Quadrangles, or DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer. But I’ve been to Bruff’s Camp and I’m going back some day.


Bruff, Joseph Goldsborough, Gold Rush; the Journals, Drawing, and other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff, Captain, Washington City and California Mining Association, April 2, 1849-July 20, 1851. Ed. by Georgia Willis Read and Ruth Gaines. With a foreword by F. W. Hodge. California Centennial ed. New York: Columbia University Press. 1949

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, November 1, 2010


…in total about a third of the state [is] termed “Mediterranean”
because of climatic analogy with portions of the old world.

Winters are mild and in most areas have considerable sunshine,
interrupted only by the occasional cyclonic storms
that bring most of the yearly precipitation.

David W. Lantis in
California: Land of Contrast

ABOUT MID-OCTOBER, when the sun rides low across the southern sky, when dawn breaks late and evening settles early, when frost may render the roads slick, particularly when following a thick, wet “cyclonic” storm, the riding day is abbreviated. Tours to the high country must wait until the spring thaw. Trips to the Pacific shore involve slicing through chilling banks of fog. A “day ride” might last five hours – starting around ten in the morning and ending well before four. Thus afforded such localized a radius, one rides the common roads looking for the uncommon element: the something missed the hundred previous times the road had been run.

Home base is amidst a suburban cancer – a house within row upon row of similar abodes. Saving grace in this locale is that an escape route exists. One that requires waiting through only one traffic signal. Therefore, on a good day between one of those “occasional cyclonic storms,” I can be coursing down narrow two-lanes, through pastures, orchards, vineyards and flower farms. In moments, I am no longer living on the fringe of Sacramento. I am wheeling through the old-country farmlands of north central Italy. I am in Umbria.

A TINY ROAD leads away from the highly traveled two-lane. Mandarins are found up this way in the late fall. And Christmas trees – fresh in the ground.

AS CONGESTED AS THE REGION CAN SEEM at times, the vast expanse of the Sierran foothills is rural orchard and pastureland.  [Note:  Click on the picture.  It will expand and you can get a gander at the very cool blinder on the horse in the background.]

TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, the Romans built aqueducts throughout what is now Italy, distributing water not only to Rome, in the central peninsula, but throughout hamlets, villages and cities across the region. Were it not for this infrastructure, perhaps the Christian Church of nine-or-so centuries back would not have relocated its spiritual center to this dry-summer paradise. In California, 1900 years later, we built canals and flumes to transport water for mining, lumbering and agriculture…

…storing some of that water in ponds or reservoirs that nicely reflect the golden hues of autumn.

VILLAGES IN ITALY were crafted out of marble and granite and have stood for twelve hundred years. Here we see an occasional rock-hewn wall.

…and “old” may be defined as something new when great-grandpa built it for the bride he brought out from back east.

ALONG THE ROUTE OF THE CENTRAL PACIFIC, packing sheds became transshipment points for area fruits, vegetables and nuts. Repurposed, this one in Newcastle houses antiques shops and a delightful Italian restaurant called La Fornaretta. Sicilian (not Umbrian) fare with great service, local wines and loads of good cheer.

The oldest part of Newcastle looks frozen in time.

AROUND ANY BEND one may find a barn that looks as if its better days have passed by. But, the relic still protects a load of irrigation pipe and a serviceable Caterpillar tractor.

TO THE LEFT OR TO THE RIGHT may be another of those capillary roads – one that feeds a cell or two of ranch or farm life just around a knoll or across a one-lane bridge.

Living the dream, this entrepreneur probably left the rat race and opened Rancho Roble Vineyards. Producing a handsome and substantial Barbera to be enjoyed with seared marinated flank steak, or with pastas heavily drenched in tomato-based sauce.  (Complimented greatly grilled lamb and roasted vegetables last evening.)  I suspect that the majority of "maturing" Americans would rather do what this gentleman’s doing than be - what's the word? - rich.

I DIDN’T RIDE FAR THIS DAY: only fifty-six miles in about two and a half hours. But I returned as if I had just visited the old country – where life is borne of the earth and its bounty; where time is as easily judged by the position of the sun in the sky as by a wristwatch; where people wave and take a moment to smile. And where the proprietor is kind enough to ensure that the case of wine tied to the back of the motorcycle is secured so that it won’t fall off during the journey back to reality.


La Fornaretta Restaurant, 455 Main Street # 4, Newcastle, CA 95658-9359

GENERALLY, during my first visit to what to me will be a new Italian place, and if they serve it, I always order Linguine con Vognole. I’m looking for flavors that marry the rhythm of the vast Mediterranean Sea with the intimacy of a small, passionate Italian cucina.

LINGUINE WITH CLAMS, when properly prepared, has a broth that lingers. Like a view across an Umbrian valley from a summit in the Dolomites. Or a love affair. A taste that begs to be savored for longer than the dinner hour. Sweet. Steeped in garlic and herbs. Just enough salt to remind us of our common origins in the sea.

Last night’s broth rekindled warm, summer memories of the Cinque Terra – which is as close as I’ve ever been to Sicily. Even on this morning after, that marriage of vast sea and intimate kitchen lingers and I salivate.

from “My Dinner with Paul Newman”
© 2008 Church of the Open Road Press

Newcastle, California:

A website dedicated to the interests of the community, community businesses and visitors.

Rancho Roble Vineyards:

Following the tradition of California’s 19th century Italian winemakers, Rancho Roble Vineyards ® planted the historic Barbera wine grape rootstock [which] thrive in the micro climate and soils of this region. This vintage reflects the golden afternoons and shady oak evenings…

from “tasting notes”
2007 Rancho Roble Barbera label

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Sometime, between about 55 and 60,
the herd begins to thin itself.
And it’s the herd I’m in.

I THINK OF THIS as I motor across the valley floor on what is a now-familiar route. Back to the east, a few shafts of morning sunlight slip over the mountains and under a low ceiling of clouds. In moments, the promise of daybreak will be gone, absorbed in the velvet layer of moisture that blankets the region and renders the landscape gray. The morning is not warm, but it is not cold. I am in the midst of a netherworld – a neither-this-nor-that environ – similar to the one separating last night’s wakefulness from sleep. It’s a good thing I know this road.

I wonder, as I advance into the next turn, if Aunt DaVonne is somehow in a netherworld of sorts: unwanting of the oxygen tube forcing the breath of life into her, but equally unwanting of the alternative. Today, I’m told, for the third or fourth time in the too-recent past, the device supplying O2 will be removed. “Can’t keep the tube in there too long or the lungs will forget how to function.”

I EXHALE THROUGH MY NOSE and the inside of my Shoei helmet's visor fogs. The road disappears. Riding blind at 55 to 60, I push upward on a tab to crack open the face screen. The condensation melts away. Again I see the muted colors of the mid-autumn landscape. The valley’s beauty subdued. Its aromas of fermenting grass stubble and derelict melons have soaked into tiny, leaden water droplets that fall to the ground. A fence line parallels the road. Its wooden posts, once erect, tilt at odd directions, bases rotted away, suspended by the strands of wire the posts, initially, had been engineered to, themselves, suspend. Two hundred yards west, the fence disappears. But it never goes away. For as long as I choose to be aware, the fence continues, always disappearing into the gloom. Always two hundred yards ahead.  And I smell moisture.

MY MIND WANDERS to the netherworld – the ill defined place between the here and now and the somewhere else. I wonder who populates this undefined place: who they are, how long they might stay, where they might be headed; but mostly: are they still with us?

THE ROAD RISES from the valley floor and into that low blanket of cloud cover. Its cloak thickens. Then, after a distance, as the pavement twists and sweeps upward, the mantle disappears. The fence is gone, too. Ascending, I pass the familiar concrete dam on Putah Creek and its reservoir, then through stands of valley and blue oaks and thickets of scrub. The road dips into pastures of golden grasses recently laid flat by the rain. The land here is sectioned off. More fences. Country folks scratch livelihoods, raising dry vineyards or irrigated pasture or, maybe, a Christmas tree farm. A paintless, weathered barn balanced on an ancient rock foundation and its attendant cattle shoot faces the highway. Back from the road a distance, a derelict Atlas moving van with faded lettering and an artful curve to its prow provides covered storage for silage or equipment. Primitive, scrabbly dirt roads exit to the left and right of the pavement, curling around knolls and into hidden and, perhaps, enchanting homesteads. Each one is gated to protect what’s in there from what’s out here.

Topping a ridge, I find slivers of blue sky, but only slivers. Thin cirrus ice crystal arrays, harbingers of tomorrow’s storm, already lace the highest atmosphere. Though the temperature has slightly risen, when I snap closed the Shoei’s face shield, my breath fogs the damned thing up.

I stop to wipe it clean, pull out my word processing device and begin to type these words. Kind passersby see the BMW propped at the side of the road with one pannier open. They pause to ask if I’m okay.

I am, I say, thanking them.

THIRTY MILES AWAY, a loved one has, by now, been freed of her ventilation. She is no longer in the netherworld between self-supported breathing and not. I hope to see her in the next hour or so, but wonder if somehow, we might have passed along the way this morning.

Then, damn it all, I think about the thinning herd of which I am a part and realize: Auntie DeVonne is, too.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, October 25, 2010


FOR DECADES, I have carried small spiral-bound notebooks around in my shirt pocket keeping shopping lists, directions, phone numbers, project dimensions, notes on road conditions, and story starters or random thoughts for later use.

Today, in policing the house, I uncovered more than a half dozen of these primitive Palm Pilots. I set myself to purging any page that had writing on it, saving only the aforementioned random thoughts. Most of them, I think, are original and they are listed here:

  • You can’t be getting your nails done and cry poor at the same time.
  • I’m a little ticked off about anger management.
  • Being stupid protects people from getting old.
  • If you set the bar just so, everybody can do excellent.
  • Lord, grant me the enough wealth to be enlightened, but enough creature comforts to not have to bother.
  • The less well read a person is, the more sure they are of their beliefs.
  • Decisio-terrorism:  The act of sabotaging a decision arrived at through group consensus.
  • Arrange the facts to support the conclusion.
  • How do we avoid what happened before and what do we create when we do?
  • Not all who grow grapes should make wine.
  • The end of an appointment cannot be before it starts.
  • The closer they are to chickens, the better children will behave.
  • The grass may not be greener, but you still may want to hop that fence and chew on it a while.
  • Defensible decisions receive support because they are defensible decisions - not because somebody asks for the support from colleagues or underlings.
  • People, forever, will fall short of expectations they do not know exist.
  • Where does a UPS truck go to die?
  • Get even: be the reason the other line moves much faster.
  • Prosperity is not what one can afford, but what one can afford to give away.  
  • I was workin’ on learnin’ a song when you walked through the door.
  • There are 100 routes from here to there.  Just find ‘em.  Heck, just find one.
  • An idea, well proffered, moves giants.

THE GOOD NEWS is that I now have eight or nine little notebooks with varied numbers of blank pages in each; all ready for more service in support of my weakened faculty for remembering a thought. Or a grocery list.

Friday, October 22, 2010


ONE SUMMER AFTERNOON we built a rope swing with an old Firestone tire we’d dug out of the creek bank. We had to toss a line over a branch about a mile up in the sycamore tree on the west side of the house. Didn’t get it over at first. Had to tie something on the end of the rope so we could get the heft to fling it over.

First we tried a smooth, old river rock with a big, fresh chip in one side that had just been plowed up out back in the orchard. Every couple of tosses the rock slipped out of the loop we’d cinched around it. Once it hit Vanella – Nilley we called him – on the side of the head and he went home crying.

Switched to dad’s hammer, which I’d snuck from his workshop. A beautiful, old, leather-handled Estwing. Grip worn to a shine from years of various around-the-house jobs. Dad came pedaling home – rode his bike to work: we only had one car – and told us that wasn’t what the hammer was for. We rightly figured he meant crow bars, vice grips, pipe wrenches, hand axes – just about anything else that could be found in the shop – as well.

There was this galvanized metal bucket out back of the house that mom used exclusively for hauling ash from the Franklin stove out to the orchard. I swiped it from where mom kept it. We tied one end of the rope around its bail.

Muster, another kid from the neighborhood, said we should fill it “this much” full with water. So we did. Old Musty swung the bucket like the pendulum on the cuckoo clock in our dining room, back and forth. Back and forth. Each time a little bit further. Soon he was making great, sweeping circles with the water bucket at the end of the rope.

Then, using this magical boy judgment that some kids possess, he let the rope slip and race through his dirty palm at just the right instant. The bucket rocketed skyward, arcing and clearing the branch on the very first throw and falling to earth with the water exploding out of its busted bottom when the bucket hit the ground.

Soaked hurrahs were sounded all around. And slaps on the back. Musty was a genius! A real whiz!

Nilley, by now, had come back – a red bandanna wrapped around his forehead – and stood a distance away at the property line leaning on the white rail fence.

Both ends of the rope were in kid hands. While I tied the muddy, black-side-wall Firestone to one end of the rope, Calvert, a kid from next door, shinnied up the great sycamore tree and wiggled out on to the limb. He hoisted up the other end of the rope, did a couple of wraps with it and tugged on it a couple of times. Finding things secure enough to suit the mind of an experienced boy of ten or eleven, Calvie dangled his legs off the limb, found the rope with first one foot, then the other, slipped his butt off the branch and descended the rope hand over hand.

The once derelict tire now hung about two and a half feet off the ground and since Nilley looked so forlorn but so interested, Calvie waved him over. In the gathering dusk, he enjoyed the first ride.

I DON’T THINK WE USED THAT ROPE SWING for more than the waning hours of that summer day and a little bit of the next. To be sure, we spent more time engineering the swing than we ever did riding it.

We get together now, the fellows of that industry – except for Nilley: AIDS overtook him five or six years back. The rest of us, Calvie and Musty and me, we get together and drink beer and smoke cheap cigars. Proving we’re big boys now.

We talk about good jobs and bad politics, failed marriages and lingering loves. And tell a few jokes. Never have talked about building the swing in the sycamore tree. Hell, I may be the only one who even remembers the whole event.

I keep meaning to ask Calvie, when I see him, why – if he could shinny up a tree to secure a dangling line to a branch about a mile up in the air – why we had to dedicate an otherwise perfectly fine summer’s afternoon to trying to toss that damned rope over the tree limb in the first place.

But by the time I remember the question, the party’s broken up and everybody’s gone home.

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Church of the Open Road Press